Wednesday, February 18, 2004


Used to be, when female avatars and male avatars would sit down, in Second Life, they more or less sat the same: Hands loosely laid on the lap, legs slightly apart. (Or as one resident waggishly put it, “Sitting with your junk hanging out.”) This didn’t sit well, so to speak, with many residents, especially some women. (And one assumes, some male residents who play as women.) It just didn’t do to put on a skirt or a dress, and attend an in-world fashion show, for instance, then end up sitting more like a stevedore at a sports bar, than a society lady. Quite a few complained to the Lindens.

The solution came last month. The Lindens implemented a tweak to the default sitting posture, for women. Now, when a female avatar takes a seat, her legs and feet are kept together, and pointed at a slight angle to one side; her hands are folded together, too, and placed on the opposite thigh. So it was a decidedly feminine way of sitting.

A few women, however, weren’t too happy with this solution. Leading the protest was Michi Lumin:

“I give up. I'll put on mascara and saunter around daintily,” she raged in a community forum. “I look like a prim and proper missy-miss now, and have NO choice in the matter... What are you guys going to do next, make us curtsy?”

After protest from her and a few others, the Lindens added a fix, so that women who didn’t like the new feminized sitting posture could revert back, if they chose, to the original, gender neutral position.

Michi, however, wasn’t too pleased with that workaround, either.

“It's pretty damned obvious that Linden Lab has made a judgment,” she wrote in another heated post, “on there being a proper way for women to sit and a proper way for men to sit, with a pacifier thrown to the few complainers-- yeah, the few females on SL who don't want to look like Barbie™ dolls.”

When I finally caught up with Michi, she was in Abbots, one of the new simulators, and she wasn’t doing much sitting. For that matter, it wasn’t even entirely clear if she was supposed to be a female then, either. She was a purple dragon with samurai swords and leather pants and a “Re-elect Richard Nixon button” pinned to her jacket. She was busy helping build a new Cold War-era radio tower, the kind designed to survive a nuclear attack. The plan her and her friends have is to construct a bunch of these towers, across many sims, and install a system of laser transmitters that communicate to each other via bursts of light, which are then translated at the sending and receiving ends into text. (In other words, it will be a much more elaborate way to do what is already possible and easier via Instant Message. It’ll just be a lot cooler.)

“What can I say,” Michi tells me, after she explains the project, “we’re geeks.”

She takes a break from jiggering with her purple laser, to demonstrate to me the source of her anger.

“I can't seem to get people past the notion that there are many women who would never be caught dead in a skirt,” she says. Michi sits down on a chair on the deck of a nearby luxury cabin. “Do you see how ridiculous this looks?”

Thing is, she’s still wearing her dragon avatar, so the feminine sitting posture doesn’t look that much more ridiculous than, well, a dragon sitting on a chair in the first place.

So she puts on her human female form, and tries again.

“It's just discouraging I guess that folks seem to believe that behavior is divided that sharply and unblurrably across gender lines,” says Michi Lumin. She does acknowledge how divisive her crusade on the matter may have been. “It's real hard to skirt (mind the pun) the border between getting my point across and sounding like some kind of feminist, though... It's just tough [because] 90% of the folks out there are happy as a clam, real life and Second Life, taking their [prescribed] gender roles on.”

“[D]on't you think it's possible you're reading too much into this?” I say. “I don't sit in on their design meetings, but I don't quite see Philip Linden sitting down and saying, ‘Let's turn all women into decorative objects!’”

“Oh no no no,” says Michi, “I'm not thinking they actually said or felt that. As a matter of fact, Colin Linden told me that my posts really spurred quite the heated debate in the office. I don't think it's that outright [an] intent, Hamlet, no... I'm more saying that that was the effect, and that the effect wasn't considered that big of a deal by Linden Lab.

But how many women even objected to the feminine posture?

“Oh wow,” says Michi, counting, “at least ten.”

“To be fair to the Lindens,” I say, “that's not a huge number, proportionately.”

“Well, no, but how many did they ask? I don't know. I don’t know how many reported the original problem, either. I do think, though, that it's often assumed, among guys, that sure, dudes can vary from dude to dude, but there are certain things that all women like. Women vary just as much as guys do, really,” she finishes, smiling.

“I mean, Hamlet, let me ask you this - how would you feel if they made you sit that way?”

“Hmm,” I say, “good question.” And it really is, because it takes me a bit to answer. “If it took a bit of jiggling to my [posture how I wanted],” I finally say, “I wouldn't mind too much.”

Trouble is, Ms. Lumin explains, jiggling the posture doesn’t work everywhere. Changing a woman’s seating posture to a gender neutral position requires a complex series of customized avatar movements, known as a “script call”. And since scripts have a tendency to sometimes cause technical problems or confusion-- not to mention consternation, when someone scripts their avatar to perform an obscene gesture, say-- they’re forbidden in certain regions. Like the Welcome Area, where new residents arrive, when they first enter the world at large.

