This chapter analyses the ways in which gender is important in studies of virtual reality (VR) technologies. Gender is inscribed in virtual subjects. Virtual reality systems become embedded in 'everyday life' through leisure and consumption. Previous studies have tended to polarize the vision of bodily transcendence in cyberspace against the reproduction of social and cultural inequalities hence the specific sites, in which the social relations of virtual reality are enacted, have tended to be neglected.

A multi-sited ethnographic study of immersive virtual reality systems is the basis for discussion of how virtual reality technologies produce gender in specific sites. Virtual systems are positioned and used differently in various locales, such as arcades, art galleries, bars, theme parks and cafés. The chapter discusses the practices of consumption which (re)produce and maintain conventional bodily and subjective boundaries. What relationships are becoming institutionalized? Are new conventions of gender created in these consumption relationships? The construction of spectacle and space and the specific bodily disciplines required for participation in virtual realities in locations of consumption are particularly important in the formation of gender dynamics. Multiple subject positions are offered through competing technical, economic and cultural practices in diverse sites. These positions can establish new conventions of virtual identities and experiences, but also remain shot through with familiar operational categories of gendered identities and bodily practices. This chapter argues that immersive virtual reality technologies cannot be understood without some consideration of the locales in which they are embedded and the social identities they make possible or constrain. A local, reflexive and feminist identities are played out in sites that enable and institutionalize some forms of gendered virtual subjectivity and constrain others.


Researching virtual reality technologies


The discussion here focuses on two major cases. The first is one of the most widely distributed immersive games systems in location-based entertainment markets, manufactured by Virtuality® Entertainment Ltd.[1] Its most popular game is Dactyl Nightmare™ in the 'action' genre. By way of contrast, Osmose©, an interactive piece of artwork by Char Davies of Softimage, Canada, uses an immersive virtual reality system to construct a world with 12 different 'dimensions' (Davies 1995). This was a one-off project at Softimage that was designed for gallery installation. It has been exhibited at four different galleries in North America and Europe.

In both these cases, attention is paid as to how the technologies produce gender as a mode of embodiment and subjectivity in different locations. Participation in virtual worlds entails moving between the digital spaces of virtual worlds and the non-programmed spaces of consumption sites. Shifting practices of gender are involved in these transitional practices.

Consuming worlds — the digital enactment of gender

There seems little doubt that new computing and communications technologies are implicated in the reproduction and maintenance of gender in various ways, whether in the gendered production of computing technologies (Ullman 1995; Stone 1996), the gendered consumption of ICTs (Haddon 1992; Sofia 1993) or the gender politics of domestic ICT use (Silverstone and Haddon 1996). Virtual reality technologies too, have been the subject of such analyses. Kramarae (1995), for example, provided comment on the role of women in producing virtual reality and the kinds of virtual worlds produced. Sofia (1992) similarly explored the psychoanalytic dimensions of virtual world spaces and their implications for producing gender. More recently, Balsamo (1996) and Hayles (1996) have investigated virtual reality technologies in use and what these processes of use might mean for the production of gendered bodies and gendered persons.

Certainly such digital genderings were apparent in the digital worlds researched here. The most popular game encountered in the reconnaissance of entertainment sites was Dactyl Nightmare, played in Virtuality Ltd's virtual reality system. In Dactyl Nightmare, the objective of the game is to score points by 'shooting' other characters. The participants play across a game board suspended in space — five fields that are connected on two different levels via staircases. A recurrent threat is a pterodactyl which attempts to pick up and drop (thereby 'killing') the players in the game.

The digitized bodies – 'avatars' – which all players are assigned take the form of a 'generic' human figure, a chunky body with squarish outlines of arms and legs, having blue legs, a white torso, and a dark upper head (culturally endowed with jeans, T-shirt and short dark hair). Such cultural markers are clearly masculine in the western context. The general shape is consistent with the construction of 'the body', the historically constructed western individualist subject whom Grosz (1994) suggests is a historical abstraction because it evokes sameness, similarity and continuity. As Robins (1996) notes in the case of virtual systems, one potential outcome of 'becoming digital' is that if previously exclusionary categories of difference are disrupted by the malleability of digital bodies and spaces, all identities can be rendered as one of these 'universal' (masculine) digital identities, thus suppressing the material effects of difference in digital interaction.


