There’s a worrying trope that keeps popping up in recent anime and manga. It’s a character called the Yandere. The link explains it in detail, but a Yandere is a sweet, lovely girl (usually) who is crazy about someone. Literally crazy. Axe Crazy. The trope is embodied in a girl named Yuno Gasai, from the manga series Mirai Nikki, released in the USA as Future Diary. See that cute girl on the cover? That’s her. Now watch this video. Sort of NSFW.
In Future Diary Yuno loves a character named Yukiteru, who is a normal boy thrown into a murderous competition between people to decide which one of them becomes God. Yuno is sweet in that she truly loves him in her own way. She is also horrifying for that same reason. She loves Yuki to the point of psychotic obsession, and she is a deconstruction of anime girls who do so in a cute way. Some of what she does in the book is jaw-dropping, and it’s made worse because she is in many ways a sympathetic character.
The reason why I mention her is in part because I’m a little worried at this trope being popular for one. Deadman Wonderland, Higurashi and it sequels, and Elfen Lied all have devoted following, and reading some of the comments about how people wish they had a girlfriend like Yuno worry me (mostly because Yuno in the series has no qualms about killing either your friends or your parents if they have any chance to take you away from her.) I also mention it because it illustrates something about gender confusion in MMOs.
One of the reasons why Yuno is so incredibly effective in Future Diary is because by all appearances she is a very lovely girl. This is what gives that trope a lot of its strength, and Higurashi is probably the ultimate expression of it. Very cute girls, doing very horrific things: I’m not going to link it, though. The contrast is why it’s so horrific, and it is. It’s because we are trained to evaluate people based on what we see first, and then what we get to know later. It’s because in an evolutionary sense, we can’t automatically doubt our senses: if we see a lion there’s no time to wonder if it is tamed or not. In the time we do so we could die. This is why the Yandere and its counterpart the Yangire (cute outside just plain crazy inside, no emotional ties) are so intense. We assume a cute anime girl is tender and feminine: we are startled when her face contorts into a rictus grin as she tortures another anime girl.
In a much lighter note, this works in MMOs. We trust what we see on a subrational level. When we see a girl character we assume the person is a girl. Even when we know the possibility of it is unlikely rationally, that doesn’t stop people from assigning that person feminine traits. How many female characters are healers?
This is a lot of the source of confusion, and what is ironic is that it makes perfect sense. Imagine our world right now where you are at work, and a big, burly UPS driver comes in. When he asks you to sign, he does so in a woman’s voice. In real life, at a basic level we associate appearance with traits: a male person is male. If in real life you had a person doubting that male people were actually male as a commonplace we’d call them insane.
The problem with MMOs is that we can’t trust what we see. It’s a funhouse mirror world where nothing is at it seems. There’s always such confusion over player gender in MMOs, but that’s because we always trust what we see at a base level, and only rationally distrust or adapt to differences later. Even knowing will never be enough because of that. The Yandere subverts this, often horrifically for effect.