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March 07, 2010
Identity, as we have all become startlingly aware, is an extremely complex issue and when you add into the mix technophobia and a Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game then things can deepen in complexity. In my previous blog I talked about how hard I was finding it to engage with my avatar and it’s alien identity. Although my second attempt has admittedly gone far better, my attempts in the exploration in identity have still been fairly stunted. This time however, it was not as frustratingly unexplainable. Reading more into Second Life (SL) and being aware of other players around me has only solidified me in my realization that it is perhaps not trying to change ones identity but trying to escape from it. These avatars, on the whole, have not been produced as an improved version of the player but more like a new persona entirely. Identity is so transient in SL that one can hardly relate to a character as a form of oneself, it’s too fleeting and too easily to either abandon or radically change. In this module we have seen that in whatever era we look at there is always a sense on permanence about an identity, the sense that ones established an adult being only has a limited ability to change. From Martin Guerre, where the presence of scars (or lack of) was considered fairly fundamental in an identity, to the twentieth and twenty-first centuries ideas of genes and a genetic disposition to be the way we are. It’s a fantasy game without the element of the fantastical, but merely a reliance on players to create a world and identity for themselves.
An example that immediately springs to mind is an incident that happened around 4am (PST) in Braunworth Village a few weeks ago (thankfully, for the sake o my unborn child, before the pregnancy). It was the last location that I had been before I logged out last time so my avatar was thrust straight into a conversation between several interesting characters. The first confusing thing was the sound of an American woman’s voice, which in my mind was coming from nowhere. It took me, I’m ashamed to say, the best part of thirty seconds to realize that it was not the beginnings of schizophrenia and it was in fact a player using a microphone rather than local chat to communicate. This technological hurdle tackled, next to confront was the content of the conversation and the behaviour of the avatars. I have to admit that it wasn’t the easiest situation to understand. There were several big breasted, leggy avatars (who must have been eight foot tall, had they been real, hardly a realistic identity) that were talking about an exceptionally muscular male and it soon transpired that one was in a SL relationship with said ‘fella’. And soon after this the canoodling transpired. Now perhaps it’s just me but although there may be some merit in an intellectual relationship online, there is certainly a lot to be said for an impartial observer on ones life problems, surely there is little or no benefit for cuddling on second life. I can understand some people feeling the need for erotically stimulating activity and I can see the need to talk to someone without face-to-face contact, but the benefit that could be gained from watching your avatar snuggle is one of minimal enjoyment at best, surely? I can’t help thinking that there must be a link to some insecurity that has left the person unable of such activity in their real life. Yet there have been recent cases where SL players have broken up with real life partners for in game activity. Perhaps I’m overly judgmental and unfair on these people but this type of behaviour I can definitely see as being linked to identity. For many, identity is linked to need to belong. Relationships and communities in the online games provide some solidification of your own identity as needed and appreciated by others. Though personally I can’t get on board with the avatar snuggling, surely it would be better to get a dog (or a cat if you’re so inclined)?
Now this is not the weirdest thing that happened on this particular venture in to a virtual reality. After this couple had disappeared, possibly to achieve the aforementioned erotic stimulation, I dread to think, the woman using her microphone had moved on to a new topic of conversation. A topic of conversation I had certainly not expected. She appeared to have created her identity as leader of this particular area of SL (later informing me she spends approximately six hours a day there), she seemed willing to help new SL players with anything they wanted, which is when it transpired that another avatar around us was interested in having a knife fight. Being the helpful and guiding force that she was trying to identify herself with, the knife fight soon transpired. It was a very curious experience and it was only after several deaths on each side (each complete with blood seeping out of the avatar) that they called it a draw and carried on chatting about dance routines that they occasionally did with their avatars. Now I know I’m hardly SL’s biggest fan but it was a very surreal experience for two people to happily kill each other and then continue with a mundane conversation. I’m not naïve enough to not know that this happens in many video games but SL is (or so I thought) about relationships, meeting people and creating you’re desired persona. Surely if you can quite happily watch your avatar die several times and then contently talk to the perpetrator you have very little invested into the actual avatar yourself and if you truly connected it with your identity then you would surely be a lot more disturbed by watching graphical blood seep out of it’s stomach. So perhaps knife crime is an even bigger part of cultural identity than I had previously imagined.
And this was all before my avatar became pregnant, non-stop fun for Andie Gartner I can tell you. It was like living in ‘Eastenders’ or perhaps I have just lived a sheltered existence and David Cameron actually has a point. I sure hope not. Being pregnant to me was more humorous that significant to my identity. The waddle although funny did make worry me rather a lot about the possibility of ever being pregnant and I can’t say the whole idea particularly appeals to me. The whole of SL seems highly sexualized and it seems to come up continually in many conversations I’ve overheard. I think this expressed to an even greater extent by the reaction I had by one male avatar who, it would seem, attempted to chat me up asking my real life age and other leading questions that would suggest a not entirely above board relationship. That is until I stood up and there was a quick ‘you’re avi [avatar] is preg [pregnant]????’ and my reply in the affirmative and he promptly ran away. This is even more upsetting as he had expressed to me his enjoyment in pretending to be a vampire and his whole SL life was about living as a vampire. I have sunk to a new level of rejection. The rejection by a vampiric avatar of my pregnant alter ego. Will my poor tummy talker never have a father? Although judging by its constant insistence that I don’t want intimacy and instruction to move away from my partner, perhaps this is actually the best way for it, although I’ve apparently needed a pee for about three weeks, so I’m not sue how much attention the baby is actually paying to my needs.
It seems I will never have a connected relationship with my online avatar but am starting to understand the escapism need for many who play the game. That is not to say that everyone in these games are desperate or obsessive, but even an average person is given the opportunity to have input in a life that possibly seems desirable to them. I’m not sure you can ever truly be completely inseparable from your avatar but a link to a fantasy life is not a new concept. Perhaps not an actual identity but a dream identity that you can control and I think this can have complex connotations for a real life identity.
Julie Rak ‘The Electric Self: Virtual research for real in Second Life’, biography Vol. 32, No. 1
‘How do avatars have sex?’, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/magazine/7729207.stm (14th Nov. 2008, viewed: 28th February 2010)