Sex and Gender Issues in Virtual Worlds: “The male/female dichotomy was viewed as binary and the technology (literally) codified that concept.”

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Photo: by geralt from Pixabay

WARNING! This is a rather meandering blogpost. Please stick with me until you get to the end, thanks!

I had posted my popular blogpost about the idea of the Universal Avatar to the Second Life discussion group SLUniverse (where I still participate in after all these years!) and it sparked a lively discussion, which went off on an interesting tangent, which I want to share with you.

One poster, a long-time member of SLUniverse called Beebo Brink, whose Second Life avatar could be described as a “butch” lesbian, said:

My own standard is the Beebo Queer test. Can you put any kind of clothes on your avatar? If you’re limited to wearing only the clothes assigned to a female avatar or only the clothes assigned to a male avatar, then I’m not interested in your virtual world.

When someone else noted, “It’s apparently common for the male and female avatars to have completely different mappings so putting the ‘wrong’ clothes on, even if the game allowed for it, would just break horribly”, she replied:

That’s the stark technical explanation, but underlying that limitation is the original concept of how you create avatars, how you gender them, and how you accessorize. The male/female dichotomy was viewed as binary and the technology (literally) codified that concept.

When I look at supposedly cutting edge technology, such as Sansar, I look for some awareness of the cutting edge of culture. How does this technology fit the mores and values of the people who will use it? Linden Lab fails rather spectacularly in that regard, which is no surprise since user adoption has always been a weak point for the company.

Meanwhile, in mainstream gaming culture The Sims 4 has gender fluidity integrated into their avatar creation tools. They get it, while Linden Lab flounders in the past.

I specifically called out the CULTURE derived from a preponderance of men who code. Not every individual guy is going to have that set of values, just as not every woman who codes is going to be an exception. But the culture takes on a life of its own and individual developers can’t change the entire course of a product as large as a virtual world, which requires teams of developers and other support staff. And tech firms are notorious for being run by guys who used to be developers, so that mindset is cemented up and down the food chain.

I’m speaking from 20 years of experience working as a user interface developer. There were always one or two developers who could adopt the perspective of a user when writing code to vague specs. They could be trusted to deliver an interface that was intuitive for ordinary users, without wireframes that spelled out in detail how the program interface should flow. The rest of the developers, however, were completely, totally clueless. They were only interested in “making it work” and if you had to click a button with your left hand behind your back on Tuesdays and Thursdays and with your right hand on Monday’s and Wednesdays, but on Fridays you had to click with your big toe, they were perfectly fine with that. “But it works, right?” they would say, blinking in puzzlement when I started to scream.

So yes, there are male developers who love avatar customization and female developers who couldn’t care less, but in general, the male-dominated culture of programmers assigns lower priority to avatar customization. We can see that in LL, Blue Mars, Cloud Party, Sansar and apparently even EA…(but at least EA finally listened [for The Sims 4]). Meanwhile, in SL, it’s predominantly women who drive the fashion industry’s mesh avatar enhancements and accessories, working furiously to overcome the deficiencies of the platform.

Beebo has a very good point. Virtual world developers think that “as long as it works”, they don’t need to pay attention to things like perpetuating binary gender stereotypes.

The failed virtual world of Blue Mars was especially off-putting for the coquettish, sexist default animations of the female avatars (which could not be turned off). I remember how I and Beebo (who was also in Blue Mars at the time) tried and repeatedly failed to make the software developers understand just how inappropriate this was, or at least to give users a choice of what animations to use. But the software “bros” went ahead with their own projects and nothing changed.

Even worse, they created a set-up in one of the welcome areas where legions of NPC female characters would automatically mob any male avatar and flirt with him like lovesick groupies. Whose fucked-up idea was this?!?? Obviously, this heterosexual-hormonal-teen-male fantasy absolutely failed to work for me:

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Hmmm, maybe it’s a good thing Blue Mars died a nasty, horrible, lingering death.

But back to Beebo’s (and my) point: virtual world developers in general, and Linden Lab in particular, have so far failed to accommodate (or even acknowledge) the gender fluidity that occurs in real life, and instead have merely entrenched the classification of sex and gender into the two distinct, opposite and disconnected boxes of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. They had a chance to fix things with their new virtual world, Sansar, and frankly, what we have again is two boxes: male and female. It’s so disappointing.

