Tag Archives: avatars

Where are the SL men?

A Study of Gender Presentation in Resident Profiles in Second Life Public Spaces

When I returned to SL a couple months ago, I noticed that there seemed to be a lower percentage of apparently male avatars than I remembered from 2010-2015. I wondered if my chosen destinations were female-leaning, so I began jumping to areas that were not personally interesting. The imbalance was there too. Having an anthropology background, it was time to get more methodological.


In counting 1068 avatars across 58 destinations in SL, I observed 50% female avatars, 27% male avatars, and 23% avatars that were not binary or were of unknown gender. In fact, the majority (86%) of venues had male avatar percentages of 0-38%. 7 locations were between 50-58% male, and one outlier (Star Wars Legends roleplay) was 90% male when I visited. The quantity of male avatars was significant at some places — there were 18 male avatars at a ballroom I visited — but they still only constituted 31% of the crowd. Of binary, clearly gendered avatars I observed, 35% were male and 65% were female.


I visited 58 destinations: 9 General, 30 Moderate, and 19 Adult.

I tried to minimize my bias by choosing locations to count in a variety of ways. Venues directed specifically at one gender, such as single-sex clothing stores or gay/lesbian clubs, were not visited. Locations were found by selecting from the SL website destination guide, links in group notices, event and destination listings, keyword searches (airport, beach, Brazil, chat, city, combat, Deutsch, family, furry, sandbox, and Turkey), looking for avatar clusters on the map, and suggestions from friends. I sought places with varied activities and audiences, most of which I had never visited before. A region had to have a minimum of four avatars present to be included.

Crowd at live show

Because of my availability, most places were visited between 4:00-9:00 PM SLT (Standard Linden Time, which is US Pacific time). However, I did get to 11 venues between 8:00 AM and 1:30 PM.

The sex of an avatar was determined by resident profile presentation (more on this in the Discussion section below). To gather profiles for this study, I visited an area, popped open the Nearby list, and opened the profiles of everyone there. I then sorted the profiles on my screen into three piles — obviously male, obviously female, and undetermined. Profiles in the undetermined pile would get more scrutiny and then I would log a final count. I did not consider avatars that arrived or left after my sorting began.


As I explored, I noticed an interesting phenomenon. I’d rez into a location, look around, and think, “Wow, there are a lot of men here!” Then I’d count and find that female avatars outnumbered male 2:1. Since I tend to seek the companionship of men, my perception was off. On the other hand, I spoke with a number of male residents who didn’t notice that the balance was so tilted either.

Determining the sex of an avatar was somewhat complex. In the era of mesh bodies and heads, binary gender presentation has become more extreme, which meant that the resident’s main profile photo was my first sorting clue. Most of the female human avatars I counted were blatantly gendered: full breasts and hips, narrow waists, makeup, long hair. Many of the male human avatars had facial hair and broad muscular shoulders.

Display names were only considered if they had a gendered title that cleared up other ambiguity. For example, it was not uncommon to see profile photos that featured a couple. That image plus “Mrs. Jane Doe” meant that I’d count the avatar as female. I often combed through text to find gendered self-references, such as “I’m a sweet country gal”. Sometimes a partner provided a useful clue. No assumptions were made around sexual orientation, but I’d visit the partner’s profile to see if there were gendered references to the avatar I was counting. “I love X, he’s my knight in mesh armor!” and that sort of thing.

I encountered several residents who described themselves as shape-shifting, androgynous, non-binary, or explicitly said that they may sometimes appear male and sometimes female. I’m not familiar with the furry subculture and was relieved to see that many gave clear indications of gender in their text sections. However, most of the avatars I counted as neither/undetermined had nearly empty profiles and in fact, I think most were bots or NPCs in roleplaying areas. An avatar named GangMember but with a blank profile was logged as undetermined. In a longer study I would try to parse out the active residents from the rest, but it is fair to say that the number of avatars listed as neither male nor female is strongly inflated by bots.

That said, my categorization of an avatar as male, female, or neither/undetermined was subjective and I’d consider other methods if this was research with a goal of publication. I used profiles rather than visual inspection because of the ease of changing avatars for effect, a joke, an event, a mood shift, or a particular venue. Relying on interviews would have made the effort much greater and would have introduced another type of selection bias.


Counting at Prehistorica in my pteranodon avi

Destinations where I found the highest percentage of male avatars were:

  • Star Wars Legends (roleplay, M)
  • Yiff (furry, A)
  • Santa Ramona Valley (roleplay, A)
  • Maui Swingers Resort (sex, A)
  • Prehistorica (dinosaurs/infohub, M)
  • 2Raw Extreme (racing, M)
  • The Looking Glass (hangout, M)

I can only speculate why the numbers are skewed like this. It may be that nowadays, SL has more activities that appeal to people who present as female online. My husband’s suggestion that it’s easier to have a nice-looking female avatar may be a factor. There may be plenty of male avatars in SL but they prefer same-sex venues to the open areas I explored. People who had male avatars may have moved off to other virtual worlds, games, or virtual reality. People may have selected female avatars to try to ply their wares in the digital sex trade (though I see an absence of clients across the grid). It could also be that the avatar gender balance has always been disproportionate, but it wasn’t apparent enough to raise my curiosity.

