The Power of Real-World Gender Roles in Second Life

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!

16 thoughts on “The Power of Real-World Gender Roles in Second Life”

  1. “According to research from Nottingham Trent University, up to 70% of women and 54% of men play as the opposite gender.”
    Roundly criticized after its initial publication: see VWN’s update – , and the article they link to –
    “Is Second Life creating an unhealthy ‘sexual ideal’ that players feel pressured to meet?”
    No, not creating — we bring that with us from real life. SL merely allows us to easily emphasize the effect of a pre-existing cause.
    I’m a lot more concerned about the passivity and superficiality explicit in the highlighted reasons quoted for hyper-sexualization of avatar appearance, as a symptom of the “social network” mentality itself. Is quantity of friends -really- more important than the quality of the friendships?
    – – – – – – –
    I also wonder if PixPol will follow this with a study of why so many male avatars more resemble sides of beef than human beings…

  2. I’m all for little do-it-yourself surveys and have created some myself – – but it would be really interesting to see the results of professional studies on this topic with both rigorous protocols and a valid sample size.
    I wonder about things like:
    – Is the stereotypical avatar form you mention really widespread, or just among particular Second Life subcultures.
    – Is there a relationship between participation (or non-participation) in romantic or sexual relationships in SL and body shape and gender choice.
    – It would be really cool to have metric differences (shape slider numbers) for things like height, breast size, muscle percentage, etc. for avatars in different communities.
    Anyway, keep up the sensationalizing, thought-provoking work! I like it.

  3. The stereotype for men seems to be “Conan the Barbarian” – ridiculously broad shoulders and muscles and a ridiculously thin waist. I spent a lot of care to make a male avatar that is a bit fragile, well proportioned, not a charicature, and even a tiny trace androgynous. The best compliment I got so far was “you actually look like a human being”. And I am proud of my “soft male” look.

  4. Interesting. I wonder how much the overwhelming presence of ‘sexy’ avatars is eventually going to numb people to their presence.
    In some ways it’s much like going to a nude beach; after a bit, no one notices if you’re naked, and someone with clothes just looks *odd*.
    SL is the ultimate ‘dress up’ closet. I wear stuff in SL that I’d never manage to pull off in RL, and there is something a bit liberating about being able to wear a sexy minidress and thigh high boots without worrying about your knees, or flattening your tummy, or a really good bra.

  5. Sounds like a rubbish survey to me. From four years experience find that women with big breasts are normally guys … and that the percentage of women who are sexually idealised is probably less than the percentage of males who are, either through height, physique, hair, age, facial appearance or clothing or all those things. Even though very few women have real life photo realistic appearances – there are some, and there are some who look much better in the flesh than they do in SL – there are even fewer men. And besides while a woman can often hide how boring she is with giggles and OMG it is difficult for a man to hide the same thing.
    The only arbiter – male or female – of success/happiness? in Second Life is humour and conversation/communication skills, either in text or voice.
    Once one has been in world for a while the care taken with an avatar – good, bad or ugly – matters as it denotes one cares and is not the often reviled noob.
    After that as in real life it is only one’s communication skills that matter – its a shame that most men in SL have few.

  6. I got my boobers slider set to 42 because it’s a well known fact that they’re the answer to everything. =^-^=

  7. The only concern I have with bust size is that the mesh has the least distortion at slider position 40. So that is where I set it. Maybe 42 is the best setting. 😛
    I am more concerned with the overall shape being realistic. I could probably work on the face more but it has been what it is forever now so why bother. In Second Life your avatar is your brand so changing it all the time is probably an error.
    I have a male avatar alt for fitting male products too. Too much muscles but that seems to be what all the male avatars in SL like so stuff has to fit right?
    I.e.; there is a lot more attention applied to this subject than there is merit to go with it. I have heard that most guys will make a female avatar and turn it into the ideal uber sexy female they personally prefer since they have to look at it’s ass wiggle the entire time they are in SL. That theory seems to hold more water than all the others.

  8. @Angela –
    As I mentioned, this is a rather small piece of work. I’d love to have the resources at some point to do a full survey with a 1,200 participant sample size.

  9. Where you go to find your respondents will have a massive effect on the results of your poll, I have no doubt. But I find your results very surprising. I might strike up a conversation with someone, either male or female based on their appearance. But, when dealing with human avatars, I tend to apply the same criteria as I would in RL, however unfair that might be. Someone who looks like a bimbo (even if she *giggles* a lot) will likely get ignored, and probably assumed by me to be a man.
    Having said that, I do have friends who have a bimbo-ish look but whose dazzling wit and entertaining conversation quickly negated my prejudices. Some have later revealed themselves to be guys in RL and that has made no difference to our friendships either.
    So appearance for me is a vital first impression, but whether I ever want to speak to someone again (let alone add them to a friends list that’s already too long) has nothing at all to do with what they look like.

