Reality through computer-generated worlds: Digital Avatars and representation
Reality through computer-generated worlds: Digital Avatars and representation
Man’s yearning to represent and reproduce himself in different ways and via different schemas (notational or not) is certainly not a contemporary phenomenon. This innate urge has always inspired him to quest for media to create an alternative persona of himself, an alter-ego. Within modernity and with the advent of ever advancing information and communication technologies, the process of representation has been mutating to more advanced and sophisticated forms. The evolution of this process of representation itself has evolved from ancient cave paintings to virtual universes that are part of computer generated dream-worlds whereby the only reference to reality remains an endlessly replicable entity, the bit.
Among the plethora of visual technologies, Virtual Reality (VR hereinafter) and 3-dimensional simulation have been a focal point of academic research as well as a theme-of-choice for science fiction writers. While the VR environments have unravelled a new dimension of collaboration, they have also generated a strong sentiment of apprehension towards the very expressions of virtual and real . Reality is now even replaced with virtuality and human-activities are substituted from virtual and totally fictionate personalities. A recent example includes synthetic protagonist Dr. Aki Ross, who replaces human actors in the movie Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within; ironically quoted by New York Times as ‘Perfect Model: Gorgeous, No Complaints, Made of Pixels’ . Websites like ChurchofFools.com have been labelled as sinister and devilish for their unconventional approach to worship as they allow members to pray online in a VR environment (Eunice 2004). Though Gibson’s prophecy of cyberspace replacing the lingua franca of meatspace may seem overzealous (Gibson 1984) , the effects of cyberculture and VR technologies on our lives deserve further research. This paper seeks to expand this area and contribute to the discussion of digital avatars.
From a sociological perspective, Giddens observes the modern society to be inherently symbolized by fragmentation and alienation. This certainly leaves a lacuna for technologies to define many domains of our social, political and economic life. Castells (2001) astutely perceives this opportunity as he quotes “individuals are in fact reconstructing the pattern of social interaction, with the help of new technological affordances, to create a new form of society: the network society” (p133). The network society has been prevalent for long in a variety of channels such as text-based chat communities and user-groups. Recent advances have allowed for an association between online communities and VR technology; one that led to the new hybrid concept of online interaction called Shared Virtual Environment (SVE).
A cross-mutation between the collaborative theme of an online community and the 3D graphical interface of a Role Playing Game (RPG), SVE amalgamates the intrinsic complexity of a social network to the technical sophistication of a 3D environment. The difference is that at SVE, the simple notation of computer-users is not enough to describe the multitude of activities that these ‘users’ engage at. As there are political, social and economic activities (examples of which we will provide in due course), users are transformed into residents that occupy virtual universes. With computer-games that are categorized as Massive Multi-Player Role Playing Games (MMRPGs) whereby hundreds of thousands of people are simultaneously participating in the same virtual platform, it is simply not possible to account for the extent of possible interactions. Even though the interactions themselves do conform to computer-generated rules that are depicted in the design of the software (like citizens have to conform to societal rules), the complexity generated by their interactions cannot be predicted for that would mean that there would be a mechanism to monitor all the interactions that take place at any given point in time. It quickly becomes evident that at such scales, that mechanism cannot exist. Residents are therefore participating in a platform through which they can mentally control their digital self as they see fit, a digital self that goes by the name of a Digital Avatar. This has considerable implications for the concept of identity as well as social interactions at online communities.
The word ‘Avatars’ is being used in various nuances and contexts in the existing literature. An elaboration of its semantics becomes imperative to avoid any misunderstanding between its stakeholders. Despite its ubiquitous citing in internet magazines such as Wired as well as occasional referencing in academic literature, the word digital avatars has yet to find its place in a standard lexica like Oxford English Dictionary or Encyclopaedia Encarta. Its recent origin is clearly one reason. According to Parrinder , the word avatar is derived from the Sanskrit word avatāra, meaning a ‘descent’ or ‘manifestation of the divine in human form’. From a theological standpoint, the concept of avatars exists in almost all major religious orders (despite the various nuances) in terms of ‘personification or embodiment of a deity in human form’,. However, the term ‘digital avatars’ seems justly inspired from the Hindu dogma since the phenomenon of amshas, the simultaneous existence in ‘the god himself as well as the incarnation’, bears an eerie similarity to the parallel presence of a person in physical world and in cyberspace. This inference is further fortified by the fact that among all the religious scriptures, only the Hindu doctrine Mahabharata narrates of the 10 coexisting avatars of god Vishnu (ibid, p22), which again bears an uncanny resemblance to a person possessing multiple identities in SVE.
The metaphor of ‘the divine soul incarnating into bodies’ serves as an excellent way to comprehend the crux of digital avatars, which are simply the “graphical icons” or “the alter ego” that a residents enters to represent himself in SVE (Slouka 1996; Taylor.T.L. 2002). The user exploits modern digital avatars via desktop-based 3D simulations in order to produce his/her representation, which trains or entertains since we can manipulate and associate it to ourselves (Langan 2000). It is imperative to realize that digital avatars are not based upon artificially intelligent technologies like virtual robots, but are real human actors disguising themselves in their digital masks.
Historically, the word ‘Digital Avatars’ appeared formally for the first time in Neal Stephenson’s best selling novel Snow Crash as quoted:
“The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audio visual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.” (p. 32)
Even though the origin of the term ‘Digital Avatar’ remains highly doubtful and cannot be attributed to one single author (like Gibson’s cyberspace), it has become an established lexicon for our virtual personas over Multi-User Domains (MUD). Authors such as Shyles still use generic words like ‘digital personas’ to describe the same phenomenon (Shyles 2003). In order to avoid any ambiguities, we will be using the term digital avatar throughout this paper. Respectively for the platform whereby digital avatars interact there are many proposed terminologies like Metaworlds (Rossney June 1996), Avatar Worlds (Damer 1997), Shared Worlds (Roehl 1997) and Collaborative Virtual Environments (Brown.B. and Bell.M 2004) amongst others. We choose to follow the term Shared Virtual Environment (SVE) in order to emphasize the social aspect of the virtual platform whereby the interactions take place.
