Kristin Carnage was making her way through a city in World of Warcraft when a stranger stopped her female avatar. The stranger, a male avatar, opened a trade window with Carnage and moved, in her words, "a ton of gold" in his section of the trade box. For a while afterwards, he offered to help run her through content and sent her toys through World of Warcraft's in-game mail service. Illustration by Angelica Alzona
"It felt weird," Carnage, 28, told me. "I'd return most of it or try to send gold to pay for it. I tried not to indulge the whole 'Please give me presents for being female' thing." Throughout her nine years on MMOs, Carnage has been asked for her phone number, real pictures, cybersex and in-game companionship in exchange for unsolicited favours. "You almost feel obligated. They want to cash in on it," she explained.
There is a trope -- rather, an unfortunate stereotype -- in MMOs that female players get things easy. Gold, gifts, power-levelling, dungeon runs -- you name it and women, apparently, are using their feminine wiles to squeeze it out of amorous male players in exchange for real-life photos, virtual sex or in-game companionship.
To prove the existence of a virtual sugar daddy economy, players still point to a moment in MMO history that took place on Craigslist. In 2007, a 31-year old woman offered sex in exchange for gold in World of Warcraft. "I need 5000 world of gold for my epic flying mount," she wrote. "In return, you can mount me." After the WoW community circulated her post, the Craigslister returned to write that she received her epic mount in an hour "while all of you idiots probably spent hundreds of hours farming for yours". The ad and its societal implications have haunted female MMO players for nine years.
Chie Rushii, a source's FFXIV avatar
Of course, MMORPGs wouldn't be "multiplayer" or "online" if players weren't meant to work together. It's right and good to help lower-level players through dungeons. Holiday gifts are what make MMOs' seasonal events so mirthful. Sometimes, a guild member needs new gear, and shooting them an extra thousand gold pieces is no skin off your back. But the line between "favours" and "sugar daddies" is thin, sources interviewed attest.
Chia, a 27-year-old Final Fantasy XIV player, has been offered favours and money by male avatars in exchange for "performing certain emotes for them". In FFXIV, female avatars have a few actions that, in certain contexts, can come off pretty sexy. One is "/blowkiss", in which the avatar bends over at the waist. Recently, developer Square Enix added some "doze" emotes for, uh, tired avatars who want to lie down.
Over the last 18 months, Chelsea says, she's faced consistent harassment from a Duskwight Elezen avatar, a stranger, who wants to give her money in exchange for suggestive emotes. Chelsea encounters him regularly when she passes through FFXIV's cities. And he is persistent.
Malkeria's FFXIV avatar
"The emote he wants most of all is the /pose emote," Chelsea told me over the phone. "Female Elezens, at the end of the emote, bend over a blow a kiss. He wants me to bend over in front of his avatar and make it seem like we're having sex."
In exchange for her troubles, the Duskwight Elezen man offers money, and lots of it. In other cases, he's offered to run extreme Primals with her. When a rare weapon drops off a monster he kills, he says, he'll let her have it. Sometimes he asks her what she's wearing. She usually just signs off, making the excuse that she's headed to a real-life date. But for a while, when colourful, flaming horses called Primal Ponies were highly sought-after and difficult to get, Chelsea considered taking up the stranger's offer. She ultimately reasoned that his attitude was too abrasive.
The attempted sugar daddy dynamic isn't always so forward. Malkeria, 23, who plays South Korea-based MMO Mabinogi, spent a few hours with a random man in-game before she began to feel like he wanted to do more than talk. A little bit into their interaction, he opened a trade window. In it, he placed a cat robe that, in her words, "he thought would match my character".
"In return, he asked if I would wear it around," she said. It was cute, so she took it, looking forward to showing it off.
A few days later, one of her guildmates saw the robe and was quite surprised -- it turned out to be a rare and expensive item. Malkeria immediately reached into her virtual wallet to to pay back the stranger, but she couldn't afford it. Their interactions began to feel charged with tension. The stranger continued sending her gifts, such as armour sets. She found it nice, but she told me she'd much rather have obtained something on her own merit. She didn't like feeling indebted.
"I tell myself that I'll build up my own funds and be able to return the favour someday," she said.
Malkeria's Mabinogi avatar
Drea, 30, never knows how to engage male avatars trying to gift her things. "When it seems innocent, like, 'Hey, I really like your avatar,' and they send me a random food item, I'm like, 'OK, thanks!' Sometimes, it can get rather intense. There's a guy who followed me everywhere I went for a while, saying he's a higher-level player who will run me through higher-level content. He wasn't taking no for an answer," Drea said. "It made me feel like I was in real-life, getting catcalled."
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, researchers questioned whether attractive female avatars received preferential treatment on MMORPGs. Examining 2300 interactions on World of Warcraft, they determined that "conventionally pretty" female avatars were more likely to receive help on in-game tasks. According to conventional wisdom, the same is the case in real life. The only difference is that, in the words of women interviewed, receiving unsolicited help can be insulting or uncomfortable, and especially when romantic expectations are involved.
To MMO-players on the receiving end of things, there are a few surefire signs that your new virtual best friend might want a little more than appreciation in exchange for his kindness. Overwhelmingly, women interviewed said it made them nervous. Toiling away on their own makes the rewards all the more sweet. Men who play MMOs with feminine avatars were professedly more ambivalent about receiving perks.
While about 40 per cent of MMO-players are women, men are much more likely to gender-bend with their avatars. That creates the impression in many MMOs that more women play than actually do. Some men interviewed took advantage of this, using female avatars in hopes of receiving favours from horny male strangers.
Agent Rood, 38, says that he never "pretended to be a female gamer" with his female avatar. "However," he told me, "there were times where the assumption was made and I reaped benefits without correcting someone."
Rood played a female druid in World of Warcraft. He says he liked the aesthetic of the female night elf. When he was a low-levelled character, a veteran male character followed him around, delivering gold, items and anything he wanted for 10 whole levels. "The whole time, I smiled and played along," Rood said. One guy crafted a whole set of leather armour for his druid's next two tiers, along with a couple stacks of potion. It took an hour. Rood told me that he never did anything like cybering or stripping in exchange for the gifts.
Brendan G. has been playing MMOs for over a dozen years, always with female avatars. For him, it's also about the look of the female avatars versus the male ones. He's a huge fan of Samus, Supergirl and Wonder Woman, so, he figures, why not look like them in-game? As a result, he constantly receives gifts and favours. "I've been offered gold, mounts, raid runs, you name it, for nudes, which is idiotic and disrespectful. The worst was Star Wars Galaxies," he said. Wherever he walked, he'd get "whispers", ranging from polite to NSFW.
"The only gratification I get is when I say, 'I'm a guy, dude, and why would you say that if I wasn't anyway?'" Brendan finds it insulting, even if nothing is requested in exchange for favours. He's a father and his daughter is interested in gaming; when she watches him play, he becomes concerned that she'll have to deal with this, too.
Carnage, for her part, says that the sugar daddy dynamic has plagued her throughout her nine years on MMOs. To feel on-par with male players and prove that she never benefited from their affections, she doubles her gaming efforts. The stereotype infects her daily gaming in ways that are subtle, but insidious. "If I'm not super badass, I'm looked down on," she said. "I didn't want this or ask for it."