Friday, June 18, 2004


Early this month, I woke up to find a series of long Instant Messages from the same person, sent around midnight, and piling up in my inbox. (I have IMs set to be forwarded to my [email protected] e-mail address-- ideal for getting breaking news tips, when I'm not in-world.) Ai Akebono said he was inspired to write me in part because of my "White Like Me" entries (Part 1 here, Parts 2-3 here), and also, by his own experiences in-world. I haven't been able to arrange a follow-up interview with Ai yet (but still hope to, of course) but I found his Instant Message insights fascinating enough to warrant their own entry:

"Here in Second Life, I use a physically fit, robust black female avatar, but in my first life I'm a kind of pudgy redheaded gay man who reads too much. People think I'm a black lesbian when they read my [in-world user] profile, and sometimes I let them. I'm forthright about it if it comes up somehow, but living a life out of the closet as something I'm not has been a really, really odd experience.

"I've had two people so far now just IM me out of the clear blue saying I 'looked cool' in my profile (which, until today, had like a song lyric stuffed in it, and that's it). People don't really know how to treat me. Some women on here get all edgy and weird when I talk to them, which I find amusing, and of course men hit on me.

"But... on here, also, I'm a member of some of the GLBT groups (Alternative Lifestyles in particular, though I'm trying to start my own project which I don't feel terribly confident about). But, the thing that I find the strangest about this is that some people from within the GLBT community here actively try to... be my friend, JUST because they think I'm black and lesbian.

"I made the decision today to disclose my race and gender in my 1st Life [user] profile... Being here has REALLY made me think about my identity and about how black lesbians running around in the real world must be treated. It's haunting to be able to step out of my own skin and experience people making judgments on me by race."

9/28/05: Welcome, IGDA Readers! Here's some more recent stories on the vagaries, conflicts, and yes, joys of sex and sexual identity in Second Life:

- "Man and Man on Woman on Woman"

- "Watching the Detectives"

- "Making Love"

- "Your Cheating Heart"

Enjoy! - HL

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I wish I could hunt down a quote, but I think it was Lord Byron who once commented that a characteristic of the modern age is that we are enabled to be whoever or whatever we wish to be.

I guess it is only fitting (at least with regards to the metaverse of SL) that his daughter, Ada, would go on to be the first computer programmer as she described Babbage's analytic engine...

Posted by: blaze at Jun 18, 2004 5:07:09 AM

This article really got me thinking. It's time that people all knew that, despite how my avatar may appear, I am not actually an axe-wielding little girl. I have never, in fact, wielded an axe in my life.

Posted by: doc at Jun 18, 2004 2:01:18 PM

Heh, reading this... whenever I go places in SL (Often I'm content to sitting on my land and hanging out with my friends), I'm always bombarded by concerned people with questions about my real age. Considering how young my avatar looks, I suppose it's a justifiable concern. But it's interesting- people base more on looks, even in a world like this, than you'd think.

Posted by: kemru at Jun 18, 2004 3:09:05 PM

yeah, from that you wonder at some point what sort of rules may develop around exactly who we wish to portray in SL... SL may have an age limit for real people, I wonder if they'll ever develop an age limit for not so real people..

How far can you take this post modern thing in SL?

Posted by: blaze at Jun 18, 2004 10:15:57 PM

I think there's an equal amount of shame with being a transvestite on-line as off. And I have freedom of speech with this issue. I'm wearing women's underwear even as I type.

Posted by: Grimmy Moonflower at Jun 21, 2004 10:20:55 PM

You should have to play your RL gender on Second-Life. No exceptions. Linden Lab has this info when you sign up, if you are male, it should create a male avatar.

You can whine about freedom to be whoever you want, but nobody has any business playing a gender that is not their own. It's like a dog trying to be an orange. Men and women don't even think slightly the same, and it is almost a crime to try to trick others.

Please Linden, enforce this so that Second-Life doesn't turn into all of the other communities of men-as-women.

Posted by: scorp at Jun 22, 2004 12:04:03 PM

Hello Grimmy.

