Tag Archives: sex

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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AFK sex, the popularity paradox, and the lack of male avatars

Going back into Second Life after three years has given me a lot to think about. I wander looking for interesting things and people, then spend equally as much time pondering what I’ve found.

Princess and the Elephants

At Luanes Magical World in Morning Glow

I’ve started several posts but, being a methodical person, I keep stopping and asking myself more questions. Could this be the result of selection bias? What is really going on? How do others react to this? So, I thought I’d share what I’m working on. If you have any people I should speak with or things I should read to get more perspective, please pass those along to Kay Jiersen (in SL) or kayjiersen at gmail.

Where are the men?

My observation after exploring a variety of SL regions that were not particularly gendered was that there are fewer avatars presenting as male than there were in the past. I don’t have historic numbers to compare against but I have started a study counting avatars in public spaces. Primarily, I’m looking at gender presentation of avatars in user profiles — not the people in RL nor their appearance at the time. There are ways I could dig deeper into this and perhaps I will, but this is a start. In my sample thus far, male avatars (of any species/type) are about 27% and avatars of undetermined gender are about 4%.

AFK sex venues

You can’t search the in-world destination guide without coming across these, because the continual presence of parked avatars drives their traffic numbers to the top of the list. For people unfamiliar with Second Life, these are relatively new areas where unattended avatars are left on furniture that has scripted sex animations, while the RL people behind them (theoretically) leave the screen and go on with their physical lives. A client avatar can join the AFK escort on the furniture and take charge of the controls. There is no personal interaction, but the visuals are the same as if there was an active human controlling the other avatar. Payment is made by tipping the escort and proceeds are automatically split with the venue. Popping into several to look around, I’ve never seen an active client (though I have seen AFK escorts being utilized at less specific venues). I’m awfully curious about these places and the avatars that use them, actively and passively.

Traffic, popularity, and concurrency

As mentioned above, having avatars at a venue all the time will raise its position in the search results. I visited a highly-ranked beach sim last week that had more than a dozen voluptuous, scantily-clad female avatars milling around the landing point and on the dance floor. They had profiles like those you’d find in any crowd, none of which said they were bots. I watched them as I explored. They went through their AO (animation override) standing motions, but none danced, walked around, or interacted. There was no local chat. So, I started running through them like the cue ball breaking the triangle on a pool table, and there was no reaction. Bots. The place looked full at first glance but felt dead.

On the same weekend, I experienced two venues that had legitimate crowds: a store that ran a 50% off everything sale and a club with live musicians. The unfortunate truth is that popularity in a virtual space presents a paradox: the performance of the region degrades as more avatars enter and interact. Concurrency is a technical challenge where improvement has been sluggish, no matter the platform. (Philip Rosedale wrote a good explanation on the High Fidelity blog in September, when they achieved 356 avatars in a single instance on that service.)

Since my technical interest is tempered by my anthropological mindset, I’m curious more about the lived experience of being alone, surrounded by bots, and in a glitchy crowd in a virtual space. That’s what I’ll explore in depth, soon.


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VWBPE conference, day 2

It’s the second day of the 2015 Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education conference! One thing that I can’t help noticing: my Kay avatar has existed in Second Life for five years, which is essentially “middle aged” for this world. At VWBPE sessions, it’s not unusual for more than half of the avatars to be older than her. The amount of combined in-world experience during some discussions is awfully impressive.

getting a coffee

Starting the day with a cappuccino near the main auditorium.

I’m still seeing anxiety around a couple of items from Ebbe’s keynote during many Q&A sessions and side conversations. Poor fellow; he can’t sneeze without us analyzing it to death and wondering what it will mean for meeeeeee (I do it too!). People are concerned about his explanation that the first build tool for the Next Generation Platform (NGP) will be Autodesk’s Maya, which is very expensive and quite difficult to use. Though he did quickly say that support will be provided for other tools, including the shareware products many of us use, I can understand why it bothered a lot of people. We want to be involved in the NGP from the beginning and that high barrier of entry has diminished the potential alpha pool to a tiny privileged and knowledgeable puddle.

The other concern I’ve heard expressed numerous times is the move from Linden Scripting Language (LSL) to C# as the coding language for NGP. Honestly, I think this is a terrific move and my software engineer husband nearly burst into spontaneous applause. C# is much more robust and learning it is a portable skill. If you learned LSL, I suspect you’ll be brilliant at C#. There are a variety of free resources to learn C# online, from this Coursera class in Beginning Game Programming with C# (started 2/23), to a Microsoft Virtual Academy Programming in C# Jump Start self-paced video course (to be retired at the end of April, so hurry!), to the full set of notes and slides from Jon Jagger’s 5-day C# programming course, and many more.