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Posted by on February 15, 2019 in Embodied Experience, Gender & Sexuality, Research


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The world, three years later

Other than volunteering at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conferences for a couple years, I haven’t been in Second Life since very early 2016. Instead, I played some video games (ArcheAge, Subnautica, No Man’s Sky) and learned to make vector art in the time I had to play at my computer. My curiosity turned back toward SL recently. After all, my first avatar is over 13 years old and I maintained two premium accounts even when I wasn’t in-world. I believe in SL. So, I updated my Firestorm viewer and signed on.


In many ways, it was as if I never left. This was a truly unusual experience in an interactive space. A couple people on my Friends list were online, my property was exactly the same as almost 3 years prior. I still had everything in my inventory and my avatars looked fairly good. It was strange and wonderful to see that the databases that hold all my “stuff” hadn’t been purged, as would usually happen in an MMORPG.

Since my home is on the mainland, the most obvious changes were in my neighborhood. I think there are a couple skyboxes, but I’m the only resident on ground level in my region. My little rectangle exists in perpetual spring, surrounded by abandoned land. I did some cleanup, played with the pet wolf that Jakob had given me, refreshed my memory about how to navigate, and then went wandering.

I visited a few stores that I used to like; they’re still there, and things I bought in 2015 remain available (often on the discount rack).  My store credit was valid and I had years of group gifts to pick up. I traveled to areas where I used to socialize and found that they exist as well, but they have new owners, new rules, and new direction. I checked out an art piece by Bryn Oh and strolled through a gallery, and I was pleased to see that Templemore is still putting on live shows.

I’d only been in-world a couple days before some random guy chatted me up at a store and then tried to get me to send him a RL pic. What is this, 2006? I’m up for a chat, but ffs, going from zero to RL pic in 5 minutes leads to whiplash. Which might have been something he was into… I didn’t really want to know.

Now, I can’t say that I’ll be on SL often. Looking at some of my friends’ profiles, I got reminders of the drama that never interested me. I missed the profusion of mesh heads and doing some bento shopping made me despair about the learning curve. I’ll soon start a new job that will put more demands on my time. Yet on the other hand, I’m feeling the pull of this creative and intriguing space. We’ll see.

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Posted by on November 25, 2018 in Art in SL, Embodied Experience


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I’d love a virtual world/MMORPG mashup

Second Life isn’t a place I spend much time now, though my posts about SL continue to be get the most traffic and my daily companions also have unused, long time SL avatars. I’m more active in ArcheAge than ever. I left my drama-filled guild and now spend most of my time with my game family and a few friends, caring for our land, transporting trade packs for cash, running dungeons, hijacking enemy vehicles, and poking at enemies who are too highly geared for us to do more than annoy. One couple I know from AA met in SL and now live together and others were active SL residents for years.

One of those friends recently remarked that a mashup of AA and SL would be fantastic. He was thinking about the houses in AA, which are little more than storage locations with very limited opportunities for self-expression, but I think there’s a bigger point to pull from that. MMORPGs could benefit from the sort of interpersonal expression and connection that SL enables. I’m not just talking about sex (though if it’s an adult game, why not?), but the ability to dance with friends, stream your own music in your home, cuddle on a couch, etc.


From a game standpoint, SL suffers from a lack of things to do. I know some of you will be tempted to jump in here and lecture me about the fine clubs, performances, creative opportunities, experimental game areas, etc. Believe me, I know!  I love those things. Yet most of the time I’m in SL, what am I doing? Remaining relatively stationary in my surroundings and talking with one person or a small group of people. Exploring areas together is difficult without using voice chat to coordinate. We could play a short game, but those are rudimentary at best even if the graphics are jaw-dropping. However, I can move my avatar in ways I’ve designed, have whatever appearance I like, invite people to my completely customized home, and have a visual replication of real human interaction.

Every MMORPG I’ve played offered limited expression and interaction. While Second Life puts creation in the hands of the residents, so each avatar and home can be unique, MMORPGs tend to be stingy with customization: putting costume dyes in a cash shop, requiring multiple purchases or crafting steps to add a graphic overlay to a small number of items, and building up demand (and therefore cash flow) by releasing some items as untradeable rare drops from cash shop chests. As far as interaction, some have interpersonal emotes and allow families/marriages/partnerships. But really, they are games and designed around activities, not social life. When I’m in AA, I might be talking with friends just as I would be in SL, but we’re simultaneously doing something, even if we’re in transit to an island on a ship, planting ginseng seedlings, or laying in wait to ambush enemies.  It’s possible to run out of things you want to do, but there are always more things you could.


Can you imagine how exciting a combination of the two world types could be, though? Strong game mechanics, with daily events, quests strings, dungeons and raids, crafting/farming/fishing/etc, PVE and PVP, accompanied by rich personalization and interaction? A player-driven economy that also includes items created by those players? A multitude of things to do at any hour of the day, plus all the tools needed to make a comfortable sanctuary if you don’t want to leave your virtual home? When I was a solo player, I would have appreciated more choices to have a unique appearance. Now that I’m more social, the limitations of rigid furniture poses and car radios that play the same loops of music really bug me. I suppose I’ll keep dreaming of an open platform MMORPG that is truly the best of both worlds.

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Posted by on February 25, 2016 in Gaming


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Second Life: conference, land sale

I’m happy to say that I’ll be volunteering at the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education (VWBPE) conference again this year. It takes place from March 9-12 in SL and OpenGrid and everyone is welcome to attend, no charge. Some of the sessions are also streamed live and recorded to watch later.


