May 07, 2010

What are small, orange, and always run sideways. That's right… crabs!

Writing about web page /robertsg/entry/crabs/

You would have thought that Raymond Abrahams would have learned his lesson. Just last term, he got pregnant. But now his personal life has taken yet another turn for the worse. The tests have been completed, the fears have been confirmed. We have crabs.

To be honest, sexually transmitted diseases are a concept that I never thought that I would have to consider on SecondLife. But, as usual, I was amazed by the depth of the game and its closeness to real life. I realised that the opportunity to catch crabs was one that I should really take up, especially considering that the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is one of the factors that will affect and has affected my generation like no generation before. In 1999, for example, over 100 million adults were infected with ‘curable’ STDs, a number that does not include HIV/AIDS (avert.org.uk). STDs are everywhere. They even appear in popular culture, with a former character on EastEnders suffering from the disease, and are the dominant focus of sex education classes at school. But education can only teach you the symptoms of the disease and how to avoid getting them. SecondLife was to give me another opportunity: the chance to understand how life is for those who have caught a disease. If people knew I had crabs what reaction would I get? Would people consider me a risk? These were the questions that I was seeking to answer as I itched and scratched my way through another instalment of Raymond Abrahams’ life...

So how do people react to my new found STD? Well, not that kindly to be honest. People seem squeamish. One girl, in fact, takes it upon herself to let out a ‘ewwwwww’ as I come strolling towards her. True, having crabs in SecondLife doesn’t exactly mirror real life. In real life there’s no ‘I have crabs!’ sign above the head of anyone suffering from the disease. But the reaction by those who know would probably be quite similar. In my other experiment in SecondLife, a male pregnancy, I was relatively well treated, but this time the reaction is much less welcoming. There is a sense that people suffering from STDs are almost noticeably physically dirty, and for this reason they, like me, are often considered to be, for want of a better word, disgusting. Developing this theme, perhaps more revealing is the questions people ask about the disease’s contagiousness. ‘Can I get it from talking to you?’ asks one rather confused man. For many of us, educated and attending a respected university, the question may seem almost laughable. But it does point to one of the key problems that STD sufferers must face. According to girl.com.au, a website specialising in giving advice on the issues facing teenage girls in Australia, there are a number of myths about how you can catch STDs, including one claim that if a mosquito bites an STD sufferer before biting someone else the disease can be transferred. Perhaps more worryingly, the website feels the need to state that ‘You can't contract an STD hugging someone who has one’. This is one of the real issues with STDs in society. There is a genuine fear of people known to be suffering with this type of disease simply because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of the risks involved and this inevitably leads to a degree of stigmatisation, as I have seen in my experiences on SecondLife.

But if we have discussed how an STD can’t be transmitted then what does SecondLife teach us about how the diseases are spread? Originally, it seemed, nothing. The disease is stored in a box and passed on to unsuspecting people who have no idea what is inside and assume it only to be a harmless gift. But on closer inspection, is this really so different from real life? When people have unprotected sex most consider it simply an act of pleasure, an expression of emotion or a stupid mistake. But it is, in most cases, completely innocent. No-one goes into a sexual encounter with the intention of getting an STD, just as no-one opens the box on SecondLife in order to get crabs. And, like the box, people are not labelled. You cannot (in most cases) tell externally if a person has an STD and therefore unprotected sex is, in a way, like opening the box. You have no idea what’s inside, but you just assume the best. In this sense, I think SecondLife has come up with a quirky yet accurate way to demonstrate the spread of STDs. But it seems rather disturbing to think about just how easily a disease can be contracted and, furthermore, just how badly some members of society view STD sufferers. After all, if it is this easy to contract a disease, it makes it all the more wrong that people are stigmatised and punished for having made the easy mistake of ‘opening the box’.

I began on this section of my SecondLife ‘mission’ thinking that it would be fun and light-hearted, but in reality it has proved to be something of a harrowing experience. Throughout the unit, we have discussed identity and the sense of societies that exist in the modern world. As we have discussed throughout the year, diseases change your identity and role in society. But perhaps no type of disease has a level of stigmatisation comparable to a sexually transmitted disease. Just one mistake, one ‘opening of the box’, can lead to someone being all but shunned by society. SecondLife has taught me a lot about human nature, but perhaps the most revealing thing that it has taught me is that while some mistakes are accepted as part of being alive, some are not so easy for people to forgive or forget. Einstein once said that ‘anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new’, but my SecondLife experience has taught me that the consequences of a mistake that involves catching an STD can be a complete rejection by your fellow avatars, and this is an unimaginable price to pay.


