In the Press: Motherboard looks at Second Life

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.

Cecilia D'Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age
Cecilia D’Anastasio: writing on identity in the digital age

I’ve always enjoyed reading Ms. D’Anastasio’s pieces on matter of digital identity, and have previously written about her excellent Avatar IRL, which appeared almost exactly a year ago.

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.  

Emanuel Maiberg - a frank look at Second Life
Emanuel Maiberg – a frank look at Second Life

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.

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.

Rodvik makes The Mark; I get philosophical about virtual identity

LL CEO Rod Humble

Rod Humble once again demonstrates an adept hand and tongue when dealing with the media – this time the e-zine The Mark. It’s a fascinating piece that further demonstrates Rodvik not only grasps Second Life as a platform, he understands the importance of virtual identity. Take this extract:

The Mark: Do you think people existing in virtual worlds get closer to, or further away from, their true selves?

Rod Humble: I don’t have a clear answer on that, but I do have an opinion. There have been a series of high-profile people, from the head of Facebook to the Pope, talking about how social media should be about centering the individual – that it is all about your real life and ensuring that you don’t become a fractured person. I respectfully disagree with that.

I think that one of the healthiest things that technology can do is actually help us develop the different dimensions of ourselves that we portray in different situations. For example, the “me” at church is very different from the “me” who plays an online shooter game. The “me” talking to you now is very different from the one who will be at my parent-teacher-association meeting later tonight. We’ve always had that. I actually like the idea of enabling people to say, “In this community, I’m a completely different person, and I can hold views that aren’t going to seep into this other part of my life.” It’s a slightly heretical position, but that’s the one I take.

It may be a heretical position among his peers, but Rodvik hits the nail squarely on the head. No one in the world is ever “one” individual per se. Yes we may constantly present the same physical face to the world (although for those that wish to make use of cosmetic surgery, even that isn’t a given) – but the individual we present to different social aspects of our lives vary enormously. I am simply not the same person when among my family as I am when in the office environment of a major publishing house.

Of course, the “identity purists” will argue that this is not a matter of identity but rather of behaviour and personality; that while I may behave differently according to circumstances, my identity remains constant, as demonstrated by my having the same name on my office ID (when I have one!) as I do on my driving license. And in terms of ID cards and driving licenses they’d be right.

But they’d also be missing the point entirely. Identity is not distinct from either behaviour or personality. Rather it is intimately bound up with both, and that who were are and how we present ourselves to the world goes far beyond the a photo on a piece of paper or laminated card.

Facebook and, it now seems, Google Plus, would rather narrow the definition of identity to the two-dimensional aspects of name and photo, coupled with a verifiable address, as that better suits their marketing engines and their ability to generate revenues. I say “it seems” where Google Plus is concerned, because that situation is an unholy mess right now as regards “identity”, and it’s unclear how Google’s own tools may or may not be hooked-into Plus to reap data for their own use.

In taking this approach, the likes of Facebook are trying to enforce a form of conformity on their terms while remaining blind to the potential offered by virtual identities simply because the virtual does fit with the corporate modus operandi or world-view.

The fact is, “Inara Pey” is as much me as the person I present to business or to family and friends. In some ways she’s more “me” than the “real me” I am myself. Through her, I can integrate and publicly express facets of my personality that “real world” society would still deeply frown upon. I can, for example, mix my interests with fetish, D/s, etc., with my interests in business, psychology, politics, history, sport, etc., without (for the most part) being judged solely on the one aspect (fetish / D/s) some have determined to be “objectionable”.

She’s also a part of my psyche in other ways: she is an outlet for my writing on a variety of subjects; she represents me through Twitter and the like. In fact, I find it impossible – even discomfiting – to enter other virtual worlds without her, and so she existed in Blue Mars (as was) and exists in InWorldz, OSGrid, New World Grid, and Avination.

She only really differs in looks (although I’ve tried to mod her shape to be reasonably reflective of the “meat me”): I’m Caucasian in real life, whereas she is dark-skinnned. But even this is perhaps a subconscious reflection of elements of my “real” personality.

I say this because one side of my family’s history goes back to New Zealand, which has generated a deep interest in all things Maori in my in adult life. At the same time, I’ve been fortunate to spend a fair amount of time as an adult in Sri Lanka, and have developed a deep love for that country and its people. The fascination with both New Zealand’s Maori and the Sri Lanka people (Sinhalese and Tamil) seems to have influenced how Inara herself looks.

This genuinely wasn’t a conscious act on my part when I decided to give her a virtual make-over last year. However, the look evolved somewhat subconsciously over a period of several months, and has left me feeling that her appearance is a result of these various inner voices and aspects of who I am coming together to give her form. so to me, physical and virtual self, are deeply intertwined emotionally and psychologically; and I doubt I’m alone in feeling this.

And while she may not have a credit card or a driver’s license or a passport, it’s about time that big business caught on to the fact that she can still be a consumer (and again, that’s really what a lot of the kerfuffle about “real identities” is about: the ability to connect producer with consumer). This is because advertising, promotions, and the like that are directed at her still reach me. Certainly, they do screw with FB’s (and the likes) abilities to carry out wider data-gathering and limit their ability to gain “real” influence (in their eyes) over people – but the fact is, *if* I end up purchasing something, getting involved in something (either directly, or through my digital persona, and accept the receipt of on-going communications, etc., from a service, company or group – does it really matter if it came about through contact with my digital self rather than the “real” (in their eyes) me?

Blimey, and I haven’t even started on privacy concerns and handing over my “real” identity over to the suits and shirts of FB et al is akin to handing them power over me…

But to return to the interview with Rodvik: as well as identity, he dives into the many creative facets of Second Life and the myriad ways in which it brings people together and how they interact once brought together. As such, it not only shows (again) that he gets the value of Second Life on just about all levels, it provides interesting thought for consideration, both by those of us involved in this frontier – and, dare I say, by those who would seek to limit our ability to explore it by forcing us to restrict ourselves to their interpretation of what can be classified as a “real identity”. Not that I can see it causing them to re-think their position, sadly.

If I were to take issue with Rodvik, it would in his answer to a question concerning the future of virtual worlds and how people come together, when he replies:

“Good question. I think that something big is going to happen when it comes to online associations, which are going to run headlong into conflict – probably with some totalitarian country somewhere. It’s a broader thing than just Second Life.”

My take on this – while it is slightly out-of-context to the question asked, which set commercial aspects of virtual interaction to one side – is on the one hand he is more than likely right right in his assessment vis “totalitarian countries”. However, on the other, for those of us already living on the edge of the “new digital divide”, the conflict is clearly already here, with the totalitarian drive is coming out of “big business”. How that is resolved may actually render anything else moot for us.

I would, however, end this piece on a lighter note, and wag a teasing finger. My 40th birthday is rushing towards me fast enough as it is, Rodvik, so did you really have to go and push me into my “mid-40s” in the interview?! That’s two dances you owe me! 😉