And that’s where I come in. Last year I volunteered as a greeter and a mentor: before the event I helped presenters get set up with the technology they needed, I served as on-site tech support during their events, and for a few hours, I stood at a landing point and welcomed attendees. Those weren’t the best assignments for someone who is terribly shy around strangers. Interactions are easier in a virtual world but I still get tongue-tied (finger-tied?) and uncomfortable.

So, this year I volunteered to be part of the streaming team. Not only is there less personal interaction, but I get to have the fun of working the camera and producing video content from the conference. Yesterday I attended a training meeting with other members of the streaming team and I’m excited by the possibility of creating professional grade recordings of an SL live event. I’m looking forward to learning more and playing with the tools in my spare time.

I haven’t been in SL much at all lately, which leads me to my next topic: my parcel on the Heterocera Atoll mainland. If any of you are looking for a quiet, low-lag place to drop a skybox or build on the uneven terrain, ping me (in SL as Kay Jiersen or with that same name – no spaces – at gmail). I’ve already abandoned a couple sections of my land, but I plan to give up another 3000 m² and limit myself to the land allowance on my premium accounts. The region I’m in is almost empty, just two long-term SL residents and abandoned land.  I’d happily chop off a section for one of my blog readers and sell it for L$ pocket change rather than abandoning it to be wasteland. In a perfect world, Linden Lab would say, “Oh, Kay! We’d really prefer you to just keep the land, because you landscape it nicely and don’t run idiotic scripts or put up ban lines, so we’ll waive your tier!”, but let’s not talk crazy.

Yesterday I was discussing my SL land with a new companion. I told him that honestly, part of the difficulty in downsizing is getting rid of things that belonged to Jakob that are rezzed on the parcel: bouquets of flowers, wind chimes, a lotus pond. “Take photos of them, then return them,” was his practical response. “Either way, it’s all just pixels.” True, but that doesn’t make it much easier.

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Posted by on January 26, 2016 in Learning, Relationships


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Identity: Tell me, who are you?

Who are you? Who are you now, and is that the same person you always are and always were?

I’ve always played with identity. As a child I was imaginative and, let’s say, indiscriminate about the boundary between reality and fantasy. The first sign of this may have been when I was five and screamed for days because my parents said my imaginary friend couldn’t move to our new house. A couple years later they began dropping me off at Sunday School with instructions to go to church alone afterwards. (As an adult, I understand that they relished their child-free Sunday mornings more than they cared to adhere to the dictates of Roman Catholicism. Fair enough.) I would sit on the hard pew and imagine I was blind. Or maybe deaf. I’d concentrate on what senses would still be available and try to tune out the one I “lost”. Sometimes I’d refuse to say any words aloud because then, I was a girl who didn’t speak English.

Harlequin 1

It isn’t uncommon for little girls to have a phase of fantastical confusion, but usually other interests or maturity put an end to it. I read this compelling New York magazine article about the two girls who stabbed their friend in the so-called “Slender Man attack” with empathy and growing discomfort. Luckily my crazy imagination never extended to violence and I channeled my make believe into society-approved acting and writing. Nevertheless, it’s embarrassing to recall how much I lied. Sometimes the reason was manipulation — inventing a dire health crisis to get extra time for chemistry lab reports — but often it seemed the stories came out of my mouth before I processed them anywhere else. Why on earth would I spontaneously pretend to be an exchange student from England when I knew almost nothing about the place and my accent came from playing Anna in “The King and I”?  That’s who I became to the cashier of a bookstore I visited on a field trip. WTF, younger me?

In my 20s I began to make a conscious effort to stop lying. The impulse remains in me as a stress reaction. It’s commonly said that people who compulsively lie do so for attention, but that couldn’t be further from my truth. I might lie to blend in, or to end or shorten an awkward conversation, or to divert attention from something I don’t want to discuss. It’s rare; usually I cage the lies behind my teeth before they leap out.

But, what about sliding into different identities online? Where are the lines drawn between performing a role, exploring parts of oneself, and outright lying?

I’ve had a blog off and on, mostly on, for 14 years. As a blogger I am honest in the way that a 2×4 board is not exactly two inches by four inches, yet it’s accepted as such until there’s a need for precise measurements. I may change names and locations and mess with timelines. I skim over details. The emotional and intellectual content is always as true as I can make it, but the rest is flexible enough to condense for narrative clarity or warp for privacy. I feel that my blogging identity is synchronous with who I am offline. You wouldn’t be greatly surprised when meeting me in the physical world after reading this site.

Identity with multiple avatars in a virtual world is more complicated. Take this scenario as an example: someone who knows I have multiple Second Life avatars invites me to come to a dance club, and I reply, “Let me sign on as Kay, because my alt doesn’t go to places like that.” I am the conscious person who animates both avatars and my reply makes it clear that I’m comfortable going to the club. Who, then, is not?

Before you say that I simply draw a line between two roles that I play online, let me add that if I went to that club as my alt, I — physical me — would feel the mild distress of being in a place that is out of my comfort zone. If I changed to my main avatar I’d feel confident and at ease in the same place. Both of them are me, but I have parceled out my personality among them and though they’re more alike than they used to be, some differences remain. Luckily for most people who meet me online, I’ve put most of my hostility and anger into my rarely-used second alt, but beware if you ever run across her. She can be a monster.

