Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gender in a 3-D Virtual World

A man and a woman
A man and a woman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(This Research Paper was confined to the readings assigned by the Professor. A broader literary review is required, and the references though succinct are not in any way extensive) 

The Freedom of Gender in a 3-D Virtual World
From early in our lives gender gets constructed (Lorber p.105 1993), we see in children’s stores sections of blue clothes for boys and pink clothes for girls. We see how the mass media creates images and portrays men and women in stereotypical roles of gender (Kilbourne p.142 1999). We are flooded by socialization cues from our earliest ages( Mackler p.80 2001).  Yet creating gender is not passive process as examined in this quote by West and Zimmerman:

It is a situated doing, carried out in the virtual or real presence of others... Rather than as a property of individuals, we conceive of gender as an emergent feature of social situations; as both an outcome of and a rationale for various social arrangements and as a means of legitimating one of the most fundamental divisions of society. (West p.14 1991)

Is it possible to break free of the social construction of gender?  Some may try to escape the social constructions of gender through the act of changing or becoming another gender. Yet, up to now the difficulty of changing gender was accomplished either through hours of makeup, changing of entire wardrobe, or even changing of sexual characteristics through surgery. Now with the advancement of computer and software technology, can changing gender really be accomplished virtually with the click of a mouse?

This paper will examine how by entering a 3-D immersive online world one can attempt to accomplish gender. The world the author has chosen is Second Life. An online world community created not by a single team of software engineers and designers, but by the users of the community itself. The free software enables every user to create not only their own home, furniture, and clothing, but also define their virtual body and gender. This paper will first look at the software design features, then the user communication interactions, and finally the community dynamics to analyze if the user can accomplish and identify themselves as their own unique virtual gender free of social situations and cues of the real world. 
It is important to note that this paper will examine the full expression of gender as realized by the interactive online world. The software does not allow personal identity to be revealed  through any means other than the voluntary permission of the person who is behind each online persona or avatar. We will also focus on not only the production of the avatars gender, but also how users try and sometimes fail to conceal their actual gender from what they have produced inside this virtual world. Though the author did not expand on the very small minority of non-gendered animal avatars, their numbers are very insignificant. They are extremely rare and hard to find in the vast majority of places. Thus, they play no major role in this online 3-D community paper.

The Second Life software does not allow anyone to die, to kill, to hit, to wound, to move, to hold, or to otherwise control another avatar without the express permission of that user through additional software downloads. So whereas in other worlds you can be a human warrior and be turned into a newt by an evil wizard, in Second Life all avatars are the pure production of the user. The software’s unique ability to control the avatars complete persona gives the user the ultimate control over their virtual gender identity. Thus it should enable the answering of the question “Am I a man or a woman or what?”(Bornstein p.24 1998).

This along with the ability to chat via text, via voice, move or fly the avatar around in 3-D space gives the user even more amazing freedoms. So the options to express ones individuality is limited only to the imagination of the user.  The software has two main design features. The first is to create and model 3-D objects into clothing, furniture, buildings, or even pets. The second major design feature is the ability to modify your avatar. Second Life has some of the most sophisticated controls to modify every aspect of your avatar. And it is because of these fine detailed features that users could so masterfully define gender. 

When signing on and registering the software you must choose a sex. You get only two choices of sex assignment, male or female. At this stage, sex assigns gender into characteristics specific to that sex without variation (Garfinkel 1967). Then you must choose some default gendered characteristics that support your gender. For example, you could choose to be a black male or a blonde blue eyed female. 

These defaults are not important, because once you log in online your software interface allows you to change your sex immediately. The software enables you to change your sexual characteristics in numerous ways. 

First you can click the button for male or for female. If you are changing your sex, the software makes specific automatic changes to your body type following the “Natural Attitude” on sex and gender as defined by Garfinkel. So if you had chosen a default pony-tailed skirt wearing female, the clicking of male would not change your outfit or haircut. But your shoulders would become more broad. Your hips would become more slender. And your face might become more square jawed and angular. Again this is just one way to express your gender. This is how Second Life allows immediate and automatic gender identification through the manipulation of specific body regions to suggest sexual identity. Yet it is not the only way. 

The user can also define their physical sexual characteristics through individually going from body region to body region making minute adjustments. The  software breaks the body up into section parts; the overall body weight, the head, the eyes, the ears, the nose, the mouth, the chin, the torso, and the legs. 

