From Lara Croft cyberbimbos to the static growth of female employees, technology has long been held captive by a testosterone-fuelled industry. Virtual realms and digital landscapes ubiquitously glorify misogyny, capitalising on gender stereotypes and nourishing the male machismo. Technology may be thrusting us into the future, but its banal representation of gender identity in the modern world is ironically out-dated.
But computer consoles and gaming gadgets are no longer considered ‘boy’s toys’, and virtual space is finally being reclaimed from the claws of technology’s patriarchal hegemony. New projects focusing on ‘virtual gender’ are infiltrating tech discourse and revolutionising the VR (virtual reality) field. These projects create reimagined digital terrains where gender identity is liberated from physical burdens. Emancipated from the phallocentric boundaries of our physical world, VR encourages us to explore multiple subjectivities within the comfort of a virtual and unprejudiced territory.
Winning back contested virtual space and transforming the gaming industry are the rise of feminist protest games. Rejecting ‘pink games’ that focus on gendered tropes, these subversive narratives manipulate virtual realms to progress women’s rights in the physical world. Most notably, 2015’s politically charged Saudi Girls Revolution is powerfully exerting pressure on the government to rethink laws that forbid women from driving. The plot follows a group of female avatars joining forces to overthrow a tyrannical regime in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. In between fighting cyborgs and dethroning despots, the girl gamer clan defy Saudi Arabian law by driving cars and motorcycles. The game has strong political agency, designed by a Saudi Arabian Prince in hope that it will begin to normalise and assimilate the image of women driving within Saudi Arabian culture. As the line between the real and the virtual becomes increasingly blurred in our digital age, Saudi Girls Revolution signifies the power of virtual spaces in challenging injustices within our physical world.
Alongside positive developments within the field of gamespace, advancements in Oculus Rift technology are following a similar upward trajectory. Oculus Rift has been a catalyst for the evolution of queer virtual spaces, allowing its users to hyper-perform any gender identity they so desire. As the Oculus Rift headset transgresses time and space, the user leaves behind the burdens of their physical body, breaking free of the chains of their embodiment.
The BeAnotherLab is pioneering the use of Oculus Rift technology as a medium for discussing gender issues. The group are a social laboratory committed to experimenting with ideas of identity, empathy and diversity through VR immersion and shared experience. Curious about the relationship between ‘the self’ and ‘the Other’, the group created TheMachineToBeAnother in 2010. The performance installation uses the Rift headset to metamorphosis its users into the opposite gender. The user sees themselves in the body and mind of the female/male form as they interact with a pre-performed moment of experience in another person’s life story. The lab claim that the project is ‘looking to understand empathy, identity, body agency, and subjectiveness from an interdisciplinary perspective.’ The project is an innovative approach to battling social stigma and prejudice, proliferating understanding and empathy through shared experiences. TheMachineToBeAnother demonstrates the power of VR in liberating us from a parochial and solipsistic worldview.
The Party, featured at 2015’s Sundance Film Festival, also uses the Rift headset to evoke a kaleidoscopic perspective of the world. The Party is a virtual story of a sexual assault split into two five-minute parts, one from a male perspective and the other a female’s. The plot sees the young female and male characters at a college party where drinks are consumed and the story escalates. The user is faced with a multi-faceted narrative, encouraging them to empathise with each character’s account of the story and, ultimately, decide for themselves the true narrative. Designed by Rose Troche and Morris May, it’s the first part of a Perspective Trilogy aimed at widening social consciousness and igniting debate through the power of virtual immersion and fluid subjectivity.
As Linda Dement aptly notes ‘the computer is the prized toy of our essentially male culture. To use technologies which are really intended for a clean slick commercial boy’s world, to make personal, bodily, feminine work, and to re-inscribe this work into mainstream culture, into art discourse and into society’s, is a political act.’ Emancipated from a culture of virility and ingrained prejudice, virtual realms are certainly laying the foundations for an improved reality against sexism.
Words by Hannah Downes
Illustrations by Georgia Haire