1.3 Digital Avatars enter Online Communities
The 3D Role Playing Games (RPGs) were the first to embrace the concept of digital avatar as they allowed gamers to “create different personas like a warrior or a magician and experiment with various attributes” (N Ducheneaut. and Moore. 2004). With online gaming, RPGs were no more confined to the gamers’ desktop, but paved the way to the creation of online gaming communities like Everquest, where millions of online gamers compete with each other in VR gaming environments.
Though deemed as online social communities by their websites, these multiplayer online environments were criticised by some academics on the grounds that their “events are pre-produced and participants go along the script” (Shyles 2003). This criticism appeared reasonable since in most 3D role playing games (RPG), the destiny of the characters is generally predefined by developers.
This latent market for a VR based community, aimed at general socializing, not gaming, was perceived quickly as virtual worlds such as ActiveWorlds, There and Second Life emerged over cyberspace. Their core emphasis was to provide participants a virtual meeting space where they could chat, interact and play games. Arguably speaking, this idea was inspired from SimCity, a massively popular game for designing a virtual city . However, the missing link that these fantasy-themed online worlds provided was the desire to “hang-out, not compete”, in a more pleasant and non-gaming environment. Brown and Bell agree that one of the most “unconventional forms of pleasure ” that has been ignored by virtual environments was the “companionship of others” (Brown.B. and Bell.M 2004).
1.4 Identity in digital age: The existing debate
Sociologists and post-modernists unequivocally accede that identity is a maverick; a phenomenon that it intrinsically prone to change. defines identity as inherently fragmented, heterogeneous and ever-evolving. Social psychologist (Gergen K. 1991) ironically defines identity as “pastiche of personalities”. According to (Poster 1990), the concept of identity is also “imaginary” as people “compose themselves as characters, in the process of writing [and] inventing from their feelings, ideas, social positions…” (p117) .(Giddens 1991) also expresses the same concern as he calls identity as “a reflexively organized endeavour” in which an individual attempts to sustain coherent biographical narratives, in multiple contexts. Where the postmodernists like Turkle and Stone express identity more as a singular presentation of self, sociologists highlight its social aspects calling it an “artefact of dyads, settings and groups”(Wynn.H.E. and Katz.J.E. 1997)
This complicated phenomenon of identity, when brought into the spectrum of cyberspace and VR environments, obscure things horrendously. As astutely stated by Strate , Jacobson. et al ( 2003) that
“when the construction of the self happens online in cyberspace, as is occurring at an increasingly rapid rate,..[Identity] becomes awfully complex”
This concern is very lucidly highlighted in the model given below, which depicts the multiple representation of an identity over a modern social network. The one-to-many-relationship of the self is accommodated by various versions of “me”, a concept termed by Turkle (1996) as “multiple distributed” self.
The theory of self and identity has always invoked a controversial debate among sociologists, postmodernists and cyberpunks. The school of self-proclaimed cyberpunks believe since the physical world is inherently flawed, the salvation of human civilisation remains in abandoning their physical bodies to seek aegis in our wired identities (Kroker and Weinstein.M.A. 1994). Advocating their radical perspectives, cyberpunks claim that today “we encounter the end of (human) history and beginning of a virtual history”, as the virtual reality infiltrates the reality itself (ibid). Considering our physical identity an endangered specie, Kroker advocates new identities created by “download[ing] the body into data” and “vampiring organic flesh” in cyberspace.
This school-of-thought have been harshly resented by the cluster of critics like (Slouka 1996), who avows that the existence in aphysical environments using digital avatars or ‘menu of body parts’, is seriously bizarre and disturbing on moral grounds. These critics conspicuously denounce the viewpoint of cyberpunks as yellow journalism. The academia of sociology is particularly highlighted as the nemesis of this cyberpunk school-of-though as they believe that such literature is deliberately based upon “futuristic sensationalism” and lacks any empirical evidence as well as any social theory (Wynn.H.E. and Katz.J.E. 1997).
Nevertheless, the question of whether our online identities reflect and influence our offline identities in real life still remains an intriguing one. The verity of the claim cannot be contested that virtual communities do provide us an opportunity to adopt identities totally different from our offline identity (Turkle 1998). The occurrences of identity deception and gender play needs little recognition as they have been extensively covered in existing literature. (Donath 1999).
However, a profound insight into the literature also provides a strong impression that most of the literature is based on the “what people could do with their capacity to change identities” rather than “what people actually do”. (Correll S. 1995) reinforces this conjecture as he endorses a surprisingly high level of consistency and association between the offline and online identities. (Baym.N.K. 1998) also stresses upon the influence of online identities on our real lives as he concludes:
“Online groups are often woven into the fabric of offline life, rather than set in opposition to it. There is far more to be understood about the many complex interactions between online and local community before writing off either one” (p63).
(Hine 2000) disapproves Baym’s hypothesis, as she observes that it is actually the “offline experiences [that are] woven into the fabric of online groups”. Regardless of direction of the influence, these arguments certainly beak the stereotype of virtual identity segregated from the real one, while highlighting an evocative ethnography to comprehend this underlying association.
1.5 Are we are what we write? Identity of Digital Avatars in SVE.
Computer mediated communications (CMC) have been in the academic limelight for quite a time and their limitations have been a discussed extensively in literature. (Poster 1990) avoids a utopian or dystopian view of CMC, as he factually states that computer conferencing is incapable of portraying “what clothes [conferees] wear, their body language, their facial and oral expressions”. Turkle asserts that cyberspace lacks bodies and accents but appreciates this anonymity in a positive sense as an opportunity to create multiple identities. Contradicting this claim, (Whitley 1997) asserts that though the CMC lack any visual presentation of self, a strong persona or identity is created, through the cues of words which cannot be easily mimicked. Nevertheless, the inexpressiveness of CMC to show our visual personas and gestures has been prevalent in literature.
