There have been a couple of interesting articles which have appeared in Motherboard over the last couple of days which make interesting reading.
In the first, Men Are Working Out Their Issues By Playing As Their Lovers and Exes in RPGs, published on April 28th, Cecilia D’Anastasio looks at a little researched aspect of avatar use within Second Life and MMORPGs: using their capabilities to create avatars in the likeness of a ex- or current partner or spouse.
This new article examines a number of ways in which people – notably, but not exclusively, young male gamers – have created representations of current or past Significant Others in the virtual environments they use.
Some of the related stories are pretty innocent. From Second Life, for example, we learn that well-known boat designer Jacqueline Trudeau uses an avatar “minutely resembling” her husband to help promote her designs, even though he seemingly has no interest in either the platform or his wife’s ability to generate an income through it. Similarly, Kevin D. Kramer, a Second Life DJ in his 50s, has designed an avatar modelled on his wife which they both use, candidly admitting it offers him the opportunity to buy gowns, dresses and outfits to surprise her with in ways he cannot easily replicate in the physical world.
However, some are much more disturbing in tone, notably the examples drawn from Skyrim and XCOM-2 where the motivation for creating likenesses of ex-partners be 20-something gamers as a means to exert greater (and not entirely positive) control over them, even to the point of subjugation, or to increase their own self-image as a “protector” of the women formerly in their lives.
The piece is certainly an interesting read, going by way of Nick Yee’s research into matters of gender-bending as covered by his Daedalus Project (you can also learn more about his work on matters of avatar identity here and via Draxtor’s excellent interview with him), and including feedback from Dr. Jamie Banks of Department of Communication Studies, West Virginia University. However, it is not without potential fault.
There is an acknowledged lack of research in why people might create avatars in the likeness of former or current partners; as such, there is perhaps a bias present in the piece, which I did find undermined it in places.
For example, while it is hard to reconcile Dr. Banks’ view of creating avatars in the image of a former partner as a means of coping with the Skrim and XCOM2 examples cited (they are far too calculated in their creation and use), it doesn’t mean the idea doesn’t have merit in other possible cases. Unfortunately, any potential credence it might have is more-or-less directly thrown under the bus in the paragraph of the article following Dr. Banks’ comments.
There are other flaws evident in the writing as well. It is noted, for example, that one of the people who created a female avatar based on his ex-girlfriend has since been banned from an unrelated game. The reason for that ban isn’t specified and could be entirely unrelated to the issues being discussed in the article. Thus, the inclusion of this statement seems to serve no other purpose than to enhance the reader’s negative view they may already have of the individual.
However, given this is an aspect of the use of avatar-driven environments and MMOs that hasn’t really been deeply researched, the article does open the door to discussions on the subject, and may encourage a greater academic study of the issue.
In Why Is Second Life Still a Thing?, which appeared on April 29th, Emanuel Maiberg poses a question I suspect might be asked by a lot of journalists who have perhaps been previously familiar with the platform and are suddenly exposed to it once more.
In asking the question, Mr. Maiberg also does a fair job in answering it as well, and in doing so, takes the reader on a no hold barred tour of the platform, commencing with what has been it’s crucial differentiator over other, “prettier” platforms and games:
A crucial difference between Second Life and MMOs like World of Warcraft is that the latter are mostly fixed worlds. Once in awhile, developer Blizzard will introduce a new continent or reconfigure an existing location, but all players are guests in the world that Blizzard created. Second Life, by contrast, allows users to not only create their own avatars, but also to shape and create the world they’re in, importing their own 3D assets and modifying the world with the Linden Scripting Language.
A potted history of the platform follows, together with an examination of much of what goes on in-world being referenced: art, education, user-generated transactions, and so on, together with the highs and lows the platform has seen. Of course, sex gets a fair mention within the piece; no surprises there, as it does both act as a draw for at least some of those coming into the platform (although equally, they may find their interests moving elsewhere once they are engaged in the platform), and it does contribute fairly to the platform’s economy.
Project Sansar is also touched upon – as is one of the core reasons why the Lab is keen to emphasise it is a platform designed to run alongside, rather than replace, Second Life. The very success of the latter and the level of investment users have within the system mean that displacing them anywhere else is at best exceptionally difficult; no other platform or service as thus far managed to achieve what Second Life invented in terms of environment, capabilities, user numbers and economical viability.
Those of us familiar with Second Life may not find much that is new in Mr. Maiberg’s piece, but that’s beside the point. What he offers is a frank look at the platform, free from bias or agenda but which fairly addresses many of the reasons which have made the platform a success in and of itself.
Overall, both pieces made for interesting reading.