He sat to take a photo with me

When I’m in SL, I make an attempt to be honest or silent about my RL. My online identity may only reflect a portion of who I really am, but it is consistent and leaves open the possibility for people to get to know me better. That hasn’t always been the case, but it is now. That doesn’t mean I welcome conversations about offline details until I know someone well, but I’m not part of the “SL is SL, RL is RL” contingent (valid and perfectly acceptable, just not me). Considering my childhood, it’s a little surprising that I don’t enjoy online roleplaying. I’ve tried, but I can’t pretend for long before I want to make deeper connections with more authenticity. And, I frakking hate paragraph-style roleplay… but that’s another topic.

This topic was on my mind because I gave birth to a new identity over the weekend. I’ve known for a long time that I wanted to use a pen name for my serious writing. I’m a private person and whether I have any success or not, I want a buffer between me-the-author and me-the-person. The timing was right. I was reading Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing about her early days as a poet and writer:

If I had suspected anything about the role I would be expected to fulfill, not just as a writer, but as a female writer — how irrevocably doomed! — I would have flung my leaky blue blob-making ballpoint pen across the room, or plastered myself over with an impenetrable nom de plume, like B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, whose true identity has never been discovered. Or, like Thomas Pynchon, I would never have done any interviews, nor allowed my photo to appear on book jackets; but I was too young then to know about such ruses, and by now it is far too late.

We live in a media-saturated time and I’m no Pynchon, so I don’t expect to remain effectively anonymous, but simply detached. Atwood talks about the dual nature of being a writer, which I can relate to so well. It was the following section from her book that convinced me it was time to give my writing doppelganger a distinct name.

Now, what disembodied hand or invisible monster just wrote that cold-blooded comment? Surely it wasn’t me; I am a nice, cosy sort of person, a bit absent-minded, a dab hand at cookies, beloved by domestic animals, and a knitter of sweaters with arms that are too long. Anyway, that cold-blooded comment was a couple of lines ago. That was then, this is now, you never step twice into the same paragraph, and when I typed out that sentence I wasn’t myself. …I’ve read more than one review of books with our joint surname on them that would go far toward suggesting that this other person — the one credited with authorship — is certainly not me. She could never be imagined — for instance — turning out a nicely browned loaf of oatmeal-and-molasses bread….

What to call the writer-me who takes sympathetic characters and tortures them mercilessly? My husband and I brainstormed a list of first names and then I pulled a few surnames from books I love, we mashed them together in different arrangements, checked them in Google, and said them aloud. I had to change the spelling of the surname I preferred, but then, there she was. I showered her with gifts to solidify her reality: a domain name and website, a Twitter feed, and a Facebook account. Eventually I hope she’ll be like a uniform I slip on for work; not as comfortable as my home clothes and with some different rules of behavior attached, but still me inside.


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Does the Internet make me more girly?

This might come as a shock, but I’m not really a glamorous sort of gal. I know, I know!  Most introverted middle-aged women who blog about tech and anthropology are nearly indistinguishable from Angelina Jolie, but I guess I’m an outlier. So, I’ve been thinking about how the Internet shapes my superficial performance of femininity.

Kay avatar with hair in curlers and garish, mismatched makeup

My husband agrees when I say I kind of fail at being a girl. I’m not sure how to feel about that.


When I write about superficial gender performance, I’m thinking of public costume (fashion, makeup, hairstyles) more than the behaviors that would be included in the full definition of gender. Even limiting the topic in this way, it can be extremely divisive among women. Do we conform to societal norms of beauty or judge others who don’t? Should feminists wear makeup or dress in fashions designed to enhance sexual appeal? Do we consider issues like consumerism, environmentalism, safety, and health as part of our beauty culture? How do we address norms of feminine appearance that exclude women of color, size, or who have disabilities? The issues are far greater than whether I can wear tangerine lipstick with my complexion.

I’m female, cis female if you like, but I have always struggled with my performance of gender. Behavior aside, my self-perceived inadequacy in “looking like a pretty girl/attractive woman” has always added to the stress of my shyness. I had decent luck in the genetic lottery but I was both disinterested in my appearance and clueless about how to enhance it when I was younger. I never had a female mentor and I lived in a rural area, without cable TV or any stores where I could buy a fashion magazine. That might seem positive in some ways and I did have fewer unrealistic images to compare myself against, but it made me uncomfortable around girls and women who knew how to style their hair or apply flattering makeup.

I should pause here to say that there are countless ways to be externally feminine, and I don’t think any are innately superior, make someone a “better” woman, or necessarily reflect the inner person. Please don’t misunderstand me as saying that a proper woman is a glamazon. My personal ideal would be a polished and put-together appearance; not Kardashian-esque, but making the most of my assets. When I was growing up, I had no idea how to do that.

But now, it’s 2015! I can go to YouTube and find thousands of skincare, makeup, and hair tutorials. There are myriad beauty and fashion blogs I can consult as I try to find a personal style. I can have products delivered to my home so I don’t have to trudge through malls and department stores.

Despite that, I’m currently wearing a ripped flannel shirt, oversized hoodie, yoga pants, no makeup, and my hair is pulled into a ponytail. If I had to go to the store, I’d swipe some mascara over my lashes and replace my scrunchie with an elastic band (Carrie saying, “Friends don’t let friends wear scrunchies,” has stuck with me years after Sex and the City finished, but they’re gentle on my fine hair and I wear them at home, dammit.)

