Walk a mile in another (wo)man’s virtual shoes

I’ve often thought the world would be a fairer place if we could all spend a month living as someone of a different gender, race or level of physical ability. Until the gene-mod folks get us to the level of Iain M Banks’ Culture and provide complete plasticity of embodiment (c’mon, people – get a move on with that!), the next best thing is the Metaverse. New World Notes reports on the experience of a Second Life clothing designer who spent some time in a male avatar:

… Rebecca came away with a lot of insights, besides how to better make male fashion: “I learned that you can’t really trust anyone, male or female,” she tells me now. “People in Second Life can tell the truth as easily as they can tell a lie.”

(Lying about oneself is not exactly a thing unique to SL, but the ability to present visually and conversationally as something you are not adds all sorts of layers of complexity into the equation.)

By being a virtual male, “I learned about some of my own weaknesses at the time, such as my tendency to believe what every male avatar told me, especially if they had a good looking avatar. I think the visual aspect of Second Life somehow tricks the brain into taking our past experiences and cultural expectations and placing these experiences and expectations onto others within Second Life… I think a lot of women have the same type of thinking when they go into Second Life and tend to become attracted to good looking avatars, and overlook the avatars who are not particularly attractive.”

It’s hardly a rigorous feminist interrogation of the SL social space, but there’s some value there nonetheless. It’s interesting to note that Rebecca found herself falling back on the default “player” behaviour of male avatars who’d hit on her in the past; score another point for gender as a social construction.

I really wish more people could be encouraged to try this sort of thing out; most of my own (admittedly shallow) revelations about the actual experience of othering has come from spending time in female avatars, as well as observing the persecution of friends who embody as furries or other anthropomorphs. Nothing brings home the casual (and often unintentional) misogyny and privilege of baseline male behaviour quite like being on the receiving end of it.

3 thoughts on “Walk a mile in another (wo)man’s virtual shoes”

  1. I find the whole online gender thing to be, in equal parts, fascinating and just plain weird. I’ve done my own online gender bending, and the thing I find most interesting is how people react when you refuse to clearly define your sex.

    It upsets people. It upsets them a lot. It takes on a whole bizarre level of importance that it really doesn’t warrant, since it just does not matter what my sex organs are when I’m interacting with a stranger thousands of miles away. (It might, on a psychological level, if the conversation was of a sexual or romantic nature, but I’m not talking about that.)

    I heard a lot of, “I just want to know who you are.”

    The other interesting thing is that, pretty consistently, men choose to believe I’m female and women choose to believe I’m male. That’s an observation I don’t really know what to do with.

    One thing I never noticed until I did my own experiments with online gender is that it’s often used as a weapon. One person insinuates the other isn’t really whatever they claim to be. And people get really defensive about it.

  2. I always liked William Gibson’s description of his experience with Second Life. “It’s a combination of the worst parts of high school and being in a strip mall on the outskirts of Topeka Kansas at 4 AM.”

  3. I may have said this before, but what ultimately made me lose interest in SL was that it seemed like an imperfect simulation of the RL social interactions I’m not very good at anyway; making small talk is even more tedious when it’s in not-quite-real-time.

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