May 24th, 2005

Video game forums, it should be said right off the bat, deserve their own ethnography. Or, at the least, they deserve a thick chapter in some fabulous study on culture and the formation of society through the internet, right after the section on massive multi-player RPG’s and before the part about Xbox Live.

Forums have their own sets of expectations outside of normal social codes. Communication itself, in the form of the written word, becomes highly distorted. Users, primarily adolescent boys, while occasionally making well-intentioned remarks, often speak crudely and thoughtlessly; their subconscious anger and aggression, neatly hidden away at school or in the home, is allowed to permeate their forum selves, facilitated by the mask of distance and essential anonymity provided by the internet. People, whenever participating in modes of online interaction, are not actual themselves; they are doubles of themselves, online people. As such, they define themselves through the things they write, the names they select, and, most noticeably, their avatars.

Interestingly, while the vast majority of forum-users are male, one can see a considerable number of female avatars in any forum thread. Lots of male gamers are choosing for their avatars images of women, both real and animated. Avatars are traditionally thought of as representations of the users (The word itself means embodiment or incarnation). So are these men identifying with women? Are they using the extra-societal space of the forums to explore new definitions of self and gender? Maybe, but if so they’re not willing to admit it. We’re talking about the same crowd that labeled Katamari hands-down “gay.” Most guys, when asked about their female avatars, claim they select them because, if they have to look at someone while they post/game, it might as well be a hot girl. Someday I’ll make sense of all the rampant heterosexuality that plagues the gaming industry…

And another question: Are these guys, the ones with female avatars, trying to present themselves as male or female? Are other users supposed to think of them as men or women? Seems to me like a complicated case of online transvestitism. What does it mean? Check back for answers to these questions and more; I sense a real editorial/feature article coming on. Now to find a publication who’s forum-users won’t giggle at the word sexuality.

Tags: Blog

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