“Why are you a man? Am I a man, too?”

If uttered in real life (IRL), these two questions would appear either very silly, almost nonsensical – or highly philosophical, let’s say for example in a gender-theoretical, poetic stage performance. Either way, asking the reason why about someone’s gender, or asking about what your own gender in fact is, is certainly not a common thing to do.

In Virtual Reality (VR) though, we have recorded these two sentences in a rather natural, and in fact very sensible context:

In one of our early pilot studies (courtesy of “Hololingo!”, see our publication here), our test subjects met each other in a VR world through ‘dummy accounts’, that is: random avatars which the users did not choose or customize themselves. For no particular reason, one of these avatars was – per default – bald and heavily bearded, so: clearly readable as male. The student commanding this avatar, however, was female (S-L2), as was her interlocutor (S-L1). When they first saw each other as avatars, S-L1’s reaction to this irritating, and rather funny situation was this: “Warum bist du ein Mann? Bin ich auch ein Mann? / Why are you a man? Am I a man, too?” … a perfectly understandable pair of questions, in that particular VR context. (The answer to the second question was: no. The second avatar – not visible in this picture – looked rather gender-less.)

What’s the academic take on this anecdote?

VR provides us with an extraordinary degree of freedom in terms of what type of identity we would like to perform. While our test subjects could not, normally users make choices in terms of the gender, ethnicity, height, body shape, “race” (as in: non-human fantasy races, aliens, robots, …), clothing, accessories, etc of their “extended Selves” that are visible to others in Social VR. And there is no ‘law’ that the gender of your Self in VR needs to align with your gender IRL.

This is nothing new: “virtual crossdressing” in MMORPGs or Social Media, for example, is a common and well-researched phenomenon.

In VR however, the degree of immersion and the “sense of embodiment” that VR users experience, compared to 2D, screen-based digital experiences, expands the meaning of these choices: you are not playing a character that has a different gender / ethnicity / … than your actual Self. You are that character in that particular space and social interaction.

In our example here, the initially experienced ‘gender incongruence’ was not a big deal after all: both students laughed when they found out about their avatars – it was funny to hear an audibly female voice coming from a heavily bearded, bald guy – and then quickly dropped the subject and went along exploring the VR world. But in other contexts, our VR avatar’s gender may be a very big deal indeed.

What we have observed so far offers inroads for research at the intersection of (virtual) embodied experience, gender performativity, and the social construction of gender and behavioural norms. HumaniVR continues its research on this subject.
We will continue to post results here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *