Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Do Clothes Make the Avatar?

Dont Ask Dont Tell
Location: Student Wikis

I've been wondering about the curious situation my students encountered this semester, especially those men who became females for a short time, as part of an assignment to change gender or race.

Only one female student became male. She felt that her positive reception as a dark-skinned man got influenced by a well made, non-stock suit I provided her avatar, and she focused on racial stereotypes in SL, not gender.

How much a role does clothing play in how we get treated? Another female student who dressed very provocatively, as a black woman, was hit upon constantly by male avatars.

What about the fellows who changed gender?

One student, who dressed fairly conservatively, had no offers a reasonable chat with a male avatar new to SL. The student felt that "this avatar just wanted to have conversation and didn't have any ulterior motives." Soon, however a flirtatious male came by, quickly noting his interest in dancing, "especially when he is with a girl and they are dancing 'slow and romantic.' " When my student didn't take that bait, the man stated that "he has a girlfriend in Second Life and that he didn't want to mislead me."

The irony makes me grin as I type these lines. Another male, pictured at the top of the post, went--with the chuckling assistance of a female classmate--for the naughty schoolgirl look so popular in Second Life. He had a very different series of encounters, but he too never got propositioned. In fact, several residents gave him advice about clubs to visit. His worst encounter involved being muted, when he tried to enter a conversation.

Not all students took the experience very seriously. One student made his female avatar a parody, with huge breasts and oddly fitting high-top sneakers. Some thought his avatar to be a griefer, and I enjoy this exchange:
My first attempt at conversation was. . . in a courtyard of the welcome area. I asked him what does he think avatars should look like. He said “not like you”. Then I asked well why not, and he responded with “I am uncharming and I should have a good life”, and with that being said, he casually walked away. As he walked away, I decided to make it seem as a soap opera by saying “don’t act like we had nothing, you were in love with me!”.
In love with getting away from a strange-looking and pushy avatar, surely.

We don't know in most cases who's behind an avatar. But at least we can counsel our students to dress their own avatars modestly. Beyond that advice, I have no clear answer for colleagues teaching with SL. As my Magic Eight Ball used to advise me "Reply hazy, try again." I hope that other faculty will study how clothing, in the same settings and on the same avatars, influences the reactions of others.

See you all in the New Year. Happy Holidays!

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