Let’s take a concrete example from Second Life, not from back in 2003 or 2007, but from late this year, 2017. Linden Lab released a new series of “starter” avatars, including two on horseback.

Avbatar Selection

Do you know that a female avatar cannot use the brown horse attachment that the male warrior uses? It is scripted to only work with male avatars! Yes, it actually checks! Of course, the white horse attachment for the female archer works on a female avatar….but it forces you to ride sidesaddle, “like a lady”!

I had a very frustrating half hour trying to get the “men’s” horse to work with a female avatar, only to give up in disgust. (And yes, I *know* that there are horses for sale in SL, from Water Horse and other vendors, that work properly, and allow females to sit properly astride the horse. But this was a Linden Lab-sanctioned product for new users!)

Look, I must confess that I am really no expert in this subject area. I’m just a cisgendered gay man who knows transgendered people, both in virtual worlds and in real life. I often inhabit a female avatar in Second Life, something that I would not have predicted when I first started in SL over a decade ago! My “digital drag” has opened my eyes to how women are treated by some men in virtual worlds, and it’s been quite an education.

I often have to refer to the handy Genderbread Person chart to keep my terms straight: gender identity, gender expression, biological sex, sexual attraction, romantic attraction. The point is, I try to be respectful, and if I fail, I apologize, learn from my mistake and try again. We all need to learn how to do that, to make the “other” feel comfortable in our midst.

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The point is, any virtual world that forces binary sex, gender identity, and gender expression standards upon people who don’t fit into the standard “male” and “female” boxes, in this day and age, is doing all its users a disservice. Let’s hope that Linden Lab keeps the needs of all members of the LGBTQ community, including the gender fluid and the gender outlaws among us, in mind as they move forward in their product design.

And maybe someday, Beebo Brink will be able to pick any item of clothing she wants to wear in Sansar—”male” or “female”—and be able to wear it with pride.

 

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Pick of the Day: Digitize Sequoia Park

Digitize Sequoia Park is a new experience created by Dextresis Dejavu. As its name suggests, you are surrounded by towering sequoia trees, with the sun peeking through:

Sequoia Park 1 30 Nov 2017

I’ve never seen a giant sequoia tree in real life (I’ve never been to California where they grow.) These trees are HUGE.

Sequoia Park 2 30 Nov 2017

Er… Make That “My Top Sixteen Sansar Experiences”

Ten days ago, I made a popular blogpost titled My Top Fifteen Sansar Experiences, where I assembled an unordered list of what I considered to be the best experiences on Sansar. It even got reblogged by New World Notes (thanks, Wagner!).

Well, something has been bothering me over the past few days, and I want to amend that list to add another extraordinary experience to that original list.

Number sixteen on my list is Drax and Ria’s 114 Harvest. I honestly don’t know how it slipped my mind when I was drawing up my original list! Maybe because I visit it so often, I just got so used to being there, that it stopped being a “special” place. That’s a mistake, and I am rectifying it today.

Ria, who did almost all of the design work on the experience, did a marvelous job, and furthermore, she has gone out of her way to redecorate for Hallowe’en and other events like Drax’s birthday. The level of detail, right down to the Mensch Ärgere Dich Nicht board game and the coffee cups to the covers on the books lying around, is astounding. Drax’s basement is inviting, comfortable, and has become a sort of central gathering spot for avatars in these early days of Sansar. (I understand that Drax is also planning to host a show there, once avatars can actually sit down!)

114 Harvest 29 Nov 2017

So, Drax and Ria, please accept my apologies for overlooking your experience. (I have updated my original blogpost content to add your experience to the list.)

A Behind-The-Scenes Look at Sansar

Ebbe Altberg (CEO of Linden Lab) was kind enough to share this YouTube video of Tara Hernandez, Director of Systems Engineering for Linden Lab, speaking about some of the backend development of Sansar at the AWS re:INVENT conference currently taking place in Las Vegas:

The title of the talk was How Linden Lab Built a Virtual World on the AWS (Amazon Web Services) Cloud. She goes into quite a bit of technical detail on what goes on behind-the-scenes with the Sansar Project. It’s a look at something that we don’t often hear about, even at the weekly in-world Product Meetups that Jenn, Lead Community Manager of Sansar, hosts.

