ABSTRACT Gender swapping—selecting a different gender for an avatar in a game than the one assigned to the player in real life—is common, especially in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs). Such swapping enables a livable transsexual experience. This experience is challenging and dangerous in the real world, which is dominated by gender dimorphism and heteronormative values. Building upon Terry Lovell’s (2003) critique of Judith Butler’s (1990, 2004) concepts of gender performance and performativity, this article identifies different gender swapping practices and their cultural and political implications in contemporary China. Through digital ethnography and in-depth interviews with 31 interviewees, we identified two distinct types of in-game gender swapping: in-game performance and in-game performance of performativity. Regarding in-game performance, heterosexual gamers choose an opposite gender to achieve better outcomes, to avoid sexual harassment, and to fulfill heterosexual- and homosexual-gazing desires. Lesbians’ and gay men’s in-game performance of performativity highlights the newly emerging practice of queer dating and socializing in MMORPGs, displaying a productive process of nonconforming identity creation. However, due to the extensive online censorship and an increasingly hostile environment towards queer culture, the performativity of in-game gender-swapping—which has the potential to disrupt the social order both within and outside the gaming sphere—cannot be identified.

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