Thus by giving freedom and empowerment to define body parts, each section enables the user to make choices to define how the avatar will appear or enable us to “Shape our own futures” (Erlbaum p.9 2000). But each choice comes with a socialized ideal of what that change says about our gender. 

For example, you can adjust the bridge of the nose and the depth of the brow. By creating a strong brow and wide bridge on a female avatar, you appear to give her a more masculine forehead. Or the user can thicken the arms and legs, which also appear to give the female avatar a more masculine appearance. 

There appears to be an infinite mix of masculine and feminine attributes that can alter the gender appearance of the user’s avatar. The same can be said about the skin sections, the hair sections, and clothing as well. Each of these has subsections  so you can define size, texture maps or images that give the look of texture, and other details to these features. Yet, the vast majority of avatars stay safely with the two poles of gender. It is rare to see a female with breasts have male facial hair, or any other mix could be expressed in the spectrum of gender (Bornstein). 

As mentioned, clothing is another section on the avatars appearance panel. The user has a very small selection of clothing initially. Each avatar regardless of the default previously chosen, has both male and female gendered clothing to choose from in their clothing library folder. The only difference is the clothing that came on them as they initially logged on. Clothing has very powerful gender clues (Cortese p. 60 1999)  but are more part of the community dynamic and the communication interactions than personal software design. But of course giving your physically masculine avatar a dress will blur the gender lines which few if any do. But this begs the question what is under the dress?  

It turns out that each avatar despite having to be initially chosen male or female has no genitalia. The actual sexual organs such as a penis or a vagina are not included. But even in the sexual organs, we see the societal need to be mutually exclusive sexually (Newman p.127 1997). For example if you were to shop for genitalia, there are no hermaphrodite sexual organs anywhere to be found. Yet, because of community standards and the ability to report any behavior to the “authorities”, it is extremely rare for avatars to run around naked to so as to identify their genitalia. And when avatars are naked they are not always with genitalia.  Thus, though having a penis or vagina in the real world is important to assignment( Lorber) to defining your gender, in Second Life it is an after thought to gender.  

The role of communication interaction plays a critical role in the accomplishment of gender. The software allows for three primary ways for users to express themselves. One is via the image and physical behaviors of the avatar. Second is the ability to communicate via text chat. And third, the users can opt to speak with their real voice via Voice Over Internet Protocol or VOIP. Each has different implications for how gender is expressed or concealed. 

Not only can body type and dress indicate gender as previously described, so can the avatars behavior. 

The user has two ways to communicate behavior, canned movement and acquired movement. Some canned behaviors like bowing don’t appear to have a gender preference. Whereas blowing a kiss, makes even the most macho of virtual Hells Angels look more feminine. The software has a set of these canned body movements that using a simple command will make the avatar move. But the system also allows for acquired behavior. The most gender indicative behavior is the “Sexy Walk” which must be purchased. 

Although many stores or malls sell a few “Sexy Walks” for men, many more sell a variety of sexy walks for women . The female Sexy Walk can easily be identified by the wide swinging of hips and the swaying of the head to move the hair from side to side. Sexy Walks also include sexy standing where one hip shifts up, and the avatar fiddles with nails, hair, or in some cases pouts and puts hand on their hips. This obviously supports Una Stannard’s contention that “stereotypes die hard”. Though men have “Sexy Walks” too, this author could not see any difference in the way the avatar behaved other than the folding of arms when resting. Thus the user can use or purchase gendered behaviors to enhance the gender they wish to accomplish though the manifestation of which is classically stereotyped. 

Chat can also be an expression of gender. But as it is a direct window to the user behind the avatar, much care must be taken to conceal gender within chat. Most identified male avatars that said they were real male humans, felt chat was the best way to identify real females. Many suggested that being sexually aggressive was a good test. Not that men as women avatars would show aversion to sexual advances, but rather they wouldn’t. Meaning typical real females would be trying to slow the sexual advancement of real men, whereas men as female avatars would be just as aggressive. The author found this to be true. In the authors’ experience, many men became women to gain access to female only areas. Thus their chat would expose them as men, in that they are naturally sexually aggressive / controlling (Angier p.275, 2000) or sexually willing to engage in sexual chat. 

