>>Gendered Avatars

An "Avatar" is a hindu term for a god or godess. The term avatar, popularized by science fiction authors like William Gibson, has come to mean a visual representation of a player or user in a virtual world, computer game or chat space. An avatar can range from a cartoon smiley face in 2-d graphical chat space like the "Palace" to a high resolution 3-dimensional human figure in an action-adventure game like "Tomb Raider." Many early computer games in the 1980's and 1990's contained avatars of only one gender (male). The following is a summary of ideas about computer game avatar gender that I, Anne-Marie Schleiner, wrote about in the article "Mutation.fem" for Kiasma Museum in February 2000 and also an article entitled, "Does Lara Croft wear fake polygons?" published by Learnoardo at MIT Press. In the early 1990's some fighting games like Mortal Combat began to offer an option to play a woman character, among their cast of other monsters and possible fighters. Also, in the online game mod community of shooter gamers, male gamers began to "patch" female characters into games which were once exclusively populated by male soldier avatars. In the mid 1990's commercial games like Tomb Raider and Resident Evil were released with built in female characters.

These first female game heroines patched by game hackers were created for the most part by men. This raises interesting questions. Where they simply lonely male geeks who derived pleasure from their female promesthean digital creations? Were they motivated by a desire to experiment with "wearing another gender", navigating the often exaggerated feminine figure of the avatar through computer game world tunnels much like a drag queen saunters down a runway? Or are there other ways to configure the relationship between male players and female avatars?

In the late 1990's female players became more frequent on network shooter games like Quake, so much so that ID Software added a female avatar in their release of Quake II. The look of these avatars began to change. Female Quake Clans like PMS, (Psycho Men Slayers), and Babes with an Attitude created custom skins, (2-Dimensional textures that entirely wrap around the 3d figure) for avatars that are both feminine but also pumped up with menacing musculature. These female avatars resemble female body builders more than the early playboy girl type avatars created by male gamers. Male avatars have also changed their appearance from the early 1990's. In computer games like Quake these male avatars have evolved into extremely chunky muscle monsters.