My Digital Me - Part Two


Part Two: The Role of the Avatar

Technology extends the reach of the body into new digital spaces. In these spaces, we try to defy gravity and physicality, literally separating the mind from the body. This is a theory called post-humanism, and post-humans are often described as having fluid conceptions of reality and an ability to develop different identities based on multiple perspectives of the world around them — a notion that makes sense given the nature of the virtual environments they inhabit. Avatars, supported by technological achievement and divorced from real need, have morphed into a kaleidoscope of synthetic manifestations.

MMORPGs took cues from young, mostly male developers whose main source of character inspiration came from comic books. The results were obvious. For male avatars, strength and a supernatural build. For female avatars, an unrealistic idealism defined by the physical attributes young men would most like to see on a woman: trim figures, narrow waists, large breasts, tight and/or little clothing. Even now, when developers are careful to define the look and feel of their avatars based on game themes, physical idealism generally remains constant. Most games allow players to select and define their avatar using a set of predetermined or pre-coded possibilities. Second Life lets residents define every aspect of their avatar’s physical attributes. Residents can buy or sell clothing, jewelry, accessories, body shapes, hair, skin, tattoos, virtual gestures, and poses. And for those not interested in the human form, Second Life allows avatars to take on animal (stuffed or otherwise) forms called “furries.” Some players even settle for an avatar somewhere in between the two.


Still, physical idealism saturates the experience. These idealized interpretations of the body upset real world social orders and hierarchies by evening out disparities. For that alone, avatars transcend reality. Since appearance plays a large role in creating, sustaining, and destroying relationships, the ability to manipulate image affects interpersonal communication and relationships in both positive and negative lights. More interesting is that in post-human virtual worlds, where level playing fields can and should move players beyond the body, media stereotypes and more basic human compulsions hold sway.

With their perfect avatars in tow, the anonymity of the synthetic offers freedoms of action and expression not possible in the real world. Without being hindered by the obligations and expectations of conformity, the power of an avatar becomes apparent. The avatar is a conduit between what we are and what we wish we could be, and it’s the permission we’ve been seeking. The problem is that synthetic spaces grant permission regardless of the consequences. Terrestrial conformist and synthetic fetishist are divided by a grey zone, and the two pass back and forth between a very permeable membrane that can’t keep worlds separate. While synthetic social spaces provide needed relief from real life pressures and allow role play without the weight of human emotion, players don’t have to care about what they say or do because the repercussions are limited to a place where nothing really matters. The result is players in constant role play. Honest and sincere relationships are rare, and most connections are merely an extension of the fantasy and anonymity afforded by avatars. Even so, human emotion and real problems are constantly appearing in synthetic life and because of synthetic life.

Technology, overlaid with a generous investment of time and interest, inevitably translates into conflict. Crime is one of the potent issues facing virtual worlds. As discussed with regard to Habitiat, wherever economic value lies and capital is created, we can be sure that markets and crime will follow. Virtual worlds are no exception. Today’s MMORPGs and social worlds run robust in-world economies as well as micro-payment systems doubling as exchangeable currencies. All this value has tempted more than a few players to use their avatars to bend the rules. With little oversight and few real world laws to control in-world activities, it isn’t hard to imagine that enterprising thieves would target virtual worlds. In 2003, the South Korean National Police Agency reported 22,000 crimes related to online gaming. One of these involved the theft of 60 quadrillion gold pieces sold for a total of 1.3 million dollars. In a case from Japan, a man entered Ultima Online using another player’s avatar and sold that player’s virtual house for $416. In Second Life, the largest in-world bank was accused of running a Ponzi scheme after promising 44% annual returns. It folded in August of 2007 with around $700,000 on deposit. But with no regulations in place, there was little recourse.

Legal jurisdictions are just now confronting the reality of virtual crime. In China, a hacker illegally transferred several objects from another player’s account to his own. The victim sued and a Chinese court ruled that the stolen items had an equivalent value of $1,200 and ordered a reluctant game development company (who didn’t want to influence in-world outcomes) to return the property. And the Japanese man who made out with $416? He was tracked down and arrested. Players attribute real economic value to avatars, and these virtual economies are beginning to reflect real ones. It seems natural that we should demand some intervention but unfortunately players and residents still see their activities as fantasy-based and are willing to put up with the darker side of human instinct. How long that will last is anyone’s guess.