On a positive note, I’m seeing a lot of excitement around Ebbe’s mention of lowering land costs: decreasing “property taxes” and increasing “sales taxes”.  Yes please.


The first session I attended today was “Reconstructing and Navigating the Crossroads of Community” by this morning’s featured speaker, Pamela Broviak. She talked about community creation through history, based on the human drive to fulfill the levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. She considered communities from prehistory to Egypt, the Iroquois Confederacy, and early land distribution methods in the United States (emphasizing the importance of land ownership and how the US method diverged from the European). From there, she explored Second Life history and the differences made by zoning over time.

Pam explained that as an engineer, she is usually occupied with the lower levels of the pyramid, but her time in Second Life has made her more aware of incorporating the higher levels into her work. In fact, she no longer sees the list of needs as a hierarchy, but as a circle where lessons and experiences flow.


The second session I was able to attend was “Gaming and Machinima at the Crossroads of Gender and Culture”. This topic was less controversial among an audience of education-related people in SL than it would be, say, on a gaming subreddit. Jakob got back from his second chemotherapy session in the middle of this session, so my attention was split for a while, but afterward I filled in what I missed by reading the notes that Sonicity kindly provided along with all of her slides.

While touching on some recent controversies around women in gaming, Sonicity talked about the violent and sexual content in popular games and what research has shown about the difference between the play styles of boys and girls. She also mentioned how “authentic storytelling” can be a game-changer (literally) and that women and girls have agency: they are a huge factor in the gaming market and can use that power. The discussion that followed was mostly about the gaming experience for younger children.


Next, I visited the panel discussion “Quill & Quarrel: REAL Theater in a VIRTUAL World”. Over the years I’ve seen live productions in Second Life by a couple of groups, the Avatar Repertory Theater and Basilique Performing Arts Company, but I haven’t attended a performance from the Quill & Quarrel Theater.  I stayed for a while. It was a bit like a Comic-Con panel for a show I didn’t know, where the performers reminisced among themselves about past seasons I hadn’t seen. I’d really like to see something by Q&Q someday; it looks like they have A Midsummer Night’s Dream coming this spring. The panel was not as informative or useful as I had hoped, however, so I took my dog for a walk during the second half.

Then it was time for a shift as a greeter, welcoming visitors to the VWBPE Exhibition area.  I chose a quieter area; I want to help, but I am not social. Still, I had a couple of nice little conversations during my shift. The Exhibition area is certainly worth a visit. The displays are far more interesting than your usual conference booths, as you can see from the photos below:

Snapshot_322 Snapshot_323

I have one more hour as a greeter this evening, but otherwise I’ll be offline. Tomorrow is my busy day, with six sessions I want to attend and one more greeter shift. Can’t wait!

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Posted by on March 19, 2015 in Gaming, Learning, Research


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Teledildonics, VR movies, holograms… what a roundup!

I’m trying to be more active on Twitter lately because I find fascinating articles daily but don’t have time — or enough insightful thoughts — to write a lot of commentary. You can follow me @AvatarAnthro if you want to keep up with that.  In the meantime, here are some very recent favorites:

  • Finding the future of sex tech at the Adult Entertainment Expo from The Daily Dot.  NSFW, obviously. Teledildonic (yep, it means what you think it means) products have existed for some time, but the latest entrants in the market claim short latency and use sexual stimulation devices on both ends of the connection: a vibrating dildo or egg for a female user and an enhanced silicon-cushioned tube for a male. The article also talks about VR porn, tools for cam models, and one manufacturer who insists that the mainstream doesn’t want their toys to connect to the Internet. I think there’s a larger market than he believes, and it’s growing.
  • At Sundance, a Virtual-Reality Movement Soars from the Wall Street Journal Digits blog. This article is about filmmakers beginning to explore what storytelling can be in an immersive VR experience. They’re learning some things that SL creators could have told them a long ago, like how to allow the viewer to get his bearings first and that aggressively driving a single story line is a waste of the environment. One filmmaker mentions that tech is changing so quickly now that by the time he finishes a project, it looks outdated and hard to watch on new equipment. It’s a risk of rapid change but oh how exciting.
  • What is holographic, and what isn’t? from the blog This is a technical analysis that looks at the hype of various products and “holograms” appearing in the media and defines what is actually holographic based on six depth cues that tell our eyes an object is 3D. I learned some things and it also gave me a better understanding of the different display products currently in development. Especially relevant when the Microsoft HoloLens is the latest focus.
  • Some personal news: Jakob will be out of the hospital in a couple days! He’s been in since November for tests, surgeries, and radiation treatments, but they’re letting him go home. He’s excited to be able to “come home” to our place in Second Life as well, and I can’t wait to have the first full conversation with him in months.

