Our Avatars, Ourselves

Harper Beresford (left) and Rissa Maidstone

In the virtual world of Second Life, you can be anyone you want to be. A middle-aged fat man can be a saucy, sexy young woman. A woman can be a vampire or sentient cat. But these all turn out to be other facets of our own identities. In the words of Buckaroo Banzai: Wherever you go, there you are.

In Second Life, users—they’re called “Residents” in Second Life jargon—take a new name when they register, and an alternate identity to go with it, as a robot, furry, vampire, or sexy human of the opposite sex. One of the few ironclad rules of the service is that one Resident is forbidden from outing another’s real-life identity without their permission. Even the name describes an alternate existence: Second Life.

But longtime Residents know that identity is a sticky thing. Second Life and real-life identities have a tendency to merge over time, real personalities come through.

Kim Smith, who’s been in Second Life for about three years, is uncomfortable with the commonplace language of referring to events outside of Second Life as the “real world.” “By saying ‘real world,’ it makes everything here a fake, and it’s not. It’s an extension of self, it’s an enterprise application, it’s recreation for some people. It’s as real as the physical world,” she said.

I talked with Kim about avatars and identities as part of my Copper Robot podcast, which is recorded with a live audience in Second Life. You can listen to the whole interview, or download the recording, here:

Kim, known in Second Life as Rissa Maidstone, is CEO of World2Worlds, which helps real-life companies (whatever “real life” means) host events in Second Life. World2Worlds provides hosting and media production for Copper Robot.

Jennifer Grace Dawson, another Second Life resident, added, “For people who come into Second Life and just see it as cartoons on a screen, they don’t get it yet. But they’re going to. E-mail is part of people’s identity now. People are learning the pitfalls of having a digital identity on Facebook, for instance.”

Jennifer, known in Second Life as Harper Beresford, manages a Second Life clothing store, House of RFyre, and also writes and photographs a Second Life fashion blog, A Passion for Virtual Fashion. She was my other guest on Copper Robot.

I asked whether my guests felt any different in their avatar selves than in their first lives?

“Not really,” Kim said. “I think Rissa’s pretty much an extension of me. Except she looks a lot better—twenty years younger.”

Jennifer said, “Harper definitely has a much better wardrobe than Harper’s owner.” Also, Jennifer said she’s more extroverted in Second Life than in first life. “If I walk into a roomful of people, it’s much more difficult for me to introduce myself, to speak up, and to know people, than it is here.”

I commented on a parallel between Second Life today and the Internet of the 1990s. In the 90s, people talked about the Internet being separate from the real world, where normal rules didn’t apply. You heard the Wild West metaphor a lot. But those metaphors died away as the masses of people became more familiar with the Internet, and realized it was all just part of life.

We talked about avatar apperance. I said, “One of the reasons I asked both of you here, aside from your intelligence and your ability to articulate well on the subject, is you both spend a lot of time customizing your avatars.” Harper and Rissa both take great care in their avatar appearance, buying clothes and accessories for their avatars. “Many people do not. We find an avatar we like and stick with it for years, and never change our clothes or our hair. But you guys spend a lot of time customizing. Why?”

Jennifer said, “I work for a content provider, so it would be kind of horrid if I didn’t purchase content in addition to selling it. Secondly, I like dressing up my dolly, and I like working with my avatar, it’s sort of scrapbooking for a digital woman. It’s creative and it’s fun.”

As a woman in Second Life, she has a great variety of clothes and body types to choose from. That’s an extension of real life, where the female image is idealized for its beauty in a way that men are not. “There aren’t these grand portraits of men, of beautiful men, and discussions of what makes a man beautiful. Beauty isn’t ascribed to men the same way as it is with women,” Jennifer said.

That’s one of the reasons that men come into Second Life and wear female avatars.

At that point, one real-life man who plays a woman in Second Life joined the discussion to share his experiences. He says when he dates women in real life, he tells them that he plays a woman in Second Life, and about 70% of them can’t deal with it. But the remaining 30% are fine with it, and the role-play has changed his perception of women for the better.

Gender-bending in Second Life is one of the things that outsiders to the culture find strange and even appalling. That’s especially true of men playing women, and most especially true of unattractive, middle-aged men playing attractive young women. But after I’d been around in Second Life, I was surprised by how much it wasn’t any big deal.

Kim said she’s surprised it’s been a big deal at all. In early video games, all the women had to play men. In games like World of Warcraft, women play male characters .”Why does that matter anymore?” she said.

We also talked about whether Facebook and Twitter identities are avatars, the legal difficulties of doing business under a Second Life pseudonym, and whether avatars are aspirational—whether we choose avatars in Second Life based on how we would like to be in real life.

And we never did get around to talking about the movie.


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