Property rights represent the most visible bleed between synthetic and real, but sex is the most tantalizing. The link between sex and virtual reality dates back to 1974 when Ted Nelson — the inventor of hypertext — coined the term “dildonics” to describe an invention that turned sound into tactile sensation. The word “teledildonics” was used to describe any simulated sex from a distance. The topic has been discussed at length by many theorists, including Howard Rheingold in his now charmingly out-of-date book Virtual Reality from 1991. Even Edward Castronova veers away from economics to touch on sex in his essays. In MMORPGs players participate in a version of phone sex, while Second Life‘s DIY format has resulted, like the internet itself, in large percentages of space dedicated to sex, simulated sex, and all facets of sexuality. Real people using their avatars to engage in sex speaks volumes about innate interests and role play. It reminds us that real or synthetic, we like sex. But sex, in all its forms, has a way of creating complications.

In May of 2007 a 42 year-old man wrote to sex advice columnist Dan Savage and described how he had opened an account in Second Life and selected a female avatar. He wrote that being a woman, having sex with other women, and participating in bondage, domination, S&M, and anonymous sex were all part of an exploration of his lesbian fantasies. This was sex play that he wouldn’t and couldn’t do in real life. He added that his wife had made it clear to him that she considers sex in Second Life to be adultery. His relationship with his wife is germane given their different perspectives on synthetic sex. Of course we don’t know how the story ends but this is one example (of many) detailing how people are forced to confront real life situations because of their fantasy role play.

Second Life Spanking
Second Life Spanking

Teledildonics should be a growing concern as more people seek out and access sexual content in virtual worlds. Instead of the traditional “third date” scenario, in-world players manipulate their avatars and proposition synthetic sex (either talk or hot 3D action) immediately and with little regard for building trust. Over time these changes in sexual interactions and the process that lead to consummation will alter cultural mores and inevitably seep out of the synthetic into real life, much the way television and movies popularized smoking.

Synthetic sex is already leading to crimes that cross the line between fantasy and reality, inflicting victims with real emotional trauma. In 1993 journalist Julian Dibbell was the first to report on a synthetic sex crime, a rape described in The Village Voice. In his article Dibbell set the scene in a popular text-based MUD called LambdaMOO. One evening several players gathered in LambdaMOO’s communal living room. While players socialized an avatar named Mr. Bungle was able to gain control of other player’s avatars through a hack or code Dibbell refers to as a “voodoo doll.” Mr. Bungle proceeded to force several avatars to participate in graphic, non-consensual sex acts with him and other players. Those in the room had no choice but to read the text descriptions. This continued until Mr. Bungle was zapped by a powerful “stun gun,” ending his reign of terror. The next day LambdaMOO’s public forum was buzzing with activity, calling for Mr. Bundle’s virtual castration or expulsion (something players call “toading”). Dibbell eventually spoke with one victim. She expressed the real world psychological harm she felt and the embarrassment she faced from in-world peers as a result of this synthetic violation. The rape revealed the genuine attachments we create with our avatars and is a reminder that sexual activity (consensual or not) is not only physical, but layered with psycho-emotional associations and fragilities. The LambdaMOO rape also brings into question the concept that “no means no.” Can and should we deliver and accept verbal and physical abuse in synthetic worlds just because we think that it isn’t real? Is abuse directed at avatars affecting players outside the game? What legal recourse, if any, should be available? In the end Mr. Bungle was toaded, only to sign up as a new avatar.

The fact is that anonymous freedoms change the way people act toward one another. After a few decades of intense in-world activity, radically revised codes of conduct will come back to influence assumptions, rituals, and relationships outside the computer. It could take the form of a shift in speech patterns and word selection, a lack of careful diplomacy with friends or strangers, or insensitivity when discussing personal topics. Our avatars and their possessions could become targets of scams and crimes that are never prosecuted. We already see avatars verbally bashing one another without much thought. And avatars could also lead us toward impulsive behaviors that eschew patience and rational thought in favor of immediate gratification, even sparking a jump in the rate of sexually transmitted diseases. At the core, we may lose our integrity as well as our ability to trust one another. Intentions must be considered as millions of avatars enter into so many relationships, some sexual, against a tableau of fantasy. While a shared interest in role play may be a foundation for relationships (although probably not a strong one), the anonymous nature of in-world activities can never really confirm truth and create confidence. For many people this isn’t a problem and is actually an extension of the fantasy. For those that arrive in virtual worlds, having heard stories about like-minded souls and hoping to extend real life social networks into a digital domain, there will be fallout.

