January 21, 2010

Gender bending in online virtual worlds

The blogger and online gamer Dale Innis added some very interesting comments to my recent "Autogynephilia on a Napkin" post.

There are whole universes out there where men can become women by a touch of a button: In online gaming (massively multiplayer online games/MMOs like World of Warcraft) and virtual worlds like Second Life.

He says:

"One interesting thing about this is that even many men who identify as men in the real world, and have no history of any sort of gender unhappiness, still often play as women.

Whether this is because they're desires to be female are just very very mild (and were therefore not even noticed until they got to an environment where it was easy), or because they are moved by a different set of causes than people who are TG in whatever sense in real life, strikes me as a very interesting question."

Yes it is! Unless there is any practical reason for for a man to become a woman online (gaming advantages or the like), there must be something else that drives a man to select a female identity or avatar. Even if that "drive" turns out to be mere "curiosity", that curiosity is in and for itself interesting.

In World of Warcraft Dale has heard the "if I have to stare at someone's bottom 10 hours a day, I'd rather it be a hot chick" argument more than once. Sure! But you are looking at your own virtual female bottom.

This goes beyond games and virtual worlds. I have noticed that people joke about online gender bendings all the time: "The sexy 18 year old college girl you chatted with last night might be a 50 year old fat and bald man."

The jokes do not necessary prove that a lot of people switch genders online, but the fact that people are telling them proves that many are able to imagine the scenario. That tells me that genderbender fantasies are much more common than people tend to believe.

The problem is that so few are willing to admit that they would do such a thing, even to a researcher, which means that underreporting will be a huge problem.

Dale says:

"I know from personal experience that males playing as females in both Second Life and World of Warcraft is pretty common. Females playing as males (again just from personal experience) also happens in both, but seems more common in WoW than in SL, maybe (pure speculation) because WoW is the more traditional-male-flavored environment (battle, as opposed to shopping and decorating and socializing).

It would definitely be interesting to get some hard data! I don't think the stigma attached to virtual gender crossing is all that large (at least not among the people I hang out with?), but it's certainly non-zero, which would tend to corrupt the data."

In another comment Kaseido recommend using Second Life for trying out a female identity.

S/he says:

"There are a lot of us, and some fairly active groups - but the culture of 'don't ask, don't tell'about RL [Real Life] is pretty supportive of us, in most places.

For me, and a number of friends, and a lot of us in general, it's a chance to really live our female selves, and to explore what we're really attracted to in safety.

The SL [Second Life] Flickr groups can give a good sense of what it's like, and anyone from here who does come in, please feel free to drop me an IM - Kaseido Quandry in SL."

Tom Boellstorff writes about Second Life sex changes in Coming of age in second life: an anthropologist explores the virtually human.

He tells about one man who appears as a woman in Second Life that he did not want to show his female avatar to his wife. He told Boellstorff:

"I'm kind of worried she'll be jealous. My avatar is one part an expression of myself, one part expression of my desire. Half my idea of of myself, half my idea of the woman."

Sounds like an autogynephiliac to me!

Boellstorff also tells the story about the person who posed as a male crossdresser in Second Life, while being a woman in real life! It seems that when the hard material facts of real life disappears, wo/man's true nature appears.

Some more reading:

Gender and Emotions in Virtual Worlds
Flip the Switch – Gender Mechanics in Second Life
Gender Bending in Role-playing Games


Since this blog post was written I have stopped using the terms "autogynephilia" and "autoandrophilia" to describe people. The reason for this is that the terms implicitly communicates an explanation for why some people get aroused by imagining themselves as the opposite sex . This explanation, that this is some kind of autoerotic paraphilia,  is both wrong and stigmatizing. Instead I use the neutral term "crossdreamers".

Click here for a discussion of the dark side of the autogynephilia theory.

Discuss crossdreamer and transgender issues!