Using VR and presence to question and explore gender

[In a recent (February 2020) post here about virtual reality and accessibility I was struck by this comment:

“[A] woman I interviewed told me that after struggling for years with gender dysphoria, the experience of putting on a headset and inhabiting not just another place, but another body of a sort, led instead to a sense of ‘gender euphoria.’ It was, paradoxically, the first time she said she had really felt like herself. Toward the end of our conversation, she mentioned that a lot of her peers seemed to choose different genders and races for their virtual avatars, surmising that many found comfort in adding another layer of separation between their ‘real world body’ and their virtual one, whatever their identity. As we chatted about how much the technology has evolved, she sounded a note of disappointment: that a family member with muscular dystrophy still couldn’t use VR.”

Virtual reality offers more immersive and embodied opportunities to “gender swap” or otherwise explore gender than text-only chat rooms of the early internet. Three articles that focus on these uses of newer presence-evoking technologies provide detailed first-person reports about what the experience is like: “I thought I understood my trans body—then I tried VR,” a February 2019 story in Quartz; “How gender questioning and transgender gamers found a safe space in VR,” a July 2019 story in Digital Trends; and the August 2015 story below from Kotaku. Together they provide more evidence of the potential value of presence and insights into its nature. –Matthew]

[Image: A screenshot from Girl Body]

For a Trans Person, Virtual Reality Can Be a Conflicting Experience

By Laura Kate Dale
27 August 2015

Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that have the biggest impact on how we see ourselves. For me, it was a day sat alone at home on my sofa. I had just come into possession of a virtual reality headset, an Oculus Rift, and I found myself losing myself to a life I had never been able to properly experience before. Living as a transgender woman, Virtual Reality headsets have been both a blessing and a curse since they came into my life. They’ve made me more conscious than ever before of my body.

I guess a good place to start would be the first VR game I played on an Oculus Rift, a game called Pixel Rift (it has since been renamed Pixel Ripped). Pixel Rift sees you placed in the body of a young girl in various stages of her video-game-playing life, from being a baby sat on the floor looking up at an advert for a games console to playing games under the desk in school.

For someone who grew up living under a male name, being able to inhabit a female body during the years of my life I was living as male was a truly captivating experience. Something as simple as sitting at a chair in a classroom, wearing the uniform I’d never been able to wear, was a window into a childhood I never got to experience properly. I couldn’t help grinning ear to ear. Just being able to sit and experience that body was something that filled me with a real sense of peace.

I was curious. I wanted to see where this VR rabbit-hole could lead me. Unfortunately, not every VR experience I had was that universally peaceful for me. Following Pixel Rift, I started to seek out VR experiences that could attempt to emulate a body that (at the time) seemed a long way from my own. Some were exciting, like playing a modded VR version of Mirror’s Edge, but ultimately the game that gave me the most insight into myself was a simple VR experience titled Girl Body.

Girl Body is simple. Stand in front of a mirror, look at a woman who moves her head as you do. Inhabit a female body. It was hardly complicated, but it left me with a lot of complicated feelings.

First, there were phantom limb sensations. It’s one thing to know your body isn’t what you hope it one day will become, but it’s something different to have your eyes and your sense of touch lying to each other: to look at yourself and see a body you’d be happy with, but then run your hands across yourself and have things not feel the way they look. It was distressing. I found myself feeling in many ways worse about my actual appearance; I’d seen the end goal and been reminded that what I was seeing wasn’t my reality. That really hurt. For the next few days, I felt incredibly self-conscious about aspects of my appearance I had previously been able to ignore on a daily basis.

But that mental anguish came with a sense of relief and self-confirmation alongside it. For the first few years of my transition I had to deal with friends and family being unsupportive, insisting that the way I felt was something that would pass, something I would realise I had forced myself into. So those feelings of abject sadness that Girl Body provoked in me – at seeing myself how I wanted to be seen, but knowing that wasn’t my physical reality – was in some ways reassuring. It reaffirmed that the dysphoria I feel toward my physical body is real, and that reaching the goal I’m aiming for is the right way to alleviate those feelings.

There is certainly a lot to be said about the potential therapeutic value of VR for gender-experimenting individuals. Experimenting with gender presentation in the real world comes with risks, from the emotional risks attached to acquiring gender appropriate clothing to the risks of being “caught” while experimenting with gender-presented interactions in public.

Much of my early gender experimentation had me buying clothes online, grabbing parcels before my family asked what was in them and getting changed in public bathrooms, terrified someone I knew would spot me or that someone would put me in an unsafe situation because of my presentation. Many of the early experiences that played a vital part in coming to terms with my own identity were terrifying, and felt filled with risks. Virtual Reality provides a space to experiment with some of those aspects of identity in a much more private manner. That added sense of safety, security and cohesiveness made it a therapeutic way to explore my own sense of dysphoria.

Being able to look at the body that the VR experience was telling me was my own and feel at peace reaffirmed that I had understood myself correctly, and that gender transition was what would fix things going forward for me. But it also reminded me just how long of a journey I had ahead. Inhabiting a body that felt a long way off was not always easy emotionally, but it’s an experience I wouldn’t go back on, and I have VR to thank for it.

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