Of particular note, near the end of this talk, Tara briefly discusses the plan to retrofit Second Life (which currently runs on a data centre in Arizona) to run on the AWS Cloud.

The Idea of the Universal Avatar

This morning there was an interesting discussion on the official Sansar Discord channels about the idea of a Universal Avatar. Lilith Heart (well known for her Heart Botanicals brand in Second Life) said:

…Whoever owns the first truly Universal Avatar system that enables people to travel with their inventories intact, to different worlds/games/systems, will possibly dominate and win. It’s all about the avatar and its valuable inventory, and most of the big players in this area so far seem to be neglecting this. It surprises me that Unity/Unreal/Lumberyard/Cryengine, none of them have such a Universal Avatar system in place. Kind of crazy really because effectively what is happening is, every developer/studio has to reinvent the wheel and create their own avatar/character systems. Whoever solves this problem will make the big, big [money].

Another user (Aojashin) argued that what Linden Lab is attempting to build in Sansar is a sort of Universal Avatar: one customizable avatar with inventory, which can visit multiple, vastly different experiences (“metaverses”). I still prefer to define all of Sansar as a whole single metaverse, but he has a good point.

Of course, you could argue that we already have a sort of Universal Avatar ability in the Opensims. They have the option of Hypergrid, which allows users to visit other OpenSimulator installations across the web from their “home” OpenSimulator installation. But that is supported only because they are all pretty much running off the same codebase.

Obviously, there are almost insurmountable technical obstacles to creating such a Universal Avatar system. But the idea still has merit. What is likely to happen instead is a Facebook model: one company so dominates in a particular area that they set the standard. And there are so many companies (including the big five: Alphabet/Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook/Oculus, and Microsoft/Altspace) who desperately want to dominate in this area. (In fact, Amazon has just announced their Amazon Sumerian product, obviously eager to muscle in on the corporate market for VR experiences. I’m sure that Linden Lab is hoping for a piece of that market for the Sansar platform! It looks like it’s going to be a very competitive arena.)

But if the major players ever do agree on some open standards that allow avatars created in one system to travel to others, we could see the dawn of the true metaverse as depicted in fiction by sci-fi novels such as Ready Player One and Snow Crash.

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Image: taken from the upcoming Ready Player One movie by Steven Spielberg (variety.com)

 

“How many slutty little dresses can you own?”

There’s been quite a bit of discussion on the official Sansar Discord server of the upcoming fashion market for Sansar, which we are still scheduled to get, at least as a first release, in mid-December, according to Linden Lab. (One of the burning questions: will the new Sansar default avatars have baked-on underwear or not?)

But we’ve been talking about other things, too:

Hoochiewear 28 Nov 2017

Through the Second Life Friends group on Facebook, I found out about my new favourite thing in Second Life! It’s a backpack by ScriptWorks that you wear, and when you click it, it teleports you to a random spot anywhere within Second Life! You can buy a set of 5 random teleporter backpacks on the SL Marketplace, which means that you can give them to your friends and go exploring together! A group of backpack wearers can be simultaneously teleported to any random location on the grid, estates as well as mainland sims. It is great fun and a great way to see Second Life!

The reason I bring this up now, is that one of the places I randomly teleported to was this shop:

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Sansar Newsblog Word Cloud

I’ve been exploring various data visualization software tools as part of my job at work, and today I decided to test-drive the free online word cloud generator software called WordClouds.com. I was casting around for some data to try it with and I decided to create a word cloud from all my Sansar Newsblog posts to date!

Here’s the word cloud it generated:

Sansar Newsblog Word Cloud

The bigger the word, the more often it was used in my blog. No surprise, the most-used words are “Linden”, “Lab”, and “Sansar”!

This can be a very useful tool for analyzing large amounts of text to determine any possible patterns. Give it a try yourself! Here’s the link.