The virtual world is fertile ground for exploration of social and identity issues. Like the crucible of competitive sports controversies, synthetic worlds let us burn away irrelevancies to reach abstract truths about, e.g., gender and sexuality. The computer-as-laboratory lets you control the environment and change one variable at a time, and every possible interaction and gesture can be recorded for examination.
Social worlds are the most numerous and have the most users, and so provide the most opportunity for study. Although the examples are still from social worlds, this article is the first I’ve seen that addresses avatar gender in the workplace. My take-away is, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog of the wrong gender.” Men can be women if it helps a sale. Women can be men if it helps a negotiation. Otherwise, it’s just not a big deal.
I suspect, though, that we can do even better. I think we’ll see a Village People effect in which we will become both more aware and more comfortable with differences that are now still scary to many people.
<%image(20090829-Gray-Lego.png|202|384|Abstract avatar, with optional badge photo and without face photo.)%><%image(20090829-avatar-choices.png|311|432|Choice of animated avatar from dropdown list.)%><%image(20090829-Casual-John.png|159|403|Informally popular pre-designed avatar choice.)%>
My work is on virtual worlds for collaborative business activity: avatars are important for making it clear who is doing what, but there isn’t any emphasis on personal expression outside the scope of the work at hand. Almost everyone just picks a pre-defined avatar from a drop-down rather than spending hours customizing their identity. In many cases, people just use a very abstract, gender-neutral block figure. Otherwise, I’ve seen people evenly distributed over the various pre-canned genders, ethnicities, and social classes. A vaguely South Asian guy in surgical scrubs. A vaguely Native South American woman in construction-site gear. GI-Jane in camo. One guy selected a little more than average is a casual but stylish, burly/brainy looking fellow who is black. Also, nearly everyone uses voice rather than text chat, so it is pretty hard to hide that you’re a man using a female avatar. When it is that easy to become someone else for an hour meeting, and yet a different person for the next, I think we may find it effects us. We’ll burn less personal and cultural energy on dealing with rarely encountered distinctions beyond our control, because we’ll be doing more real activity in an environment in which the distinctions are both familiar and easily under our control.