While I have a huge backlog of session reports that I need to update on here, I thought it would be nice to take a little aside from that and do something more of an article/editorial kind of thing. Hope you enjoy it!
This is a topic that usually isn't brought up all that much. The reason for that is, I think, a level of awkwardness inherit in the subject matter. Most of the time, the assumption when making characters for a role-playing game is that one will follow their own gender, yet there often are those who bend and do the opposite. It's hardly ever brought up afterward when this happens, and things usually proceed, twinged just a little bit in awkwardness. The other players would never ask, of course, but the question remains: why?
I'm going to do my best to explain using my own personal experience.
I am one of those male role-players who often opts to make a female character. I've been doing it that way ever since I started this hobby many years ago, and to this day I continue the tradition. This is not to say I don't play male characters too, but I do it less frequently and, in my view, with less success. Those who have gamed with me before are used to it by this point, but every time I join a new group and character creation is brought to the table, I find myself back to that question: why?
For myself, I've broken it down into a few key points.
The Sausage-Fest Preventative:
Let's face it: tabletop role-playing is a hobby that is more often played by men than women. I'm no expert on the numbers, but I would give it a 70-30 split percentage-wise. Now, if you expand the definition of role-playing to non-tabletop, those numbers would change based on the vast community of teenage girls on the internet role-playing as their favorite anime characters in forums, but I digress.
In a group of all-male players where everyone follows the standard character creation paradigm of 'play someone you'd want to be/is awesome', things quickly develop into a sausage fest. It's no wonder Lord of the Rings is used as the bottom-line basis for almost all tabletop role-playing! A bunch of guys run around going on adventures.
Tolkien's work not-withstanding, most groups of protagonists in fiction have female representation. You can argue in feminism all you want about their roles and exposure, but the fact is, they are there, and it adds another dimension to the group dynamic. Now, granted, you could have a group of three men be just as interesting and dynamic as a group of two men and a woman, or two women and a man, but each set-up brings something new to the table. At least in my mind, it makes things more interesting.
So, one reason I play female characters is to break up the sausage fest, as it were. Variety is the spice of life, and even in a cast filled with a dizzying number of people of various classes and professions, more diversity is never an issue in my book.
However, this reason alone doesn't hold up if there is a female character already in the mix, so let's continue.
Female Characters are More Dynamic and Engaging:
This is a matter of personal opinion, but it is one I share with another friend of mine who thinks similarly as I do, and I will be paraphrasing him through some of this explanation.
A lot of this goes back to cultural expectations and current social conventions, but let me explain what I mean by the fact that female characters are more dynamic and engaging. In our current culture, which has dissolved down into our fiction, women have a wider range of socially acceptable means of expression. A woman can be violent and tough, or demure and sweet. She can be sensitive, emotional, cold, angry, sweet, or evil, and the character will still be acceptable in our current views because all of these emotions and states fit into the view of what it means to be a woman. They are tough enough to endure the pain of childbirth, but also sensitive enough to deal with people on an emotional level.
Now, as a contrast, let's look at what our current cultural definition of being a man is like. Men are expected to be physically fit and intelligent, to deal with situations with few emotions, and to be ever-capable. Weakness and failure in any area is looked down upon severely. A male character that is frail, dim-witted, sensitive, or emotional is usually played for comedy in our society because they are viewed as failures of the paradigm, and thusly, funny. It is the same with male characters in role-playing games. Think of your last campaign and try to find me a male character with some of these 'flaws' that was taken completely seriously. It's harder than you think.
Basically put, female characters have more acceptable and expected range, and I personally find that much more fun to explore than trying to fit the mold of the ideal male hero like everyone else.
The Other Side of the Fence:
Role-playing is all about fantasy and imagination. Through this genre of game, you can explore new worlds, have strange encounters, and experience the life of any character you can think up. There is a lot of freedom in that, and through this journey, one could learn a lot about both themselves and others. Countless questions with theological, moral, and philosophical implications can be raised in this collaborative exercise of the mind, and part of the mostly unnoticed joy is to explore them in a safe and friendly environment.
This implies that you can experience something akin to what it's like to be an Elf in Middle Earth, or what kind of stress Iron Man goes through. You can also explore the question of 'what is it like to be the other gender?' By changing your perspective in such a personal way, you are forced to subconsciously answer a multitude of questions during various situations that defines a lot about yourself and your perception of the other gender. This widens your mind, and adds a layer of complexity and depth to your personal role-playing experience.
Sex and gender are two incredibly interesting topics to me, and to many people out there. Exploring themes like gender, sexuality, gender roles and the like can be just as interesting as exploring themes like corruption, the cost of power, and the like. I like to play women because I can explore some of these themes for myself and others, and I get to examine situations from a perspective I'll never experience in the real world.
Those are my big three reasons for gender-bending in my role-playing games. I could probably come up with more, but they would likely fall into the latter-two categories to some degree and I would be rambling on and on. My hope is that this explanation could open your eyes some to how I feel and how perhaps other people you know who do this feel.
Now, granted, you could probably ask the follow-up question: why does your character's gender matter so much to you? Bottom line is, well, it doesn't. My philosophy is that a character shouldn't be defined by their gender to the point where that becomes the focal point. This is where I feel many authors and feminists fall apart to some degree. They care so much about creating or displaying the 'realistic, believable, likable' female character that they lose sight of everything else that makes the character feel realistic, believable and likable.
Why explain all of this then? Mostly, my goal is to dispel some of the awkwardness. My secondary goal would be to have in a written format things I've always believed since I started this hobby but never really thought about or put to paper.
Either way, I hope you enjoyed this little walk into my psyche! If you didn't, here's a funny picture.