Our Avatars, Our Selves: Gender & Second Life

An interesting (but slightly limited) study was recently posted on the Pixels and Policy blog, about attitudes towards "female avatars and gender expectations." The results? For many women players, it's easier to embrace sexualization than to fight it.

The Pixels and Policy bloggers interviewed forty Second Life players that presented as female in the game. After acknowledging the extent of gender-swapping that occurs in virtual worlds, the team got down to business.

Out of 40 female avatars interviewed, 70% regarded their bust size as a primary concern when creating a Second Life avatar. Real-world females proved more likely to rebel against the Second Life ideal described by one female avatar as "a balloon chest and a low-cut top." There were several real-world females who embraced a large-chested avatar, though their reasons varied.

"At first I played with an avatar that I thought represented me physically," a Burning Life visitor told me, "But not many people talked to me. Now [with a large-chested avatar] people go out of their way to IM me and send me friend requests." The need to adjust physical features to promote conversation ran deep among real-world women.

Being in a virtual world means that we should be able to don any time of representation that we wish. However, as seen in studies like this one, the biases, prejudices, and beauty standards from the real world follow us into the virtual realm. Interestingly, these ideas were not ascribed to conforming to pre-existing ideas of beauty, but as a virtual beautification process - a way in which to represent an idealized version of our existing real world selves.

It's nothing new to strive for perfection when creating an avatar, but what was especially striking is how many women, when prompted, said their avatars were "better" than their real selves. Not just skinnier or sexier, but better.

The idea of the avatars being seen as "better" should be suprising. As Andrea Rubenstein, avid gamer, game designer, and anti-oppression activist writes:

Studies have shown that many qualities are attributed to people with attractive features–sometimes referred to as the halo effect. These qualities include being seen as warmer, kinder, stronger, more sensible, more outgoing, more socially persuasive and dominant, and even smarter than others. [From Better Game Characters by Design by Katherine Isbister, p. 7]

When I criticize the portrayal of women in video games as being hypsersexualized it has almost nothing to do with creating "attractive" characters or not and everything to do with conflating objectification with attractiveness. As Isbister points out in Better Game Characters by Design, "Whatever the reason, it is the case across cultures that myriad traits considered positive tend to be associated with more attractive people" (p. 8 ). This includes both men and women and is the basis for her recommendation to make most of your characters attractive. [...]

The problem comes in when "attractiveness" for women is defined, as Sheri Graner Ray points out in her book Gender Inclusive Game Design, "as male players would like them to be–young, fertile, and always ready for sex" (p. 104). [...] Simply put, the point I try to make every time I bring up how female characters are hypersexualized is that it is inappropriate sexualization, which puts many women off (not all of women are interested in playing characters created for a presumably male player's wank fantasy) and perpetuates the idea of "attractiveness" in women being inseparable from sexual availability.

While Rubenstein's analysis works well when discussing games with set characters - or with restrictions on how customizable a character can be - it does not quite extend to games like Second Life where people can design their own characters to their own specifications. It is here that we start to see the replication of certain structures in society.

The Pixels and Policy article notes:

Drin Brewster, a provocatively-dressed female avatar, said she dressed suggestively in Second Life because there were no restrictive social norms. The desire to be approached and talked to by another avatar is realized by creating a sexually idealized character.

As in real life, there are benefits to being seen as attractive - the virtual world just adds another level, where the expectation is to be not just attractive, but also sexually attractive. The writers at Pixel and Policy point out:

Far from being openly pushed to a large-breasted, oversexualized ideal, countless Second Life residents are so enveloped in a popular definition of "attractive" that they need no coercion to create a sexually idealized character. In fact, the creation of the sexually-idealized character at the expense of a character more in line with many player's tastes is mostly deemed necessary for making friends.

That reasoning is interesting, but not quite the whole story. For one thing, oversexualized avatars are so prevalent that they have become part of the visual norm in gaming. From the Asari in Mass Effect, to the Viera of Final Fantasy XII, we have come to expect our heroines (and villains) to be attractive, slender, and somewhat sexualized.

And secondly, while the article explains that while women may be subject to the whims of other players, ultimately, they choose their own representations. However, these choices do not exist in a vacuum. As Brinstar, gaming blogger and industry professional wrote, when explaining the shift toward a more feminist consciousness in her personal blogging:

I used to blame attention-seeking women gamers like Jessica Chobot for making it harder for other women gamers to be accepted and welcome amongst male gamers. I heaped scorn and disdain upon women like her for using their sex appeal to get ahead, arguing that they weren't "real" gamers (whatever that meant). I used to think that these women were the problem, rather than indicative of historically and socially constructed structures that went beyond their individual experiences. Rather than examine the reasons why such behaviour is acceptable and rewarded in gaming culture and in society as a whole, I just blamed attention-seeking women gamers for sexism against all women gamers. I was focusing on the wrong things.

These women are acting in ways in which our society encourages and approves of. Sure, they are independent women and capable of making their own decisions in the end, however there is unbelievable pressure for many women gamers to be accepted amongst male gamers, to be "one of the guys". Women gamers have to prove themselves to be twice as better as male gamers to gain the same kind of acceptance that male gamers have automatically just by being male. Is it any wonder that some women will use whatever means they have to their advantage, either consciously or subconsciously? I realised that the problem was far more complex than I'd initially perceived.

I applaud Pixels and Policy for taking the initiative to gather some data. Studies of gaming and culture are still in their infancy, and discussions of things like racism and sexism are newer than conversations surrounding how people respond to newer technology. But it is important to continue to refine and gather data as it is one of the only ways to measure progress, and how attitudes and perceptions in gaming shift as move closer into a pop culture landscape where gaming is on par with movies and television. The Pixel and Policy conclusion is on point:

Virtual worlds aren't a place to escape the confines of gender, because real people will ultimately carry those gender biases and expectations with them. This was made evident during our conversations about how real-world women viewed their avatar.

The Power Of Real-World Gender Roles In Second Life [Pixels and Policy]
The Beauty Myth And Character Design [Official Shrub]
Better Game Characters By Design: A Psychological Approach (The Morgan Kaufmann Series In Interactive 3D Technology)
The Sexy Space Women Of Mass Effect [Girl in the Machine]
Sexy Bunnygirls Want to Play With You [Girl in the Machine]
Discourse [Acid for Blood]

Related: Idealizing Fantasy Bodies [The Iris Network]
Introduction (The Gaming Beauty Myth, Part 1) [Official Shrub]
Female Gamer Archetypes (The Gaming Beauty Myth, Part 2) [Official Shrub]
Using Beauty To Establish Gamer Cred (The Gaming Beauty Myth, Part 3) [Official Shrub]