Gender and virtual worlds: new research

Dmitri Williams from the University of Southern California has completed some research in conjunction with Mia Consalvo (Ohio University), Scott Caplan (University of Delaware) and Nick Yee (Stanford University). The title of the research is Looking for gender (LFG): Gender roles and behaviors among online gamers. The research employed a range of survey tools as well as some key health measures like Body Mass Index – the rigour in approach is certainly there.

Some standout points from the research (some aspects are direct findings, others are cited findings in reviewing the literature for the research):

  • The average player in the study had more than six alternate characters
  • Males were more focused on achievement as a reason for gaming
  • Female players tend to play more for social reasons and now comprise 40% of all gamers
  • Female players played the most and were the most healthy
  • There’s a lot more in the findings than the points above, but some of them alone challenge some significant stereotypes aimed at online gamers. There are obvious ramifications of research like this that turns common stereotypes on their head.

    Download the full paper here in MS Word format.

    Pride and Prejudice

    Since virtual environments started getting noticed by the early adopters, there has been some discussion about social mores in and out of virtual environments. In particular this applies to users trying out avatars of a different gender, race, or overall look, to their regular atomic world selves. Educators and academics in general have noted students and other users typically bring their prejudices and biases with them into virtual environments, but that they also sometimes take what they have learned in virtual environments back into the atomic world with them.

    Unfortunately, it seems that users open to such experimentation were already quite open-minded. More closed-minded individuals are less likely to experiment, and less likely to lose their prejudices along the way.

    I belong to two genres of people which are often vilified and denigrated – I am somewhat Goth, and quite a bit Geek, and I express this both visually and in the way I act, both in virtual environments and atomic worlds. These are two groups I have found to be unpopular with other people, though less so in virtual environments. I had hoped that some of the acceptance from virtual environments might have spilled over into the atomic, but this does not seem to have been true to the extent that I might have hoped for.

    Goths and Geeks that I know tend to have some areas of overlap – they tend to be individualists and thinkers, they tend to make up the innovator and early adopter part of the populace, they tend to act and dress distinctively, and they tend to be unpopular with other groups: educators, academics, business people – normal, mainstream folk.

    I wondered why. Especially, I wondered why Goths and Geeks should be so unpopular amongst people who use virtual environments, and who are exposed to people with curious looks and outlooks on a regular basis.

    This is what I came up with:

    We make choices about how we are going to look, act and live our lives. We have made choices independently of our genes, of our circumstances. Other people could also make this choice – but instead they have remained with the cultural ideas and circumstances they were born into. The choice they often make instead is to disparage and utterly reject the people who have decided to live their lives intentionally.

    Along similar lines is this thought:

    I recently heard someone referring to their IT staff as “the enemy”. As an IT Geek, I found this to be a most off-putting thought. It makes it sound as though I have to wage war whenever I want to get my work done, making my under-paid, over-worked position even worse, and, boy, does it sound unfriendly! Again with the wondering – why?

    The IT Geek often has at least two agendas: their own practical agenda (where is the point in having a firewall if you are just going to open ports for people at random?), and someone else’s political agenda – usually their boss, sometimes another member of staff. Rarely does the IT Geek have their own political agenda – if it seems that they do, it’s more likely that they are defending someone else’s policies, or it’s a case of apophenia (seeing patterns where none exist). Also, Geeks are rarely in a position to make policies.

    I am a Goth, and a Geek, and I belong to a number of other unpopular sub-groups. I’d love for our society to change, with the assistance of virtual environments, to one that is more tolerant of people who are different, whether that be by birth, environment or choice.

    But I’m not holding my breath.

    “Gender Freedom Day in Digital Worlds” – hooray for diversity!

    Extropia Central Nexus

    The 25th October 2008 heralds the coming of a new celebration: “Gender Freedom Day in Digital Worlds.”

    Gender Freedom Day is the brainchild of Sophrosyne Stenvaag, a digital individual who inhabits digital environments such as Second Life. Stenvaag envisions the Day as a promotion of “freedom of expression of gender identity and sexual preference in digital worlds” – a celebration of all choices of gender identity and sexual preference, and the ability of all the individuals to interact in a civil and respectful manner. Stenvaag is disappointed and horrified by the cultures in digital environments – the hatred of, hate crimes surrounding, and general uncivil and unnecessary expression of biases surrounding gender and sexuality difference of expression.

    "That's so gay?"

    The hub of the Day’s activity will be at Extropia, Stenvaag’s paradise of difference in self-expression in Second Life. However, Stenvaag hopes to spread the word of the day far and wide, and to have events engaged in throughout Second Life predominantly. Individuals from other digital environments, and even those in the atomic world, for those who have the resources to do so, are welcome to join in with the fun and festivities. As of a couple of days ago, event organisation was in full swing, with several speakers with academic backgrounds giving their commitments to makes presentations, DJs having been approached to provide entertainment throughout the fundraising party (running 2pm to 10pm SLT on the Day), and discussions with a welter of other communities and organisations progressing apace. Individuals wanting to inject their own brand of creativity, make a presentation, or generally volunteer to help out are most welcome to do so: you will want to liaise with Sophrosyne Stenvaag in Second Life.


    The fundraiser will be collecting money on behalf of organisations who promote the ideals of the Day. The exact organisations will be determined before the money is dispensed. Stenvaag is currently open to nominations for existing organisations and start-ups who could benefit from the money. Stenvaag herself is starting the kitty at L$125,000.

    The most heinous crime.

    “Walk into one of the capital cities in World Of Warcraft, or the infamous “Barrens Chat,” night or day, and you’re likely to hear the foulest expressions of homophobia, gynophobia, racism and anti-Semitism. Of those, the most prevalent seems to be homophobia: “gay” and “fag” are stand-ins for anything bad, and used with abandon, despite their being in technical violation of the Terms of Service. The culture permits it.”

    In a digital setting, this kind of attack via speech, in which individuals are treated as though their expression of self is invalid, in which individuals are treated as objects or “things”, and other such attacks upon the self, is more heinous than any other kind. In the atomic world, far worse things can happen to you, of course, but for those of us who live in a digital world, we have a responsibility “to not sit silent and permit a culture of hatred to flourish” in our homes.

    “Attacking people for presenting their gender in the way that suits them is not okay.”

    The digital advantage.

    There are other reasons for holding a Day like this in a digital world, too.

    • Because the denizens of digital worlds represent a subset of the individuals represented in the atomic world. Not only does that mean that there is a smaller sample of people amongst which to spread the word, but also that folks from digital places can take the word back with them to the atomic world and make a difference there too.
    • Fewer resources are required, compared with similar efforts in the atomic world. One side effect of this is that more money can be donated to the organizations, instead of being spent only on the celebration.
    • A more diverse lot of people are recognised and represented. Not only are the common (gay, lesbian, transgender, etc) expressions of gender and sexuality able to be represented, but also those that have emerged through the existence of digital environments.

    All are welcome.

    Stenvaag wants everyone, of all gender and sexual persuasions, to be welcome at Gender Freedom Day, even though she is aware that this will not be a globally popular response:

    “Speaking for myself, I support the freedom of expression of … any other group: as long as they refrain from hostile expression against those who differ with them, consenting members of their community should have the right to their own practices.”

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