Gender in Constructed Worlds

Gender in virtual worlds is an interesting concept.  In virtual digitized worlds, particularly the ones to create customized characters, there are often a multitude of options ranging from human to talking panda bear (such as in World of Warcraft). With so many games offering a range of options to customize in-game avatars, one would think that virtual worlds would create spaces free from identity-based social problems such as racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Alas, this is not the case, for a number of reasons.  First, about 90% of game developers are both male and heterosexual.  This constrictive hold on content production greatly limits the diversity of viewpoints represented in interactive experiences, regardless of cosmetic customization of in-game avatars. 

This does, however, intrude upon the customization of in-game avatars.  For the most part, player characters that are male are overly masculine and non-sexualized.  They represent a power fantasy.  Meanwhile, female player characters are usually overly sexualized, and tend to represent a form of sexual fantasy.  If part of the purpose of these immersive games is to allow players to indulge in personal fantasies, then there is often no legitimate way to play out the fantasy of being a woman and physically powerful.  However, just as similarly, it is very difficult for a player to indulge in the fantasy of being a male but sexually attractive – outside of being six feet of muscles and scars, anyway.  Nevertheless, male characters vary far more.  Male characters are allowed to be unattractive or average and can also be attractive (if non-sexualized, they can still be handsome).  Female characters must universally be sexually appealing, thus proving that the idea of male gaze is enforced within these worlds.

A common within the video game industry joke is the “Chainmail Bikini”.  A male warrior character from a medieval fantasy world wears plate armor that covers everything but his face.  A female warrior character from the same world will wear chainmail that covers her nipples and genitals and nothing else. Both will have the same capabilities in terms of gameplay, but the fantasy is obviously split into one of physical power and one of sexual arousal.  In some games, the same armor can be traded between male and female characters.  On male it becomes plate armor, on women – right back to the chainmail bikini, like some kind of sexist, metal, virtual Schrödinger’s cat.

In regards to females, there is also the stereotype that girls do not play videogames.  Male video game hobbyists outrank female players by a margin of about 2 or 3 males for every single female.  However, game scholarship is not very well defined in this area.  Most research in this area has a weak definition of a video game hobbyist.  For example, a woman who plays Facebook browser based games for 10 minutes a day is usually listed as being as much of a “gamer” as a girl who puts 2 hours a day into a more complex and difficult game.  This is overall a flaw with research in the industry that needs to be fixed.

Nevertheless, the evidence still points to girls playing less than boys.  The question often asked: “Is this because girls don’t like the medium, or because games aren’t developed with girls in mind?”  Personally, I think a bigger question is “Why aren’t more women developing games?”  It would seem to reason, logically, that women would know what women want.  However, the entire female gender has largely been excluded from the modern world of video game production, and female producers and directors in particular are rare if not for all intents and purposes non-existent.

In this case, it is sad but true that technology shapes society as much as society shaped technology.  In studies of virtual worlds, it has been found that people tend to direct their avatars to unconsciously follow social norms.  People play games and prevent their characters at staring at others, have their characters obey personal space, and so on.  So it follows that, just like many studies in real life, players tend to unconsciously regard white, attractive, male player avatars as being preferred.  Male characters keep their distance from each other and make less eye contact so as not to seem “gay” and androgynous, transgender, or transsexual characters are considered less desirable than both male and female characters.

Since the player base for these games is so geared towards white heterosexual males, since that demographic is the one producing them, which has two major effects.  First is the bigotry and homophobia towards gay male players.  It is a topic that is somewhat outside of the scope of this post but it is not uncommon to receive death threats just for identifying as gay in certain online games.  Secondly, female characters are valued for their sex appeal.  Through both of these avenues, male heterosexual players seek to prove and enforce their heterosexuality by rejecting homosexuals and embracing the idea of woman as sex object.

One of the things I was most disappointed with my cursory look through articles about gender in games is that I couldn’t find a lot of scholarly stuff about cross-play – playing a gender or sex other than the one the player has in real life.  I’d be interested to know the social dynamics behind that.



Use of Blogs to Promote and Wirte Fiction

Online blogs are both personal and public, being created for personal use but marketed for public consumption. This format is typical of Web 2.0 technologies that emphasize ease of use and participation. Blogs can participate in journalism, scholarship, identity formation, pedagogy, promotion, and information management.
As an author, I’m particularly interested in the use of blogs as a way to build communities of practice around fiction. The use of blogs for writing, publishing, and promoting provides what I think is an interesting alternative to mainstream publishers for an author to get their feet on the ground. I know of two popular novels – “John Dies at the End” and “Worm” that both started or are starting publication using some variation of this format. Fielser and others who have done research on the phenomenon of “internet fandom” have noted how works of fiction can foster online communities that regulate social norms and change perception of a work. So could an author use a blog or blog-like technology to purposefully cultivate a fandom in order to promote their works?
Author Lori Jareo self-published a Star Wars fanfic novel on a blog, and then attempted to charge donations to see it via Amazon. For this action, she was (perhaps rightly) criticized. However, personally, I am interested to see what the feedback would be for a non-fanfiction work published in this manner. Steven A. Hetcher noted in a 2009 work that the backlash against Jareo was a classic example of how blogs can be employed as social norms to regulate remix cultural mores. Casey Fielser (2007) made similar observations, noting that blogs have a transformative effect on the publishing and promotion, as well as social regulation of materials published upon them. If something published on a blog can garner such negative attention, might it not be possible to use a blog to garner positive attention for an original work?
Mayzlin and Yoganarasimhan (2011) noted that participation in blogs allowed authors to show the quality of their work by providing a means of linking to and from other quality works. Though their research was mostly focused on journalism, it may also hold true for works of fiction.

Many self-publishing avenues also closely link blogs with e-book distribution. For example, blog site WordPress is compatible with WooCommerce, which is a plug-in that facilitates the distribution of digital works.

This article ( by Kimberley Grabas, however, says the use of blogs by fiction writers is best used to intensify interest in a small audience rather than reach out to a larger one. In fact, a lot of blogs where authors discussed blogging noted that most popular blogs are built around authoritative value, and that it was difficult to attract people to a more generalized fiction blog.

Perhaps the most interesting result from all this has been the emergence of the “blognovel”, a narrative in the form of a diary of a fictional character shaped by comments from visitors as the story progresses. This can create a unique, socio-technological form of narrative that hasn’t really been seen before the advent of Web 2.0.

I think there is a lot of potential let untapped in using blogs for fiction. Whether it’s posting stories, editorials, reviews, promoting publishing, fostering communities, intensifying fan devotion and so on that has yet to be explored. When I finish writing my first novel I plan on experimenting with blogs as a way to promote and share pieces of it for promotion and criticism. I’m pretty excited to see what happens.

I do wish that there was more research on this particular sub-field. Almost all the information I could find about this was from the anecdotal experience of authors. I was able to find some peer-reviewed journal articles somewhat relating to it about fandoms and fan-fiction, but it’s not quite the same, so that seems like an interesting topic to look at in the future when it comes to technology, media, and informatics.

Interesting Links: