Sex and Gender Issues in Virtual Worlds: “The male/female dichotomy was viewed as binary and the technology (literally) codified that concept.”

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Photo: by geralt from Pixabay

WARNING! This is a rather meandering blogpost. Please stick with me until you get to the end, thanks!

I had posted my popular blogpost about the idea of the Universal Avatar to the Second Life discussion group SLUniverse (where I still participate in after all these years!) and it sparked a lively discussion, which went off on an interesting tangent, which I want to share with you.

One poster, a long-time member of SLUniverse called Beebo Brink, whose Second Life avatar could be described as a “butch” lesbian, said:

My own standard is the Beebo Queer test. Can you put any kind of clothes on your avatar? If you’re limited to wearing only the clothes assigned to a female avatar or only the clothes assigned to a male avatar, then I’m not interested in your virtual world.

When someone else noted, “It’s apparently common for the male and female avatars to have completely different mappings so putting the ‘wrong’ clothes on, even if the game allowed for it, would just break horribly”, she replied:

That’s the stark technical explanation, but underlying that limitation is the original concept of how you create avatars, how you gender them, and how you accessorize. The male/female dichotomy was viewed as binary and the technology (literally) codified that concept.

When I look at supposedly cutting edge technology, such as Sansar, I look for some awareness of the cutting edge of culture. How does this technology fit the mores and values of the people who will use it? Linden Lab fails rather spectacularly in that regard, which is no surprise since user adoption has always been a weak point for the company.

Meanwhile, in mainstream gaming culture The Sims 4 has gender fluidity integrated into their avatar creation tools. They get it, while Linden Lab flounders in the past.

I specifically called out the CULTURE derived from a preponderance of men who code. Not every individual guy is going to have that set of values, just as not every woman who codes is going to be an exception. But the culture takes on a life of its own and individual developers can’t change the entire course of a product as large as a virtual world, which requires teams of developers and other support staff. And tech firms are notorious for being run by guys who used to be developers, so that mindset is cemented up and down the food chain.

I’m speaking from 20 years of experience working as a user interface developer. There were always one or two developers who could adopt the perspective of a user when writing code to vague specs. They could be trusted to deliver an interface that was intuitive for ordinary users, without wireframes that spelled out in detail how the program interface should flow. The rest of the developers, however, were completely, totally clueless. They were only interested in “making it work” and if you had to click a button with your left hand behind your back on Tuesdays and Thursdays and with your right hand on Monday’s and Wednesdays, but on Fridays you had to click with your big toe, they were perfectly fine with that. “But it works, right?” they would say, blinking in puzzlement when I started to scream.

So yes, there are male developers who love avatar customization and female developers who couldn’t care less, but in general, the male-dominated culture of programmers assigns lower priority to avatar customization. We can see that in LL, Blue Mars, Cloud Party, Sansar and apparently even EA…(but at least EA finally listened [for The Sims 4]). Meanwhile, in SL, it’s predominantly women who drive the fashion industry’s mesh avatar enhancements and accessories, working furiously to overcome the deficiencies of the platform.

Beebo has a very good point. Virtual world developers think that “as long as it works”, they don’t need to pay attention to things like perpetuating binary gender stereotypes.

The failed virtual world of Blue Mars was especially off-putting for the coquettish, sexist default animations of the female avatars (which could not be turned off). I remember how I and Beebo (who was also in Blue Mars at the time) tried and repeatedly failed to make the software developers understand just how inappropriate this was, or at least to give users a choice of what animations to use. But the software “bros” went ahead with their own projects and nothing changed.

Even worse, they created a set-up in one of the welcome areas where legions of NPC female characters would automatically mob any male avatar and flirt with him like lovesick groupies. Whose fucked-up idea was this?!?? Obviously, this heterosexual-hormonal-teen-male fantasy absolutely failed to work for me:

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Hmmm, maybe it’s a good thing Blue Mars died a nasty, horrible, lingering death.

But back to Beebo’s (and my) point: virtual world developers in general, and Linden Lab in particular, have so far failed to accommodate (or even acknowledge) the gender fluidity that occurs in real life, and instead have merely entrenched the classification of sex and gender into the two distinct, opposite and disconnected boxes of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. They had a chance to fix things with their new virtual world, Sansar, and frankly, what we have again is two boxes: male and female. It’s so disappointing.

Let’s take a concrete example from Second Life, not from back in 2003 or 2007, but from late this year, 2017. Linden Lab released a new series of “starter” avatars, including two on horseback.

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Do you know that a female avatar cannot use the brown horse attachment that the male warrior uses? It is scripted to only work with male avatars! Yes, it actually checks! Of course, the white horse attachment for the female archer works on a female avatar….but it forces you to ride sidesaddle, “like a lady”!

I had a very frustrating half hour trying to get the “men’s” horse to work with a female avatar, only to give up in disgust. (And yes, I *know* that there are horses for sale in SL, from Water Horse and other vendors, that work properly, and allow females to sit properly astride the horse. But this was a Linden Lab-sanctioned product for new users!)

Look, I must confess that I am really no expert in this subject area. I’m just a cisgendered gay man who knows transgendered people, both in virtual worlds and in real life. I often inhabit a female avatar in Second Life, something that I would not have predicted when I first started in SL over a decade ago! My “digital drag” has opened my eyes to how women are treated by some men in virtual worlds, and it’s been quite an education.

I often have to refer to the handy Genderbread Person chart to keep my terms straight: gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, sexual attraction, romantic attraction. The point is, I try to be respectful, and if I fail, I apologize, learn from my mistake and try again. We all need to learn how to do that, to make the “other” feel comfortable in our midst.

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The point is, any virtual world that forces binary sex, gender identity, and gender expression standards upon people who don’t fit into the standard “male” and “female” boxes, in this day and age, is doing all its users a disservice. Let’s hope that Linden Lab keeps the needs of all members of the LGBTQ community, including the gender fluid and the gender outlaws among us, in mind as they move forward in their product design.

And maybe someday, Beebo Brink will be able to pick any item of clothing she wants to wear in Sansar—”male” or “female”—and be able to wear it with pride.

 

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