It seems like a concept that belongs in a far-flung future of cryogenic freezing, and self-tying shoelaces a la Marty McFly.
But here we are in 2016, and virtual reality is very, very real.
It’s fair to say that The Jetsons-flavoured future of our childhood landed with a thud into our collective conscious in March of this year, when Samsung launched their ‘Oculus Rift’ headset.
The promises of its potential have been infinite: it will allow disabled people to live an able bodied life online! It will be used for military combat training! It will replace teachers, computers, and online shopping! You’ll never have to leave the house again!
Virtual reality is not just the new black, it’s the new everything.
Within just weeks, the world had their first taste of virtual reality when Occulus Rift released its first incarnation as a gaming device.
Online gamers were able to literally step inside the alternate universes of their computer games, with over 200 games already available.
And as a literal ‘second world’ of virtual reality flourished from pixelated figures on a computer screen to a hyper-realistic world that felt, well, real – a strange phenomenon that has been simmering away in gaming for years has been thrust into the spotlight.
Male gamers are choosing female avatars, and creating whole worlds – nay, whole lives – online as women. Why?
According to research taken of 375 players of World of Warcraft, 23% percent of male-identified characters choose female avatars, compared to 7% of female-identified players who did the opposite.
With a single session of online gaming sometimes often lasting for weeks or months (not in a single sitting, obviously), gamers become remarkably familiar with not just their own avatar, but also the avatars they are playing with/against.
Understandably, then, the discussions online around the incidence of males-as-female avatars is huge.
Women and men alike feel deceived by their fellow players duplicity. There are women saying they feel ‘raped’ by interactions with female avatars they found out were male.
There are male players saying it wasn’t a sexual decision, but just genuine interest of exploring what it is to be a women – their only chance to do so without judgement.
There are even academics suggesting the choice of online identity could indicate figures of transgender and/or homosexual males in our communities.
It’s a complicated topic, to say the least.
This is a phenomenon that has been around since the first online avatar was created decades ago. But the seriousness of a false online identity is taking on a new seriousness.
Many experts feel that games like Second Life are warming up for even deeper, more realistic impersonations of reality under the label of ‘gaming’, leading to casual – and potentially dangerous – attitudes about identity and identity fraud.
Using an immersive headset like Oculus Rift, gamers can literally feel like they are physically present in the game, dodging bullets, scaling buildings, or flying through the night sky.
But as the content and format of many games aims to look less like your imagination and more like the world around you, the line between reality and virtual reality is becoming increasingly difficult to distinguish.
Watch the older generation react to using a virtual reality headset for the first time. Post continues after video…
‘Second Life’ is a great example of online gaming becoming less of a game, and more more like – as the name suggests – a literal second life.
The SL game is a an online, virtual, 3D world created by the users. Those playing the game create an avatar, and can do anything from attend an office job, to live as a wizard creating spells.
(Remember Sims? It’s like that, but infinitely more complex and realistic. Think Sims for adults.)
Within this game, the prevalence of men creating female avatars is a growing trend, and new conversation threads are created daily with players trying to reconcile their feelings on the topic.
In one particular gaming thread, one woman wrote:
“I don’t really care who someone is in real life, but it does kind of bug me if a RL [real life] man creates some awful or badly behaved SL [second life] ‘female’ avatar and thus besmirches the gender for the unknowing.”
Fair point, particularly when you consider the type of female avatars the men were creating: buxom, beautiful, with long flowing hair, passive personalities, and (surprise surprise) revealing outfits. According to researchers, “These men created female avatars that were stereotypically beautiful and emotional.”
They explained their results quite simply: “[Men playing female-bodied characters] prefer the aesthetics of watching a female avatar form.”
That is, if they were going to look at the back of an avatar for hours on end, they wanted to be looking at a cute female butt. Hmm.
Other men disagree.
Gamer Nathan Grayson wrote a blog entitled, I'm A Man Who Plays As A Woman In Games, And I'm Definitely Not Alone, in which he explains his propensity towards a female avatar as the following:
"Physically speaking I'm attracted to women, but that's not usually what drives me when I'm rooting through my virtual skin closet to decide what I'm gonna wear to the big bash.
I guess, though, the long and short of it is that I'm already me in real life. I like the idea of seeing worlds—far flung or close to home—through other people's eyes. Video games let me do that, even if only on a very low (and oftentimes not entirely indicative or realistic) level."
So, not all men who decide to play women in video games actually want to be a woman, then?
No way! On the contrary, many don't - they are simply looking for a safe environment in which they can explore identity without facing prejudiced or bigoted opinions.
Nathan says it perfectly in the conclusion of his blog: "I think I also play as a woman," he says, "to at least try and encourage the idea that people aren't defined by their bodies."
Identity in an online world is an increasingly interesting topic. As technology brings this 'second life' of virtual reality closer and closer to replicating actual reality, where do we draw the line of the real you, and the fake you? Are both versions truthful? Are both versions accurate portrayals of your authentic self?
Both, it would seem, fall under your own sense of responsibility.
And here's when it gets WEIRD.
In 2008, a British woman won a court battle with her husband after she found out he was having an affair with a woman in the Second Life game.
Amy Taylor and her husband David Pollard met in an internet chatroom. They both had second life avatars, which broke up when she caught him cheating on her with a prostitute....in virtual reality, that is.
"...Fact and fiction have collided in heartbreaking fashion for a British couple who are divorcing after the wife discovered her real-life husband's online alter-ego, a goatee-bearded, medallion-wearing hombre called Dave Barmy, with another - virtual - woman.
Amy Taylor, who in Second Life is club DJ Laura Skye, said today that as far as she was concerned her husband, David Pollard, was having a real relationship with the human controlling her love rival.
"It may have started online but it existed entirely in the real world and it hurts just as much," she said. "His was the ultimate betrayal. He had been lying to me." " - The Guardian
Identity - online, offline, real, fake - is shaping up to have an interesting future...
Ever since the dawn of the internet, online spaces have lured countless men and women looking for an escape.
The online world of chatrooms, gaming, and even dating sites gave people the chance to be someone else. They could escape their jobs, their families, their partners, and their life in general to create a person who they wanted to be.
This case of men creating female avatars is but a small insight into the complexity of identity (both online and off) that will start to be explored in coming years as Virtual Reality becomes so realistic, it will literally come to be a 'second life'.
The very foundations of human connection will begin to shift and morph to suit the new format of online interaction, as physical interaction in the real world declines.
Welcome to the future, players.