November 01, 2009

Notes From a Small Laptop

Identity tourism? Sounds great, I thought. With three weeks of term gone I needed a holiday. Grabbing my suitcase full of excitement for some escapism, I hit the link to create my own avatar and waved goodbye to First Life.

First off, I had to fill in boxes defining who I was and who I wanted to be on my identity vacation. Nakamura points out how 'race is not an option which must be chosen' (Nakamura, 2007) yet gender is a box that has to be ticked eather way and can' be changed. Indeed, race in Second Life can be interchangeable by changing skin tone, eye shape, nose shape and so on, which would be nearly impossible to do in real life. This could impact on how we feel about our identity. The implication in Second Life is that we are more defined by our gender than our race as gender is fixed and race is not. Does an Afro Caribbean female feel more strongly a woman or more strongly someone who is black? I feel more strongly female than I do white, however I live in a country that is 90% white. I expect I might feel differently if I was living in a different country

Then I had to choose the first and last name for Second Life 'me'. It would stick with my avatar for the rest of their life; what a responsibility! I felt like my parents did when they first looked at me when I was just born and thought to themselves, should we call her? Heather? Or Thistle? Luckily for my avatar, I did not have such a partiality for wild shrubs, but I considered the name for quite a long time. I did not want a common name for my character; I wanted to stand out in my new world. It was interesting what that said about what I thought were positive and negative characteristics for identity in real life. To want to be different, slightly offbeat in a world which increasingly wants us to become a passive homogenous glob is increasingly becoming more difficult. Anyway, back on the name. 'Mavis' is a name which hasn't been heard in a while, I thought. Lets bring it back. Dismayed that the autocratic KGB-like forces of Second Life had restricted my options of a second name to some ludicrous choices, I decided on the short and simple 'Rae'. Easy to remember. I wonder how many other children's names have been chosen due to those criteria.

Good morning Mavis Rae. I was thrown into a place called Practice Island to run through my first tentative steps in Second Life. Walking, talking. Fine, good. Flying? It appeared a bizarre addition to Mavis's capabilities. Oh well, she was a bizarre creature herself since I had picked a persona with a ridiculous rainbow hat which I was unable to take off for the life of me. After a morning of running around in aimless circles, I found the search button. Using this I was able to type in any place I wanted to be and be instantly 'teleported' there. Within an instant I could be in Knightsbridge or New York. A shop with free stuff? Just type 'free' into the search bar! Hang out with vampires if you want to, or visit a haunted mansion.

This had implications that I felt had connections to modern culture. Is this not the monstrous offspring of globalisation, an expected conclusion of the merger of seven continents into one? We can lunch in Germany and have dinner in England if we want to. I could just as easily talk over the internet to someone in Hong Kong as someone in the room next to me. Living in the culture we live in, one expects instant access to anywhere in the world, time and space do not matter. David Holms talks about the 'compression of the world' (Holms 2001 3) and the 'enlargement of the sphere of normatively binding relationships between people as well as global interdependence' (ibid, 3). This culture is reflected in Second Life. The barrier of space does not exist. Indeed, one of the differences between my real life and Second Life identity was that Mavis's had nothing to do with where she was born. She belonged to the global village of cyberspace.

Mavis felt a little bit lost amongst so many new people so she did not try her hand at conversation quite yet. Instead, I took her to a marina where we stumbled across two other people meeting for the first time. Foregoing real life decorum, I stood quietly eavesdropping on their conversation. I wanted to understand why people used Second Life and why some people even forewent their real life for it. The woman introduced herself as a 'SAHM'. Never having heard this term of identification before, I was relieved when she explained it meant a 'Stay At Home Mom'. Sometimes, she said, she felt like a slave. This was her place, an escape where she was not defined by what she could do for her family. The man was a musician and played gigs on Second Life. He had regular fans that would see him perform. It was interesting to see how different both of their motivations were to play the game. Is it cheating on your family to inhabit an entirely different world on occasion? Some people I talked to thought so.

In any case, it had been an interesting introduction to Second Life. As a holiday, it wasn't for me. However it had thrown up exciting new questions and ideas which will be interesting to explore further in the future.

Holms, D, Virtual Globalisation: Virtual Spaces, Tourist Spaces (London, 2001)

Nakamura, L, “Race in/for Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet.”, 2007,, 1/11/09

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