“It doesn't work in Welcome,” says Michi, “and that's where I spend most of my time. Since it is a script call, it won't work in no-script areas.” Michi works in the Welcome area as a volunteer who helps orient newcomers to Second Life. “I'm a Mentor, and spend a lot of time there, and new users see me. I make a first impression, you know? Basically, if you're sitting prim and proper, demure, and prissy-- that’s what it says about you. If you sit with legs bent, hands on laps, it doesn't say much.”

“On the other hand,” I say, “a female avatar sitting ‘like a guy’ is also expressive, but in a different way, and one that a lot of women apparently didn't like, enough to complain to the Lindens.

“Well, is it really sitting like a guy?” asks Michi. “I'm on a college campus most of my day. I look around, and everyone sits rather generically. Pretty much the same, in the real world. I didn't see anyone sitting with hands clasped on one legs, knees locked and looking like a princess. Anywhere. Not on the bus, not on the subway...”

I point out a factoid I happen to know, about one of the largest MMORPGs. The female avatars that players have to choose from there are almost all “sexy” in a traditional sense: big breasts, thin waist, shapely hips, and so on. The company who created the game got a lot of flak from many women, for falling into this stereotype. But as it turned out, the art director for that game was herself a woman.

“Well,” says Michi, at that, “I'm sure she was designing what would appeal to the supposed target demographic, Hamlet. She was doing her job.”

“I dunno, Michi. Even here, given the choice, most women create sexy avatars.”

“I know,” she says. “I know that. But I really, really, don't want to be like most. Doesn't mean I want to be 'fugly', but I've had people remark that even my human avatar is 'different'. I mean, a fedora and Lennon shades, jeans and plaid socks... it doesn't exactly speak of 'supermodel'... I like to think of myself as more 'sharp looking' than sexy.

“However. The reason it bothers me, Hamlet, is it's something I've had to deal with all of my life. Presumptions of what I do like, what I don't like, what I do want, and what I don't want. It's tough. Most of the WORLD wants to be a certain way. And when you don't want to, well, it's hard to make an argument for it... I'm not saying it's some grand conspiracy. But I can't deny the frustration.”

I ask her to give me a concrete example.

“All right, well, you know the Cold War communications stuff I talked to you about? There's a local group that goes out and looks at that stuff [in real life]... All guys, of course, except for me. Now, I go with a male friend of mine, but easily all of the guys assume I'm a tag-along… they seem to say, ‘Who's girlfriend is she and why is she here?’

Then she gives me another.

“When I worked for a government agency a few years back, doing coding work, one of the guys came by and lectured me on not installing 'unlicensed shareware' on the machine. Talked down to me, told me what shareware is, what software is, etc.

“The program in question was one that I wrote.

“I told him that I had just licensed [the program] myself, so it's legitimate, and if he had a problem, he can call me at my number and take it up with... me.” Or as she puts it, “I'd like to thank me for flying Me airlines.”

Still, returning to game development, I point out that the vast majority of gamers are still young men.

“That's changing,” insist Michi, “I know that's changing. Myself and my [female] friends fly in the face of that absolutely. We've been gaming since 8 bit [computers], and let me tell you, some are more rabid gamers than I. The ‘assume everyone online is male’ is kinda becoming a bit of an anachronism.

“Well, slowly,” I say. “Even Second Life, I think, is still largely male (though many of the hardcore residents are women.)”

“Well, sure, it is,” Michi says, frowning, “but really, assuming that all women want to be femmy caricatures is going to kind of ensure that the ratio doesn't equalize so much.”

As we talk, someone named Zate Kojima has discovered the radio tower built by Michi Lumin and her friends. It’s standing on top of a picturesque forested ridge, and Zate doesn’t like what it’s doing to the view. “HISS... evil Ming!” Zate yells, pointing a finger at Ming Chen, one of Michi’s collaborators. “IT’S THE CREATOR OF THE UNORTHODOX BUILD IN NATURE!!”

“Dang hippies,” Ming Chen shouts back.

Kojima keeps going, heedless. “HE has made this magnificent land into a dirt hole with his uncanny building... HE! Has stained thy sacred land widst THY FILTHY objects!”

“So in the meanwhile,” I continue, “when you're in sims where you'd end up sitting pretty, you'll just stay on your feet?

“Seems like that, Hamlet,” says Michi, smiling. “Probably a good summary. But I do want to say, one more thing? I may be kind of fiery. I might be loud and argumentative and sometimes crass. But, one: I appreciate Linden Lab and the Lindens, every last one of them. If I wasn't so enthusiastic about this world, if I didn't love it so much, it wouldn't upset me so much. Second, I am a Mentor-- so please, everyone should approach me for help IN SPITE of my wrath.

She grins. “I bark loud, I rarely ever, ever actually bite.”

Posted at 07:26 AM | Permalink


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I also think the new sitting poses are silly. It has made it much worse for a large AV to sit and look right - I mean without the left arm disappearing completely into the body. You lose your hands when standing and your arm when sitting. Only thing a large av can do w/o losing limbs is to fly and hover around.

