Brian's Blog

…one man's contribution to the Weeeeerly Wild World

Virtual Gender


A few years ago I created what would have been considered to be an ‘Alt’ in the virtual world that is Second Life. A female counterpart, another account, another avatar, or ‘alternative avatar’, one that wasn’t male like my usual personification of myself, but of female form (and personality) instead. I’m not particularly fond of the term ‘Alt’ because it seems to imply there is no heart or soul behind that avatar, or there is a strong element of deception being played out by the person behind it.

There were a few reasons for me creating a female avatar, some of which I’m still trying to understand for myself, some of them conscious, some of them not so.

In some ways my female avatar became the female version of myself – I have learned that none of us are really 100% male or 100% female, our physical form may dictate some of this, but, for example, women can be boisterous and not so feminine, and guys don’t have to be testosterone-fuelled meat heads (something I’m not in any world). When you’re not restricted by your physical form, such as in a virtual world where you can be anything, or perhaps if your physical appearance is altered in some gender-related way, you might feel less ‘worthy’ of that gender form. Some of us just feel more free to be however we feel comfortable, especially in a virtual environment – in the real world I’m perfectly happy being a guy, being me, however I perceive myself.

If my female avatar dances with a guy avatar, this can feel okay to me, but if I’m my guy avatar, the thought of dancing with another guy seems odd. This over-poweringness of the visual sense intrigues me somewhat.

In other ways my female avatar in SL was a way to escape. My male avatar had always been a virtual extension of my real self – I had modelled it on my real self originally, even being my real height at the start when many people were a lot taller. My personality was my personality and not something ‘imagined’ to fit a character. When a relationship I was in ended I seemed to become more sensitive to how I was perceived – a theme that has occurred in my life more than once and continues to this day. Throughout my life I seem to have had more female friends than males ones, this is especially evident from my friend list(s) in SL, but saying hi to people and striking up a conversation in a public virtual space feels awkward at times; either I feel like it’ll be taken as me hitting on them, or they do think that, or if people Instant Message me I feel like they are interested in me in a way I don’t feel comfortable with. I over-think all this stuff at times. By being female in character I felt more comfortable IMing others. Being in female form gains you more attention too, which isn’t always good, but if you just want some random conversations thrown your way to perk up your day it can be good.

Other people create new accounts/avatars to escape too; there doesn’t have to be a change in gender involved. I think quite often people use SL in order to escape for a while, to escape things in Real Life they’re not happy about, but then if their SL turns a little sour, a new self can be created, and a fresh start can be had. I guess I created my second account for this reason.

By “using” a female avatar in SL I felt I could say the things I wanted to say more freely, with less hesitation, and what I said would generally be received with kindness and thanks, rather than me seemingly flirting, or being perceived as a perverted guy, or having underhand intentions – simple things like commenting on someone’s (avatar’s) look. I think there is a mix of my own perception here and the perceptions of others – both of which are hard to escape. Admittedly I may have been hitting on people, whilst not being 100% conscious of such an intention.

Pretty quickly I think, I made friends with people as my girl avatar, and they saw her as a real nice and sweet girl. I think this is how I had imagined her to be – I had created my ideal girl, while at the same time she was another extension of my real self, just like my guy avatar. There was no (conscious) intent to deceive people.

I really didn’t forward plan anything, and as time passed and I made good friends I found myself in tricky situations. Some people became such good friends that it struck me that I was lying to them by not telling them I was actually a guy in RL. Some people do this differently – they are very open about not being of the same gender in RL as their avatar, either by stating as such in their profile, telling you straight up, or telling you when you proceed to add them to your friend list – some people will say they’re not really a cat in RL, they just choose an avatar that is. In some ways I find this admirable, but to me it defeats the purpose – why try and be a girl when everyone knows you’re really a guy? I wanted to experience the world as a girl, so telling people straight up just didn’t make sense – I knew I would be treated differently. But I have told some close friends, and those were some tough conversations to start, mainly because so much time passes until I get to the point where I think someone should know, but generally such revelations have been accepted well.

Being open about some things like this can also attract some bad comments from strangers. I’ve seen people be targeted by people who have issues with those ‘playing a character with a different gender’ for example. I personally find it uncomfortable to be approached when I’m my girl avatar and have personal questions asked about my/her sexual orientation, although my partner has less of a problem with this. Really such labelling seems irrelevant.

Alts can be largely fictitious, like characters from a novel, but at the same time I think there is always some of the author in that character, there has to be. If an author creates a murderer for his story, he has to become that murderer in his mind in order to write about him. With an avatar in SL there can be a number of things that help shape a character, not just the actual shape, but how it dresses (which is based on choices by its creator), the AO (animation overrider that dictates how it walks, runs, flies, and sits), what gestures it uses (such as laughs, and voiced words and phrases) – all these ‘physical’ attributes chosen by the person behind it can help to define a personality both perceived by its owner, further dictating how he/she acts but also how it is perceived by other – this is especially evident when the avatar is a character, rather than just an account to log into (which is how some people treat SL), and more imagined than based on the RL self.

With my friends that know me as both my male avatar and female avatar (some knew one first before learning about the other), I notice how I feel comfortable as one or the other, and they do too, or with some there is seemingly no difference. I think generally I like being treated like whichever character I am logged in as, and I even refer to my other avatar as a third person! I find amusing and I think my friends do too.

But in doing this there is a conflict – it makes me realise that there is an element of imaginary, or role-play, and this doesn’t sit well when I’m trying to be sincere with someone. I also notice how I can say things in a certain way as one avatar, but say the same thing as the other, to the same person on a different occasion, and it receives a different response: there are always perceptions about how one is supposed to conduct themselves as either a girl or a guy.

When it comes to relationships and being of the same gender, it seems to provide a more level playing field, which is perhaps of benefit to those that might have “issues” with the opposite sex – I may have earned someone’s trust and respect as one avatar but if I then meet them with the other the same level of trust and respect can take time to transfer. But what’s the hurry?

A final problem is that, once you’ve experienced the world as both avatars, what’s next? I suppose I’ll have to become a cat after all.


3 comments on “Virtual Gender

  1. EmmaJCarson
    12 August, 2015

    Interesting concept of gender change – aged 15, I sent a letter complaining about a film shown on TV (I’m female BTW!) – the resulting response to “Mr Carson” was rather brusque. Had they known the respondent was a teenage girl would that have changed things? Thanks for posting

    • Brian
      12 August, 2015

      I’m pretty sure it would have made a difference – how much? Who knows, but I think we all paint a mental picture of who we’re talking to, and that goes some way to dictate how we respond.

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This entry was posted on 11 August, 2015 by in Psychology, Second_Life and tagged , , , , , , .
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