The conception of SVE augments a new dimension in CMC. Unlike the text-based communities like AOL or IRC, There embraces 3D VR to add expressions, human voice, body gestures and appearance to our online identities. As seen in the figure, residents, using their digital avatars, are now able to choose clothes according to occasion, smile visually rather than typing “ 🙂 ” , and can talk in their own human-voice. Also unlike the 3D online community, There does not force the residents to vehemently follow the theme of a Role Playing Game. This “cross between AOL and Everquest” as defined as There chief executive, Tom Melcher, precisely summarizes the very object of There.
However this supplementation of 3D digital avatars, which possess life-like gestures and expressions, has acute implications since our identities are not only our confined to our pseudonymity (Nabeth.T. 2005), user profiles or rudimentary age-sex-locations (ASL) expressions anymore. (Webb 2001) states that now it is not only the residents only who are “writing their identities”, but their digital avatars are concurrently doing the same with their expressions, body language and appearance. Taylor (Schroeder 2001) also highlight this unprecedented phenomenon as he states that avatars provide “access point” in the creation of identity and social life since the user in SVE does not exist in narrative , but also in his virtual embodiment. Identity of digital avatars undergoes a new dimension, as residents choose between the avatar of a saint or a sinner, select a car for ride, or sell a private virtual island. As recently quoted in Financial Times (Cane Jun 15, 2005) , a new wave in fashion has been witnessed, as people pay a substantial amount of money to flaunt themselves online through their virtual attires.
Concluding, since our fascination with representation of reality needs little verification, the research will now proceed to the research design and empirical research to study the juxtaposition of physical identities and digital avatars at There.
2. Research Design
2.1 Research Question
This primary research endeavours to seek an answer to the question: How do the residents of There , a Shared Virtual Environment, relate their real selves with their digital avatars and vice versa? It will scrutinise various latent influences and relevancies between the real world identities and digital avatars identities in There’s context-specific environment.
2.2 Interpretive Framework
“There are no facts, only interpretations.”
Nietzsche, The Will to Power
Though the list of competing dichotomies in IS research remain exhaustive, this research is based upon the Interpretive Framework which fundamentally assumes that “reality is a social construction of human actors” (Walsham 1995) , “multiple realities exist” (Fitzgerald B. and Howcroft D. 1998), and what constitutes ‘scientific research’ is both time and context dependent (ibid). The critics of Interpretive framework allege that it spends “too much resources upon the task of understanding and interpretation” (Nurminen 1997). However, this research strongly supports Interpretivism as the most appropriate approach for two reasons. Firstly, as described earlier, the study of identity in relation to our digital avatars is a topic that is sparingly found in the existing literature and needs to be understood in social context of SVE, regardless of the resources consumed. Secondly, this research dispels the existing objectivist study of cyberspace which advocates a prefigured hypothesis and calls for a radical change, rather than understanding the concept itself.
The research is neither about the moral issues adhering SVE or how ridiculous or daunting our virtual identities can be. Rather it emphasize upon the actual social occurrences at There, in the light of the pertinent theoretical associations that follow the primary research.
2.3 Ethnographic Tradition of Inquiry(Ethnomethodology)
Fully recognizing the very recent advent of digital avatars and SVE, this qualitative research aims to scrutinize There in light of the meanings people bring to them (Denzin N.K. and Lincoln Y.S. 1994). The design of this study also manifests a general approach which is used purposely to accommodate the emerging issues that develop in the field study of a shared environment (Creswell 1998).
An insight into the five traditions of qualitative inquiry unravels Ethnography as the most pertinent approach to our research. An ethnography delivers a description of a culture-sharing group based upon the interpretation of group’s behaviour, language and interaction through extensive and immersive participant observation (ibid p58). The research candidly concedes the subjectiveness of users’ experiences at There . Therefore it follows an exploratory theme to refrain from predetermined questions or firm guidelines and evolves to augment the understanding of the phenomena of digital avatars, which owing to its recent origin, does manifest a lack of theoretical underpinnings.
It is also not a virtual ethnography and as it stresses upon the stance of knowing our 8 participants in their offline context through interviews, after exposing them to the SVE of There for 20 days. The motivation of this real ethnography come from (Hine 2000) in her book Virtual Ethnography as she says:
“…there is a boundary between offline and online interaction which is a barrier to the ethnographer. Asking people about their offline contexts is far from useless.” (p76)
The ethnography scrutinizes the association between offline and online identities using a rigorous 2-way data collection approach. While the unstructured interviews provide the offline context of the participants, desktop video capturing provides means to observe their online interactions. Next, the data pertinent to our topic is fished prudently from the footage, which is later challenged in the light of interview responses. Daily logs of video footage were strictly maintained to understand the subtle way the participants choose their digital avatars, modify them and relate their offline identities with them (and vice versa). Screenshots were extracted from the video footage and are illustrated where considered necessary. The sample of participants consisted entirely of students and the only pre-requisite was familiarity with any of the text-based Multi-User Domain (MUD) like AOL communities or IRC.
The first and foremost observation of the research was to analyze how intimately the participants relate their digital avatars to themselves. Interestingly, the video footage and interviews ascertain that participants used 1st person singular “I” immediately to relate to their avatars, as clearly seen by these dialogues on separate occasions:
“CaBLeGaL: what u mean! These r brand new shoes I am wearing!!”
“Arial : I don’t like someone kissing me. It sux!”,
These dialogues suggest that the participants did not consider their virtual avatars discrete and detached entities but were able to associate them to themselves in a personal vein. The girl named CaBLeGaL seemed offended, with annoyed expressions, as she complained of a punk’s sarcastic remarks regarding her new [avatar’s] shoes.
The participants also appreciated There’s ability to detect common text-chat based emoticons like “:)” and “:(” and convert them into visual expressions of smiling and frowning respectively. Also the participants liked the concept of other residents gazing at them as they conversed, since it invoked a more personal and pleasant experience for them.
Based upon the video footage of the participants at There, extensive data was collected and pertinent themes were highlighted. These themes were discussed subsequently in informal interviews and are explained as following:
3.1 Creating a virtual self
Since There is primarily designed for socializing, the residents spend a substantial part of his time in two activities: hosting different events and customising their avatars.
