Saturday, 23 August 2014

052: Do women outnumber men in SL?

This morning I came across an interesting story from PBS that tells us that the Entertainment Software Association released a report about the composition of the gaming community.  The full report is found here, and the PBS story is found here.  The PBS story puts it more bluntly -- adult women are the largest video-game playing demographic, now larger than teenage males. (I have to emphasize that this is all about the United States, which doesn't take into account the much larger number of people in the remainder of the world. But that's not what they were trying to do, it seems.) Adult women now make up 48% of gamers.

I thought this was interesting, partly because of something I thought when I read a blog post by another blogger some weeks ago, and I commented on it here; adult heterosexual women assume they are the dominant modality in SL. I'll confess that this idea for me is relatively unexamined; something that I assumed but had never really thought about until the other day. I generally hate it when people go around with unexamined assumptions, so I'm rather ashamed of myself, but at least I'm moving forward.

Upon reflection I think my unconscious "rule of thumb" that SL was 65% to 70% females and 30% to 35% males was based at least partly on an experience I'm accustomed to having in shopping areas for SL clothing and accessories. Whatever kind of store you're in, there will always be three times as many different individual items for women's purchase than mens -- unless it's something basically for men only. That's one kind of evidence. Another one is inductive reasoning: that it seems to me that there are a lot of rules in SL that are meant for the benefit of women players; minutiae about registering a domestic partnership, that you can't register more than one, and various kinds of safety boundaries so that you cannot be forced to have an unpleasant experience (ban lines, blocking, "adult areas", etc.). I'll tell you, as a gay man, these are not boundaries that are designed for the benefit of players with a Y chromosome. I'm not saying it's better or worse, just that a male's experience of this will be slightly different for reasons of generalized sex-based competencies. In general, women are faster typists than men, for instance.

There are a lot of things about the basic design of SL that are more attractive to women than men, at least that's how it seems to me.  It's an environment that values precision in detail, good communication skills, strong visual presentation abilities, and an ability to "invest" (to psychologically merge) in an avatar seamlessly. In my experience, women are good at those things. As well, SL's focus on visual presentation abilities is quite a bit about clothes, and -- well, I think it's true that 75% of the words in the English language that describe clothing, only describe women's clothing. Women totally rule that world cognitively and in that sense they have a huge vocabulary while men struggle along with the basic 500 nouns. There is no male equivalent of, say, "peplum", "leg-o'-mutton sleeve", "dolman" or "kick-pleat", and those are representative of literally thousands of unique words to describe women's clothing. If it's about clothing, it pretty much has to be about women's clothing, in real life or SL.

And let me say here that while I may never have examined this assumption, I'm not saying I was against it. Far from it. I was not cowering under the feminist lash; I was just happy that some group of people was financially supporting SL to such an extent that I got to benefit from the overflow. I recently reviewed a book that suggested that the desire for pornography drives innovation for the internet; I don't quite think that works in SL, but it's a good model; something has to be driving SL economically and providing the impetus for innovation.

I used to think that the real-estate model was locked in place the day that Anshe Chung appeared on the cover of Business Week (2006, found here) ... now, I'm not so sure. MMOs have evolved and there are different funding models. I saw some data recently that suggest that the economic driver of Second Life is middle-aged white American women buying new hair for their avs, but I have to confess that I extracted that startling statement by aggregating a lot of data points into something reasonable. A middle-aged white American woman is the "average user" of Second Life, because as noted above she is now the average user of internet-based gaming, and the economic transaction that most frequently takes place in Second Life is the acquisition of new hair. So if a lot of middle-aged white American women are spending money in Second Life for updos at a slightly less profligate rate than they lavish on Hay Day, Angry Birds and The Sims, that's good enough to ensure that the servers will be available to run the dance clubs for gay men. I for one welcome our new midwestern housewife overlords.

It's always been my sense that there are lots more women in SL than men but recently I set out on a research quest to see what I could see. Before I give a question like this a lot of thought, I always like to see what the numbers say and go from there. To my surprise, there's bugger-all readily available. The closest available data points are seven or eight years old. All I can think is that Linden Labs for some reason decided that that kind of demographic information was proprietary ... I can sort of understand that economically. They must be telling advertisers something to suggest what kind of market they'll get, but I don't see that information readily available. They seem to think that "the world's largest user-generated virtual goods economy" is good enough and, you know, they may be right.

The last estimate we had was so old that it's completely unreliable, dated 2007, but it showed that SL was composed of something like 57% male players and 43% female players. That is, to be absolutely clear, in 2007 57% of the people seated at the computers had a Y chromosome and 43% did not. As you have no doubt already realized, this ratio has not remained static, nor does it have anything to do with the gender of the avatar any player invests.  There are so many sexual modalities in Second Life that it's impossible to say anything reliably accurate about a player by judging his/her av in any way (other than economic -- expensive avs look better to us all). I mean, you could be a genetic male in real life, but manifesting an av in SL that was meant to look like a female with male genitals under the miniskirt. And another alt that's a gay male Siberian Husky. What sexual preference would THAT be, other than perhaps "often"?

I have to say that my experience is probably guiding me in one direction; I'm a gay man who hangs around in SL with other gay men, in gay men's spaces and clubs, etc. I routinely accept invitations that state clearly I must be manifesting a male av in order to attend, because I always am and I like those spaces. And it's no more onerous in SL to keep to that than it would be in RL to wear closed-toe shoes to a bar. My experience is so overwhelmingly among male avs invested by people whom I believe to be almost exclusively gay men in real life that I have to think that my expectation of the number of women is hopelessly skewed.

It occurred to me that it was possible that -- well, this gets complicated.  My premise I'll start with is that adult women represent about 60% of Residents. Of the other 40%, about 60% of THEM are gay men. Factoring in a small number of gay women, here's how it comes out -- 55% straight women, 25% gay men, 15% straight men, 5% gay women, and all these figures have to be taken with a pound of salt. Just my best guesstimate. Something that plays into it is the availability of many other MMOs where adult straight men would prefer to spend their time killing monsters, and each other.

I don't think it's going to make much difference to my current Second Life experience if I'm outnumbered by straight women players. Gay men have niched into SL in a very robust way -- we have our own environment and you never have to see a female av if you don't want to. But it occurs to me that whatever the dominant paradigm is, it is important to keep an eye on it; if you don't, this is how changes build up over time when you're not looking and surprise the hell out of you. (An elderly relative was absolutely flabbergasted when equal marriage became the law in Canada. "I had no idea!" Well, that's what happens when you're not paying attention.) Personally I like interacting with female avs in SL, although not necessarily in every single milieu, and I always remember that no matter how muscular and hairy (or slender and large-breasted) the av next to me is, the player behind the av could be ... well, anybody.

What's your take? Are women players the largest group in SL? If so, what could that mean for the future of Second Life -- or Second Second Life?

PS: As I occasionally do, in order to illustrate this story I harvested pictures from the internet.  If you own any of these pictures and object, I'll be happy to remove your pictures upon request. I just thought they were good pictures, is all.

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