Gendered Avatar Identity

Gendered Avatar Interaction


Clearly gender is a factor when looking at how individuals communicate, but could the inverse also be true? One of the most interesting aspects of gendered interaction that I have discovered in the course of my research is the notion that gender of an individual can be implied from the communication style of said individual. Beth E. Kolko (1999) acknowledges that a wide range of traits influence an individual’s avatar and its actions.  She writes, “Elements that inform one’s virtual self include internal elements such as gender as well as external factors such as geography, economic status, education level (formal or informal), literacy skills, dialect, language, and cultural literacy” (Kolko, p. 178).  Interestingly enough, it seems that the same communication skills that allow individuals to represent themselves are what allows others to decode characteristics of their identity in real life. The visual representation of gendered identity through avatar choice might not be the only factor individuals consider when decoding the gender identity of those with whom they cohabitate online environments.

Although textual portrayal of gender is not touched upon in the video below, I feel that it is an important side-note to a study of visual portrayals of gender, and the resulting interactions. In my personal experiences—not only playing games online, but also speaking with others who do the same—certain tendencies are associated with the female gender no matter what the gender of the avatar. Textual communication that contains a large number of emoticons or is overly nice will generally be attributed to females. This point requires further research, but it is an interesting trait to consider since it questions the possibility of a non-gender-specific environment.

Judith Donath is a long-time scholar in the field of online communities, and the social interactions that accompany them. In “Identity and Deception in the Virtual Community” Donath (1998) touches on the difficulties of creating and maintaining the image of a gender into which an individual would not typically be classified. Although her research takes place in a text-based, online environment, she gives numerous examples of individuals who identify themselves as individuals of the opposite sex on UseNet. This is problematic because UseNet is an environment that revolves around the sharing of advice and information. When accepting advice/input from someone, the individual with the question is concerned with the identity of the individual who answers because their identity may give them insight into the situation at hand. One example given is that of a question about wedding formalities; a user who self-identified as “Cheryl” contributed to the conversation. Cheryl is not an ambiguously gendered name; it implies that the user is female. The user, however, was not, and Cheryl was not his real name. Why is this important? Although the advice in this case was given without the intention of being helpful, it seems equally likely that it could have been good advice.

The problem is the notion of deception. Online environments lend themselves to the misrepresentation of identities simply because they are removed from real life. Kolko (1999) notes that people recognize this removal from real life, and use it as an opportunity to gain a new perspective. She writes, “On-line experiences provided participants with the chance to see how others live and relate, get outside of the constraints of social mores, and develop a sense of how different components of their identity affected how they were treated in the face-to-face world” (p. 177). This does not necessarily, seem like it would be a practice to be frowned upon, expanding one’s horizons with new experiences is often seen as a good thing, the unsettling factor here is “honesty” (that term itself is problematic in a discussion of gender).

Since online communities are built around the notion of individual identity just like real life communities, it makes sense that they would object to dishonesty of individuals in the creation of those identities. It seems like it could be considered a more severe form of deceit since the online community is reliant upon only the information provided selectively by the individual to determine their identity. At least if someone were representing a gendered identity that did not match that person’s biological sex in real life the people with whom that person interacted would also be able to consider factors of identity observed first-hand when making identity judgments instead of feeling helplessly duped by the individual representing a different gendered identity. This is not meant to project a value judgment on the actions of the individuals representing their identity, but to acknowledge that it is problematic (possibly even upsetting) to the individuals being interacted with.

The video below shows how some of the individuals with whom I spoke have/have not experienced gendered social interactions as a result of the gender of their avatar. Katie and Jay both mention the gender of their avatar as a reason for being stereotyped into a certain group of female gamers–those who use their sexuality (albeit the sexuality of their avatar) to acquire things by manipulating other individuals. Note their differing reactions to this stereotyping. Kelly also mentions these interactions, but from the perspective of an observer.

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