Beautiful to Me: Identity, Disability, and Gender in Virtual Environments

Beautiful to Me: Identity, Disability, and Gender in Virtual Environments

Abbe E. Forman, Paul M.A. Baker, Jessica Pater, Kel Smith
Copyright: © 2011 |Pages: 17
DOI: 10.4018/jep.2011040101
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This paper examines the portrayal of disability, gender, and identity in virtual communities where representation is a matter of convenience, style, or whim. A survey was conducted of groups, identifying themselves as disabled, with a focus on gender, in the virtual space, Second Life. Four distinctive categories were analyzed in this study: groups associated with disabilities or being disabled, race/ethnicity, gender, aging, and sexuality. In the “real world”, the visual cues that activate schemas serve as an explanation for the stigmas and ensuing isolation often felt by people with disabilities. In Second Life, where the visual cues are removed, users with disabilities are associating with others who identify as being disabled. Additionally, gender appears to play a role in the group (i.e. “communities”) found in Second Life. Regardless of binary gender framework, the differences between the groups that are externally classified as having some degree of disability, and those who choose to self identify, or affiliate with disability related groups, have rich import for the sociology of online communities as well as for the design and characteristics of games.
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“On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog” - the famous caption of a cartoon by Peter Steiner published by The New Yorker, speaks to the fact that a degree of anonymity exists for users of the Internet. The mutability of identity: gender, race, and portrayal of physical identity, is considered by many a liberating condition. A great deal of commentary exists on the “inflation of desirability” in the world of online interactions, especially in synthetic, simulated environments like Second Life where one can never be sure of the actual identity of an individual (or if indeed, it is actually a “real” individual, rather than a software simulacrum). Other virtual environments such as Facebook, while not a simulated environment, offer similar opportunities to shape or manage the representation of actual identity.

Any discussion of identity and portrayal, online or otherwise, presupposes that there is an “other” – the audience, community, or observer who perceives the individual. While community has historically been geographically and physically constructed, online communities are generally communities of self selection rather than automatically attributed membership by virtue of locale (Baker & Ward, 2002). This paper examines the nature of virtual disability, gender and identity portrayal, in which representation is a matter of convenience, style or whim, within the boundaries of the community. To explore this idea, we conducted a survey of self-identified groups (i.e. communities), in the virtual space, Second Life. The Second Life platform was chosen because it offers unique opportunities for self expression and identity development within an immersive environment. In Second Life environments personal and group identity are related mainly, but not solely, to the ‘avatar’, embodiment with interactive and immersive characteristics (Bortoluzzi & Trevisan, 2009). For this study, immersivity is crucial because “digital environments allow us to transform our self-representations dramatically, easily, and in ways that are not possible in the physical world,” which is of even greater significance because “Collaborative Virtual Environments allow [for] geographically-separated individuals to interact via networking technology, oftentimes with graphical avatars” (Yee, 2007).

The importance of this work is twofold as well as cyclical. First, the development of a theory, Disability Schema Theory, an extension of Schema Theory, will provide future researchers a foundation for continuing the discussion regarding both gender and disability in both the virtual and real world. This continuation could lead to what we refer to as the “level playing field” in the real world, similar to that which exists in the virtual world. Secondly, any movement toward understanding what causes stigma for people with disabilities including gendered stigmatization, can be used to help reduce that stigma therefore creating a world where people with disabilities are no longer marginalized and will be considered equal members of the society in which they live. Additionally, while this shifting kaleidoscope of identity is itself of interest, a more interesting phenomenon is one of individuals who choose to make apparent and explicit, conditions of their disability. This paper explores alternative expressions of gender and disability that occur in a virtual environment.

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