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The sexism in games debate, Auto-tuned

Jonathan Mann’s “Are Video Games Sexist?” Auto-tune rebuttal is fantastic. It’s catchy and amusing — except for the screenshots of hate tweets near the end of the video — but it also is a good little primer in how to think critically about an argument that could seem persuasive on the surface, but is actually a horribly constructed, scattershot opinion piece. If the woman in the video wrote her script as an analytic essay for a composition course, it would be returned slashed with red for a rewrite. (tip of the hat to The Mary Sue)

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Posted by on September 20, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality, Video


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How much does “IRL” information matter in a virtual space?

When you meet someone in a video game or virtual world and start to form a friendship, what level of real world information do you expect? The classic age/sex/location? Career or school level? Photos? Link to a credible online profile? Voice chat? Conversely, what level of real world information do you offer?



How can we possibly enjoy time together if we don’t know every single detail? Quite easily, actually.

I’m deeply curious about our online presentations and performances of identity. As the Internet became mainstream, I was surprised to see that people were far more interested in proof of identity than I was, and that disconnect continues. That isn’t to say I haven’t made friendships and had romantic relationship that bridged from digital to physical. I have. But if there is no expectation to meet offline, what details really matter?

For me, that question is very potent. I can wonder about the story behind an avatar and ponder what her offline life might be. She might be a man. She might be 15 years old or celebrating her 73rd birthday. She might live next door or halfway around the planet. However, it’s quite rare that those things matter to how we interact online. In fact, those details might color my perception unnecessarily, when I could instead just take her at face value as she presents herself. To put it in 2014 cinematic terms, did we care less about the Guardian of the Galaxy who had no tragic back story reveal, or were his actions so compelling that “I am Groot” was enough?

A quote from Lars Gustafsson’s The Death of a Beekeeper has stayed with me for decades. Sometimes I believe it, sometimes I don’t, but I think about it often. “What is the maximum distance from which you can love a human being? Answer: less than a millimeter. And without a name.” We love the images we are presented and the images we create. In a virtual environment, we might convince ourselves that by knowing more details we are getting closer to some truth, but perhaps we’re just focusing the image we’ve made. Sometimes we project our desired image very clearly, so that the person we’re discovering has motivation to tell us what we want to hear. Especially in the early stages of getting to know each other, that image might be very far away from any reality.  This doesn’t just happen in virtual worlds; think of how different a first date impression can be from what you know months later.

Online, this interaction of presentation and image can be a problem if real life veracity is important to us. Nev Schulman, who turned catfish into an Internet term, has a new book out, “In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age.” I won’t be reading it because I find him personally abhorrent, but this expansive review on Nerve is quite good. There are so many degrees of and reasons for online deception; the Nerve reviewer begins by talking about how she and her friend used to tease guys online by pretending to be a hot woman, then making silly jokes. Of course, deception can be used for nefarious purposes, but my biased opinion is that there’s rarely evil intent. A desire for attention isn’t evil; it’s human. Some people feel that need more deeply and create personas to get what they need. I think there are ethical ways to do that in anonymous online spaces, but my ethics aren’t universal and they aren’t the ones I’ve always practiced.

At this time, I’m pretty straightforward about who I am in every world. Take me or leave me, this is who I am. That wasn’t always the case. A few years ago I created a very detailed and layered alternate identity in a video game, initially as a way to fit in and keep my virtual life separate from my real life. Privacy and assimilation were my goals, not deception. I created an offline identity for her to satisfy those who demanded more details. That identity took on a life of its own as I formed friendships and got involved in game politics. It spread beyond the game into Teamspeak and Skype and Second Life. Though I did no harm and in fact, I was able to offer support to some because of the access that identity gave me, I did not behave in accordance with my own ethics. I got swept up in it.