Posted by: Baba at Jun 23, 2004 3:45:06 AM

Ha! Scorp, time to learn that sex and gender are not the same thing.

Gender and sex are fascinating, especially when you can ignore them. I will admit getting paranoid that I don't know who is what, but who is to say that how they present themselves is not closer to the truth of who they really are.

Posted by: Zephyrus Terra at Jun 27, 2004 10:09:31 PM

I think Scorp must have been burned in the past to have an attitude like that. Went out with a cute little girl avatar and found out it was a cute little guy, did we?

And what about the aliens, and robots and mole people? What sex should they be? Or should we not have them at all because it's deceptive?

It always amazes me that people with these kind of attitudes still exist. They're as prehistoric as this weekend's Flea Market.

Posted by: Kito at Jun 28, 2004 1:13:32 AM

I don't really care what gender someone presents themselves to me as.

I do find child AVs vaguely suspect though.

Posted by: Jinny the Squinny at Jun 28, 2004 5:42:04 PM

Scorp said, "Please Linden, enforce this so that Second-Life doesn't turn into all of the other communities of men-as-women."

Hehe... don't hold your breath. Philip Linden hisself doesn't feel constrained by gender in Second Life. Read www.alphavilleherald.com/archives/000300.html#more

But this isn't about Linden. It's about you. What's it to you how someone presents themselves here? The only time it could remotely matter is if you're trying to get into their virtual pants. Is that the problem?

I will admit, I have some conflicting feelings about this myself. I absolutely *do not* want any rules about how we can portray ourselves here, but I do feel for people who might get attached to someone they think is one gender when in reality they are not. If a relationship progresses to that point, I would hope that there is some measure of honesty.

But as far as day-to-day activities, like shopping or attending events or even chatting, why does it matter, Scorp? Please ask yourself that.

For that matter, who here really does portray themselves as they are. Is Devlin Gallant really a cherub? I have my doubts ;-) Am I really the fit, exotic beauty I portray myself as in SL? God, I wish.

Posted by: Lorelei Patel at Jun 29, 2004 11:12:53 PM

SL is called second life for a reason. And that reason is not to be constrained by your first life.

Posted by: blaze at Jun 30, 2004 4:23:28 AM

One of the main reasons I play SL is because I can be whatever I want - Male, Female, alien, robot, animal, etc. I can be blue, purple, green, textured, etc.

Why give up these freedoms?

Only a few friends in SL know my real gender. Otherwise no one needs or has the right to know.

I currently play a female AV because I am not happy with the way the hair and facial hair look on male AVs.

Posted by: Camille Serpentine at Jun 30, 2004 8:58:47 AM

Many, many years ago (1992 or earlier) I created a male character, Sir Helbergin, on a Belgariad-themed text-based world (a MUSH). Sir Helbergin had a rich and varied virtual life, and married a cute little tree dryad, X'nelle.

X'nelle's player and myself confessed early on that we were both playing the opposite gender. I think it was more of a surprise to him than me! One thing led to another, and we've now been married in Real Life for almost 9 years.

Of course, once we got our Second Life accounts, we had to create avatars to represent those long-ago characters. So you may still see Lisse Livingston wandering around in knightly garb with a full beard and mustache.

Is this deception? Is this wrong in some way? Is this more or less wrong than my husband socializing as a tree-hugging little female dryad? I can't see it...

Oh, and here's a link to my favorite photo of us both at the Gay Pride Parade a few weeks ago. Appropriately. As transgendered avatars?

Posted by: Lisse Livingston at Jun 30, 2004 2:12:17 PM

Cute, Lissie :)

I recently started playing SL and lost my original avatar, so experimented with the options for female avatars and haven't gone back yet! It's really interesting seeing how differently people react to you based on their perceptions of your gender. This is obvious intellectually, but a lot more visceral when someone's looking up your skirt...

Posted by: cranky murdock at Jul 7, 2004 2:02:33 PM

"Is this deception? Is this wrong in some way? Is this more or less wrong than my husband socializing as a tree-hugging little female dryad?"

