Monday, December 6, 2010

Why Did That Man Call You "Jessica", Daddy?

originally published 17 March 2009

Something people wonder about (but don't always get up the nerve to ask me) is: "why do you have a female avatar?"

If you've spent any time in a virtual world -- heck, if you've spent any time on the Internet -- the entire phenomenon of RL males appearing as female (or RL females as male) probably doesn't even raise an eyebrow. With an AV in virtual space it's a bit more in-your-face -- it's a visual medium, so it's not just a name, you see them, too -- but gender-swapping is certainly nothing new.

But people who aren't used to it can find it a bit disconcerting. And -- let's be completely blunt -- people sometimes wonder if the RL person is gay or transgendered or if they have "gender issues", etc[1]. But in my experience, that's not always -- not even often -- the cause for the gender-swap.

Everyone has their own reasons for choosing their AV gender. For me, it was a few things all rolled into one:
  • The biggest reason is, simply, that I'm really bad at making male AVs. When I started out with all of this virtual worlds stuff 4+ years ago, I had a male AV. He looked awful. I received lots of independent confirmation of this. And I confess that I am vain enough that I want to look good, especially in a medium where creativity is so highly valued.

    The problem is that I'm a guy and I don't know what makes a guy good-looking. And I've talked to enough other men about this to know that this is a "guy thing" and it's not just me. I can make guesses and general observations ("he's nicely groomed (+1) and has a strong jaw (+1), but his eyes are too close together (-1) ..."), but I can spend all day looking at pictures of Brad Pitt, Heath Ledger, Mel Gibson, Sean Connery, and James Brolin, and I still don't know how to adjust the sliders or paint the skin to make a handsome face. Heck, the only reason I know Brad and Heath and Mel and so forth are handsome is because people have told me they are.

    But tens of thousands of years of evolution and decades of real-time programming have gone into the development of a neural net in my brain that allows me to appraise female attractiveness in under a second. This makes the entire "code / compile / test" cycle so astoundingly short that I can easily build an attractive female face simply by moving the sliders around and it's obvious what "works" and what doesn't. And so it turns out that having a female AV allows me to get in better touch with both my "feminine side" and my innate Male Chauvinist Pig-osity.[2]
  • I've always been curious about what it must be like to be female. If you think about it, all over the world, women and men are raised very differently and treated very differently from each other. Not that playing a female AV in SecondLife is going to give me the full authentic experience of blossoming into womanhood. But it can give me a small taste of it. For instance: the first time a male AV tried to chat me up for a date was a serious eye-opener. Get a clue, guys!
  • This has changed over time, but back in 2005, options for male AV clothing and accessories were abysmally few; jeans and a black t-shirt was "state of the art" and it was very hard to find prim hair for guys. It was simply easier and more fun to dress up a female AV. Although my fashion sense is still rather spotty: someone once told me that I dressed like a comic-book superheroine. Not a conscious decision on my part, but -- I think they got it right.
  • This is more a reason why I've kept my female AV: as mentioned in an earlier post, name and reputation and identity are all tightly intertwined. And over time, Jessica has developed a nice reputation as a good builder and scripter. I don't want to simply abandon all of that by moving to a new male AV with a different name.
All of that said, in the end I cannot lie: I like designing female AVs. It's fun and I seem to have a knack for it. It takes time but over the years I've developed about 35 different looks for Jessica, and I'll wear different ones as the mood takes me. Which drives some of my friends crazy, but oh well.

In the past I've done a little bit of static 3D AV work with DAZ and, while the resolution is much higher, the results seem simply lifeless. But the virtual world is a dynamic medium that allows for movement and interaction. It's more than just achieving "the look"; it's finding just the right walk, or just the right stand anim that makes her toss her flexi-prim hair just so. If you do it right, it's as if your AV comes alive on the screen. There is genuinely nothing else like it on Earth.

All of this is preface to the fact that I'm starting a new experiment: a magick faery plonked me on the nose and I now have a new AV named Jesse Qin, who will be my male aspect in-world. At least, that's the plan. I've only barely started working on him yet -- but I've learned a few things over the years plus I know the right people to ask for professional help. So I'm optimistic. *fingers crossed* I don't see myself ever giving up Jessica -- she is just too much a part of me now. But the future is certainly beginning to look interesting.
Jesse v0.1 alpha and Jessica -- I've got a lot of work to do 

[1] And I'd like to add that I'm happy I work for a company that has a longstanding, established policy that such things don't matter.
[2] This is a generalization based on personal observation and unsupported by any real data that I am aware of: men seem to have more "agreement" on what constitutes feminine beauty, while women tend to have a wider, more individualized range of different traits that they like in men. A psychiatrist friend of mine who has some personal experience with all of this tells me, simply, "women tend to be attracted to men that they perceive to be kind". But still, "kindness" is an ill-defined attribute. The only practical angle I can work out of this is that Smiling is a Good Thing. So I'm going to put some effort into making Jesse a smilin' kind of guy. This goes against the grain in SecondLife, where the vast majority of male AVs seem to go for that stoic, rugged, tough-guy image ala Clint Eastwood in The Outlaw Josey Wales.

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