While I was using that identity, I was diagnosed with cancer. I found myself in a lousy position: other than my husband, the people that I felt closest to didn’t really know who I was. They wanted to offer their support and I needed it, but deep in my heart I knew that they didn’t care about me, they cared about her. Oh, that hurt, especially because I was achingly aware that it was all my fault. A few weeks after having surgery to remove the cancerous bits and more, I outed myself to the two people I was closest to online. One of them instantly accepted the real me and our relationship transitioned well into the physical world. The other accepted it in theory, but mourned the loss of the person he thought he knew. He never got over it and our friendship died out. That’s when I decided to put that identity away. As far as most people who had known her were aware, she simply stopped playing that game and faded away; it happens all the time.

I don’t judge people who create a different identity for themselves online. I’ve seen it be a productive and therapeutic technique, though the people who use it might not be aware of that until they look back with hindsight. It can be a way to explore gender identity or sexual interests, to escape from pain of many forms, or to try to see through the eyes of another. I feel sympathy for people who feel they were deceived by others who never meant them any harm.

What happens in a virtual space if we don’t demand or offer offline information directly, but simply accept each other as what we seem to be? For some, this is standard operating procedure, but it terrifies others. I’m always surprised when I see verified identities listed as a priority in online development, so I think I must be in the minority. I’ll leave this here as an introspection challenge: the next time you’re about to ask a new acquaintance online an RL question, ask yourself why that fact matters to you. What will it change to know the answer?  Will you treat the person differently if his answer is X, Y, or Z?  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t talk about the offline world — heck, befriend me in SL and ask an RL question, and I’ll answer you without hesitation — but wondering if we can broaden ourselves by being less connected to those details.


Posted by on September 8, 2014 in Culture, Gaming, Gender & Sexuality, Relationships


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Fighting about games: the incredibly nasty last two weeks

If you’re part of — or an observer of — gaming culture, you might be aware of the ugliness lately.  If not, I encourage you to click away and go back to playing happily, because this is a subject that angries up the blood.


Fighting game, not gaming fight

I’ve been watching the recent rounds of discord in the gaming community with dismay and frustration. Anthropologically, it’s a fascinating fight about cultural and sub-cultural standards. It’s hard for me to appreciate since there is no distance between myself and the topic, so this post is an opinion piece. There are some links to articles on the conflict at the end of this post, but here is a summary as I see it:

  • One side in the conflict is pointing out the widespread misogyny in video games and how female gamers are treated, with the most recent battle over the video series here. However, some of the criticisms can seem oversensitive, academic, nitpicky, and suggest that every video game should be politically correct first and entertaining… maybe. The commentary can feel like a Women’s Studies 101 class, which detracts from some of the excellent points about the treatment of women. Also, some of the writers/video makers on this side see every criticism as sexism, making a conversation impossible.
  • The other side comes across as a He-Man Woman Haters Club and the most eloquent statements I’ve seen have not been posts or videos, but comments on articles. Other responses range from whiny and uninformed to vitriolic and threatening to defensive and scared. Some feel that their hobby, their culture, and they themselves are under attack, and I agree with some of their points, too.
  • I don’t want to frame this as a fight between men and women. It isn’t. Some men are just as surprised and offended when they notice game misogyny and some women aren’t as bothered by it as others.
  • There are side arguments around the ethics of gaming journalists and dirty laundry about a female game developer that are adding to the noise.

After a lot of thought, I’d like to offer some morsels for you to to chew on, if you’ve been following this conflict and care about it.

Gaming has never been a male-only activity. I saw one whine that “girls weren’t even interested in games before 2006.”  Really?  I’m guessing that fellow wasn’t born when I was playing arcade games and bugging my parents for a console system in the early 1980s. Even before that, I used to hope to babysit my neighbor because he had an Atari. My roommate and I pooled our resources for a Sega Genesis in 1989. Yes, I was aware that games were marketed to boys and that I was somewhat unusual, but if I was the only living female gamer before 2006, I’d be much more famous. While we may never have been in the majority for some genres of games, female gamers have always been here.  Women are the majority of gamers now and that doesn’t just mean casual games on Facebook.

Game content should not have to get a stamp of approval from the political correctness police. A game is a limited peek into a world and a story line. All sexes, genders, ethnicities, belief systems, ages, sizes, occupations, etc will not be represented. Games are not epic novels and they take narrative shortcuts for emotional impact. If the narrative calls for someone close to the player-character to be injured or killed, it shouldn’t always be a woman or girl, but is it really any better for it to be a man or boy? Either is rather lazy writing. I’m particularly frustrated by the dead prostitute/stripper trope in video games, because it mixes violence with slut-shaming and dehumanization of women who wouldn’t have that work if men didn’t provide the demand. However, this trope can be seen on TV crime shows, in movies, and in countless books. It’s not ok anywhere.