March 05, 2010

First come love, then comes marriage, then…

Writing about web page /robertsg/entry/pregnancy/

The news had come just days before. For weeks we had heard stories of classmates becoming pregnant, but Raymond and I just felt the time hadn’t been right. I’d had essays to hand in, and to be honest, I wasn’t convinced that Raymond Abrahams was ready to have a baby. However, as Raymond’s biological clock began to tick (and the deadline for the SecondLife journal entry came dangerously close) we finally took the plunge. Raymond Abrahams was pregnant! Admittedly the news of a pregnant man in SecondLife didn’t catch the same media attention as Thomas Beatie. In fact, I seemed to be able to wander around the streets of SecondLife New York without many people batting an eyelid, and there is no sniff of ‘avatar paparazzi’. I’m just a not-so-normal guy, in a not-so-normal world. But I haven’t enhanced the size of my belly and paid over 1,000 linden dollars for nothing. I’m pregnant, and I want to know what the world of SecondLife feels about it.

There are a couple of key questions in my mind as I take my first few waddling steps. Firstly, how will reactions to myself change now that I am a pregnant man. Am I to be laughed at, seen as strange, criticised? Or will people in SecondLife be accepting of my condition?

In truth, people seem generally warm and welcoming. My initial tact of proclaiming myself as a pregnant man early in the conversation seems to meet with some derision, and I am often ignored by even the loneliest of avatars, so I change my tact. People are willing to have normal conversations with me, probably initially assuming that I am obese (as if the ridiculous constant rubbing of my stomach didn’t give it away). However, surprisingly, even when I drop in the fact that I am what many would consider a biological marvel, a freak of nature, a pregnant man, they seem to take the news pretty well. Some even tell me that I should be whatever I want to be. Far from brutally criticising and condemning me, the SecondLife community seems to be supporting me! I hardly think Beatie had such universal encouragement.

However, this reaction does pose a serious question about the nature of identity in SecondLife. Do the users of second life throw off their old identities when they log into SecondLife, behaving in a contrasting way to how they would in real life? One look at a blog on SecondLife throws up various opinions, but the majority seem to agree with George Siemens, who claims that ‘my digital identity ... forms part of who I am as a “real” person’ (www.elearnspace.org/blog/2007/06/18/lack-of-identity-in-secondlife/). However, if these opinions in SecondLife mirror real life, would these people be as willing to accept a pregnant man in real life?

I ask one woman: ‘What do you think of men getting pregnant in real life?’ She replies that she doesn’t have an opinion on the impossible, showing not only that she doesn’t read the news much but also suggesting that SecondLife and real life are, to her, intrinsically separate, and that what she or anyone else does on the game (such as getting pregnant) constitutes the actions of an assumed identity and does not reflect whatsoever on real life personas. Another man seems to confirm this idea. When I reveal my pregnancy to him he is originally, again, positive (‘dude that’s cool, you can be whatever you want to be’). However, when I ask him what he would think in real life he again takes a different viewpoint (‘that would be so weird man’). It seems that many see SecondLife as another identity, a kind of shell, which means they can do, think and say things that they couldn’t in real life. In this sense, it seems that we have answered the question of whether it is possible to assume an identity: on SecondLife, many feel that they have.  

My second question considers a specific aspect of identity: gender and sex. The two words are used interchangeably by many people nowadays, but in reality they mean two different things. Raymond Abrahams’ sex is undoubtedly male: he has male genitalia (that is if SecondLife avatars have genitalia). However, has his gender been affected by his pregnancy? After all, he has now assumed one of the characteristics that critics such as Stanworth have considered central to femininity: motherhood (Michelle Stanworth, Reproductive Technologies: Gender, Motherhood and Medicine, Oxford (1987)). Again I decide the best way to explore this problem is to ask my fellow avatars. The reaction is almost unanimous. They believe that I am a man, despite my pregnancy, even though a couple of people do declare that they consider me somewhere between man and woman, a somewhat disturbing concept. In this sense then, the fact that I have taken on one of the key identifiers of femininity has not changed my identity. I remain a man. As they tell me this I can’t help thinking of Beatie. If I am confused about the gender identity crisis that has accompanied my pregnancy on SecondLife, imagine how confused he, a man who was a woman and is now pregnant, must be!

So my waddling, pregnant journey through second life has taught me a number of things about identity and the effects that pregnancy can have on it. It has also taught me some crucial lessons about SecondLife. How people’s avatars behave on SecondLife doesn’t mirror what they would do it real life. Likewise what they say. In my first blog I raised the question of whether creating an identity on SecondLife is an attempt to escape an unfavourable ‘first life’. I don’t feel that my study can confirm this, but it certainly suggests that many people do live their lives differently when they have the security of anonymity through an avatar. In this sense, one could argue that real life is the real shell, or assumed identity, as we conform to the norms of society. For example, did the people find the pregnant man to be acceptable on SecondLife but not in real life simply because media exposure has convinced them that a male pregnancy is strange, and to be frowned on, whereas in SecondLife there is no media bias, no public scrutiny of individuals who fail to do what is expected? It is a strange question to ask, but could SecondLife give us a greater indication on human opinion than real life, due to its lack of moral judgments?


