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


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 f***ed-up idea was this?!?? Obviously, this heterosexual-hormonal-teen-male fantasy absolutely failed to work for me:


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.

Avbatar Selection

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 transgender 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.


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.

Editorial: Linden Lab Needs to Step Up Their Game

It’s very easy to get certain statistics about Sansar. For example, we know from the Sansar Atlas page that there are currently 790 published experiences (which does not include those whose creators have chosen to keep their URLs private). We also know that there are 6,180 listings of products in the Sansar Store.

There are other statistics which Linden Lab knows, but isn’t sharing (yet, or maybe ever). One of them is the number of user accounts which have been created in Sansar. How many people have come and visited, at least once? Even more importantly, how many of them have stayed?


(Photo by Matt Cannon on Unsplash)

Sansar is beautiful, but it can also be a lonely place. Yes, there’s now an Upcoming Events listing on the main Atlas page, and there are some regularly scheduled events like Atlas Hopping, where you can meet up with other Sansarians. But it’s still very quiet.

Should we be worried? Is Sansar a flop, a failure, as some people in Second Life attest?


(Photo by Ben White on Unsplash)

Hardly. Remember, the doors have only been open to the public in Sansar for four months—not even a full four months yet. I’m sure there were a flood of curious SL sightseers who came, kicked the tires, declared themselves dissatisfied, and then left (which obviously doesn’t help the positive word-of-mouth that Sansar needs).

Pile-Up at 114 Harvest 31 July 2017

(Photo by Ryan Schultz, taken on Sansar’s Opening Day, July 31st, 2017)

Let’s take a look at some other virtual worlds which opened their doors to the public well before Sansar did. VRChat launched on Steam Early Access in February 2017 and AltspaceVR launched its initial product in May 2015. Both have had a  good head start over Sansar, and (arguably) both have a higher number of regular users. In fact, the main fireplace meeting areas in both VR-capable virtual worlds can become quite busy! (By the way, it is interesting that not one, but two, virtual worlds have main meeting points centred on that most primitive of gathering spaces, the campfire.)

High Fidelity, which could be seen as Sansar’s closest competitor, has been in open beta since April 2016, another big head start over Sansar. Again, it’s very hard to tell how many people HiFi has attracted, but events that I have attended there have been popular. Whether they are attracting (or keeping) more people than Sansar is open to debate.

One feature that High Fidelity does have, and which Linden Lab needs to add to Sansar as soon as possible, is the ability to tell from the Sansar Atlas listing how many avatars are present in each experience. A very simple, elegant, and useful solution to the problem of avatars finding other avatars in-world. This should be bumped to the top of Linden Lab’s to-do list, if it isn’t there already.

The key here, and the area in which Linden Lab needs to step up their game, is PROMOTION. I’m still not convinced that Linden Lab is doing everything that they could be to promote Sansar, especially compared to all the press that competitors like High Fidelity, VRChat, and especially AltspaceVR get. Obviously, Linden Lab is hoping that its users will be its best ambassadors, but they can’t (and shouldn’t) rely just on that good-will.

High Fidelity has launched a few self-promotional livestream broadcast shows, like the JimJamz Show and LIVE in High Fidelity with Michelle Osorio. Yes, I know, they’re cheesy, but the fact is, High Fidelity is not waiting for users to do them, they are going out and doing it themselves! Linden Lab needs to think about launching a program or two of their own, as well as encouraging users to launch their own programs, by creating tools such as High Fidelity’s Spectator Camera. HiFi had a well-attended film festival where people submitted entries made with the Spectator Camera. Why can’t we have a video camera tool in Sansar? Another high-priority item for the to-do list.

We need more contests, like the recently-completed Best Props and Sansar’s Scariest Contests.  And instead of having just one grand prize winner, split the pot into a number of smaller prizes (2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th, etc.), which will encourage rather than discourage people to enter. (There are many smaller creators who probably felt they never had a chance to win the awesome grand prize for Sansar’s Scariest, and never bothered to enter in the first place.)

And, controversially, Linden Lab needs to encourage more creators to come on-board. Yes, that includes the “big guys” like TurboSquid. The more items in the Sansar Store, the easier it will be for relative novices to come in and build the kind of environments that will, in turn, bring in other users. We need more Jo Yardleys building more 1920s Berlin-type sims in Sansar!

Another area where Linden Lab could possibly do some more work is working with the creators of such easy-to-use content 3-D creation tools as Microsoft Paint 3D and Google Blocks to make it as easy as possible for people to create their own content for Sansar. The process for “prim building” in Sansar, using these sorts of external tools, is still too complicated for many novice users. In my opinion, Linden Lab should seek to actively work with other companies like Google and Microsoft to streamline and simplify the necessary workflow as much as possible.


(Photo by sasint on Pixabay)

Linden Lab has done a fabulous job so far to bring Sansar to the point where it is right now, and Ebbe and his team should be thanked. But they can’t rest on their laurels. The battle for the metaverse of the future is just getting started! It’s going to be a competitive market, with losers as well as winners. And there is more, a lot more, that Linden Lab could be doing to promote their Sansar brand in the meantime.

UPDATE Nov. 27th: I just wanted to add a few more thoughts.

What with the announcements for HTC’s Driftwood and Amazon Sumerian, the whole social VR space is starting to get very crowded. Some of these competitors have deeper pockets than Linden Lab. The point I am making in this editorial blogpost is that it is going to be a very competitive market for social virtual worlds, and Linden Lab needs to step up their game when it comes to promotion. I understand those people who say that LL might want to wait until Sansar is more feature-rich. But they absolutely cannot drop the ball in this area. They can’t afford to be outflanked by worlds such as VRChat and AltspaceVR, which are getting a lot more press lately. Arguably, AltspaceVR is getting press for the wrong reasons (its fall and saving by Microsoft), but you go there and it’s busy. So is VRChat. They must be doing something right, and LL needs to study what they are doing, and how to do it themselves. Second Life succeeded because they had no effective competition at the time (2003-2008). This is NOT the case today. Put simply, “build it and they will come” worked for Second Life. Linden Lab CANNOT assume that it will work a second time for Sansar.