May 06, 2010

Gender swapping, body shopping, clubbing and emoting, sounds like just another day in Second Life!

               The adventures continued in Second Life as I was now grounded on exploring more issues relating to gender after a failed attempt to see a significant change in interaction based on ethnicity. Recently, an upgraded version of Second Life was launched known as viewer two which served as an alternate interface to explore SL. Personally, I loved the new interface which made my experience more enjoyable based on a user friendly interface with all the necessary quick tabs available with a simple click of the mouse. As SL has continued to improve along with my SL social skills, I was able to further my research on gender swapping in SL.

               The results were astounding! Firstly, playing as a female avatar I was subject to the same series of inappropriate advances but enjoyed several perks such as numerous freebies from other avatars. In comparison to my male avatar who was able to gather a respectable amount of SL friends it was nothing compared to my female avatar that had almost 20 more friends. The sheer volume of interaction was higher in almost every setting. I ran a one week analysis of entering the same venue each day of the week once with each avatar. On average my female avatar was able to attract 3.4 friends per day versus that of my male avatar’s 0.5 per day. It appears that I am much better at being a friendly female in second life than being a friendly male!

               As I continued to venture deeper and deeper into SL, I came to notice a fair number of very intense online relationships. Just like in real life you can get live with your partner, marry them and all those other fun things that people do in relationships. Coincidently these relationships had me questioning some very basic notions of real world relationships. In our society there is obviously a very large emphasis physical appearance. However, in SL one’s avatar is most likely not a mirror image of the user. Often certain parts of their body are exaggerated or even completed re-invented. What is to be noted is that in SL no one needs to worry about what they actually look like. You can play first thing in the morning before you have showered or even brushed your teeth. There is no need for make-up, fancy hair products, fashionable clothes or shoes. Nick Yee a research scientist at Stanford outlines four main reasons why online relationships are unique. “First, people have greater anonymity online. Second, the importance of physical appearance is greatly reduced. Third, the internet transcends problems of physical space and wide dispersion. And, finally, users have greater control over the time and pace of their interactions.” (Nick Yee . The Demographics, Motivations, and Derived Experiences of Users of Massively Multi-User Online Graphical Environments. Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Volume 15, Number 3 (June 2006), pp. 309-329, http://0 The four elements presented by Yee present a unique perspective on online relationships. Users are in this sense forced to learn about someone else from the inside out. Without worrisome physical appearance user becomes friends and on several occasions more than friends. Users spend more time articulating themselves and expressing emotions due to the construct of online relationships. In a world the endorses shows like MTV’s Next (a television show allowing a participant to go on a date where at any point they can say, “next” removing their current date to be replaced by another one of 5 in the ‘next bus’. On several occasions the word next is said upon the first glance of the next date.) how important is it to transcend the emphasis on physical appearance. Thus, it poses the question of whether online relationships (if both users are being honest) are healthier than physical relationships based on the increased communication and removal of physical appearance.

               Unfortunately, I do not know the answer to this question and I do not know how it could be answered. Over time as online communities continue to grow I am sure that studies will emerge to test the above theory. In conclusion, Second Life has introduced me to a whole new world of virtual entertainment. Personally, I did not particularly enjoy playing Second Life mainly because it did not feel like a game. The lack of a main concrete goal, failure to level up your character, defeat monsters, gain equipment and armour and personalize your skills made SL feel like it was more of a social networking tool as opposed to a game. As someone who has played a fair amount of online games especially in my younger days, I was just not used to the lack of what I believe to be essential game characteristics. However, as I got thinking of this I wondered what the differences in gender might be when taking a look at a typical game that I might play. I will address this question in the section below.

All in all, SL was an interesting social experiment relating to gender and identity. I have learned that physical ethnicity really does not have much of a hold over relationships when compared to gender. Female avatars also experience overall better treatment from users and from my research tend to have many more friends. Apparently in the online world it is much better to be a woman than a man!

As usual I have attached a youtube clip below which pertains to my questions regarding some of the games I have played online before.

This is the trailer to the sequel of a game I used to play. The trailer properly depicts the classes/races you can play within the game. There are several interesting things to note. First the human and what appears to be this intense beast thing are both narrated with male voices to reinforce their masculinity and brute strength. The apparently female classes all have a strong link to wisdom over strength. As well there are also links to nature for both the mage type and archer type characters. What does this say about the gender roles within Guild Wars 2? In addition to this, what does this online game reveal about how gender applies to not only character roles in game but gender roles in society? Does this mean that men are controllers of pure brute force where as women are wise but physically weak? Are women more spiritual or environmental due to their link to magic and the environment seen in the trailer?

