On Elizabeth Reid: Cultural Formations.
Chapter Three: Identity and Cyborg Body.

In a virtual environment like a MUD, the players are the most "virtual entities." They are the most problematic factor because they have no constant identity. Gender, sexuality, and corporeality are uncertain. The participants do not only SAY whatever they want, but also BE whatever they want.

The author claims that in real life, important features like gender, race, and class are conveyed physically. She mentions poor vs. affluent, probably as an example for class. I agree that race and gender are physically detectable (more or less reliable, of course), but I am not sure if this still true for class features like wealth. However, with the body freed from the physical, only the symbols remain.

Self-Made People

MUD players create their personality from scratch. Everything is virtual, their names as well as their bodies. Therefore, beauty is not a distinctive factor anymore, but a pre-requisite! Although "virtual surgery" leads to the extinction of ugliness, it doesn't free the people from the beauty myth: they just redefine themselves according to it. Additionally, signs of influence and affluence are very common. Superhuman attributes are omnipresent, for example, a "man who can see the strings that bind the universe together and mend them when they break." (p. 31) Raid says that the reason for these exaggerated and fantastical descriptions is that players try to compensate for the lack on non-textual communication channels: all the social information which is usually transmitted through several different sensual channels, is concentrated in one single channel. I am not sure if this is correct. If I talk to someone on the phone, which is restricting my communicative expressiveness too, I don't think I would exaggerate the description of my personality!? The fact that I will never meet the person to which I am talking to on the phone doesn't mean that I exaggerate social information about myself.

Ungrounding Gender

The most important cultural factors in Western society are gender, race, and class. Reid says that most Internet users are white and affluent, so only gender is left as a distinctive factor. Is this still true? She wrote her thesis more than 4 years ago, and things might be different now. If I think of the MIT community and race: what about the growing proportion of Asian people? And even within the whole community of Internet users, I guess there are significant differences in affluence, as Internet access is not as expensive as it was 4 years ago. Furthermore, I guess that the female part of Internet users is growing fast.

However, a main issue is male-female cross gendering. Three points seem to be important in discussions about males playing females: 1. Females get special privileges, and female-presenting players take advantage of this favoritism and chivalry. 2. Because a male playing a female character can be regarded as "lying," it is supposed to be unethical. 3. Many people just feel very uncomfortable when interacting with others whose gender is unclear.

On the other side, playing a person of the other sex, or "virtual colonization of the body of the of the other," seems to be an experience which can give a better understanding of the "mechanics of sexual politics." Some players even enjoy this game, because they regard it as taking "a holiday from the confines of one's actual gender." However, the subversion of gender is not always something positive, and it requires a great deal of cultural and psychological flexibility.

Cyborg Sexuality

The author explains that virtual sex is the most expressive of all virtual interactions. Sexual activity on MUDs (e.g., FurryMUCK), although mechanically very simple, is something between the actual and the real. "Players can become involved in the virtual actions of their characters, and the line between virtual action and actual desires can become blurred." (p. 35) The process of textually coding gesture, appearance, and proclivity on one side, and the uncompressing of these signs, sometimes as simple as emoticons, into a complex and dense image on the other side, requires a lot of fantasy and empathetic understanding of cultural symbols and individual symbolic tokens. The linguistic skills of the players get very important, and the outcome is the "concentration of the erogenous into the imaginative." (p. 36) I can't say anything about that, because I just lack the experience of MUDsex, but Reid seems to be very excited about the possibilities and outcome of virtual sex.

The Cyborg Self

Reid's last and smallest section in this chapter is about identity. The line between player and character can become very blurry, e.g. during virtual sex. Therefore, the question arises to which extent cyborg and actual identity are distinct, or are the same. It is important to see that these cyborgs are not "amorphous, but just engage in body-hopping.... They do not reject gender, or any other sings of identity, but play a game with them, freeing symbols from their organic referents..." This makes sense. Except for a few details, I agree with the conclusions of Reid, and I think her thoughts about cyborg body, gender, and sexuality are relevant even for years after the publication of her thesis.

Send me some comments! Stefan Marti Last updated Apr 26 1998.