I think it absolutely is. You are being deceptive. Things like appearance can be looked right past. Race and nationality, I would never let anyone get away with saying that such things alter the way you think.

However, gender goes to the very core of a human. When you talk to a black man or a white man, you're still just talking to a man. The same goes for a black or white woman, of course.

However, Men and Women are two different things. They don't look the same, no, but they also do not think the same. Male and Female brains are so vastly different that the only true overlap we have is language, and even that is precarious, since men and women communicate in completely different ways. (Even if the language is still English, Spanish, German or whatever.)

A man saying he is a woman is about as "incorrect" as a five year old saying he is 40, or a 40 year old saying he is five. It's like calling a cat a dog.

Of course, men playing women and women playing men will be betrayed by their personalities, thought processes and behaviors anyhow.

Posted by: scorp at Jul 8, 2004 9:56:07 PM

This gender issue is fascinating, no? Gender is not a binary thing as much as some of us would like it to be. All men don't interface with the world as stereotypical men. In the real world usually we can tell absolute sex (male or female) from just looking at each otherk. In virtual environments the fact that we have no ability to tell the absolute sex of people who we talk to forces us to communicate based only on fantastic visual representations that all participants agree to accept at surface value.

Posted by: Maxsor at Jul 10, 2004 11:25:33 PM

Heh, this is an interesting topic. One of which has gotten more of my attention than I had ever planned. First off, let me say that I am male, 40 and, as society determines at the moment, I am straight in RL.

That being said, in game I play male, female and ..heh.. both (hermophrodite) as the mood and my girl friend's desires dictate. I am not my avatar, my avatar is a puppet that I use to interact with others. The game is about freedom to be who and what you want to be, period.

The internet is, I hate to say, dominated by guys. It is changing to be sure, but still anytime you meet someone online and you assume it is male, you will be right far more than wrong. That's life, deal.

There are a lot of women who play males in the game simply because they don't want to be hasseled by every spoogehound they come across. I don't blame them a bit, I went to a nightclub the other night and the number of guys acting like excited chihuahuas trying to hump every girl's leg in the place was appalling. I, on the other hand, set my avatar to female a lot of the time simply because I get tired of looking at my male avatar's butt all day plus my GF likes me that way.

As far as the hermophrodite aspect is concerned, that is a product of a happy accident that I found my GF really likes. Me, I don't really get off on it but fulfilling her fantasies is a far bigger turn on than watching just some vanilla animation session. That is what the game is about, fulfilling fantasies and having fun.

Those who are hung up on gender probabaly are trying to use this game as a substitute for going out and finding sex/relationships in RL. It doesn't work that way, at least not in game for me, it is a poor substitute for the real thing. The avatars are stiff and need only strings to complete the puppet; the animations are ok and get the idea across but they don't work all that great. Personal interaction is a far bigger turn on, trust me on this.

I think if you find someone in game you really like and want to be intimate with, best don't ask. Don't spoil the magic and enjoy the fantasy while it lasts. If you went to bed with a sexy female dancer, enjoy the moment. Don't spoil it by having a "Crying Game" episode later on because you find out its a guy. You didn't have sex with him, you fulfilled each others fantasy and that is a far bigger turn on.

"But Kath, you play a herm yet you claim to be straight? That is just creepy." Heh, yes to a lot of people it is and I am not attracted to them myself in RL but my GF really likes it and I'm not about to deny her fantasies. Have I been intimate ingame with males? A couple of times as female yes but I went and made a sandwich while the animations ran. Did they know I was a guy in RL, yes but they didn't care. (I have some really sexy avatars. btw)I don't lie about who I am and I'll tell anyone at the drop of a hat. If you don't like it, well it boils down to being your problem doesn't it? I'm having fun.

Posted by: Kathmandu at Jul 12, 2004 11:11:46 AM

So if your saying guys can only be guys, and girls can only be girls, then what is a transexual? An alien?

I dont believe a transexual still thinks the same as their original gender, or they probably wouldnt have changed in the first place.

Just throwing in my thoughts.