One of the prominent features of There is the extraordinary variety of options it offers to customise your avatar. As the participant enters the virtual environment, the diversity of costumes, cosmetics, accessories, footwear, tattoos and hairstyles that its residents flaunt cannot go unnoticed. There permits literally thousands of costumes that range from 0 ThereBucks (T) for an ordinary t-shirt to 6000T for an expensive evening gown. The conversion rate is 1US$ equivalent to 1800T. Many freelancer residents design clothes and exhibit them at different designer shops which are advertised through billboards at different locations. The screenshot shown below shows the character going to a designer shop named Jannamid.
Initially, the digital avatar of a male resident wears an orange t-shirt and khaki shorts (seen in figure). Participants observed that the residents who do not change this basic costumes are identified as novice or noob users and considered dull and uninteresting figures. As cited by one of the participants, There seems to discourage “mass-produced indistinguishable avatars”, as it promotes residents to create “custom-made unique personas” as their identity. Another resident observes that “an avatar is like a dress chosen for a party. It is not illegal to wear the same dress as someone else on a party, but it is deemed improper and embarrassing for both residents”. Though the identify theft can be reported as an assault, known as griefing, a resident’s imitation of other resident’s look is considered abysmal
Not surprisingly, many of the designer attires bear a conspicuous familiarity with the vogue of the real world, as many of our participant chose, boot-cut jeans, fitted t-shirts and spiky hair. One participant, who was an LSE student, stated in the interview that he was keen on getting a “London School of Economics” sleeveless t-shirt for his digital avatar, since freelancer designers offer such tailor-made couture at premium prices. However since it cost some 2880T ($US1.60), he deemed it a little too pricey. The same participant stated that residents sell their old second-hand t-shirts at garage sale and auctions, which usually cost like 500TB to 1500TB, unlike the “designer labels, which like real life, are expensive at virtual world too”. Another participant astutely summarises this observation as he quotes that “Though all avatars are equal, some avatars seem more equal than others!”.
More than 50 designer sites exist, primarily run by residents themselves. A turnover of thousands of US$ dollars a day in avatar merchandize manifests the residents’ inclination towards dressing their avatars (Source: ThereCare). There also does not permit the lending of clothes, unlike vehicles and other objects. This fortifies the supposition that a resident’s appearance is like a nickname and should be unique. The change in appearance is most certainly correlated to the social events held, for instance the Caramel Toga Skirts were worn by many participant on the occasion of ThereGames. An advert selling casual designer wear is shown as following:
With thousands of options available to customise our looks from head to toe, the question of having multiple avatars certainly comes to mind. It was interesting to see that during the initial days, most of the participant tried experimenting with different looks, switching over things such as body-physiques to eye-colours. However, after some days of inquisitiveness, almost all participants tend to be well-contented with adhering to one particular avatar look, which eventually became their social recognition. However, participants did acquired different temporary roles . One girl dressed up like a Wicked Witch with a broom stick on a party (see picture). One of the distinguishing changes on her face was her nose, which was unusually longer than her usual avatar’s nose. However, after the party, she adopted back her normal getup.
Most participants added this persistent look to their “favourites” in the menu, making it convenient to retrieve it whenever necessary. All participants invested their time and money (Therebucks) in this stable and persistent virtual identity and deemed it unnecessary to lose it. Also maintaining multiple identities was deemed highly inconvenient as one participant tells:
“I have some 6 e-mail accounts and it becomes hard for me to follow up who will be sending which mail to what account. Surely, I can have a 6 different identities for 6 different universes. However it will be more of a hassle than of any real use”
Another key question was how the participants influence their digital avatars with their worldly appearance. With a myriad of avatar options available, it remains simply a mouse click to detach from one’s real self and create an absolutely irrelevant and misrepresenting one.
However, the ethnography strongly suggests that the virtual identity of participants, in terms of the persistent avatar mentioned before, actually carried a fair resemblance to their real life appearance. Most of the participants consciously chose their avatar ‘body colour’ close to their real body colour and none of them actually chose a different sex to what they were in real life. In the interviews, all participants deemed it “unnecessary and embarrassing” to have a different sex and colour to what you are in reality.
Among clothes and footwear, the choice was fairly subjective. Most participants preferred their virtual selves to be neither very mundane nor very larger-than-life. A subtle balance between flaunting digital bodies while remaining sober was clearly witnessed. Though There does permit sexually appealing clothes to a certain extent, most of the participants chose clothes that make them stand apart, while not being very sexually explicit. Most of the chosen clothes and accessories were trendy and urbane but also very humanlike. However, on special events and social parties, residents did temporarily disguise themselves as witches, monks and even Willy Wonka. A screenshot for a party is shown below where residents can be seen wearing contemporary casuals.
The inference that the residents dress their avatars fairly similar to themselves was not evident visually but also in the social interactions. One of the participants was visibly annoyed at someone commenting at his wearing sandals to a formal party as he trotted back ,“But I wear my sandals even to campus!”[in real life]. Two participants who dressed their avatars in designer clothes conceded a craving for them in real life also.
A significant attention was given to the frequency of change in different categories of clothes, footwear, hairstyles, eye-colour and tattoos. Clothes and costumes went through the most frequent change with footwear, hairstyles and eye-colour coming 2nd, 3rd and 4th respectively. The tattoos worn by three of our participants were the most stable category in this observation, which actually never went through any change at all. It was an critical observation, since all these different categories can be changed with a mouse-click with the same level of ease i.e. changing the tattoo is not more painful than changing clothes or shoes.
An interesting question was proposed by a participant: does the way people dress their avatars in SVE has any affects on the way they are socially perceived? Several examples endorse that our avatars do influence the socializing substantially. One pertinent one is the recent establishment of “Spikey-Hair Club”, a club only open to the residents with spiky hair. One of the club’s participants was invited to a neighbourhood, a privately maintained space, to take part in a paint-gun match. The paint-gun matches actually allows members to throw paint at each other using special guns designed for purpose. It is interesting that though There discourages paint throwing at each other in public universes, a member was able to get himself to a closed community, on the basis of his virtual appearance. This “birds of a feather flock together” philosophy was very evident as residents with similar appearances seemed to maintain a frequent contact with each other using buddy list, which is very similar to an MSN instant messaging.
