Gendered Avatar Identity

The Origin

Posted by: veeola88 on: February 28, 2011

The idea for this project originated in the fall of 2009 during a Multimodal Composition course instructed by Dr. Cheryl Ball at Illinois State University. Each student was required to propose an idea for a multimodal project and pitch it to the class. Only four proposals would be chosen by the class and actually come to fruition: this became one of them.

During my time as an undergraduate student at Illinois State University, I have always taken special interest in the study of gender and its impact on the world, the people in it, and those people’s perceptions of each other and themselves. At that time, the world of online gaming was not new to me, but I had not yet explored it scholastically. I immediately recognized this project as an opportunity to combine my interest in gender studies with my desire to delve further into the realm of online gaming. The resulting project was to be a group effort submitted to the Kairos Special Issue on Undergraduate Research. That version of this webtext was completed and exists at The original project had two other contributors, but this revision is an individual effort.

I have undertaken this project because the original seemed to me to be incomplete and unfocused. That’s not to say that the content should be written off as insignificant; in fact, some of my original contributions to the first incarnation of this project have been re-purposed and reintegrated. After all, the purpose of revision is not necessarily to start all over so much as it is to improve upon something worthy of revisiting. The topic of avatar gender in online environments is certainly kairotic enough to merit such a re-visitation. Although this webtext differs substantially from my initial submission to Kairos, it more fully embodies the cohesive and mutually beneficial integration of multimodal elements and traditional research that the Kairos CFW called for.

The intention of the initial version of this project was to explore gendered avatar choices within Second Life and World of Warcraft (WoW). This webtext is concerned only with gender in WoW. Gendered appearance in WoW is of particular interest because it seems to infiltrate interactions between individuals without serving a functional purpose within the game itself. It provides an opportunity to look at avatar choice in environments that have a primary purpose aside from existing as an arena for creating identity, and possibly the opportunity to uncover some new insight into why individuals select avatar gender the way they do. WoW exists as a combat-heavy game that allows its players to choose from a set of prefabricated avatars of various races and classes that determine the way in which the character will function within the game. It is also notable to mention that only one of the races available is expressly “human,” but most of the others have appearances that have human-like features that are generally attributed to one sex or the other so the avatars retain their gendered appearance without being human.

Most of the current research that exists about online gaming seems to be focused on online gaming in general, and the effects it has on individuals or groups of people. This often involves arguments about social interaction both in game, and in real life, and a qualitative comparison of the two.  My goal is not to make a value judgment about online gaming. Instead, I will examine why individuals make the gendered avatar choices that they do, and look at the consequences of these choices in terms of social interactions that result strictly from the gendered appearance of avatars.

Viola Woolums

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