body image · cycling · fitness

Meet virtual Sam: Avatars, gender, and identity

As blog readers all know, I’ve been spending a lot of time on Zwift lately riding and racing my bike. It’s spring, yes, and normally I’d be riding outside now but it’s also a global pandemic.

Different cyclists make different decisions but I’ve decided to follow the recommendation of Cycling Canada and keep my training indoors. I’ll write more later about racing on Zwift which is turning out to be an awful lot of fun.

But as I’ve been spending more time riding with cyclists from all over the world, I’ve come to identify more with my Zwift avatar.

What do I mean by that? Well, I can spot myself in the peleton of bikes.

My avatar has grey blonde hair that’s about the length of my actual hair. She’s got an athletic build, solid, and I like that.

Here “I” am at the front of the pack. I zoomed to get front just to get a photo. I’m wearing a pink Swarm jersey because I was riding with the Swarm.

Sam riding with the Swarm

Normally I’ve been wearing the Team kit for TFC racing, the cycling club I’ve been racing with. It’s very yellow. Here I am wearing it while warming up for last night’s race.

Zwift Sam warming up for a race

This is the first time I think I’ve created an avatar who sort of looks like me. I had a Skyrim avatar some years ago but I was more playful and adventurous in creating her.

I have one complaint about my Zwift avatar. She’s medium sized person and I’m a large sized person. That’s odd because avatar size is based on your actual kg. It turns out that in Zwift women only come in two sizes regardless of how much we weigh. We’re either small or medium. Men come in three sizes, small medium or large. Here’s an explanation of avatar sizes.

So when Sarah and I ride together in Zwift we’re the same medium size. That’s weird because IRL she’s medium and I’m big.

Now I like my Zwift hair and my Zwift gender presentation but when a friend and I did a Swarm ride the other day, it turns out that a lot of the long haired women didn’t like the choices available for hair length. Basically all the long hair is in ponytails and the women wanted longer ponies than Zwift had on offer. There was some suggestion that Zwift needs more women in their development teams.

Here’s a screen capture of my avatar and some possible hair style choices

Zwift Sam considering possible hair styles

I like it that there are more choices than just long or short hair. But in the Swarm group we heard from a lot of long hair identified women who wanted more substantial hair.

Have you had an avatar that you identified with? Did it get everything right that you really cared about? Tell me about your avatar experiences.

7 thoughts on “Meet virtual Sam: Avatars, gender, and identity

  1. Zwift had added styles along the way, including more men’s and women’s hair styles in previous game updates. It’s still a work in progress and maybe not as high up the priority list as many would like. They only recently added different facial shapes. For a while it was very hard to pick your own avatar out of a big group for men too.

    As a sub-140 pound short haired male though, I’m fairly well catered for. 😂

  2. I need to revisit the configurator as I feel my avatar doesn’t really look like me so much. It did seem to get the proportions right, though so I’m glad about that. I didn’t know about the three sizes for men and two for women. That’s interesting to know. And I definitely agree that there needs to be a few more women on the development team or otherwise engaged in the process.

    Only slightly related: Thanks to you I’ve started reading The Joy of Movement and it’s hugely enjoyable. As I was reading it I was thinking about Zwift, though, and in particular how I still feel the same happy “group feel” that I might feel in a spin class, training ride or on the Bike Rally. I have feelings of goodwill for everyone I am passing or am passed by and think about where they are – especially if they’re from a particularly hard-hit country. This is true even though I chat almost zero on there – which, I guess, is pretty much the same as I do in group exercise classes or even on the Bike Rally. I’m not so good at talk with people I don’t really know but I do appreciate being around others even when I’m not directly interacting.

  3. Yeah, the two sizes is really bothering me. My avatar cannot look much like me at all in Zwift. I’m a big gal, I have hip-length dark salt-and-pepper hair, so I can either pick light brown (which is very red) or very dark that’s so dark it looks like I have short hair even if I pick the bun. Even as a white person there isn’t a skin tone that looks like me, and all the face options are basically the same face with different skin tones — no actual changes.

    And I can’t make my bike look like me either. If I could unlock aesthetic options for the bike (especially ones that don’t have a speed penalty — I’m riding the steel bike because it’s the closest looks-wise, but everything I read says it’s slow by quite a bit.) I think I’d be at least a little less angry about the rider. I don’t care about unlocking wheels that are a second faster over an hour ride. I want to look like me.

    We were all mock trash-talking each other on our group ride today when it got dark and no one had reflective gear on (randonneur group ride, so we’d be DQed if we did that IRL), and saying how weird it was to follow a wheel without fenders on, but I would be happier if I could.

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