Posted by: Allen at Jul 14, 2004 11:30:37 PM

Interesting thoughts, and this is a debate that extends far beyond Second Life.

"On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog." This has been a truism ever since the early days -- you are what you make yourself out to be. If I want to be a black lesbian with a foot fetish, I can be. If I want to be a huge, pudgy white male slob who takes care of the kids and yells at them to be quiet while I'm "watching my stories" while my wife goes to work to bring home the bacon that makes me that much fatter... I can be. (though I don't know why I'd want to be.)

One of the greatest and most awesome things that I've found about the Internet in general, and SL as an example of that class, is that people who are unhappy with who they are can change those aspects of their (virtual) existence that they're unhappy with. This has GREAT theraputic value, even though it's only the first step of therapy; identifying what makes one happier often leads to the identification of what is causing one to be unhappy in the first place. From there, plans can be made to change those situations; implementing those plans changes the situation so that there's less despair.

I don't need to show myself as I am in my first life. (Even my email address was created explicitly for the purposes of my second life.) Overall, I'm fairly happy with myself, my body, my first life, and I don't need to try to make SL into my 'therapy'. But... I've noticed a pattern in my avatar, just as I have noticed patterns in my text-only descriptions of the other virtual characters I play. Specifically, I keep of my first life body, and translate into my SL body, those aspects that I'm happy with, and I change those aspects of my second life body that I dislike or wish were different.

And, on the whole, I like who I am. So when you interact with my avatar, you're basically interacting with my avatar's player, even though it's unlikely that I will give any details about myself in-game except to people I already know out-of-game.

There's also moral objections that I have to enforcing any arbitrary enforcement of 1st-life to 2nd-life attribute equality. People to whom gender is an issue will demand that gender be equal. People to whom race is an issue will demand that race be equal. People to whom family is an issue will demand that last names of family members be equal. People to whom height is an issue will demand that height be equal. This never-ending progression will dry up the creativity of Second Life -- by giving it the "death of a thousand cuts", and enforcing that the Second Life is the same as our First Life.

Which, ideally, we're all trying to have an entertaining interlude away from.

On top of all of this, there is another very good reason to nip this sort of thought in the bud (and this is the Libertarian aspect)... what right do you have to tell me that your needs and desires are more important than my own? What right do you have to tell me that because I'm doing something it follows logically that I /must/ be doing it because of the reason you postulate I'm doing it for? As Maxsor rightly pointed out, he chooses to play a hermaphroditic character because it fulfills a desire of his -- which is to please his girlfriend. He does not play a hermaphrodite because it gets himself turned on, nor does he play a hermaphrodite because he desires to have breasts or a vagina or anything else having to do with being a woman. It fills a need/desire for him that does not match the prejudice that you might have for why he does it.

(Somehow, using Second Life as a sex toy is, in my opinion, a good thing. This is probably one reason why there are Mature-themed areas, for example -- and I'd bet you dollars to doughnuts that sex therapists would gladly recommend SL as an aid to a healthy, fantasy-integrated sex life.)

And who's to say that this is a bad thing? SL is a toy, a tool, a virtual world, a way to interact with the world in a way different than you can in your first life. As their ad states, an office manager can be an exotic dancer, a car racer, an event planner, a programmer, and anything else they want to be. The key word is 'anything' -- want to see how a male exotic dancer is treated differently than a female exotic dancer? You can! Without paying for extra accounts!

(which brings up another point. People can always lie on their membership as to their gender -- credit cards, which are the only link that Linden Labs have to their residents, do not make gender information available to the merchants who charge them. So the entire "Linden knows who these people are!" concept is moot anyway.)

Posted by: Hunting Hare at Sep 8, 2004 7:46:05 AM

While I'm commenting on this a little late, I would like to applaud the insight of lots of the above comments. And yes, I hugged Philip in his female avatar once; that was BEFORE I knew WHO he was (I was a pretty google-eyed newbie at that time :) ) and I DIDN'T get strange ideas about Philip because of that :-) (after all, two female avatars hugging is perfectly all right... no?)