Posted by: Camille Serpentine at Feb 18, 2004 12:29:22 PM

Actually, a correction, Hamlet. Ming actually wasn't one of our collaborators - just a neighbor. Zate actually LIKED the tower, it was Ming's build he didn't seem to like.

Personally, I don't have a positive or negative feeling towards Ming's build. :}

Posted by: Michi Lumin at Feb 18, 2004 12:33:29 PM

Yet another reason SL rocks - i mean what other online environment would even have enough meaning and flexibility to serve as a catalyst for discussions like these...

Michi - I don't think we've met but you sound like a very neat person.

Posted by: Hunter at Feb 18, 2004 5:52:01 PM

I completely empathise with Michi and while this issue is most obvious in the area of gender stereotyping I think it affects us all.
How hard would it be to have avatar presets for posture and demeanour? For instance, Formal, Casual, Selfconcious, Confident, Decrepit, Spaced Out???

Posted by: Alfa Rubio at Feb 18, 2004 9:11:03 PM

I think there was and are a lot more people who are unhappy with the new sit and the subsequent half hearted 'fix' offering than this article conveys. I can only think of one female friend who actually prefers the new pose, and I can immediately think of 10 to 15 of my friends that now actively use the generic sit script. Which is far from an ideal solution. I agree with Alfa - what's so hard about making a few for us to choose from?

Posted by: Kris Ritter at Feb 19, 2004 3:03:01 AM

Well, I do hope Linden Labs sees these responses. However from what the Lindens have told me, the existing female sit is how it's going to be, and the script call is the solution.

I guess they have demographics - they say that "most women" wanted the new sit.

I'd like to know where -that- vote was taken.

And no, this will not be taken care of when "custom animations" are implemented, since they aren't going to be "custom animations" - they're going to be custom "gestures". From what I know, they won't be full body.

I know I am getting tired of the attitude (NOT only on SL) that there are no female players, and if there are, they all want to be sexy, anyways. That's getting old, and tired, and with each passing year, exceedingly false.

Posted by: Michi Lumin at Feb 19, 2004 3:19:21 AM

Custom gestures are something - your avatar will be able to pick her nose while sitting prim and proper at least.

Posted by: Ezhar Fairlight at Feb 19, 2004 5:59:48 AM

Just sit in with any group of 'seasoned' (aka more than a month old) and you'll see *ALOT* of us are using sit fixing attachments now. More still would be but the limitations inherent on using scripted objects (when such MAJOR areas as welcome are now forced no scrit) are pretty annoying.

The knees thing is a so-so mistake.. it doesn stop stupid people from showing up in welcome without underwear on, and it won't stop newbies from gawking at them.

The hands thing is just atrocious. That is beyond my current powers of understanding how that not only got cleared in the first place but is *STILL* there after the uproar... not EVEN because its such a horrible soul-suckingly submissive gesture... but that it simply doesn't *WORK* for most avatars, the arms just don't align right and it *TOALLTY* ruins any hand-based attachments like mugs of coffee, signs, etc...

Part of the promise of second life was that you can do or be anything you want.

That needs to be amended you can do or be anything you want so long as you want to be submissive and demure.

Anf for those of you who say its just a sit animation, whey don't you put on some nice female avatars, and sit around in world for awhile, talking with people.. especially try and get a guy to sit next to you.. and tell me that the way you both are represented on that screen doesn't have a direct, though almost subliminal affect, on the interaction between you and the male character. As primates, we are programmed at a very low level to recognize signs of submission and act accordingly, and thats what the real shame with this pose is... it not only makes you look submissive... it makes you *feel* submissive, feel ashamed, when you're sitting like that and talking to one of yer 'betters' (aka a man that LL has made DAMN sure isn't going to EVER accidentally end up in the kind of gesturing sit pose you will be)

Posted by: eltee Statosky at Feb 20, 2004 11:12:56 AM

Where is my Havok 2 is more important protest sign!

Seriousely, it's a good point that the no script areas make their solution kinda useless. They should create 4 gender neutral sits that get picked at random when you sit down until we get custom gestures.

Now where is my damn sign...

Posted by: Jack Digeridoo at Feb 21, 2004 11:28:30 AM

I really hate to have to repeat this, Eltee, but just switching to Havok 2 won't affect avatar animations in any way. At all. While the Havok physics engine supports ragdoll animation, as I understand it, SL would have to do some pretty radical rewrites of the way the avatar models work to take advantage of it.

What Havok 2 WILL do is let us build more complex vehicles and not have to put up with the so-called "deep thinks" anymore.

Posted by: Catherine Omega at Feb 21, 2004 11:11:44 PM

Actually, Catherine - that was Jack who was talking about Havok 2 there... The names appear under the posts... I know, a little bit disorienting...

I think Jack was saying that Havok 2 was more important than fixing sit. Not neccessarily related.

Of course, I think they're both important. But as eltee DID say, it absolutely does effect interactions.

What didn't get posted in the interview; My primary area of study is communications - Nonverbal communications are EXTREMELY powerful. Moreso than words in some cases. So a lot of people have been saying, "Who cares how you sit?" But it absolutely, positively, does convey demeanor.

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