Thank you for your interest and as always I am more than happy to answer any questions you have and am looking forward to your comments and thoughts!

February 23, 2010

Brown or White, Male or Female

Over the last few months my SL avatars have gone through a fair number of trials and tribulations. Sayeed Mumsat has changed to a female avatar and back several times to discover whether ethnicity or gender would elicit a larger response from SL users.

In all honesty, I have not been able to conduct as much research as I had originally intentioned as a slow internet connection and my failure to completely grasp the game has led to some serious frustrations. However, what I have observed and experienced is still very interesting. Some of my results were to be expected as many of you have probably already assumed. For example, gender was by far the most influential factor in establishing contact with other users leading to friendships, conversations, in-world travels and activities.

For some reason I had originally believed that a change from male to female would not lead to such significantly different SL experience but it did. Both the amount of male and female characters that approach you to engage in conversations is dramatically increased when playing a female avatar. This is so extreme that some female avatars place warnings within their profiles against potentially sexual advances. An example is, “I bite! Be careful I may look cute but I am a mean cat.” In the most sociable of areas like the bar and club atmospheres the majority of players are very conversational. It is interesting to note that being hit on at a club in SL is almost the exact same as in the real world. There are the usual varying degrees of effort, some involve getting straight to the point using some very choice words and others play it smooth with slightly more subtle remarks of their true intentions! However, the reality is that within SL some users are willing to be quite blunt and crude with their comments because there are limited repercussions to their actions. They do not necessarily need to worry about the usual social boundaries found outside of SL.

In relation to ethnicity I found that there really was not much to discover. In reading an article by Lisa Nakamura it was made clear as to why ethnicity meant very little. The majority of users in her article that chose to take up a different ethnicity were typically white males. This was what she called, “identity tourism”. For Nakamura it is, “the appropriation of racial identity which becomes a form of recreation, a vacation from fixed identities and locales” (Nakamura, Lisa. “Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.” The Cybercultures Reader. Edited by David Bell, and Barbara M. Kennedy. New York, NY: Routledge, 2000, p. 715) which underlay the reason for the change in ethnicity among users. This is the ultimate vacation where you not only get to go anywhere you want but you can be anyone you want! However, with the idea of identity tourism most SL users seemed to pay very little attention to ones ethnicity. As most users are of a Caucasian background I felt that many SL avatars expected that they were not necessarily coming into contact with a ‘truly’ ethnic character or in my case a South Asian male. Instead they seemed to focus on something that was far more plausible; that I was a girl.

This got me thinking of some very interesting questions. Is it easier to portray a specific gender as opposed to a specific race or ethnicity? Why don’t race changes exist especially since sex changes do? Does this mean that society in general is more willing to accept people based on gender as opposed to race? If SL users seemed to care so little about ethnicity and in a world that seems to be shrinking at every second, will gender be the only thing left to distinguish people?

At the end of the day, I realise that the majority of my time was spent in areas with high volumes of avatars in order to engage in the largest number of conversations and this could definitely have flawed my research. However, some of the questions I have raised are quite relevant to SL and real life. I intend to continue my adventures in SL with a better understanding of differences between gender and ethnicity and hopefully I will be able dig up something good!

Another video to check out is a quick look at an actual vacation in SL:

Here is an absolutely amazing introduction to the capabilities of Secondlife and some of the harboured potential it has:

Keeping in mind that the above video was posted in 2006 it is interesting to see how the Secondlife has evolved since then and what other future opportunities it may have.

As always feel free to add any comments and or questions you may have and I will respond as soon as possible. Thanks for the input!

November 03, 2009

The Wonderful World of Second Life

         I must admit when my professor at the University of Warwick - the university that I chose to go on exchange to for one academic year - told me that we have the option to partake in a virtual game for credit I thought I was dreaming. With a quick pinch to the arm I realized that this was no practical joke but an excellent opportunity for social experimentation and of course countless hours of gaming fun!

        You must be wondering what game this is or that there must be something wrong with the British education system? Before you begin writing your letters of discontent to the head of the university, let us take a few seconds to introduce the game and my research plans.