Claims that female nudity, violence against women, and the lack of female protagonists in games represent historic or environmental accuracy are uninformed balderdash. I live between two of the most violent cities in the US, but I have never witnessed the casual abuse of women on main streets that sets the scene in some games. Anyone who claims a strip club is an accurate place for an expository scene, and not just a way to add in some tits and ass, must think his audience has never been to one. It’s hard to have a private conversation over eardrum-shattering Nickelback. As for historical accuracy, one refutation is Cara Ellison’s interesting essay that highlights the differences between a noir film shot in 1947 and the 2011 game L.A. Noire, set in the same year. Her essay was prompted by this piece by Emma Boyes and I don’t agree with all of Ellison’s post, but it is worth noting is that even as a woman and a film noir aficionado, it took the essay by Boyes for her to notice the reduced role of women in the game. As some diversity advocates inflate the historical role of women and minorities, others are stripping them out.

Women are complicit in the objectification of women in gaming. The stereotype of a gamer girl posing topless with game controllers in front of her nipples exists because those girls exist.  Maybe they are seeking attention and approval, maybe it makes them feel sexy, and I’m sure the answer isn’t the same for everyone. Some female gamers give their avatars sexual or flirtatious names and choose revealing clothing even when the gameplay is unrelated. I support the right to safe sexual expression, but we should admit our role in shaping this culture. I was on and off TERA yesterday as the celebrity nudes hack hit the Internet. I watched as a young woman in my guild announced the naked photos of Jennifer Lawrence with apparent delight, then broadcast the news to wider chat groups to make sure everyone was aware of them. Her motivation wasn’t clear and I won’t speculate, but it was a little uncomfortable for me to observe.

Some people, including some men who play games, like looking at naked women. Shocker, right? Representations of naked and half-dressed women predate written language, so it’s not a surprise that these continue into current day media. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who enjoy those images are misogynistic creeps. Later last night, I observed a few young men in my guild talking about the same leaked celebrity photos, clearly unaware that a woman their mothers’ age was in the chatroom. Sure, they had looked at the stolen photos, but they were actually quite sweet and appreciative; more like a surprised boy who caught a glimpse of an adored neighbor through her curtain than a stalker drooling and lurking outside that window. There is nothing shameful in appreciating the aesthetics of the human body (the ethics of these particular images aside).  Sometimes, however, the display is gratuitous sexualization and weakens the game. In TERA, some of the most important NPC military commanders, spies, warriors, and deities are female. As a player-character, you are sometimes required to escort and defend male characters as well as female. The big difference, however, is that all of those female characters have skimpy outfits and swinging breasts  — even while in a leadership role at federation headquarters — while the males are in appropriate occupational clothing. They’re lovely, but it undermines the lack of sexism in the storyline.

Men and women misunderstand each other sometimes. Did I shock you again? Sorry about that. This comes to mind when I see some images and recordings of male gamers hitting on female gamers. Yes, there are creeps but there are also mean girls.  Publicly shaming a socially awkward guy who approaches you is a bitchy thing to do, and repeatedly chatting up a girl who says she’s not interested is a dick move. Sometimes I cringe when I read these accounts because there is clearly a cultural misunderstanding at work. Online games are global but the norms for interaction are not. Also, since there are a lot of young men and women gamers, relationships are not unusual, so yes, my dears, sometimes someone might flirt with you. I had to smile when a young woman in TERA recently admitted that she had been playing another online game with a boy at her school for over a year, and he had finally noticed her and they were going to hang out together. Maybe games are like bars for a different social group; sometimes you get an unwelcome approach, sometimes you meet The One, sometimes you just have fun with friends, sometimes you wake up with a headache and a pledge never to go there again.

Bringing awareness to the issue is not a personal attack on you, gamer guy. I’m wary of some of the game critiques that connect screen misogyny to offline violence against women, correlation vs causation and all that. I believe that people can play the games that are being critiqued and enjoy them while being unaware of the sociopolitical undercurrents that others might quickly perceive. Video game violence seems to desensitize players to some level of brutality, but if we’re looking for the source of continuing misogyny, I think we need to cast a wider net. No one wants to ruin your hobby or put video game companies out of business. Most of us just want the content creators to act like better people. Does the writer of a game where women are casually murdered as a plot device want his daughter to play it? Does he want her to date a boy who is a huge fan of his work?