The interview responses also suggested that one’s virtual getup could be a major motivation or a hindrance towards socializing as most respondents asserted that they would feel more comfortable socializing with a human looking fellow named “Ariel” rather than a cross between a man and a beast named “Manimal”.
An interesting observation was made as the real life socio-political circumstances affected the digital avatars of the participants . The 7/7 London tube bombing were condemned by the residents of There, as they discussed the incident and its aftermaths at different social clubs. A resident proposed the idea of having a virtual condolence ceremony, which was well received by other. The event was extensively advertised and a virtual cemetery was established to create the VR environment for the occasion. Residents congregated at a virtual memorial where they placed Union Jacks, bouquets and other gestures of support for the victims. A black dress code was observed by many residents . As seen in the aerial view below, the flag of UK along with USA’s, was raised in a cemetery to demonstrate their grievance towards the incident. Even after many days after the incident, many resident were still seen in t-shirts bearing peace symbols as well as slogans protesting against the attacks. Though the socio-political artefacts are intrinsically embedded in the way residents choose their avatars, this incident conspicuously revealed how the offline socio-political events can influence the online selves.
3.3 Real ethics in a Virtual world
It was not surprising that most of the participants could not detach the various aspects of their real self in the virtual world of There. The ethical gestures of the residents in There were a very prominent indication of this conviction. For example, the vehicles in the There are unable to run over a human resident since the residents maintains a non-physical relation to the vehicles on the road. A participant was unable to control a mini-truck and ran over a girl nearby. Certainly, the girl was not hurt since the mini-trunk is not a tangible entity. However, it was very interesting to see that the participant actually bothered to come back to the girl and offered her sincere apologies for his unintentional mistake. During the interview, the same participant amusingly confessed that he is infamous for saying “words of thanks and sorry” exceedingly and unnecessarily.
Similarly, the participants complained that many residents did not bother to gaze at them while they were talking. Where the option of gazing at someone did add a more intimate touch to the conversation, failure to do so conjured up a sense of neglect and disrespect in the addressee’s mind. Similarly, one participant also asked a resident not to stand too close to her and maintain an appropriate distance.
3.4 Physical and Social Constraints
Another observation was made regarding the physical and aphysical constraints. A participant witnessed that There also allows the option to become physical using an option called force field. This was observed during the paint-gun match, where the players made themselves physical to have ‘paint drooling and dripping down their bodies’. Though having aphysical bodies was indispensable so you don’t get trodden down by a car, however, physical constraints were added at occasions like paint-gun matches to get the feel of physical life. A participant quoted the physical feel as “necessary devil” in his interview. “It is like gravity in real life”, he exclaims, “something that you cannot live with, neither can live without”.
Another incident happened where physical restraints were added to facilitate social feasibility. Teleporting, a concept inspired by StarTrek, is a conveniences that allows a residents to travel from a car racing track to a coffee room in the blink of an eye. However, participants noticed several restraints in teleporting themselves to ThereGames, a gaming event recently held, since it was an invitations-only event and meant for long-termed residents. Being neophytes, none of the participants could gain an access to these restricted events, which were allowed for long-term members only. However, another clever resident was able to hitch himself to the event, while sitting next to a long term member in his car. This is a classic observation that while There does not allow teleporting to ThereGames, it allows an entry by means of the vehicle of a permanent member.
Participants suggested that There actually encourage the feel of a closed community to disallow residents with low reputation to go into private universes. This could possibly be the reason, why most residents refrain from switching over different accounts, which could discard the established identity, bringing them back to the status of noob, a word that is certainly not expressed in the most amiable nuance. One participant made an interesting remark “..My repute is not a part of me. It is whole of me!”.
Participants also indicated that There tries to impose the real world ethics in the virtual environment deliberately. This conjecture is supported by a participant’s quote in his interview where he tells of a buggy [vehicle] that he lost :
“..I lost my buggy in Zephyr couple of days ago [name of a universe] .. a guy reminded me to pick it near the dunes”.
Pragmatically speaking, the management at There can easily program the system to send back the lost items in the resident’s inventory automatically. However, to generate a real sense of ownership and encourage ethical gestures, There certainly has implemented some real-to-life problems into the virtual universes. With such incidents, the creation of a reputation system was witnessed in which certain members enjoy a more reputable persona compared to others.
Like real worlds, social networking also enhances one’s standing in the universe. Such a repute plays an pivotal part while hosting an event, inviting people on a party on a private island or simply selling a costume. Some gambling poker games are strictly confined to residents who maintain a long-term and established credibility. A participant’s request for joining one of such gambling clubs was refused, and the participant seems to have been offended at the rejection.
3.5 Influences from There to Here
One of the most interesting interview insights was the fact that it is not only the real life that influences the virtual environments of There, but a subtle reciprocal effect also exists. An interesting effect of how the digital avatars effect our identities in real lives is manifested in this participants words:
“…I loved my new [virtual] look, which is a society gal named cybergal with a great butterfly tattoo.I think I should get a turquoise butterfly [tattoo] on my arm in real too. It is going to look cool. ”
The statement suggests that the resident real life was influenced by her virtual digital avatar of a very extrovert and flamboyant character named Cybergal, who loves to flaunt her tattoos in There. However, most participant agreed that the influence of digital identities over our real ones is extremely nominal when compared to the reflections of real identities over our digital identities. However, it will be altogether incorrect to presume that virtual environments cannot and do not influence our real life identities at all.
After underlining these pertinent themes, the research now proceeds to examine this interesting phenomenon in light of theoretical and literary underpinnings.
Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.
The question of cleaving real from virtual is unarguably not a enigma of our times but has flustered philosopher and academics since centuries; as evident by Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘a dream within a dream’ metaphor of reality. Ironically, the word ‘virtually’ in OED means ‘as good as’, which rather than elucidating the distinction between real and virtual, conjures another question how good can be the virtual to the real itself. One cluster of academics (Kallinikos 2001) does provide a lucid distinction between real and virtual based upon the contradiction or cleaving of matter (physical) from mind (image or experience). However, another school-of-thought, perhaps exasperated in its quest to find the thin line between reality and virtuality, asserts that technology has actually blurred this line of distinction to an extent that it does not remain pragmatic, or rather useful, to discriminate between atoms and bits at all (Mitchell 2003).