In contrast to Dactyl Nightmare and Legend Quest, some digital worlds do not represent a body for a participant. Rather, embodiment is signalled entirely through the construction of a 'point of view' (POV). In Osmose, for example, a POV is constructed entirely through a free-floating gaze as a point of consciousness, drawing on the conventions of first person visual perspective. Osmose is not one world, but rather an assemblage of multiple worlds — including text, cloud, clearing, tree, leaf, forest, subterranean earth, pond, abyss, code, Cartesian grid and lifeworld — that seek to explore the connections between technology, nature and embodiment. Most of these dozen world spaces are presented as 'archetypal' elements of nature, framed through 'referential' worlds: the Cartesian grid for initial orientation, the textual `superstratum' (excerpts of poetic/philosophical writing on nature—technology relations), the code 'substratum' (comprised of some of the code used to generate the worlds in Osmose) and the 'lifeworld' which draws the participant out of the experience. These worlds are interrelated and overlapping. It is possible to move through them, but also to hover between them, and to experience different elements of each world simultaneously (see Morse 1997; Heim 1998 for discussions of Osmose).

The techniques used in Osmose nevertheless construct a POV familiar from other media (including entertainment software). The development of perspectival representation enabled particular kinds of perception and interpretation, and constrained others. As Berger (1974: 10) notes, 'every image embodies a way of seeing', and the very perception of images shifts historically in relation to the ways in which images are socially produced and situated. In western societies, the Renaissance produced a shift to the conventions of perspective in image making which

centres everything on the eye of the beholder ... The conventions called those appearances reality. Perspective makes the single eye the centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity. The visible world is arranged for the spectator as the universe was once thought to be arranged for God. According to the convention of perspective there is no visual reciprocity.

(Berger 1974: 16, emphasis in original)

Relations of the visible are culturally specific (Grosz 1994) and contextual (Merleau-Ponty 1962), and western histories have privileged the visual (Crary 1990; Nast and Kobayashi 1996) historically associated with masculinity (Classon 1997).

How participants take up gendered identities in digital spaces is, however, rather more fraught than a simple mapping of digital gender on to organic bodies or point of view on to 'consciousness'. Gender is not a product but rather a process. There is no 'fixed' meaning to digital representations, nor is there a single way those signs are interpreted. As Balsamo argues '[i]f we think of ... embodiment as an effect ... we can begin to ask questions about how the body is staged differently in different realities' (1996: 131). On the one hand, being 'dispossessed' of a body offers possibilities for ambiguity in the construction of self and bodily experience. On the other hand, digitally-coded bodily attributes become markers available for participants to negotiate as already materially-embodied beings with biographies and histories (Grosz 1994). The shape and form of a digital body, coding clothing, skin colour or hairstyle, points to the ways these markers of difference are explicitly constructed and therefore open up performative possibilities. While the bodies, for example, in Dactyl Nightmare bear unmistakable western cultural codes of masculinity, participants coded generic bodies as the more 'everyday', performative genders of themselves and other participants. Women can and do experience the 'generic' digital representation of their body in Dactyl Nightmare as 'feminine':

I mean I went as a woman and I was a woman in the thing ... You were on a ... floating platform in space with stairs ... And ... definitely, you know. I was a woman in virtual reality, as I am in real life. It made a difference in the sense that it seemed more real, like if I was a bloke, a man in the game [grimace]. But I was a curvaceous woman and I played it to suit me.
(Interview, Cate, Auckland, March 1996)

Considering the specificity of bodily form and action in digital worlds, and asking questions about the identities and investments of participants, therefore suggest a fraught and contradictory field of investments in gender across programmed and non-programmed worlds. If the histories and biographies of participants are important in the construction of virtual engendering, the histories and biographies of the machines are equally so, including the material sites in which the machines are embedded. Crucially, the worlds discussed here are situated in sites of consumption of various sorts. The practices of consumption have important effects in what it means to 'become virtual' and how gender is enacted in that process.


1. The names of all games and equipment in this chapter are copyrighted and/or trademarked to the respective authors, artists and/or companies that have developed and produced them.
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