Doxxing, hit lists of critics, and threats of violence are not part of gamer culture. They’re part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.

Shaming gamers with insults about their sexual experience, hobbies, and employability is not part of feminist culture. It’s part of asshole troll culture. If that’s not the group you want to be associated with, don’t behave that way.


In this debate I’m uncomfortable labeling myself as a “gamer” or “feminist”, but I believe in equal rights for women and I play games. The word “feminist” is associated with political, social, and linguistic movements that I don’t entirely support, so that word has been damaged in my eyes though I fit the actual definition. As for being a gamer, I don’t play a lot of the games that have been criticized for one main reason: I’m lousy at them. I startle too easily to play horror games or first-person shooters and my hand-eye coordination isn’t good enough for driving or twitchy role-playing games. Wish I could, and I’m a fan, but my participation is limited by my nature, much like I love auto racing but had vivid images of certain death on the first loop I took around a track at 160 miles per hour.

Some articles if you need background on the current issues:


Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


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Thoughts on virtual gender, appearance, and performance

Over at Motherboard is a short piece about a virtual gender stereotype experiment conducted at Stanford University. Basic concept: users competed against bots to complete math problems. Regardless of physical world gender, when users were assigned male avatars to compete against female bots, they were most successful.  The avatar representations were simply cartoon faces (dark eyes and hair, pale faces). Here’s the paper. I like that they were diligent about standardizing the perceived attractiveness of the avatars and tested whether existing mathematical ability was a factor, based on SAT math scores of participants. Still, could there be something else at work beyond the expected stereotype that males are better at math than females? I’d love to think so, but I’m not sure.


Katteker in TERA at level 27

Shifting gears, after I got bored with the lack of endgame for a solo player in TERA (or any MMORPG, really), I thought I’d try a small experiment of my own. How would the experience be different if I played the same class but with a radically different appearance?  My level 60 lancer — tank class — Karbyne is rhino-like and scarred, with a name that references the hardest element now known.  My second lancer, now level 28, is about as twee as I could manage.  She’s short with purple pigtails, stars on her cheeks, and squirrel ears and tail. I dubbed her Katteker, which means squirrel in Low German.  I set new rules for myself, too: if someone specifically invited me to join a guild, I would say yes.  If someone addressed me directly in conversation, I would answer. However, I wouldn’t seek to socialize any more than I did with my previous character.  The first result I found was that Katteker was recruited into a guild at level 17, compared with Karbyne, who reached the level cap guild-less. Secondly, random strangers give Katteker buffs almost every day (for non-gamers, that means they cast spells that give her short-term advantages, like greater endurance or faster healing). The strangers don’t stop to talk, though I usually say a quick “thank you!” in local chat. That never happened to Karbyne.

The most dramatic differences are within me, though. It’s more fun to play as Katteker. Her movements are light-hearted and upbeat rather than the angry, aggressive animations that are standard for Karbyne’s race, and my emotional state is influenced by that. For example, when both characters stand still, Katteker will eventually start to dance, then later to clap her hands on an invisible bug. Karbyne sneers and lunges menacingly. I’m excessively amused by playing an adorable purple squirrel-girl who is a ruthless tank. It might be that the gaming part of my personality is inclined toward cuteness and fun, Ratchet & Clank rather than Call of Duty, so I’m more comfortable playing as Katteker.

So, here’s what I’m pondering today: if I was designing a story-based video game, I might want to manipulate the emotional states and preconceptions of players by forcing them to play with different avatars during specific chapters of the game. Personally, I would want to challenge stereotypes as I did that: featuring female avatars in some logic-based segments and male avatars in emotional ones, and including avatars of assorted races and belief systems as primary characters, not just sidekicks and enemies. But what if I was developing a business or educational application that used avatars? I always prefer a system that allows users to choose and modify their own avatars, but would performance be better if the system forced avatar choice consistent with stereotypes about a particular task? I find it offensive to think about limiting mathematical tasks to male avatars and nurturing tasks to female avatars, for example, but if my goal was peak performance….  Hmm.  I think a compromise might be to allow users to pull from a varied set of default avatars for each task or to customize their own. If I felt my best “accounting self” was different than my “presentation self”, I could change avatars or make modifications to my base avatar, rather than having the system choose for me.