Two or three things came to my mind as the game developed. First and foremost, there is no real prejudice in SL. If you really, really want to be a stripper, and the "recruiting officer" for the club you want to work says "sorry, we have enough female strippers already", you can just change your avatar to male instead and be admitted (ok, it works better if you remembered to log in with a "neutral" name when you joined in, but you can always join as an alt...).

So the notion of "prejudice" gets somewhat diluted in here. As Ulrika Zugzwang has once pointed out, many of the leading members in the community have female avatars (and almost all are, as a matter of fact, women!), and they aggressively stamp out the competition. No "prejudice" at all against female avatars!

In my case, I never tried to play a male avatar, BUT I tried to "role-play" myself as a different person. Sooner or later, I revert to "myself", so I can't keep that illusion. For instance, I can't present myself as a stripper or some kind of sexy dancer, I'm simply not like that in RL, and even if I tell myself "who cares, it's just a game anyway", I still can't do it. Yes, I even tried playing with an Alt once, get one of those supersexy AVs with TrueSkin and all, and see what came out of it... but it doesn't work. My *mind* simply interferes too much! And I can't "relate" to those supersexy AV bodies at all.

What's suprising is that I DON'T look like my avatar at all (uh except for height I think, and some other slight details). Still, this is somehow the "image" I have of myself in SL. And it wasn't deliberate. When starting the game, I had something completely different in mind, I tried to think about replicating my own face or so, then about midway I said, "what the heck, I *can* be a sex goddess in here" but somehow the end result was nothing I imagined! It's something those authors like Tolkien say, "the story wrote itself, I was only the medium". In some strange way, Gwyn's avatar was not really "planned" or "designed" or "conscious thought". It was something that came out of the underlayers of my subconscious. My matie tells me that Gwyn has a Kylie Minogue chin and an ugly, inexpressive nose, but I certainly didn't antecipate that. And I *tried* to correct some things afterwards - always tiny details, like if I went to plastic surgery and changed this or that, but I can't really do a dramatic change at all, and I really don't know WHY.

One thing I like is that Gwyneth ended up NOT being some kind of supermodel or so. She has several slight defects. Not all clothes will fit my avatar well, and just as in real life, I need to pay attention to that - like dresses that emphasize a too large bottom, for instance :) "Cool" goth outfits look very strange on me, and several bikinis simply look "wrong". This is an unexpected challenge - AVs with "perfect" bodies can choose to wear what they like, and everything will fit them well! In my case, just like in RL, it's trial and error to see what looks "acceptable". This makes it a much more enriching experience, since it entails challenge, a thing we human beings need to feel fulfilled.

The bottom line? Well, I am "deceiving" people I meet, and I am deceiving myself, too. Gwyneth does not look like me in RL, and certainly someone meeting Gwyn in SL and judging her by her looks, would be very disappointed with the way I look in RL. But I expect most people to judge me more on my behaviour and less on my looks. That's why I try to keep my "reputation" in SL, as well as I do in RL. But Gwyn is NOT the same persona than "me" in RL. We share perhaps 95% of the same mind, but 5% is certainly different. Does this mean I'm "deceiving" people? That's not what I think, I certainly don't want to do that, but then again, Gwyn is Gwyn in SL, and I am myself in RL. I don't have the slightest interest in "crossing" from one life to another, and so do several players.

So I think that people are disappointed when they think that Second Life is something like a big 3D online dating service! If it were, this would mean you would be forced to upload your picture and deliver a psychological profile to the Lindens, and they would give you an apropriate avatar. While I can understand the appeal of a 3D online dating service, I still prefer to see SL as a place to express creativity and interact with thousands of similar-minded people. There is nothing wrong with 3D online dating services, though. That's why I always warn people in SL that I already have a stable relationship going on in RL and that I'm not really "looking", and that Gwyn looks cute on SL, but I don't look "cute" in RL at all :). Ok, I'll probably miss the excitement of cybersex :-) and the joys of virtual dating, but there is so much to do and to see to keep me interested...

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