Immersing our self into this tangled world of real and virtual opens the Pandora’s box of arguments. (Slouka 1996) criticises the cyberspace for its “disembodied nature” from reality and holds his reservations against the virtual world because it isolates and disconnects us from the real world. The cyberpunks on the other side hail cyberspace for liberating us from our mundane and boring physical prisons. (Gibson 1984). However, both the viewpoints clearly appear to be suffering from the predefined conviction: Cyberspace and meatspace are two different dimension that cannot go along together.
Using (or abusing) this same lens, both schools create an “invisible wall” between our real selves and online identities, which are considered intrinsically isolated and incompatible with each other. This sentiment is best depicted in Turkle’s (1998) idealised concept of “multiple distributed” self ,which can morph into anything one can imagine, since “all they see is your words”. Ironically, this assumption viciously shatters the very definition of identity itself, a word derived from Latin idem meaning “sameness of qualities”.
Conversely, a large cluster of sociologists remains wary of the validity of the post-modern view as they accuse the “post-modern psychoanalytical theory” of being irrational and baseless(Wynn.H.E. and Katz.J.E. 1997). They also accuse postmodernists of taking an unreasonable liberty of the fact that cyber communities are unconstrained by prior social theory.
Therefore, realizing this widening gap between the postmodernists and sociologists, the research harnesses the traditional Social Identity Theory (SIT) to analyze various themes that we underlined at There. The stance of this analysis will be that the digital bodies and social patterns at There does not radically disrupts the strong foundation of SIT, but complies to it, though in its own unique and subtle manner.
4.1 There as a reflective of social (not virtual) reality
While reading the word identity in the context of this research, one might be intrigued that the research does not distinguish between personal and social identity. (Goffman 1963) makes such a distinction as he defines social identity on the basis of “broad social categories that one belongs to” while he confines personal identity to “one’s distinguishing marks like name and appearance.”
However, the classical Social Identity Theory (SIT), founded by (Tajfel. 1984), takes a peculiar stance as it outrageously opposes the notion of individual identity asserting that the very phenomenon of identity is intrinsically social:
“…we do not act as isolated individuals but as social beings who derive an important part of our identity from the human groups and social categories that we belong to”
In a revolutionary vein, (Tajfel 1981) described individualism as “what an individual deems to be appropriate to a social situation in which he finds himself”. (p36) He suggested that the idea of self always exists in some social context and is always confined by the norms of its social category. Despite the criticism and amendments that SIT went through, this unique concept still remains the crux of the entire theory itself.
Historically speaking, Tajfel’s stance was to dispel the extremely individualistic and reductionist tendency of psychological theory of that time, as he endorsed “social psychology” to his counterparts.
A perceptive look into the historical context of SIT draws a uncanny comparison to the dilemma that exist today between postmodernist and sociologist. While postmodernist like Turkle and Stone uphold the notion of an individualised virtual self, sociologist reject such notion of futurism as they stress upon the social norms that the self cannot evade.
This argument comes in limelight at There. Studying the various themes in light of SIT, the research clearly manifests that our virtual self is certainly a social reality before being a virtual one. The digital avatar is not an unrestrained self that can spin in all direction but is governed by social norms of the various categories which it belongs to. Unarguably, There remains the brainchild of postmodernists, however it strongly abides by the definition of social identity, as residents shape their appearances and gestures to what they deem is appropriate to a particular social context and category. Tajfel’s theory of social identity convincingly conforms to our avatar’s identity, which is also supported by (Taylor.T.L. 2002) as he observes that our virtual identities and avatar bodies do not exist in vacuum but in social and cultural contexts. This endorses the daring claim made by Wynn and Katz as they state that internet does not radically alter social bases of identity and social interactions.
This raises the question whether our digital avatars keep reminiscence of our real offline identities or not. (Heim 1993) makes a bold statement as he applauds the freedom from our physical restrictions in cyberspace:
“we begin as voyeurs and end by abandoning our identity to the fascinating systems we tend”. (p79) [italics added]
However, this research suggests that the idea of abandoning the real identity in cyberspace is as pragmatic as Archimedes’ infamous claim to lift the earth using his lever device. On the other hand, we actually lend our real selves to our digital avatars. Not only the avatar’s appearance bore reminiscences of the real self in terms of skin-colour and dress sense , but the frequency of changing clothes, compared to changing tattoos, proved that our digital selves are not defined by our mouse-clicks but by the dormant practices of real physical life. There sharply negates Heim’s post-modern claim as it manifests that where virtual reality is a representation of the reality, our digital identities are a strong reflective of our real selves too. This proposition is supported by (Webb 2001) as he says:
“off-line reality precedes and frames the virtual. The off-line world delimits and grounds participants. Put crudely, virtual existence is merely an extension of what people normally do .” (p564)
Consequently, the reason for choosing humanlike avatars seems understandable since digital avatars convey a very strong image of ourselves. (Myers 1987) describes our nicknames to be the basis of our identity since they portray you as a “friend or foe”. Using the same framework for There, our digital avatars, who are not merely words but are live characters, comparatively depict a much stronger image of the real person. This rationalises why residents generally maintain socially amiable and self-resembling avatars which are not sexually offensive, larger-than-life or intimidating. This also reinstates Tajfel’s (1981) concept of “socially appropriate individualism” as resident try to stand out of the crowd with their appearance, while maintaining the social code of ethics.
The modern social life in a cyberspace is often romanticised by the post-modernists as a “mass society” since technology has eroded the physical boundaries to create a global village (McLuhan 1962). Taking this argument back to SIT, (Tajfel 1981) dismissed the psychologists’ notion of “randomly interacting individuals” operating in a “unstructured homogenous social medium”. This homogeneity of a mass society, under the umbrella of cyberspace, is not very different from the belief of psychologists that Tajfel dispelled two decades back.
