A perspective on avatars and identity

Veronica Sidwell in Second Life (image: Veronica Sidwell, as used by VICE)
Veronica Sidwell in Second Life (image: Veronica Sidwell, as used by VICE)

On Wednesday, April 15th, Xiola Linden Tweeted about an article that appeared in the Motherboard section of the VICE web magazine which makes for an interesting read.

Avatar IRL is a piece  by Cecilia D’Anastasio focusing on the question of avatar identity, and how it can work both ways – not only does it allow us to create and project an identity into virtual mediums, be they immersive worlds like Second Life, MMORPGs or through “traditional” text-only chat forums, it can sometimes be that the impact of engaging in such environments can often have an impact back on our real-world selves; shaping and influencing who we are in the physical world in what is broadly termed “identity tourism”.

Cecilia D'Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age
Cecilia D’Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age (image via Twitter)

The term has it roots in the 1980s, when it was used to “examine the ways in which tourism intersects with the (re-)formation and revision of various forms of identity, particularly ethnic and cultural identities”.

In the 1990s, Lisa Nakamura, who gets a fair mention in the article, broadened the term to encompass the way in which on-line activities – notably MMORGs – were encouraging more and more people to experiment with matters of identity and self-definition. It is her work which appears to have given D’Anastasio the idea for Avatar IRL.

The article is a part of a wider series within Motherboard entitled Goodbye Meatbags, which focuses on “the waning relevance of the human physical form”.

In order to frame the piece, D’Anastasio placed a request in the SL forums asking if people would be willing to share their own stories on the issue of identity tourism. At the time, the request provoked a mix response (indeed the article itself has provoked much the same). From the responses she received, D’Anastasio selected the story of Veronica Sidwell, a male-to-female transsexual, to serve as the introduction and initial examination of self-identity and the deep sense of identification many have with their avatar – and how that identification can loop back into their physical lives; in this case, allowing Veronica to seek to transition her physical self, adopting the name of her avatar in the process, in recognition of the role she feels it played in allowing her to do so.

Veronica’s story is related with respect, and serves to springboard the article into its wider discussion which, as mentioned above, reviews Lisa Nakamura’s initial studies into matters of identity (which also delved into aspects of stereotyping and negative reinforcement which did – and still can – occur), before moving on to look at the work of Nick Yee and Tom Boellstorff, and their ongoing studies into the myriad questions of identity and self-definition which arise from our increasing ability to interact through a wide range of digital mediums and the levels of anonymity that often afford when doing so.

Nick Yee (l) and Tom Boellstorff
Nick Yee (l) and Tom Boellstorff

Both of these names will hopefully be familiar to regular readers of these pages. I covered Nick Yee’s work back in January 2014, and his book  The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us– and How They Don’t, is a recommended read for anyone interested in the increasingly complex matters of identity and our relationships with our digital selves and how we relate to the digital identities of those around us. For those not enticed by his book directly, I’d recommend at least reading Virtual worlds Are Real, a piece he wrote for Slate magazine from January 2014, and which served as the springboard for my article on his work.

I’ve similarly made mention of Tom Boellstorff in the past. His research has covered many aspects of identity and the question of self in the digital arena, and he has written two books on the subject directly focused on Second Life, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human, (Princeton University Press, 2008), and Ethnography and Virtual Worlds: A Handbook of Method (Princeton University Press, 2012, co-authored with Bonnie Nardi, Celia Pearce & T. L. Taylor), and he is also known for his involvement in the story of Fran Seranade / Fran Swenson. Tom also featured in a Drax Files Radio Hour interview which, if you haven’t heard it before, I do recommend.

D’Anastasio covers both Yee’s and Boellstorff’s work as a means of illustrating the osmotic process which can work both ways: that as much as we seek to build and define our digital identity, so the experiences we gain, the interactions we have through those digital projections can also seep back into the flesh and bone, influencing us and further shaping our self-identity.

Avatar IRL has been critiqued for focusing on matters of “sexuality” rather than “identity” – D’Anastasio also relates the experience of Dale, a male-to-female transsexual engaged in World of Warcraft. I’m less than convinced such critiques are valid given the overall context of the article. More to the point, what is a person’s quest to explore, understand and ultimately to be their desired gender, if not a matter of identity?

While there are no ground-breaking revelations in the article – at least for those of us already engaged in environments like Second Life and World of Warcraft, etc. But the piece does provide a good opening for those who might be curious about identity in the digital age, and who might want to delve a little deeper into the subject.