Why haven’t I honed my appearance now that information and products are at my fingertips? I think it comes down to my upbringing and dissonance between my aspirations and what I’m willing to do to reach them. Maybe it would be different if I worked outside the home, but generally, it seems like too much trouble, expense, and discomfort for my circumstances.

I suspect my virtual avatars are proxies that reduce that dissonance, too. Not only do they have idealized shapes and appearance, but I can also use them to express style I don’t have offline. Embodied in an avatar, I can change hairstyle and makeup with a few clicks and wear body conscious dresses and high heels without feeling absurd. I can be punk or pretty or elegant or athletic. If I sometimes feel like a femininity failure in the physical world, my appearance is almost too girly for my comfort online.

Truth is, the Internet has made a difference in my offline appearance. I might not wear makeup everyday but I’m more confident in my choices and technique when I do. I can easily check what’s trendy when I buy something seasonal, like nail polish. I resent that women pay more than men to meet societal norms of appearance, so it matters that I can find high quality products that flatter me online rather than buying handfuls of drugstore products that might work. That applies to clothing, too: standard sizes rarely fit me well, but I can order clothes custom-made for my figure at a factory in India (thank you, eShakti). My preference for tunics and leggings might not be high fashion but they can be neat, comfortable, and appropriate for many situations.

I’ll never be someone who spends much time on her hair or tolerates pain for fashion’s sake. I’ll probably always be envious of women who look effortlessly stylish. But, the resources available online now help me be more comfortable with my interpretation of external femininity.

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Posted by on April 8, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality


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Incidental bias is still offensive

Recently I became a volunteer tester for a new game*. In this system, the default avatar is non-human and apparently without gender. The company currently provides thirteen additional pre-built complete human avatars: seven male, six female, with some diversity of appearance. You could think of it like the array of mesh avatars for new users in Second Life:


In the other system, each avatar has a small paragraph of description and backstory. Though they aren’t intended to be roleplayed in that way, someone took the time to invent personalities and characteristics for these thirteen avatars. There are quite a few errors in spelling and grammar and the writing is terrible. The lack of quality reinforces the fact that these avatars and their descriptions are not the core business of the company. However, the content is public and directly associated with the company’s name (“created by companyname” is on each listing).

So, how does this connect to the title of this post?

First, there are some uncomfortable racial descriptions in the content. The one avatar that looks Asian is described as “cunning” — a bit close to the stereotype of the inscrutable Asian — and of course he practices martial arts. The black male avatar “has flavor”; in context this indicates he has a sense of style, but the shift of language from the other descriptions is unpleasant. It’s like describing a few white men as handsome and then the black one as fly.

Then there’s the misogyny, both blatant and subtle. When you read the description “organic, farm-raised”, do you think of chicken? Cows? No, silly! That’s a woman. None of the male characters are described in terms of family life, but the description for one female avatar strangely says that “she’d be an exceptional mother of five, still ready to bear more.” Earthy and maternal women are terrific, but descriptions that make them sound like livestock are not.

You can see more bias in the groupings below. I took the words used to describe each avatar — leaving out direct references to hobbies and professions, sticking to personality and appearance — pulled them into a list with the others, and alphabetized. I’ve altered them a little to make the lists more syntactically consistent (writing “put” as “puts”, for example), but not to change the content.

Words used in female descriptions: BFF, charming, courteous, cute, doll, down to earth, fills your heart, friendly, incredible beauty, intelligent, kind, lights up your life, lovely, (will) make you fall in love with life, organic, (has) perpetually perfect eye makeup, quirky, rare bird, shy (briefly), studious, sweet, (has) tenacity

Words used in male descriptions: all-around exceptional, always growing, biggest softy, built of steel, casual, cocky, confident, cool, cool-headed, (has) courage, ever-new, extra supportive, handsome, (has) muscle, kind (3 times), living proof (of how to get a great six-pack), looks soft, makes hard decisions fast, marvelous, masculine marvel, mean when mad, means business, (has) no time for jerking around, perfect blue eyes, puts life on the line everyday, quick-witted, respects authority, sharp, smooth talking, thoughtful, tough as nails, wavy hair, (has a) work ethic, works hard everyday

The male descriptions, while over-the-top, show some variety. The female words could be used to describe a single manic pixie dream girl. Heck, some of the descriptions aren’t even about the woman, they’re about the observer (fills your heart, lights up your life, will make you fall in love with life). I get sick of people pointing out “the male gaze”, but that’s a textbook example.

There’s an easy fix for the offensive avatar descriptions: they can be removed. If text is necessary, it would make more sense (for search purposes) to describe hair color, body type, and clothing. There really isn’t an excuse to leave them online as they are.

Look, in the grand scheme of things, these avatar descriptions aren’t a big deal. I know that. They might have been dashed off by an intern and not reviewed, but they are sloppy and insulting and bear the company’s name. The company is also focusing their priorities on users without disabilities but with significant tech budgets; they’re not specifically excluding others, but seem to consider accessibility someone else’s problem for the future. Taken together, these make the company seem privileged and arrogant, backward-thinking instead of the visionaries they want to be.

* I struggled with how to present this topic and still protect the company I’m writing about. Some of you will know immediately; please leave the name out of any comments. I have neither an obligation to them nor an ax to grind. I’d like to see them succeed, which is why I mentioned this issue in a relevant thread on their forums and allowed a day for the descriptions to be cleaned up before I blogged. They have not been, as of now.

