How Gender Stereotypes Persist, Even in Virtual Worlds

New research suggests that in virtual reality, we still carry the social baggage of our real-life gender.

Aug 20 2014, 1:45pm

Image: Shutterstock/Barone Firenze

One of the more intriguing aspects of virtual reality is the ability to play at being someone else with relative ease—all it takes is switching your avatar. Even so, mounting evidence suggests that the social baggage our real-life selves carry, particularly regarding gender, persists in virtual environments.

A recent study completed at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL) at Stanford University, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behaviour, and Social Networking, tested this hypothesis by assigning 160 subjects avatars with genders opposite to their own and pitting them against variously gendered bots in math tests. They found that subjects performed significantly better if their avatar was male, competing against female avatars, regardless of their actual gender or math skills.

The female avatar against two male bots. Image from the study

The VHIL researchers' findings suggest that participants with male avatars experience what the researchers call a "stereotype lift"—a performance boost caused by the awareness of competing against someone associated with a negative stereotype—when competing against female avatars in virtual reality. "This suggests that even when avatar-based gender representations are arbitrary, wearing a 'mask' representing a social category membership that is free of negative stereotyping (relative to a negatively stereotyped virtual identity) can be positively motivating," the researchers wrote.

In other words, sexist stereotypes about women don't dissipate at the threshold of the virtual—the VHIS report suggests that they continue on.

The study's results have numerous theoretical and practical implications at a time when many industries and organizations, not least of which the military, are embracing virtual reality. Just like in real life, incredibly strong, recalcitrant undercurrents of gender and body politics are at play in these virtual worlds. Moreover, these politics could potentially leave people who willfully choose to retain their physical form in the digital realm —and why shouldn't they?—at a distinct disadvantage.

Wearing a 'mask' representing a social category membership that is free of negative stereotyping ... can be positively motivating.

Even if the stereotype lift associated with gendered avatars could somehow be equalized, it's possible that virtual reality tech itself is biased towards users who are biologically male. Danah Boyd, a Microsoft researcher and research professor at New York University, has undertaken preliminary research that suggests devices like the Oculus Rift produce virtual environments amenable to men's retinas, but not to women's, resulting in nausea and vomiting in the latter.

Like the VHIL study, Boyd's research is inconclusive, but points to a salient line of inquiry regarding the burgeoning field of virtual reality: how do discourses of gender politics persist in spaces that are presumed to be more equal than others, by dint of being digitized?

The research done at VHIL also points to, and perhaps even validates to some degree, theories that see gender as performative. Judith Butler, in her seminal work Gender Trouble, proposed that gender is essentially an act that is inscribed on the body through lifelong processes of social conditioning. Instead of stereotypically gendered characteristics being inherent, she argued, they are performances based on expectation:

...that gender is a choice, or that gender is a role, or that gender is a construction that one puts on, as one puts on clothes in the morning, that there is a 'one' who is prior to this gender, a one who goes to the wardrobe of gender and decides with deliberation which gender it will be today.

Indeed, Butler's reference to gender as a performance that could be switched like one changes clothes in the morning mirrors the findings of the VHIL study and others like it. Except, instead of clothes, the analogy here is a virtual avatar of oneself. After switching their virtual skin, participants acted out the social role expected of their opposite gender.

Though the VHIL study suggests that virtual reality constitutes a problematic arena of gender politics, wherein men remain privileged in their all too often dominant social roles, it's also a key step in understanding how sexism is manifested in virtual worlds. Perhaps it could even lead to figuring out how to eradicate it; by problematizing gender, virtual reality opens it up to investigation like never before.

Butler herself saw the fact that gender is a fluid concept as liberating. Just maybe, with further study into how gender roles play out in virtual spaces, laughter will finally emerge in the realization that the original was constructed all along (to paraphrase Butler). And perhaps, I will add, in the dismantling of the notions that prop up sexism itself in reality both virtual and physical.