Also their style of chatting or communication was indicative of gender Women tend to be more descriptive and interpretative in communication cues ( Schwartz p.169 1996). They would and could discuss clothing and styles among each other in great details. And would prefer men to do the same in courting them. For example, many men might initially make comments on the sexual beauty of the desired female they were pursuing  despite having a female avatar. The author observed that women never did this. Women, who were attracted to other women, discussed intimate(Schwartz) details about life and feelings about being in Second Life. Men even as female avatars were impatient and many were unable to achieve the timid pace of uncovering the feelings of the other avatar. Thus by being aggressive, uncreative, and not detail oriented, men gave away their gender via chat. 

Finally, it is important to note VOIP. This is the great equalizer. No man or women can as of yet use a voice synthesizer to mask the very real sound of male or female voices and sound real. The author specifically used VOIP, to verify sex of the user in many examples. If VOIP was denied, then it was assumed in most cases that the user’s gender did not match that of their avatar. 

It is critical to note that choices in body type can also reveal the user’s sexuality similar in some respect as chat can. It is the experience of the author that women generally speaking did not create perfect female avatars. Despite the softwares default in creating a normal  ratio of hip, waist and breast, females created avatars that more mirrored real bodies. Clear signs were larger thighs, or butt, or the changing of the nose to better match the look of the actual user.  This was decidedly a break from the social forces which pervade our society(Kilbourne). Though this was not always the case, it was true in the majority of women the author could identify via photo and voice verification.  Men posing as women tended to create idealized female avatars, with oversized breasts , hips and butt. In some cases they appeared almost to be cartoon like in dimensions. 

The community dynamics of Second Life play an important role in how gender is produced in the virtual world. First Second Life is unlike most typical online 3-D adventure worlds. World of Warcraft have specific rules that enforce specific gender or sexual characteristic boundaries. WoW have rules that men are stronger than women, thus they can kill faster. Second Life you can not kill anyone or make anyone do anything they don’t want to. The author once angered an dark elf clan trying to play a role game inside Second Life. I would not move from having my picnic inside their ritual cave. This has very important gender ramifications. 

Female avatars are absolute physical equals to the male avatars. Thus men have no strength advantage over women. This creates a very unique community dynamic. Female avatars still have and can control access to sex, but they have no fear of threat of retribution from withholding sex from males (White et al p.205 1996) . This creates a power vacuum that women have yet to fill. Despite the fact that the vast majority of all jobs are for female sex workers, strippers, dancers, and hostesses, female avatars have not taken advantage. If when entering Second Life you wish to make money, women have the majority of jobs that pay Linden dollars a currency that can be exchanged for real dollars. This should enable women to control most of the businesses of Second Life. If wave after wave of females gain all jobs that pay, and men don’t, one might assume women could take that money and build businesses and buy virtual land. 

Yet that is not the case. Though according to conversations with Linden Labs Marketing associate V. Reitveld, expressed that the distribution of male to female businesses was about even,  with slightly more men. So despite the job inequity that favors women as hostesses of clubs and dancers they could not overcome the inequity outside Second Life. Yet despite the appearance of this in-world advantage, along with being dancers, programmers also make money. As anything that needs a behavior must also require code. From the authors experience as a software executive in the real world, male programmers far out number the female programmers. But this is only one aspect of the power vacuum. 

Women did not understand the full extent of their power in Second Life. Considering that the service only handles about 20 thousand users at a time. All space is virtual and infinite on Second Life. Second Life sells land for users to build on it, this is one way they make money along with money transactions. Thus users are very spread out. This is a critical point.  Getting persons to a location to generate any business is the majority of work in Second Life, the rule if you build they will come is just not true there. So hostesses, dancers are critical to make a business place rank high in the systems search popularity. 

Whereas Google ranks links to and click to a site. Second Life ranks the number of avatars visiting a site for popularity. If you can get avatars to your business it grows exponentially, so hostesses and dancers help passively attract other avatars and that attraction both in popularity and sexuality is the real power in Second Life community. 

Yet out of the dozens of women  I spoke to none realized they had power over men. So I did an experiment as a female avatar to test this power vacuum. I went to a crowded beach and began to flirt with dozens of men. Once I had at least 10-12 interested in me, I asked them to follow me into the dance club. An empty club was filled in minutes. I shared this with numerous women friends I knew from 
Second Life and had friendships outside as well, and they were astonished. This same experiment was tried as a male avatar in male gay areas and failed. Gay male areas are unusually rare. And after several attempts the author was unable to understand why gay males did not respond while straight men did to female avatars. 