November 01, 2009

Everybody loves Raymond…

There was something strange about him from the start. I tried to avoid him, but he was just so persistent, and eventually up popped an instant message: "Have you considered becoming purple?" Slightly taken aback I explained to him that going purple was probably not right for me at this point in my life. Undeterred, he carried on his harassment: "Purple is right at any point of your life, it will help elevate you no matter what. See how the power lets me stand on water in a biblical way." Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Second Life.

It can be strangely nerveracking choosing you avatar. While most of us would probably claim that we aren't too bothered what the people we meet on Second Life think of us, in reality no-one wants to be judged badly, and there was a nagging voice in the back of my head that told me I should be careful. The name was a relatively easy choice. I'd had the name Raymond on my mind for a while, and only Abrahams really seemed to go with it from the somewhat limited list of surnames on offer. The appearance was something more of a challenge. Should I choose an avatar who looks like me, or one that's completely different in order to analyse the reactions I receive on SecondLife and compare it to the ones I would expect to receive in the real world? In the end I chose the second option, and, selecting the generic black male, set to work on editing his particulars.

I've never been a hairdresser. I've never wanted to be a hairdresser. And yet suddenly here I was being asked to cut Raymond's hair. I wanted originality. I wanted class. I wanted chic. In the end I got none of them. Raymond bears a striking resemblance to Prince in terms of his hair, and during a brief flirtation with a white leotard you could almost believe that the unpronouncable symbol himself had been transferred directly onto my laptop. However, in the end the nagging voice kicked in again and I chose a classy business suit. Imagine Prince's identical twin brother trying to sell you insurance. That was the Raymond Abrahams who entered the world of Second Life on October 24th 2009.

I went into Second Life with a mission. Right or wrong, online games like this have a reputation for appealing to people who don't have much success in the real world. It sounds harsh, but at school the people who play these online games are never first names on the guestlist of a party. So here's what I want to find out: do people play Second Life because their 'first life' is such a disappointment? Is making lots of friends for your avatar a substitute for a lack of social skills in the real world? It's certainly an idea mooted by Christopher Watts, an academic at St. Lawrence University (http://www.academiccommons.org/commons/essay/watts-second-life) and has been evidenced in part by the case of David Pollard and Amy Taylor, who divorced after Pollard was discovered to be having an online affair in Second Life by an online private detective hired by Taylor.(http://www.cnn.com/2008/WORLD/europe/11/14/second.life.divorce/index.html). Bald, overweight and forty years old, Pollard had created an avatar with rockstar looks and proceeded to live out the fantasies that we can assume he was unable to obtain in his 'first life' through his avatar. For him, Second Life was literally a chance to escape from reality.

So into Second Life went Raymond, with no intention of starting a love affair, but with every intention of exploring. Our journey started on the aptly named Help Island. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but a lack of knowledge of the workings of the game meant that I was stuck on the relatively boring island for much longer than I intended, being ignored by other avatar newcomers who were 'editing appearance'. But eventually we were away and into the big wide virtual world. If Raymond was nervous, he wasn't showing it, and neither was I. We took part in local chat, we sent IMs, and we got angry when we got ignored by someone calling themselves Franks Elite Jazz Jack Lionheart. After a while I felt that Raymond and I were bonding. I hardly felt like he was me, but I certainly felt that I could speak through him. Was this a sign that I was inadvertently being drawn into Second Life? Was I escaping the real world through my actions with Raymond? 

After a bit of wandering, it was off to old London Town, and a mysterious 'I love London' message appeared above Raymond's head. It was time to test my theory. The problem is that Second Life mirrors the real world in terms of cliques. Just one visit to a place shows you that there are some people who meet there at the same time every day, and as an outsider I often found myself totally ignored. Even those I did manage to communicate with seemed suspicious of me because they hadn't seen me at any of the 'meetings' in the area. Eventually I found some people that would talk, but as I expected, their 'first lives' were not an accessible subject. One made constant comments about my suit to avoid questions about her real life (thank God I didn't leave the leotard on), and claimed that she lived in 'that lampost', while one treated personal information as if it was a sacred treasure, becoming angry and teleporting away when I didn't immediately tell her where I was from on the basis that she had told me (I left the computer for a few minutes to make a phone call).

However, all in all I think that my first experience of Second Life was a success. Raymond is ready to go, and with his help I think I can find out a lot about people.


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