Getting back to There, we observe it not to be a homogenous society, but comprising of what we can call “digital tribes of proximity”. The Spikey Hair Club is one example, which exemplifies a social category with its own norms, ethics and gestures; radically different from those of crème de la crème club. In context of SVE, this phenomenon is referred as stratification by (Schroeder 1997), as he highlights different social groups created on the basis of different status and cultural cohesion. The stratification of online groups validates Tajfel’s theory that identity is defined on basis of social categories that are subjected to some form of power, status, prestige or social differentials. The difference in status and prestige was also evident in the incident where a participant’s request to join a Poker Club was declined as he was considered untrustworthy owing to his recent membership. This incident also establishes that the value of money, whether in US$ or Therebucks, is always real.
Like real life, There also signifies the importance of social networking and referrals. This is best highlighted in the example of the clever participant who hitched himself to ThereGames, while sitting next to a permanent member in his car. Amusingly, this is a brilliant example of what (Goffman 1963) explained in his social theory four decades back, as he states: “Some places disallow unaccompanied guests but allow the same person when accompanied…”. This reaffirms the assertion that There is a social environment before a virtual one.
The claim that There is a strong reflection of our real selves also reflected vividly in the socio-political influences of London bombings. The moods and visual expressions of avatars were not detached from the real people, as they followed the gravity of the real socio-political scene for many days after the incident. (Hine 2000) wisely expresses this affiliation between offline and online selves as she states that offline experiences of members become the common ground of discussion and performance in online environments. The black dress code observed by many at the ceremony reinstates that our clothes are not merely physical items, but a mode of our social norms and settings (Giddens 1991). The wearing of warm hooded sweatshirt at There may sound ridiculous; until we rationally reconsider the practical side of wearing a 5 inch high heel in our real lives.
Now the question of multiple identities is addressed. Unarguably, the fascinations, not to mention the controversies, that surround multiple identities and identity deception in cyberspace needs little mentioning. (Turkle 1998) mentions an upcoming identity crisis as she questions the legitimacy of traditional theories of identity in cyberspace. In the post-modern world of cyberspace, the maverick like identity certainly poses some blazing questions indeed.
However, Tajfel’s fully recognises the dynamics of social identity as an individual is exposed to different social relationships and environments. He asserts that as the social identity assumes different roles in a family or a social group, it does not create special types of idiosyncratic multiple selves, but still retails its “collective potential” (Simon B. and Hastedt C. 1999). Unlike the postmodernist individualistic idea of self, the phenomenon of social identity does not disperses owing to its social bindings. Conversely, it remains relativity composed, as it assumes different roles according to contextual social shifts. (Goffman 1959) describes the same phenomenon as different presentations of the same self , as a person attempts to facilitate his image among different people and environments.
Putting this theory in context of There, this ethnography does signify the same digital avatar possessing many social facets, which depends upon different people and universes. The identity of an avatar is certainly not very different from the identity in reality, where the same face is a college student, a volunteer for a charity event and a loving son. The term ‘multiple identities’ is often portrayed in negative nuance of deception which should be avoided. This view is also by endorsed by Turkle (1997) herself, as she concedes that term “multiple identities is misleading”.
Contrary to the post-modern concept of identity, which is considered a personal property, the digital avatars manifested a social identity. It is needless to say that a social entity is bound by social restraints and therefore cannot spin in all directions. It justifies that where multiple identities are just a mouse click away, most participants strongly abstained from switching Digital Avatars that will make it cumbersome to sustain their existing image in the community. As the fragmented nature of interactions made it difficult to keep coherence, the participants maintained a socially recognisable and a persistent “favourite” avatar. This is also observed by (Poster 1990) as he negates the freedom of multiple identities and warns that having idiosyncratic identities do not provide any freedom but actually restrain it.
Where SIT does not emphasise an individual’s standing out within his own category, this is best explained by Self Attention Theory (Abrams 1996). It states that the social identity does endure “conceptual self-images” that one undergoes involving a “specific, transient and usually hypothetical relationship” (Abrams 1996; Reid and Deaux.K. 1996). This precisely underlines the innocuous experimentation of residents as they temporarily disguise themselves as Wicked Witch or Willy Wodka. This again affirms that digital avatars are a reflection of the real selves as costume parties like Halloween are not very uncommon in reality also.
(Abrams 1996) also attempts to integrate SIT with Self-Attention Theory as he presents a model how one balances himself according to ‘identity salience of his category’ as well an ‘appetite for standing out in his own club’. The model confirms to four different examples at There, as the residents observe the norms of their social category while trying to stand out as well. The self elaborative 4×4 is matrix is shown below:
4.2 Social Construction of a Virtual World
In his critically acclaimed structuration theory, (Giddens 1984) mentions the role of material constraints. He defines them as the limitations of our physical bodies and their effects on the “feasible social lives” that people lead. Giddens makes an interesting insight as he quotes:
“The physical properties of the body and its material milieux of action are enabling as well as constraining ”.
Giddens probably never realised the gravity of his statement in terms of the social construction of a virtual environment. But his conviction comes to spotlight at There. A virtual environment certainly liberates us, or at least provides us an opportunity to liberate, from various physical restraints. The teleporting allows us to travel anywhere, anytime, in the fraction of a second. Also our aphysical and intangible bodies stay intact after being trodden down by a truck.
However, recollecting that VR is an abstraction of reality, the restraints that There liberates us from, are intentionally re-imposed by its residents to facilitate their feasible social lives. Therefore, Teleporting to the high-profile clubs becomes restricted to crème de la crème only. Inversely, the group of fun loving and jovial junkies make themselves physical to ensure they can enjoy paint-gun matches, while messing their physical bodies with paint dripping all over. Where the notion of liberation from physical being in cyberspace might sound a tempting idea, our real social identities enforce real life limitations, to make it more socially viable for interaction.
This observation is a classic example of Social Shaping of Technology (SCOT) developed by Pinch and Bijker (MacKenzie.D. and Wajcman.J. 1999), which relates how different social groups associate different meanings with artefacts, thus leading to “interpretive flexibility” appearing over the artefact. As the rules of physical and aphysical are interpreted differently within separate resident groups, There embeds a new meaning in its technological artefacts.
