Video game avatars—especially those with customizable bodies and clothes—can provide a unique opportunity to explore gender identity and presentation. This is something that frequent gamers may take for granted, but the practice is providing an interesting platform for Master’s student in Cultural Studies and experienced game developer, Egan Henderson, to critically examine the concept of embodiment and its relationship to gender. In particular, Henderson is investigating the gendered embodiment of an avatar as experienced through modern, high-fidelity virtual reality (VR).
A sense of embodiment
For their thesis, Henderson is using a definition of embodiment (becoming a body) that includes three sub-senses:
- Self-location. Understanding the space you’re in as a viable reality. In other words, you feel it’s possible that the space exists and for your body to be in this place.
- Agency. When you feel you have control over the body that you’re in.
- Body ownership. The belief that the body itself is viable—you’re able to feel yourself in the body instead of just seeing it.
In the context of VR, embodiment can happen at different levels depending on how real the virtual space feels (the space is physically viable), how real it feels to move your virtual body (choppy and disconnected versus smooth and accurate), and how real the virtual body feels as a replacement for your actual body (spatial similarity to your actual body).
In writing his thesis, Henderson will be referencing the work of cultural scholars going back to the 1990s, when theoretical work about virtual reality was largely speculative, and connecting that work, and modern understandings of VR, to cultural concepts around gender embodiment.
“I’m looking at VR as a way to explore self-realization when playing a game—the construction of a greater personality based on what you are realizing about yourself. And how that personality is shaped by cultural norms,” Henderson says. “When you look at gender presentation and identity, it's rooted in a lot of what we see as ‘traditional’. Hegemonic masculine culture, for example, where to be a man, you have to be buff and have facial hair and construct your identity out of these known markers of gender in order to be perceived as that gender.”
Developing new knowledge through research creation
Henderson’s knowledge of Cultural Studies literature will inform the choices they make when constructing the game, and the knowledge they gain in its construction—about embodiment and the exploration of gender identity and presentation—will then be collected into a chapter of their thesis. The game itself is an example of a new and popular kind of knowledge development: research creation.
“You have to approach any cultural object from multiple perspectives, and one that hasn't really been honored in the context of the academy until very recently is the notion that we should be able to think by making things,” says Dr. Liam Mitchell, Cultural Studies professor and Henderson’s supervisor. “By critically making things, by experimenting, by messing around, there is a qualitatively different mode of thinking that you engage in when you create. I think it's very difficult to arrive at the same conclusions after having made something than it is just studying it as a critic from outside.”
Using gendered embodiment to promote self-realization
Henderson will argue in his thesis that a game can be created in a way that provides an opportunity for embodiment—and specifically for gendered embodiment—that allows the user to explore ideas around identity and presentation in a game. The game Henderson is making will do this by showing the player a mirror that reflects their avatar, then breaking that mirror into several shards. The player must then collect those shards and piece back together both the mirror and their own identity. Each piece reveals another part of their body, which shows them that the body they are in has always been theirs and thus represents them in the virtual world. The hope is that this experience will encourage the player’s sense of embodiment in their avatar and allow them to use that embodiment to explore gender. Henderson’s hope is that completing the game will result in a new understanding of identity and self-realization.
“The goal is to break down a cultural understanding of embodiment, break down an understanding of gender, then show how a person can create a game that argues for those,” says Henderson. “There are unique experiences in VR that you can’t get with flat games. My hope is that others can take this idea and go further with it. I think of this as a starting place—an opening up of what you can create, especially in the avant-garde space of queer games.”