The result was that women had viewed Second Life opposite sex interactions as defensive and cautionary. They did not understand or take advantage of the equality of strength or the power of their sexuality.  They did so as they had been conditioned in real life to deal with men and the consequences of powerful sexual women in the real world. Of course in real life men are in positions of power and generally have the advantage in physical strength. They had never realized they could take control by using their gender as a powerful magnet. Instead, they and their female avatar friends continued to take subservient roles as hostesses and strippers. So despite, the equality of rules inside Second Life’s virtual world, real world gender roles expressed itself in the community dynamics emerged from the real world users perspective. 

The Self , as that which can be an object of itself, is essentially a social structure, and it arises in social experience... George Herbert Mead  - Mind Self and Society

So we can see that despite the efforts of Linden Labs to create a world where you can create your own persona and define your own gender  with the push of a button, some social forces were still too powerful to overcome. We saw how community dynamics, communication interactions, and the software its self enabled a wide spectrum of choices. Yet, this is a world that was created from the minds of its users to be anything they wanted it to be. And, they could define gender as a wide and vast spectrum. Yet, this did not occur. Gender roles or categories were not challenged. Thus we could not answer what John Boswell calls “the problem of the universals”. Do we create named roles or do roles emerge from nature and we simply categorize them.  Despite all the options in accomplishing one own gender via communication, community dynamics, and design of persona the majority of users could not break free of the crushing force of societies gender construction. 

Works Cited:
Angier, N. (2000). Woman: An Intimate Geography. ch. 15, pp. 263-284 “Spiking the Punch” In Defense of Female Aggression Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company

Bornstein, Kate (1994) Gender Outlaw, Naming all the Parts. Random House Inc

Boswell, John (1993) . “Sexual Categories [Realor Social Constructions>”], excerpted from “Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories,”from Lesbians, Gay Men , and the Law, William B. 

Rubenstein, ed. New York The New Press. Preprinted pp.33-37 in Readings for Sociology (third Edition) 2000) Garth Massey , ed. New York W.W. Norton 

Cortese, Anthony (1999). Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorites in Advertising, ch3. pp. 45-76, Constructed bodies, Deconstructing Ads Sexism in Advertising.” Lanham , Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. 

Erlbaum, Janice “La GirlBomb” (Winter 2000). Bust Magazine, no. 16, p.9 “Brain Implant,  Anyone?”

Farrell, pp.13-37, “Doing Gender.” Newbury Park, Sage Publications

Garfinkel, Harold (1967). “The ‘Natural Attitude’ about Gender.” From Studies in Ethnomethodology, Polity Press. 

Huston, Michelle and Pepper Schwartz, in Wood, Julia T.(1996). Gendered Relationships, Chapter 12, pp. 197-210. “Gendered Violence in Intimate Relationships.” Mountain View California , Mayfield Publishing Company. 

Kilbourne, Jean (1999) Deadly Persuasion, ch 6. pp.128-154, The More You Subtract, the More You Add.”New York, The Free Press

Lorber, Judith (1993) Paradozes of Gender, pp.3-15 and 17-27, “Night to His Day.” Yale University Press. No. 111, pp. 99-112 in Mapping the Social Landscape: Readings in Sociology(1999), Susan J. 

Ferguson, ed. Mountain View, CA Mayfield Publishing Company

Mackler, Carolyn (April/May 2001). Ms. pp. 80-85, “Honey, Disney Shrunk the Kids.”

Newman, David M. (1997). “the Socialization of Gender”. pp. 127-139, from Chapter 5, “Building Identity the Social Construction of Self,” in Sociology: Exploring the Architecture of Everyday Life. Thousand Oaks, California Pin Forge Press

Stannard, Una. “Stereotypes Uber Alles,” ;;/80-83 in In Stitches

West, Candace and Don Zimmerman (1991). The Social Construction of Gender, eds. Lorber and Farrell, pp. 13-37, “Doing Gender.” Newbury Park, Sage Publications. 

White, Jacquelyn and Barrie Bondurant, in Wood, Julia T. (1996). Gendered Relationships, Chapter 12, pp. 197-210. “Gendered Violence in Intimate Relationships.” Mountain View California , Mayfield Publishing Company. 
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