Gender swapping – comfortable in your virtual body?

I write a post about gender fairly regularly1 and as there’s some interesting new research around, I thought I’d return to the subject. But first a bit of background.

When I first came into Second Life, gender crossing and deception was a hot issue. I remember reading the provocatively titled Is Your Second Life Woman a Real Life Man? at the time. Discussion went on in blog posts, such as Avi Poll – Detecting Gender Imposters in SL – Silky Soulstar Reporting… and Gender Verification, as well as forums on Quoted in this debate was a journal article: Gender Swapping and Socializing in Cyberspace: An Exploratory Study which may have been behind a pay wall then, but is now open access. The research found that more women (68%) than men (54%) had gender swapped their game character. The motives quoted directly are various, for social or instrumental reasons. While recognising that numbers are not indicative of power relationships, I was surprised that the article found more women had swapped than men and not for sexual reasons, as the debate at the time revolved around men, sex, and exploitation.A Second Life profile

One response was ‘female verification’ in the Second Life profile. This could be written in text, usually on the ‘1st Life’ tab, or by joining a verification group that showed up on the front ‘2nd Life’ tab. Such groups are still listed within Second Life, but their current membership size is probably a good reflection of their importance – none have more than 50 and most almost none2. Maybe attitudes within Second Life have evolved alongside societal changes: more women are playing games, state sanctioned ‘equal’ or ‘gay’ marriage is more widespread, gender change or reassignment is more visible. Maybe too the virulent trolling and abuse of Gamergate and its development into ‘post-truth’ and the ‘alt-right’ makes Second Life gender identity concerns seem relatively minor.

Where there is less stigma, gender can be talked about in a more measured way. The title of a recent survey was a curious but morally neutral Have you experimented with your gender in Second Life?. Only one of the comments expressed a significant problem with gender crossing in Second Life, but in their next comment they revealed discomfort with the idea in any space. Another comment emphasised their concern over someone’s sustained deception about their personal life, rather than the gender crossing itself. There was a continuing theme – that extensive deception is unacceptable especially to direct questions. Gender in and of itself was not the problem.

So, having looked at the history, where does the new research go? The Virtual World Survey Report was based on a survey advertised through Facebook (US only), thumbdar, Second Life Universe, email lists, blogs, forums and in-world. 60% of respondents identified as female and 38% as male, which was consistent with previous research that found the majority of content makers in Second Life were female. This is a higher proportion than, but not inconsistent with, the survey by Pew that found that roughly equal proportions of men and women play online games, and another literature review that concluded that while more men played games that women, women still comprised 46% of the most frequent games purchasers.

The characteristics of virtual worlds match the kind of games that women, as a group, generally preferred. Men were interested more in goal orientated and competitive action and simulation games whereas women preferred logic and skill training games and were more socialisation orientated. Female players were more cooperative and used more supportive and encouraging language. They were more sociable, more engaged in group activities and peer discussions, and brought new people into the game from outside. Men also enjoyed being sociable but were interested in different aspects of interactions and relationships from women, and were more likely to get addicted.

This distinction reminded me of Erving Goffman’s ‘Fun in Games’3 where he argued the distinction between the players in a game, who could win and lose, and participants in a gaming encounter, who have a more varied experience. For Goffman, the game is the inside situation bounded by the rules of play, whereas the gaming encounter has a permeable boundary with movement into and out of the game. Relating this to Veltri and others findings, men tended to situate themselves more in the game, whereas women viewed games more sociably as an aspect of life. It not just a different way of playing but a different relationship to games. This also has implications for the ongoing debate around gender and Virtual Reality headsets, which both immerse in the game and isolate from life going on around.