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Posted by on August 23, 2014 in Embodied Experience, Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


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The complicated problem of female sexualization in games and virtual worlds

This is an opinion piece and I’m going to begin this post with my conclusion: games that have voluptuous shapes and skimpy clothing for female characters need to have modest and less curvaceous options as well, to allow women to participate without being unwilling sexual objects. There are a few important words there, including options and unwilling. It’s 2014 and long past the time that game designers should have realized this.

A couple weeks ago, I posted a photo of my avatar at level 24 in the fantasy MMORPG TERA Rising. She is a race that is vaguely half human, half rhino and I created her to look tough and aggressive, not sultry. The default armor at that level revealed her ripped abdominals, but was not slutty. Yet when I leveled a bit higher and bought her some excellent gold armor, not only were most of her breasts revealed, but the idiotic physics engine makes her chest armor bounce along with her bodacious bosom as she moves. So here she is at level 32, wearing armor that is simply ludicrous, with her ankles better protected than all her vital organs:


In the TERA forums, a woman recently asked what modest clothing choices were available for the human avatars. A few people assured her that the cloth armor for humans wasn’t overly sexual, but I’m not so sure.  Here’s a page that shows the male and female human cloth armor of different types. I made a gif to show both options for one level:


The female choice is certainly cute, though hot pants and a low-cut, navel baring top aren’t for everyone. This is a game where 99% of the quests involve killing things, not delivering drinks at a nightclub. The male robes look bulky, but at least he won’t be jiggling around the map in kitten heels.

I don’t want to paint the game’s creators as creepy pervs for styling male and female characters so differently (well, not completely). Even where female players could choose more modest or warrior-like races or attire, plenty choose the ultrasexy options, from thigh-high stockings and French maid costumes to breast implants and bikinis. You need to pay extra for those and I’ve seen lots of them. There is also a character race in TERA called the Elin, who look like barely pubescent anime girls. The game lore says that they are adults and that is the normal appearance for their race, but… yeah, right. Their clothes are cute and extremely short. I can see the appeal of playing one of them as a tank, just because it would be funny to have a tiny girl taking on huge monsters and winning, but the lolita-esque sight of a small cartoon girl in slutty clothes can be troubling.

At least in virtual worlds, an avatar has many choices. There’s plenty of slutwear in Second Life, but it’s often designed by women and it’s purchased and worn by women. In a world of options, it is not forced on anyone. My avatar there has some revealing clothing, but her primary wardrobe ranges from business casual through formal and would be appropriate in most office settings. Many women choose to wear very skimpy, gravity-defying clothes in SL. Why not? There aren’t many places those outfits could be worn in the offline world, and if they make someone feel happy and attractive, great. I don’t buy into the idea that women dress themselves that way because of “the male gaze” or because we’ve internalized male ideas of beauty. When my avatar is in something well-made yet revealing, I think she looks sexy and that’s pleasurable to me, no matter what anyone else thinks. It’s just not my normal style. Like in RL, if a dress is too short, I wear it over leggings. Too low-cut? I can layer a shirt underneath. I’ve seen quite modest clothing and even head scarves available in SL; it’s not as easy to find as the latex and leather club wear, but it’s there.

As in the conclusion that began this post, I think choice is crucial. In this case I’m talking about female players, who should be able to take on a virtual persona with the level of sexuality they choose to share. If the default male character design is a warrior or sorcerer, the default female character design should not be a go-go dancer. I know several men who play as female characters because they enjoy watching sexy avatars bounce around while they’re doing quests, but they don’t consider how that reinforces that females in the game are objects for their lusty appreciation and not players in their own right. Though I don’t want to deny female players the option to flirt and be sexy if that’s what they choose, there needs to be another path.

Sometimes, it just comes down to women wanting to play as characters they can relate to. Controversy has been spinning around the absence of playable female characters in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed Unity release, especially as the game’s technical manager at Ubisoft suggested that adding female characters was just too much work. Insomniac Games tweaked Ubisoft in their promotional material for the game Sunset Overdrive. Rather wonderfully, they say that the character you play can be male or female, different skin colors, different body types, and all of the clothing is gender neutral.  “So if you want to be a dude in a skirt, you can be a dude in a skirt.” The female character they showed while making that point is wearing robes that might remind some of a popular assassin-themed game…

Gender-neutral clothing is a fantastic choice if they can make it work (tip of the hat to Tim Gunn). I’d be happy with female-tailored versions of the default male outfits in most games — and that doesn’t mean cutting out large sections to reveal some T&A. For a related issue, I recommend browsing The Hawkeye Initiative, which posts fan art of male comic characters (often Hawkeye) in similar poses, clothing, and anatomical detail as female comic characters. It doesn’t take many images to understand how ridiculous some of the female art can be.