        Second Life is basically a massive virtual world with countless opportunities to create, socialize and interact with not only the environment but other users. The system was created by Linden Labs and has been in use for approximately six years. It can be compared to another popular game known as the SIMS. However, Second Life requires no initial purchase, the game is free to download and free to play. There are however some limitations on what you may be able to experience in the game without purchasing Linden dollars (the in-game currency). Linden dollars can either be earned within Second Life by working or can be purchased with real world currency. There are several locations to explore and numerous activities to partake in from clubbing to shopping to roller coasters and home renovations.

        In order to participate in the many events and activities in Second Life you must possess one very important thing: an avatar. An avatar is essentially your in-game character which can be customized in every imaginable way. From basic characteristics such as height, hair styles and body width to such minute details as how large your “love-handles” are to whether your avatar has an over-bite or an under-bite. The vast number of combinations possible for avatars allows for the creation of unique individuals. Some users decided to create their character as a virtual version of themselves while others will create something entirely different.

           Second Life has a rather large learning curve and my early experiences with it have been quite interesting. I have managed to create my first avatar Sayeed Mumsat who is supposed to be a Pakistani male. The reason for such a selective choice in my avatar creation relies on my topic of interest regarding my research. From my early experiences on Second Life I noticed a large number of female avatars, far more than males which had me questioning the roles that gender may play within Second Life. To further the idea of gender I thought it would be interesting to create another analysis on ethnicity, which has led me to the following research question: will changing my avatar from a Pakistani male to blonde hair blue-eyed Caucasian female illicit a larger response due to the change in gender or in ethnicity? There are definitely going to be some unique challenges with respect to my question especially when it comes to those in Second Life who choose to change their gender. I may be receiving a lot of attention from males who have female avatars or vice-versa depending on which avatar I choose to be.

         It is also quite apparent that Second Life is not just a game. Second Life is completely different from conventional games that are classed under genres such as MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing games). There is no actual goal in Second Life and as one user has but it, “A lot of people talk about SL like it's a game. I don't really see it as a game, because it doesn't really have any of the properties of a game, in the sense that there's no goal, no rank, no simulation, no progress. All of these things have to be quantified by the individual himself, subjectively . . . Much like in real life, I have to decide for myself ‘What's an accomplishment? What's successful or meaningful?” (M. McKeon & S. Wyche, “Life Across Boundaries: Design, Identity, and Gender in SL” Georgia Institute of Technology, accessed on November 2nd 2009). The above quote makes it quite clear that Second Life possesses unique capabilities that allow it to reach far beyond the conventional measures of video games. There are several users who make a living based on their jobs in Second Life.

        As I have expressed, Second Life will open several new doors to me as a new user for not only academic social research but to a world with endless possibilities. Though I have not logged many hours in the game I have read and encountered several interesting and thought provoking elements that deal with gender, race and identity. In the future I will be sure to include more hands on experiences as I come to slowly master the social networking world of Second Life.

        I have added a small section to my blog entry for those of you would like to read more about Second Life from non-academic sources. I strongly encourage you to take a look and post a reply, share a link or ask a question. I will do my best to reply quickly and plan on having weekly updates to the blog for those who just can’t get enough of Second Life!

Interesting links to non-academic sources that deal with unique player experiences:

        This short YouTube documentary explains how Kasi Nafus known by her SL (Second Life) name of Nephilane Protagonist has created a successful business out of creating clothes for users to purchase in SL. She has received a substantial amount of hostility from others who dare to consider her job as meaningless in today’s society. How do you feel about her job within a “game”? What do you think about the conversion of virtual dollars in “hard” currency? Take a look at the clip and feel free to share your opinion!

        A brief article I received from a friend met in game about the concepts of female avatars in Second Life. The online source describes experiences of female players and the “real world” assumptions that are inherently attached to female avatars within Second Life. The article offers several interesting quotes for discussion here are two samples: “The desire to be approached and talked to by another avatar is realized by creating a sexually idealized character.” What do you think about this quote? How similar or different are real world physical appearances rated or judged compared to that in Second Life? “In fact, the creation of the sexually-idealized character at the expense of a character more in line with many players’ tastes is mostly deemed necessary for making friends.” A further extension of the above question, does being more attractive in the outside world mean a better social life or does this only occur in Second Life?

Thank you for your input and I will be sure to keep you all updated on my virtual experiences with gender, race and identity in Second Life!

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