Pixels and Policy recently tackled the issue of how racial bias crept across the real-virtual divide and found a home in the virtual world.
Dozens of our readers responded with their own stories of virtual prejudice as well as their critiques of our research.
As we researched the role of race is Second Life, more and more female residents asked us to take a look at how female avatars reflect real-world gender expectations. The topic is too important to pass up.
Over the course of three weeks, Pixels and Policy conducted interviews with over 40 residents of Second Life to see just what gender in the Metaverse meant to them.
Researching Virtual Gender
There's an inherent problem in conducting a survey of women in Second Life – there's no real way to tell which avatars are really women. According to research from Nottingham Trent University, up to 70% of women and 54% of men play as the opposite gender.
In fact, gender-bending is more prevalent in the virtual world as racial experimentation, so researchers must tread carefully when attempting to draw conclusions with real-world implications.
This doesn't impact a study of why female AVATARS look the way they do. Our interviews include a majority of real-world women, but also several acknowledged gender-swappers.
Pixels and Policy looked at several aspects of gender roleplay: clothing, expectations of interpersonal communication, and the player's perception of the avatar. In each of these areas, Second Life residents volunteered information through open-ended questions about their interactions with others, clothing choices, and thoughts on their play experience.
Building a Female Avatar
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.
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.
This is a huge step backwards for female avatars, since passive attractiveness is replacing active friend-seeking (approaching an avatar as opposed to being approached) in the virtual social network.
Lynda Boudrealt's argument in her 2007 academic paper on neutralizing identity through virtual worlds is misguided, then. 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.
My Avatar is Better Than Me
4 out of 5 women we interviewed said their Second Life avatar represented their appearance or personality. 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.
One of our interviewees was CJ Meglund, who spoke with us while wearing a barely-there red dress and suicide heels. When asked whether men or women try harder to build sexually exaggerated avatars, Meglund replied:
Cj Melgund: I think its a female thing really, like in real life women always try 2 look their best and SL helps you get that, lookn better than u are.
Real-world popular culture plays its role in disseminating what an "attractive" female looks like – worlds like Second Life allow women to self-idealize without the pain of plastic surgery or uncomfortable heels. As one of our interviewees said, she would prefer to play an avatar more in line with her interests, but "I also want more than a couple friends."
It speaks volumes of community priorities when the most-discussed add-on to the Emerald Second Life viewer is the capability to show bouncing breasts, with no op-out for female avatars who object to their migrating mammaries.
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.
What do you think? Is Second Life creating an unhealthy "sexual ideal" that players feel pressured to meet? Have you had an experience as a sexualized avatar? Put your two-cents in at the comments section below!