Gendered Avatar Identity

Gendered Avatar Choice

The majority of the academic study of avatar gender in online environments seems to be slightly outdated (or non-existent). Even so, looking back at it allows for an interesting insight into how gender representation has developed in digital avatars. On the most basic level, avatars are simply descriptions of a person used to represent them in online environments. When we think about this today, we generally jump straight to thoughts of the highly developed avatars used in World of Warcraft (WoW) and similar online environments. This was not always the case. In a 1998 article entitled, “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community,” Judith Donath looked at a text-based online community called UseNet. This community does not have the luxury of visual representations of gender like so many online environments today. I found this particularly interesting because even without the technological advances that make online gender identification a more (literally) visible issue today, UseNet still caused individuals to raise questions about the issues surrounding gender identification online.

What brings these issues to the forefront in the first place is the fact that the physical appearance of individuals in real life is no longer visually connected to their identity when the internet acts as a mediator. Nicolas Ducheneaut et al. (2009) studied customizable avatars in online environments to discover why individuals make the choices that they do when it comes to the appearance of their avatars. They found that only 32% of individuals wanted to capture at least some aspect of their own real life physical characteristics in the appearance of their avatar. This could include gendered appearance although no specific statistics were available in the area of gender (p. 5). Separating the sex of an individual from them means that the resulting identity can take a form of the individual’s choosing. In “Bodies in Virtual Space: The Rhetoric of Avatar Design,” Beth E. Kolko(1999) discusses why this type of situation would be beneficial to online discourse. Kolko has been researching diversity, technology, and social interactions since the early 1990′s. Although her work focuses more on race than gender, it raises many issues relevant to other diversity-related issues (like gender). Kolko wrote, “Without a physical body to mark gender, race, or age, it was argued, speakers would be free to exist in a realm of ideas” (p. 177). The situation described here is clearly one in which the individual is not only stripped of his/her gendered identity, but also not assigned a new one. This resulting environment would be populated by gender-neutral individuals — or so it would seem. Display of gendered identity in non-explicit ways is discussed elsewhere.

Kolko soon points out the problems with this type of nongender-specific environment. Although it seems like stripping individuals of their gendered identity would level the playing field for groups like students who would likely be judged for their contributions to academic discourse based on factors like race, class and gender, it seems like it would also drive people away from the playing field itself. Online communities are based on just that — a sense of community — without it there is nothing to hold the individual members to each other (Kolko, 1999, p. 179). In the video below, Maggie’s reasons for choosing her gendered identity support this assertion when she tells us that she chose to match the gender of her avatar to her own real life gender in order to better represent herself while interacting with individuals with whom she wanted to build a sense of community. Gender is one of the factors of identity with which individuals can most readily associate. When individuals are born in our western culture, the first bit of identity-building information often demanded of the parents is the sex of the child. Logically, this should be insignificant information. If babies do not yet act in a gendered way, why is knowledge of their sex so integral to others who seek to make a personal connection with them? This is an issue better discussed elsewhere, but it provides a solid foundation for the necessity of gender identification in online communities.

Kolko mentions that without gender identification, it is difficult for individuals to relate to each other, and unless they are first able to do that, there is no foundation on which they can build their relationship (1999, p. 179). This could be why some individuals (like Sean in the video below) simply apply their real life gender to their avatars. It is possible that choosing the gender they are accustomed to could make it easier not only to relate to their own avatar, but to act as a constant when applied to interactions with others. Katie, on the other hand, seems to have made the opposite gendered choice for a similar reason. She is still using the gender of her avatar as a foundation for interaction with others. She says, “I just kind of got tired of the whole stigma of playing a female character.” If Katie thinks there is a stigma associated with playing a female character, it could influence her interactions with others if she were playing a female character, but also her interactions with other individuals with female avatars. The counterpart to this says that since she is not playing a female character, she is not interacting with others as she would if she were playing a female character. This supports Kolko’s assertion that the only way to avoid gendered (or racial) interactions would be in a nongender-specific environment (that would be unappealing because of its lack of sense of community).

Kolko also points out that the limits of technology play an integral part in determining how gender is portrayed in online environments (1999, pp. 181-182). This is notable because of the advances that have been made since her article was published. As soon as it was possible to graphically represent gendered bodies within online environments, it was done. Today some environments still provide their participants with a gender neutral avatar to choose, but these are often overlooked, possibly because of the desire for gender identification.

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