  10. What I find most surprising here is that 70% of women play male avatars and 54% of males play female ones. And yet there are far more female avatars on the grid than males. So I wonder if what you mean here is “70% of women have played a male avatar.” I don’t think so many are playing males on a regular basis, unless they’re hiding them away in their homes and never going anywhere or socialising with them, otherwise male avs would outnumber female ones.

  11. Max,
    Apparently you’ve blocked my avatar name Prokofy Neva on your service as you don’t like critical responses.
    Don’t worry, dear, I don’t fear connecting my avatar to my RL person. Do you?
    You said there was just you doing this blog, that it is just “a hobby”. You appear to be a 22-year-old male working at a Washington law firm that serves as a lobbyist for clients from Silicon Valley among others. It’s not exactly clear what your job is there or what prompted you to start this blog now.
    Yet you say “we” and “Pixels and Policy” as if there is more than one of you, as if you were a large news corporation or at least had a large firm behind you (and maybe there) is. What do you mean, “we,” white guy?
    When you make a claim like “4 out of 5 doctors recommend Trident for their patients who chew gum,” we have to know your sample even if you are only a casual hobbyist blogger. And it’s no good saying “I hope to have a fair sample of 1,200 some day”; what is needed to be publicized is your sample *now*. 8? 12? Because it seems very small — and bogus.
    Everyone knows that a lot of the females in SL are males. And someone explained the formula for how you can tell: the larger the setting on the breast slider, the greater the liklihood that “she” is “he” because the harder that male is trying to be a female and conceal this fact from you. Time and again, we’ve seen large-busted females, especially aggressive coders who miraculously claimed to know programming and still be females (which is frankly still rather rare among females) clinging to these claims and slamming anyone who points out that they are, um, exaggerating.
    This notion that there is prejudice against minorities was bogus, as noted; and the claims about females and males here are bogus as well. The post on racism claimed that blacks in, not SL, real or imagined, were suffering discrimination, when in fact the study only showed that when asked to do something very unpleasant and disagreeable — go with a stranger to their sim and instantly agree to being photographed — some people reacted negatively some of the time with black avatars — which may be more to do with what they were asked than the colour of the avatar.
    And now we’re hearing a fake claim that unless a woman tarts herself up she won’t have friends, and women are labouring under this misogynist notion. (Are you a misogynist as well as a casual misanthrope?)
    There are numerous women in SL that opt to look like themselves; to look not like sluts; or to look like something completely different, i.e. a furry, a robot, etc.
    For one, if people want to make sexual ideals based on popular culture, guess what, they’re free to do that without your politically-correct intrusions.
    For two, quite a few don’t do this, you obviously haven’t gotten around much.

  12. Prokofy —
    I can say with 100% confidence we didnt block your username. Ive yet
    to delete any comments or block any commenters, and I dont have any
    plans to. As for sample size, we listed it in the post itself. Working
    on something larger in scale for the near future!

  13. I don’t see how your results can be an accurate representation of women in SL when you only interviewed 40 people, and you don’t say where you found these people – chances are, if they were all part of the same sub culture, they would all display similar results.
    I can only speak for myself – in RL I am a model, I am very thin. In SL I am curvy and slightly odd looking, I like being slightly eccentric and different – my avatar represents my quirky side, and isn’t necessarily super attractive, I don’t get huge amounts of attention from guys in SL, neither do I want or need it.
    I know that I am not alone in having this kind of avatar, certainly the SL fashion scene is alive and kicking with a whole host of quirky looking avs – I find this scene as a whole, generally a better representation of RL shapes, which is so ironic, but totally true.

  14. I’m surprised to see that you haven’t given a photo credit for the woman pictured in your post here. Her name is Lilith Lunardi and that image is marked as All Rights Reserved in her Flickr stream. (Here:
    I am curious (and also doubtful) as to whether you asked her permission to use this work, and also if you WOULD have asked permission if her avatar were demure instead of provocative. Guess that’s one argument for NOT creating a large-breasted avatar – even the blogs won’t respect you for it.
    (I have emailed Lilith with a link to this article, as well as the NWN article which links back to it and uses the same image. I’ll be interested to hear her thoughts on this.)

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