Posted by on June 23, 2014 in Gaming, Gender & Sexuality


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Reason magazine’s Video Game Nation cover: misogynist or really damn misogynist?

By way of a story link, I found myself at Reason magazine’s site. There I discovered that the theme of the June 2014 issue was “Video Game Nation”. My reaction was


Then I saw the cover art for the print edition:


And my reaction became


The image is a riff on a Grand Theft Auto V ad and the man in the illustration is surrounded by paraphernalia that specifically relates to the article What’s Libertarian About Gamers? Ironically, that same article had this to say about the sex of gamers:

For those who still operate on the belief the gamers are mostly male, set the sexism aside. The gender split is nearly 50/50, though we did not determine whether women and men liked to play the same kinds of games.

So… the article says that their survey showed just about half of gamers are women. How exactly is a cover illustration showing a gaming guy in a suit and a nagging, buxom blonde in a halter, short shorts, and Ugg boots appropriate or accurate?  The image tries to show the “truth” about (male) gamers according to the survey, yet resorts to an insulting, outdated, sexist trope for the woman and the interaction between the two figures. I’m not sure who the artist is, since the piece seems to be signed with three triangles, so I’ll blame magazine Editor-in-Chief Matt Welch.

I’m not thin-skinned or overly precious, I get jokes, and I don’t go hunting for sexism. But as a woman who grew up gaming, worked in technology, and continues to write about both topics, sexism frequently slaps me across the face. I didn’t expect to see it on such vulgar display by Reason, whose articles I read often and to which I used to subscribe. I’m deeply disappointed and more than a little pissed off.

Women gamers come up against a variety of reactions. Some men — thank you very much, guys — treat us like anyone else. They judge us by our ingame skills, accept us as friends and equals, and don’t care whether we are tomboys or girly girls (said with affection not derision; I am one). Others bend over backwards to be chivalrous, give us things we haven’t earned, and treat us as special and beautiful creatures. While that’s a pleasant situation and some female gamers (and men playing as women) take advantage of it, it’s inappropriate, unfair, and unintentionally condescending. But then there is the reaction that female gamers see all too often, especially if they dare to roam into “masculine” realms like war games. A lot of gamers talk trash, but the vitriol spewed at female gamers is often gender-specific. We are threatened with stalking, rape, and mutilation. We get demands to show our tits and if we refuse, are told we must be fat ugly cows. We get propositioned over and over and over. Give the sexism tag at Kotaku a look if you want some specific examples. The Reason cover has managed to reinforce that women are not real gamers. At least the artist showed restraint and didn’t draw a stove behind her, so she could literally be in the kitchen instead of gaming — a taunt heard often enough that female gamer/artist Jenny Haniver named her harassment awareness website Not In The Kitchen Anymore.

Another area of concern for female gamers is the hypersexualized portrayal of women characters: big bouncing breasts and tiny waists in skimpy and impractical outfits. The Reason cover flaunts this type of sexism as well. The man is hefty and fully clothed while the woman is dressed for… her shift as a go-go dancer? A music festival? I’m not really sure who’s wearing that combination nowadays. Her clothes are skin-tight and skimpy and her cleavage is ample. Was the artist trying to make a dig at the male gamer, who would rather play than be with his hot girlfriend? I don’t think so. Her folded arms and scornful face don’t paint her as an alluring woman, despite her bodacious body.

Some of the articles in the issue are fairly good and others are lightweight. It’s a shame they didn’t choose to showcase male and female gamers playing side-by-side or competitively; images that would not only have been less offensive, but more accurate. In the end, I’m left with one reaction for the artist, the editorial staff, and anyone at Reason or who saw the cover art and thought it was a fine choice to promote their content:


UpdateReason magazine replied to this criticism already, when the cover came under attack when the issue first appeared. The rebuttal is written by Managing Editor Katharine Mangu-Ward and she says that Art Director Barb Birch commissioned the image. So, women can be insensitive about female gamers too. Apparently Matt Welch wanted a “cleaned up” recognizable image (from Grand Theft Auto V), and said, “we’re paying respect to that culture”. Removing the raunchiness of the original pays no respect to the culture of the game and keeping the non-playing, nagging woman in the artwork pays no respect to the culture of gaming or to women. Why did they only update the man’s appearance and attitude?


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