Despite these problems, we should not ignore the more positive aspects of virtual worlds. Regardless of where they lead us, they can represent spaces that afford safe experimentation. Having a place to express niche interests or fetish without fear of retribution or judgment is beneficial. By using avatars and interacting with others in this same way, players also drop preconceived notions and open up avenues for interactivity. Traditional limitations like class, race, sex, age, or weight are invisible. Granted, judgments can form over time but a clean slate is provided every avatar. Using avatars can also provide healing opportunities for groups like the disabled. In a November 2007 article, Reuters reported on a study at Keio University in Japan. The study creates an interface for victims of paralysis to break the bonds of their real world physical limitations and control avatars by activating certain parts of their brains. As a means to create friendships, conduct business, or just go shopping, this is a rare opportunity. The ability to directly (or remotely) participate in activities that are beyond our physical limitations or financial possibility could be the most redeeming aspect of synthetic worlds.

Acts of exploration, which can be hindered in the real world, flourish in MMORPGs and Second Life. An endless variety of people, places, and visual landscapes are at our fingertips. So far, this has meant a building boom. Game developers are creating new, intricate worlds as a backdrop for our desire to risk everything for greater rewards. In Second Life, newly minted virtual architects, industrial designers, fashionistas, and techno-impresarios are learning the digital skills that will help develop the next generation of technology tools. In colonizing and building a land of tomorrow, inhabitants and their avatars will each have a say in defining our future digital experiences. It is a democracy of design linking both free will and manifest destiny to the virtues of the synthetic. The creative process offers a nurturing effect for those who may not have the wherewithal to build their dreams with concrete and steel. Inhabitants champion Utopian ideals and suggest an optimism founded in the digital that might very well be appreciated in the real world one day.

But avatars are part of an industry focused on human-centered entertainment and gratification. What will happen to them in this age of expanding virtual prospects? Already avatars are being considered for more mundane human tasks like trying on clothing over the network. There is even talk of avatar portability across virtual worlds, another testament to our strong identification with these characters. Artificial intelligence is already used in-world by non-player characters, and we should expect that our own avatars will be afforded this luxury, keeping them at work for us when we choose to rest.

Sadly though, when fact and fiction collide, we are left with virtue and vice. The membrane separating the two is not only permeable; it is punctured by a human condition that may never reach the post-humanist objective of disconnecting mind and body. Real will always remain just that, and fantasy will never achieve detachment from it. One wonders if the ambition of creating a transformative Utopian society, able to lift the human spirit, will ever be able to transcend everyday corporeal realities. Will avatars lead us into the Promised Land or will they suffer greed, anger, and envy, and herald a synthetic collapse into real dystopia?

January 23, 2008

Amos Klausner is a brand manager, design historian, and writer. His most recent book is Heath Ceramics: The Complexity of Simplicity.

5 Responses

  1. anonymous Says:

    Well written, Amos.

    But I can’t help think that people would live better lives, if they would focus more on their real life (and the real lives of others), as opposed to their second.

    Although the narrow constraints and personal safety of games are probably comforting for those afraid of the vicissitudes of reality. Though, it is a case of low risk / low gain.

  2. Joseph Says:

    Seriously great writing.

    As an aside, I can never resist commenting on furries. I used to live in Orlando, furry mecca, and worked in an office which celebrated “Furloween” and “Furry Spring Break”.

    For more background, here’s a classic Vanity Fair furry profile:

  3. Jessant Says:

    I don’t care for SL anymore. I use to have high hopes for it before voice chat. I’ve seen so many women driven off of SL by the new voice features (me included). Now we can get harassed by men’s real voices and not just their annoying chat room style text. If you thought males controlled the game before, oh boy. Just try to listen to a woman speak in a voice chat with more than three men around, you probably will give up really fast, even one man is enough to take over the whole conversation. It’s really not a place of deviance for me or exploration. It’s just the same old, same old, imprinted again onto a virtual environment. Most men come into the game looking for sex right away now. It didn’t use to be that way when I first came into the game there was a modicum of respect for people. I did my time as a griefer, trying to worm my way into the male environment. Didn’t work. You’re always gonna be lower than a dog, because you have a vagina. Welcome to the real world SL style.

  4. Matt Says:

    J-CAST ran an amusing article about Second Life at the end of last year: “The streets look great, but no-one’s there: Second Life’s depopulation continues”.

  5. Wilford Says:

    I will just say that the Vanity Fair piece is highly inaccurate, since it overemphasizes the sex element and far too sensationalist journalism. When it comes right down to it, furry is just like any other fandom (or otaku-dom); a group of people interested beyond casual on a particular element of popular culture.

    I also want to point out that the reason that is such a high percentage of furries on Second Life is because many originally gathered in virtual environments of BBSs, MUCKs and MUDS. Thus, the progression from a textual virtual environment to a visual one was fairly natural.