Exploring Intrinsic Gender Identity Using Second Life
Virtual worlds (VWs) provide an environment to understand and explore notions of gender and identity, particularly given the ability for users to experiment with gender in online worlds. Our study analyses gender identity using the virtual space of Second Life (SL) to explore experiences and responses to gender in an avatar. We introduced 46 novice users to the VW of SL in order to see if real life gender influenced their choices of avatar. Participants selected the gender of their original avatar and once they were used to SL, they were then asked to change the gender of that avatar. We used mixed methods research consisting of paper based questionnaires (n=34) and focus groups (n=46) conducted in SL. Nearly all participants chose an initial avatar that reflected their real-life gender with females (n=22) reporting higher levels of identification with this initial avatar. Females were significantly more concerned with the gender-specific appearance of their initial avatar. On swapping gender, females reported higher levels of discomfort and many changed back before 7 minutes. Males (n=24) did not report significant discomfort with their changed-gender avatar and did not revert back to their original avatar as quickly. Our findings suggest that female participants in this study tended to reinforce gender binaries through such things as clothing, hairstyles and behaviors of their avatars. Male participants were less likely to experience discomfort through changing the gender of their avatar (with the males noting they still perceived an avatar with a female appearance as male).
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