November 03, 2009

Second Life: 'Birth'

Having been a big fan of the Sims when I was younger I was excited by the prospect of creating a character on Second Life. I was fully expecting for the experience to be light-hearted, fun and spontaneous. But this was not the Sims; this character would be representing myself online, not just a game world restricted and controlled wholly by me. Almost immediately it began to dawn on me how every decision I made involved in the ‘birth’ of my avatar would vastly affect how others would accept and interact with me; even simple decisions now seemed ridiculously important.

Stage one was picking a name. I already knew that I wanted my original avatar to be reasonably similar to the real-life me, to create a bench mark with which to compare my interactions after drastic changes to my character, for example, sex, race and becoming pregnant. I therefore wanted a uni-sex name, to enable such a sex change. As I began to think over names I realised how even something as simple as this had such an impact on one’s identity, especially in an online ‘world’ where everything about one’s character had been specifically picked; you couldn’t blame your parents for an embarrassing name here. It was intimidating having to make such decisions once I started to analyse what others may summarise about me from my name choice. In the end I chose Blair, maybe that reflects a slight over obsession with Gossip Girl, but I thought it was a strong, independent name, helping create an identity I hope is not too similar from myself.

Having chosen one of six avatars, which I felt most resembled myself, I entered the ‘practice island’ to learn how to control Blair and finish creating my online identity by changing her appearance. The avatar came in a formal trouser suit, definitely not the outfit of a teenage student. As I started applying different outfits from my inventory I became more and more frustrated; the outfits were either incredibly formal and conservative, nauseatingly girly, or the type of outfit you would expect to see worn by workers in a seedy strip club. As I entered the Practice Island I was given a collection of outfits for my inventory, including a low-cut, short- skirted nurses’ uniform. I began to think about the sort of person who would pick such an outfit for their online identity and I realised how significant these choices are. In everyday life outwardly appearance does form a large part of who you are, including clothes. I found this to be magnified on Second Life. Everyone on Second Life has the choice of what they wear, and with so little else to show your identity these decisions gained a much greater importance and significance. With such little choice I ended up with a black jumper and flowery skirt that would not look out of place on a small child, but was not as provocative as some of the other outfits.

I found it interesting how much this outfit choice frustrated me, although I am a teenage girl in a society which puts a large emphasis on external appearance, I felt the significance of my outfit choice on Second Life was much more important to what I may decide to wear in real life. The extent to which external appearance forms one’s identity can be seen in the trial of Martin Guerre. The imposer du Tilh was partly so successful in taking on Martin Guerre’s identity because of his physical similarities. Du Tilh was incorrectly ‘recognized by all’ as being Guerre ( Jeannette Ringold, translation of the main text of Coras, Arrest Memorable, in Triquarterly 559 Fall 1982). Within the court case used to determine du Tilh’s true identity, Guerre’s cobbler was used as a witness, and many others spoke of using ‘reported marks’ and similar physical attributes to determine whether or not du Tilh was Guerre.

After my first stint on second life I could conclude that it was vastly different to what I had been expecting. Far from a spontaneous, light -hearted experience I felt constrained by Second Life; I couldn’t form an identity to my liking and actually felt (admittedly perhaps through some of my own technical inabilities) forced into a caricature of a woman. I found myself giving perhaps excess thought over every decision. I felt as if your appearance in Second Life is your identity; in real life our decisions over appearance are more restricted, however in Second Life we are free to be whoever and look however we want, opening our avatars up for intense judgement on who we are as real people. My inability to express myself how I wished made it an incredibly frustrating and constraining experience. 

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