So, I’ve changed a few details about the company and product, but not about the problematic content. I could have skipped this topic altogether, but I think that with all the discussions around misogyny in the tech industry, it’s valid to call out examples like this and it’s important to talk about them.


Posted by on April 3, 2015 in Gender & Sexuality, Side Topics


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VWBPE conference, day 3 (part 2)

The afternoon session “Educators and the Second Life Viewer”, led by Oz Linden, wasn’t a topic that had direct impact on me, but I was curious.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one:


Oz began with an overview of how the Lab does viewer development and release and then the questions came flooding in. Most of the concerns involved dealing with viewer updates in an institutional setting, where students sitting down to use machines lacked administrator rights and had to wait for someone else to install the software. At a busy school, the update schedule of the tech support staff can be terribly out of sync with SL releases.

Some worried about potentially losing inventory when testing new viewer candidates (you won’t; it’s stored on the server, not your client viewer). Others asked about screencasting or screen sharing tools. The discussion indicated that other tools do it better, which perhaps didn’t satisfy everyone’s needs. People asked about hair alphas and alpha conflicts in general, which Oz said were always on the LL bug list. A question came up about how to transfer settings from one computer to another (move the settings.xml file). There was a discussion around how to create a shared whiteboard in SL. HTML 5 support will be coming in a few months, which might make it easier to use media-on-a-prim to create a whiteboard, and one educator suggested using Twiddla for that implementation. In the discussion of media-on-a-prim, Oz mentioned Quicktime for Windows and Flash as being difficult to support in-world (personal opinion: they’re outdated and shouldn’t be supported, but we need a media option).  Someone asked about getting an MSI instead of an exe to make installation in labs easier.  I’m sure Oz was flooded with emails mentioning that an MSI can be generated directly from Visual Studio by choosing “Create an Installer Package” from the Project.


People also asked about social media sharing, rendervolumeLODFactor settings, inventory management (!), an export feature (nope), and more. Oz also mentioned render costs and the setting being tested that won’t render avatars above a certain weight.  Not that I have a horse in that race. It was a very informative talk, with a couple of other Lindens jumping in to add details, and I hope it was useful for them as well. The session took place during dinner time, so my software engineer husband was listening with me and often yelling responses to questions across the room; I’m glad my microphone fiasco happened later in the evening.

Speaking of which…

Next, I attended the “Content Curation Through Virtual World Communities” session, where I was able to hear the first two panelists and a small amount of the third. My write-up of this session is limited as I committed an accidental faux pas (open mic in a voice-conducted panel) and lost my notes in the flurry of embarrassment afterward.


Valerie Hill (Valibrarian Gregg) touched on library topics — as you might guess from her SL name — but also referenced Alvin Toffler and talked about users as prosumers: both consuming and creating content. She spoke about how important it is to vet our own content sources for credibility and to avoid placing ourselves in an echo chamber where we only hear our existing views reflected back at us.


Renee Brock-Richmond (Zinnia Zauber) gave a presentation centered on creating an “authentic” avatar and reinforcing your personal branding. You might be able to tell from the slide above that she is all about color. She talked about different ways to use color in-world — not only for clothing — and about creating a consistent avatar, including profile, that is authentic to yourself. I found that very thought-provoking. I wanted to agree and argue, so it’s something I might pick up in a future post.


Next up was Beth O’Connell (Beth Ghostraven). She talked about useful communication techniques and tools. She also shared a helpful notecard entitled “Professional Education and Library Resources in Virtual Worlds” that has links to SL and OpenSim areas, mailing lists and groups, and websites. Unfortunately, my gaffe happened during her session. I missed part of it while talking and after being removed from the sim.

I completely missed the presentation by Joyce Bettancourt (Rhiannon Chatnoir), which was disappointing because I had enjoyed the session by her Vesuvius Group colleague so much earlier in the day.

Not being one who can shake off things like that (despite the wise counsel of Dr. Taylor Swift), I didn’t attend the session “Real Democracy in a Virtual World” or the Quill & Quarrel performance later that evening. Today, I’ll be attending sessions from my desktop computer, which has no microphone whatsoever.

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Posted by on March 21, 2015 in Learning, Research


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What is age in a virtual world?

Below is my contribution to Strawberry Singh’s “First & Recent Challenge”: two photos of my first Second Life avatar, wearing similar tops and standing in front of blooming trees in my (virtual) backyards on the SL mainland, separated by almost a decade. I’ve been in a few discussions about representing age in virtual worlds recently and this meme is a good starting point to write about it.

10 years in SL

The differences between photos of “real me” a decade ago and now are small. My hair is longer and my body size is the same, but the shape has shifted a bit. Facially? I’m in those middle years where the changes aren’t so dramatic. 35 to 45 isn’t as big a gap as 25 to 35. My photos could be a week apart or a decade apart; it isn’t easy to tell.

The changes in my avatar over the same period are gigantic. I don’t do image correction in post-production, so the photo above is what you’d see in-world.  My 2015 avatar isn’t perfect. There are odd angles, her hands are gigantic, and you can see a little of the annoying halo effect around her mesh hair. I could get more photorealism if I used a mesh body and mesh eyes; you’re not seeing the cutting edge of SL avatar appearance, but I’m satisfied.

What is age in a virtual world, anyway?

