When I put on a headset to try out Oculus’ new virtual reality avatar system earlier today, the first thing I did was look for the gender toggle. From Second Life to Pokémon Go, this is so ingrained in my understanding of character-creation menus that I barely noticed what I was doing, until I realized that the option wasn’t there.
Instead of "male" or "female," Oculus Avatars starts you straight off with picking your face and hair from a single side-scrolling list. Clothes are organized vaguely by theme and type, like "jacket," "unique," and "sci-fi." You can pick something as masculine or feminine as you want, but you have to actively pore over the options and find something that represents you, instead of plugging in a gender option and choosing from whatever comes out.
I like a many things about the system, but this is one of the big ones. Because Avatars doesn’t position your gender as the most important part of deciding who you’ll be in virtual reality. After all, you’re represented by a floating head with some hands — what part of that really needs to be explicitly labeled, let alone gendered? People will probably infer a selected gender for most avatars they see. But when you look at all the clothes, hairstyles, and faces, you quickly realize how much overlap — and how much variation — there is between them.
Which is how gender works in real life, as well. As much as average physical differences (and more nebulous mental differences) exist, we put a lot of work into emphasizing and exaggerating them, consciously and unconsciously. And that’s before you get to people who don’t fit into our standard categories for gender or biological sex. Whether we’re male or female is considered so fundamental that it’s built into the core grammar of our language, but for many people, there are far more important parts of their background and personality.
The internet’s anonymity offered a way out of this, but in many ways, it did so by letting everyone slip into a "default" that is assumed male until proven otherwise. In practice, this has ended up either making women invisible, or making anyone who "outs" themselves as female seem like they’re seeking attention instead of just existing.
Oculus Avatars isn’t going to fix this by a long shot, and it will have to deal with the same gender baggage we bring into every online interaction. It’s also not the first character-creation tool to eschew hard-coded gender — The Sims, for one, opened up its character options earlier this year. But it’s a cool little decision that represents virtual reality, and digital space, at its most idealistic. And for the supposed technology of the future, we should hope for no less.