Virtual bodies, mutable genders

Paul Raven @ 13-05-2010

Here’s an interesting bit of research from sunny Barcelona: men wearing a virtual reality headset that allowed them to perceive themselves as a female avatar started to identify strongly with their temporarily-assumed gender.

… men donned a virtual reality (VR) headset that allowed them to see and hear the world as a female character. When they looked down they could even see their new body and clothes.

The “body-swapping” effect was so convincing that the men’s sense of self was transferred into the virtual woman, causing them to react reflexively to events in the virtual world in which they were immersed.

Men who took part in the experiment reported feeling as though they occupied the woman’s body and even gasped and flinched when she was slapped by another character in the virtual world.

[…]

Later in the study, the second character lashed out and slapped the face of the character the men were playing. “Their reaction was immediate,” said Slater. “They would take in a quick breath and maybe move their head to one side. Some moved their whole bodies. The more people reported being in the girl’s body, the stronger physical reaction they had.”

Sensors on the men’s bodies showed their heart rates fell sharply for a few seconds and then ramped up – a classic response to a perceived attack.

As expected, the body swapping effect was felt more keenly by men who saw their virtual world through the female character’s eyes than those whose viewpoint was slightly to one side of her. In all cases, the feeling was temporary and lasted only as long as the study.

Plenty of opportunity for further research there; I’m no expert, but that looks to me like a validation of the theory that gender roles are socially constructed… but then that theory has been borne out by my personal experiences in virtual worlds, in my own behaviour as well as that of others.

I’ve heard it suggested before that a way to break down some of the more persistent gender prejudices in modern culture would be for everyone to spend a month living the life of the gender they consider themselves “opposite” to – maybe VR and synthetic worlds offer us the closest approximation of that classic science fictional plot device (Stross’s Glasshouse, anyone?).