Is it appearing older the way we do in physical life? If we were dealing with some sort of verified namespace world, created to give us a second presence for our physical selves, that would make sense. It could be disconcerting to interact with my grandmother if she looked decades younger than reality. In a world where anything is possible, though, why be bound to the norms of physical reality? If unassisted flight is optional, laugh lines seem like they should be optional too.

It’s almost impossible to simulate subtle aging in SL at this time. You can be very young, young, somewhat young, or old. I don’t have the talent or knowledge to create skins that are middle aged, with a few fine lines around the eyes, visible only if you zoom in, and deepening creases around the mouth from laughs and smiles. There’s no option for hair styles with a 1:25 grey to brown ratio, or an eyebrow tattoo layer with one annoying white hair on the left side. I can add eye bags and change the hollows of my cheeks with sliders, but the results are unsatisfying. Before sized mesh clothing I could be more accurate with aging my body shape, but since most of Kay’s clothes are Small and my alts’ wardrobes are full of Medium items, the changes I can make to their proportions are limited.

So, I age my Kay avatar in other small ways. She has a skin that isn’t as translucent or dewy as other brands. When I want her to look closer to my age, I choose matte lip color instead of glossy. Her eyebrows are high and thin, she sometimes wears glasses, and when I stick to medium-length hair that looks “styled”, business clothing, and relatively sensible shoes, I’d say she looks like a well-preserved 40 year old. My alt above, though my oldest account, is intentionally more youthful in appearance.

Apparent avatar age can be a contentious subject when it comes to the distinction between 20s, teens, and tweens. You can choose to play any age you like in SL — there are baby avatars — but many areas with sexual content (or not) will ban avatars that appear to be teenagers or younger. Sometimes this distinction is based on height, as standard SL avatars are oddly tall. I spotted a club recently that only hired topless dancers who were 5’10” or taller in bare feet and I’ve seen many areas that banned avatars shorter than 5’7″. Other than that, in the absence of a clear “I’m 15!” statement in a profile, the decision of whether an avatar appears too young is at the discretion of the region owner. There are a lot of avatars that look like teens to me, so I’m glad I don’t need to draw that line.

Another way that avatar age matters in SL is the number that we can’t change: the age, in days since account creation, that is an unchangeable part of our in-world identities. If you view a list of all the avatars near you, their ages appear alongside their names. It is an item that can’t be hidden or edited in a profile. Many employers in SL won’t review applications from avatars under a certain age — 30 or 90 days, perhaps — but all of us make judgments about others based on that number.  Someone with a low age but a very polished avatar?  Must be an alt! (Not always.) Higher age but wearing a bright facelight and very outdated clothing? What is wrong with that person?? Age under 30 days and starting a conversation with me in a store? Uh-oh, better brace myself for begging, a scam, or a griefer. Avatar age can lend credibility, a sense that the person behind the keyboard understands how things work in SL, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate with technical skill or emotional intelligence.

Personally, I think that having a more nuanced variety of apparent ages in SL would be interesting. We already interact across that range: I’ve had friends in SL ranging from their early 20s to middle 60s. I’d like to see a daring skin or hair maker put out some gently aged options (point me to them if they already exist!). I’m not sure that there’s much of a market, though, especially for female avatars. The media tells us that at similar ages and being two remarkably attractive people, George Clooney is sexy but Julianne Moore “looks great for her age”.  Middle aged women talk about becoming invisible; I see this as a relief, but others grow anxious about the fading of their fertility-signalling characteristics and perceived sexual attractiveness. Consider the casts of The Real Housewives of Wherever. They exist in an age limbo of plastic surgery, hair extensions, fake lashes, and tanning spray — they’re the closest thing to SL avatars I see walking the planet on a daily basis.

Take a look at the images in the Second Life – Avatars group on Flickr (some avatar nudity). You’ll probably notice a few different general styles of avatar, but there aren’t many that I can point to and say, “I’m sure that avatar is intended to look over 35 years old.”  I don’t think that’s immoral or unethical or bad, but we don’t get an opportunity to appreciate the middle years of life for their own beauty. Would it change the world if we got more comfortable with avatars that were clearly not 20 years old but were still playful, mischievous, romantic, and sexy? Meh, probably not. But it would be interesting.

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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Embodied Experience


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Render weight basics for Second Life

The opinionated post I made about render weight two weeks ago continues to get a stream of traffic, almost entirely from search engines. It seems that Second Life residents are very curious about this topic and I’ve heard from both newbies and old-timers who don’t understand it at all. If that’s you, you’re in excellent company! Let me see if I can take a step back and help make this easier to understand.

What is render weight?

In basic and practical terms, it’s an indication of how much work your computer does in order to render (display) something. So, the impact of render weight hits you and me and everyone else running a viewer. It can be experienced as slow rezzing and graphic glitches, which we might blame on sim lag when it’s actually the effect of rendering a lot of complex avatars and things. If your video card is using resources trying to render someone’s elaborate shoulder pet, those are resources it can’t yet use to show you the scenery or the person standing behind him. The effect will vary based on your GPU and graphics settings, but people have suggested that lowering render weight can have similar effect to upgrading your video card, without the expense.

Game time!

Can you match the render weight to each of the hairstyles below? These are all from my inventory, from 8 different makers, and are all one-piece mesh with the exception of E, which has a flexi attachment. In ascending order, the render weights are 1156, 1448, 1758, 2207, 15171, 28442, 31545, and 63338. Can you tell which are low and which are high?


