Woody Evans, in Information Dynamics in Virtual Worlds, 2011
The initial experiences in virtual worlds mirror other types of initiation, and these experiences can be understood as analogs to rites of passage. Gender and identity impact the initiation experience. Many games include storytelling techniques to encourage the newcomer to quickly buy-in to the new world. Non-game spaces use more passive techniques, but also attempt to initiate newcomers.
One of the most important differences between Real Life initiation and inworld initiation, and one of the hardest to ignore, is the factor of gender.
Here we might take issue with Judith Butler’s claim that there’s no such thing as essential gender identity. She says that no gender-based identity exists ‘behind the expressions of gender’, and that the expression itself is more important than any sense of male/female identity. ‘Identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’ (1999: 33).
In virtual worlds, the perspective that gender is constructed and performed rather than inherent (see also the work of Anne FaustoSterling, C. J. Pascoe, and Anne Balsamo) get more mileage. The identity problems inherent in online communities and virtual worlds make initiation as we usually understand it – which is almost always gendered – decidedly de-sexed. Newbies pick the gender they wish to perform almost as lightly as they pick the colors of their garments, their beard particularities, or their shoe styles.
Yet gender isn’t (can’t be) obviated by virtual identities. For one thing, the person behind the avatar has a gender of some kind. For another, the avatar has its own gender; in fact, the division between genders is often more cartoonishly distinct in virtual worlds than it ever could be in Real Life (think big BIG bosoms and broad BROAD hips for the ladies; wide shoulders and grim-set jaws for the lads). There’s very little that’s either fey or butch in avatars, and that’s true in virtual worlds that build in clear gender differences (like Guild Wars) as well as in worlds that allow a lot of flexibility about look and build and sexual characteristics (like Second Life). Even so, we see in Second Life a lite attitude toward gender because of the inherent transcience built into avatars; avatars are mutable. In this way, we see in Second Life something of the values reflected by Kellee Santiago in building Cloud, which was ‘dedicated to creating an emotionally rich, age[less] and genderless game experience’ (Kafai et al., 2008: 170). Queer Theory isn’t equipped for Samus Aran.
Sex is fundamental to human identity (which is why Queer Theory, with its insistence on the mutability of sexual identity, is so important), and initiation universally happens to individuals who are seen either as boys or girls (for puberty rites), or as men or women (for other kinds of initiations, later life passages, joining organizations, etc.). We may except cases of physical sexual ambiguity (hermaphrodites) or ‘third genders’ (such as the ‘two-spirit’ shamans of Native American tribes).
Victor Turner takes pains to point out the differences between the male and female initiation rites of the Ndembu people of Zambia in the 1960s. ‘Although both boys and girls,’ he says, ‘undergo initiation ceremonies, the form and purpose of the ceremonies differ widely in either case. Boys, for instance, are circumcised, but there is no cliterodectomy of girls. Boys are initiated collectively, girls individually . . .’ (1967). The differences between the purposes and comportment of male and female initiations he spells out in some detail. Again, gender provides order for initiation into the full agency of adulthood.
Those symbols of initiation (the passages, the thresholds, the stairways) that Eliade reminds us run rampant at home and office? Turns out that these symbols are quite common in virtual worlds too. Next we’ll examine the induction period, the initiation into a new identity, in virtual worlds in detail and see which elements inworld provide insight into the issues of initiatory symbols.