The anonymity of virtual worlds can mean that people can cross gender, but that does not necessarily lead to a flattening of gender conventions. In a study of World of Warcraft, men adopted the appearance and linguistic behaviours of women but not the movements styles, in the main reinforcing idealised stereotypes. In more general game contexts, Royse and others found that women seek out feminine, sexy and strong characters to play. While some women see the ‘chainmail bikini’ as the ridiculously impractical idea of a patriarchal society, others interpret it as a fantastical demonstration of inner strength, and others re-appropriate it 4. Women were found to be more interested in shopping, clothes, and appearance than men by Veltri and others, and Mitra and Goltz found they reinforced gender stereotypes through their choice of clothing and behaviour. Overall, behaviour of both genders reinforced existing gendered differences rather than subverting them.

The most interesting finding of the recent research, which surprised the researchers, was the response when novice Second Life users swapped avataric gender. Women reported greater discomfort as males, and many reverted within seven minutes. Men did not have so much discomfort and stayed longer, seeming to think that they simply had a male avatar that happened to look female. This is in line with Martey and others finding that men predominantly swap gender in games for strategic reasons rather than to express identity. In all of this discussion, this points to the stickiest point of gender relations being brought into virtual worlds from outside – men with an innate assumption that male is synonymous with being human, and women asserting their independence through personal identity and their bodies 5.

But gender is not entirely deterministic. When Royse and others looked at how women played games, they identified three groups: power, moderate and non-gamers. The motivation of power gamers was similar to that described above for men, and moderate gamers had more stereotypically female attitudes to games and technology. They argued that gender and games mutually constitute each other in a complex way.

As Raewyn Connell said, ‘Femininity and masculinity are not essences: they are ways of living certain relationships’ 6. In other words, it is not so much what men or women are, rather it is how men and women tend to behave. In that context is as possible to rebel as to conform or confirm. Indeed if gender is performative, then the space within virtual worlds will establish a slightly different order of femininity and masculinity, through being separate and materially different. There will be a dynamic production of gender by virtual bodies 7, by men as masculine and female as feminine, and also men as feminine and women as masculine. Butler’s description of gender as ‘an identity tenuously constituted in time, instituted in an exterior space, though a stylised repetition of acts.’ 7 implies that gender is reconstituted within a game world by whoever adopts a particular gendered position in Connell’s ‘certain relationships’. Gender is no less authentic in virtual worlds because it can be seen to differ from something in the actual world.

And for all that’s been said above, commonalities are as important as difference, and the variability of difference means that there is much overlap across genders. While it is possible to find differences, overall the motives of everyone were similar – fantasy, virtual identities, relationships and escape were important. And at that I’ll give the last word to Duane Michals; ‘Women and men – it’s an impossible subject, because there can be no answers. We can find only bits and pieces of clues… Maybe, today, we’re planting the seeds of more honest relationships between women and men’ 8.


  1. 1 My previous blog posts mainly on gender: We are what we create, and we create who we are, Virtual Existence, Gender and Embodiment, Romp – my first visit to a sex fair.
  2. The one exception is chat ‘escort’ clubs 28, which offer cam and voice services. They are not irrelevant to gender within virtual worlds, but they are specific to a subset of users. eg autumnrose1128, ‘Voice Friendly Club – 100% Verified Females! – Second Life’, Second Life, 2016 (link no longer available).
  3. Erving Goffman, ‘Fun in Games’, in Encounters: Two Studies in the Sociology of Interaction (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1961), pp. 17–84.
  4. Sophie Yanow and others, Chainmail Bikini: The Anthology of Women Gamers, ed. by Hazel Newlevant (Movement Publishing, 2016).
  5. Janice McLaughlin, Feminist Social and Political Theory: Contemporary Debates and Dialogues (Basingstoke, Hampshire; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), p. 28 et seq.
  6. R.W. Connell, Gender and Power: Society, the Person and Sexual Politics (Cambridge: Polity in association with Blackwell, 1987), p. 179.
  7. To paraphrase Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 2006).
  8. Susan Sontag, On Photography, New edition (London: Penguin, 1979), p. 194.
Three of my avatars, three gender expressions
Me three times over. Left to right: Tizzy in heels (you won’t see that again for a while), Robin slumming it in jeans and jumper as usual, and Sam in a rare appearance wearing one out of his three sets of clothes.

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