A quick note: I’m not going to name any brands. I deeply admire the work of creative people in SL and I don’t think anyone should be considered “bad” because of a high render weight item. There’s a time and place for those. However, I think render weight should be disclosed by makers just like land impact is, so that consumers can include that in their decisions.

How to see render weight

In the official viewer (according to the SL Wiki): To see avatar weights, open Me>Preferences… from the main menu. Under the Advanced tab, enable “Show Advanced Menu”. Back at the main menu, pick Advanced>Performance Tools>Show Draw Weight for Avatars.

In Firestorm: Open Preferences from the Avatar menu. On the Advanced tab, enable “Show Advanced Menu”. Back on the main menu, choose Advanced>Performance Tools>Show Render Weight for Avatars.

With either of these, you should now see render weight and information floating over the head of each avatar (e.g. “textured_and_downloaded 44336”). Color coding from green to red indicates how close the number is to Linden Lab’s optimal range. This will reset whenever you log off or you can go back to the Advanced>Performance Tools menu and uncheck the option to get rid of the numbers.

Where does the weight come from?

A classic SL avatar wearing nothing but system layers and system body parts has a render weight of 1000. The SL mesh avatar “Sara” with her initial mesh outfit has a render weight of 10556. After that, the calculations start to get more complex. The technical explanation is here in the SL Wiki: Mesh/Rendering weight. Essentially, there is a base cost calculated by the density of shapes (triangles) in the item, and then the cost of each prim is multiplied depending on other rendering factors, such as if it is shiny, animated, flexi, etc. Unique textures, particles, and media are counted for each prim, too.

While some people might be able to guess render weight at a glance, I can’t. I have gorgeously detailed dresses with lower render weight than very simple pants. Spheres and curves can be triangle-heavy because it takes a lot of those sharp little buggers to make something look smooth.

Below is my main avatar in an outfit with low render weight, totaling 18358.


The 18358 total is comprised of these elements:

  • 5372: mesh skirt
  • 3710: mesh shoes
  • 2336: mesh hair
  • 2152: attachment eyelashes (upper only, not sure if mesh)
  • 1776: mesh fingernails
  • 1608: mesh feet
  • 404: ankle lock (invisible!)
  • 1000: base avatar plus system top, tattoo layer makeup, eyebrows, and hair base

Let’s go back to the hairstyle question I asked above. Were your answers close?


These styles are all from my “Hair/Long and down” folder and while they aren’t identical, they have a lot of similarities. If I choose one of the 4 lowest weight styles, I’ve got more room to customize my avatar, but I can make E, G, and H work. I’m not always a render-conscious shopper, but with hair, I’ve found that demo versions tend to be close to the render weight of the final product. Try a demo first, check how it changes your render weight, and decide if that number works for you. Personally, I’ll be purging the 63k hair from my collection. It looks nice with tiaras and some hair accessories, but I have enough other options. (Hi, my name is Kay, and I’m a hairstyle addict….)

Why care about render weight?


Two nights ago I saw an avatar with a render weight over 900k (I’m not including a photo of her avatar because I don’t wish to embarrass her, but her displayed render weight is above). She was wearing a system dress that I also have — a store gift — so I know it has a render weight of only 872 for the skirt prim. What caused her incredible total?  I tried not to be overly rude by inspecting her closely. She had mesh breasts, flexi hair, shiny shoes, and blingy jewelry. This wasn’t a new resident; she had been in SL more than six years.

My avatar had a render weight of 44k that night, so in comparative terms, for the same resources it would take to completely render her, my computer could render about 20 versions of me. When I’m in an area with few avatars and simple surroundings, render weight isn’t very important. However, if I go to a busy club or a festival or a popular sales event, where there are thousands of objects and dozens of avatars to render, it matters a lot. (Best outfit for a busy sale or hunt, in my opinion? I take off everything I can and put on a full body alpha layer. The result is a default render weight of 1000 but I’m invisible, hiding my ugly default parts and lack of AO. If you need a full body alpha, send me a note in SL and I’ll give you one.)

If you’ve put time into customizing your look, you probably want people to see it. Keeping your render weight moderate makes it easier for others to view your fantastic self. Also, there is a tool being tested by Linden Lab that automatically downgrades the appearance of other avatars above a certain render weight, determined by the capabilities of your GPU. If that comes out, would you rather appear to most people as the avatar you prefer, or as a “colorful silhouette”? Your avatar would look fine to you, but to others, you might look like Green Man.

What is a good render weight?

My opinion, like I said above, is that it depends on the situation. The render weight colors seem to shift out of the green zone around 15k and turn pure red at 40k. When I’m exploring the grid, I aim for under 25k with my main avatar because I can — she has a simple look. With my alts, I try to stay under 60k. That’s still much lower than most avatars I see. At home, where I’ve got a chunk of a region with just Jakob and me in it, I can pile on jewelry and attachments and multi-tiered flexi skirts if I want to. If you want to read more about basic and advanced techniques to reduce render weight, I’ve got links in my previous post.

Why the hell is Kay writing about this again?

I have no intention of becoming a render weight activist. Wear whatever you want! It’s your Second Life. My partner has worn the same outfit every day for more than 2 years — it has a render weight around 127k and he couldn’t care less about changing it. I’m not the render weight police.

So, I’m writing for one reason: to inform. If you understand the issue, you can make knowledgeable choices for yourself.

Rock on. If you so choose.


Posted by on February 27, 2015 in Side Topics


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