To be honest, the separation and classification in digital world, particularly in the online games, is partly understandable and in the same time completely inappropriate in my view. Considering virtual space and telepresence there is always connections between real world and digital world in the presence of metaphoric environment. In order to recognise what we see during our virtual experience, furthermore – to be affected during it, the developers have to copy in some way our reality. In this line of thoughts there are limitations – if you want someone to see a tree, the digital image necessarily adopts characteristics of the real tree.
In a reality based on binary oppositions, it does not matter if we are talking about gender, race, class, etc. It is always ‘me’ and ‘the others’ and every sphere in our real life is based on the presentation of similarities and differences, in most of the cases trying to set normativity. If I am developing new game and if I want the players to feel embodied, I have to integrate well known recognisable images and situations. And this is why I find it inappropriate. We can use digital reality to improve ourselves and the world we live in, which means that we are supposed to experiment with ‘different’ selves and situations to build our character.
Why we narrow down the avatars in games to males and females? We could have 10 different genders and in the beginning, probably, players will not recognise them and feel embodiment. But is not this one of the point to have digital representation? To LEARN from it, to CHANGE yourself, to EVOLVE?!
With the technology’s progress and generation of people considering themselves open-minded, it is hard to believe we still face issues as sexual ‘normativity’. We create hypersexualized females and hypermasculine males and expect of them to be together, because ‘this is how it is’, it is the norm and we accept to follow it even in a non-real world where we could be anything and establish relationships of any kind.
When first introduced to digital reality, one could decide that ‘everything is possible’ and one’s imagination is the only limit. Can you really become WHOEVER and WHATEVER you WANT? Hum, I do not think so. When I first entered World of Warcraft, I had to create my avatar and here is the catch. I was introduced to quite limited possibilities – male or female, or must I say ‘bodybuilder liked’ male or ‘sexy model liked’ female. Ignoring hyper interpretation of genres, I choose female.
Secondly, I had to choose race – I got that in the game world race stands more for species and, in fact, did not think about racism in that moment, because it is rather curious than unreasonable to have in some way different than the real representation. It was easy to choose elves, as I always thought of them in connection to the nature and that was the ideas that influenced me at the current moment. Then it was the skin colour – here one can see the true limits considering races, there are pale skin tones to dark skin tones… and I can see that many of the options that are available represent the dominant ‘white’ race, which I am actually part of, but… what about if I want my hyper-sexy female elf to be green?
My real self was born white, it was not my choice and probably because it is considered as dominant race nowadays I have not felt discriminated based on my skin colour. I had situation when I spent days in community of black people where I was the only white and everything felt normal to me and to them (it was not like ‘me’ and ‘then’ in the current moment, in fact this description developed later when I was trying to explain to someone else the situation). If I can accept the skin colour I was born with, I cannot accept that in virtual reality as players we are choosing from pre-set options instead of creating avatar on our own.
So where is the freedom that Internet promise to us? Where is this reality free of ‘social institutions’ we are subjects to? Yes, I can be someone else in digital world, I can put different masks, to wear different cloths… but still my choice will be from the options there, which eliminate immediately the idea of free will and most important – I still will be JUDGE by others based on the established social norms in our real world.
Somehow we achieve the opposite effect – instead of express free thinking and experimenting with new forms in the face of our digital self, we narrow it down in order to fit with the limitations set in our minds by the ideas of our real self. The sad is that my avatar is not an extension of myself unrestricted and independent digital being, it is a slave of my subjectivity which is constantly under the pressure of being shaped by different social NORMS.
It is a little bit like VICIOUS CIRCLE – we are choosing virtual world, because we want to escape our reality with all of its restrictions, normativity, expectations. But in order to feel embodied and therefore be affected by our digital self, we apply our limited way of binary perception in virtual reality so that we can recognise and explain what we experience.
Our minds are burdened by trying to fit in the norms and this way we put borders to our possible freedom in digital world. Even if I comment only gender and race, which are important issues for sure, there are many more to be considered – if we look very closer (the devil is in the details, they say) perhaps we will be able to find examples of the whole spectrum of social restrictions and institutionalised norms presented in our virtual reality. Even if we think that we possess fully freedom in the Internet, if we take a closer look, we may be able to see that in fact we are trapped in our own injured by normativity limitations mentality.
Nathaniel Poor, Digital Elves as a Racial Other in Video Games: Acknowledgment and Avoidance, Games and Culture 2012 7: 375
Networked affect, Ken Hillis; Susanna Paasonen; Michael Petit