Social laws prove more resilient as they dominate over the Physical laws of the virtual universe.
This example also suggests that rather that adopting a real versus virtual lens of study, the focus of attention should be more towards the social organization of such online communities. This research endorses (Bakardjieva 2003) , as she maintains that the evaluation of online groups should be guided by human interaction rather than the ongoing debate between real and virtual.
4.3 The Real Ethics of our Virtual Bodies
One of the most eminent features of our real social identity is the our expression of various physical gestures and body language. The significance of bodily gestures and facial expressions in our social encounters was scientifically probed by classical sociologist (Goffman E 1967), as he introduced the notion of “right and wrong faces”. Highlighting the role of manners during social performances, he explained how unmeant gestures, inappropriate intrusions and faux pas can defame our identity (Goffman 1959).
(Giddens 1984) conjectures that perhaps all societies will detest one’s “turning his back” while the other is still speaking. In reality, it would not be exaggeration to say that such an action will be taken as a sign of contempt and uncivilised behaviour in all civilised societies. However, the cyber-society, a society surrounded by suspicion and controversy, raises an intriguing question if the gestures of the civil society needs to be followed by our digital bodies in virtual environments also.
(Heim 1993) negates this assumption as he says “when online, we break free, like monads, from bodily existence” (p99). The consequences of this freedom from physical identity is a departure from all gestures as he quotes “Without directly meeting others physically, our ethics languishes” (p103). With our social ethics confined merely to a few keystrokes, many sociologist thinks no different as stated by (Robbinett 1991)
“Unlike other kinds of human communities which are constituted around the physical presence of their members, the virtual communities cannot teach or enforce a code of ethics by example. We always have depended heavily on the physical presence of others to remind us we need to behave ethically” (p16)
Conversely, (Poster 1990) states:
“the computer conversationalist is not ‘free’ at all but bounded in many ways…by prior constituting of self. ” (p118)
The ethnography at There provides an interesting insight as it holds the former propositions largely speculated and lack any concrete evidence. Our physical identities defined by our social ethics, spanning over centuries of human civilisation, are certainly too robust to be eroded so easily in the virtual spaces. The research manifests that the participants strongly carried the worldly ethics into their digital selves. Turning one’s virtual back while still in conversation and not maintaining a reasonable distance between digital bodies may seem trivial concern; however they go against the etiquettes of the internet, the netiquettes. Our observation is strongly supported by (Jeffrey and Mark 1998) as they state:
“Although [it is] physically possible to pass through avatars, it was seen as rude and impolite and this behaviour was not observed very frequently.” (p28)
Similarly, a code of ethics was witnessed at the incident where one participant found his lost buggy back. To prevent the worldly gestures from becoming an endangered specie, the cyber-society evolved of its own social moral values by creating netiquettes and virtual face-saving. This reinstates Giddens’ hypothesis that all civilised societies, including the cyber-society, maintain its code of social gestures and ethics.
4.4 Subtle Influences of Digital Avatars on Reality
Amid an abundance of observations, there is little evidence required to maintain that the digital identities are a strong social production of the real identities. However, the question how the online experiences are woven into our real selves has been extremely unexplored. Though (Baym.N.K. 1998) strongly endorses such influences, there is little evidence that he provides to justify his belief how exactly the digital identities influence us in reality. His assertion is therefore subject to criticism by (Hine 2000), who believes that it is actually the offline experiences that influence online groups. Regardless of this tug of war, papers like New York Times and Newsweek tell some vivid narrations of cyberwidows (O’Neill 1995), women whose husbands abandoned their real life identities because of their addiction to cyberspace. It becomes needless to say that we must pragmatically analyze the influences upon our real identities as we interact through digital avatars over SVE.
In light of There, the interviews revealed a subtle influence of digital avatars over a very few participants. This is manifested by comments made by one participant whose virtual tattoo became a motivation for her to get a real life tattoo. However, this research candidly confesses that such influence has been extremely nominal. This may sound realistic since the participants resided in There for a short time and certainly the online identity created over short period cannot exert a substantial impact over their real identities, a product of years of socio-political influences. This delimitations is elaborated in the proceeding and final section of the thesis.
The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense.
Man is a self-proclaimed social animal. Where the classification of Homo Sapiens under animal kingdom may be controversial, there remains little contest regarding the primacy of his social skills. As the frontiers of cyberspace open new horizons of socializing, we witness a myriad of unprecedented communication technologies in our lives. As the brilliant minds of postmodernists such as Tom Clancy (quoted above) bring the inconceivable into the realms of reality , it becomes impossible to make any pragmatic conjecture regarding the future of our planet earth and beyond. Except that the only things that will remain constant, is change itself (Anonymous).
However, as the tribes evolve into digital tribes and etiquettes become netiquettes, another thing doesn’t seem to change. Man still remains the social animal he ever was; in meatspace as well as in cyberspace. As man’s remarkable imagination thwart the physical laws, the social laws spanning over thousands of years of human civilisation certainly prove more robust than he could imagine. This precisely remains the conclusion of this research.
Some suggestions for further academic research and some limitations of the experiment are highlighted as following:
5.1 Suggestions for further research
One of the major objects of this study was to pave the way for future research in digital avatars and SVE, which certainly call for an academic attention. Therefore this research deliberately aims at raising many questions, which is inspired by Wolcott’s (Wolcott 1994b) rather infamous statement that ‘qualitative studies perhaps do not have any endings, only questions’.
Though there are few SVE’s currently available for socialising, Second Life remains a major contender, which is arguably superior to There in several features. Though, the research solely selected There for its user-friendly interface and intuitiveness, a similar ethnography in Second Life is highly recommended. Unlike Online 3D games, the options to put your own face onto your digital avatar is not available in There or Second Life, however, upon its it becomes available, it will also be an interesting topic to explore.
Lastly, There’s residents occasionally hold meetings in Waking World, as they call it, which happen usually in California. It might be interesting to see if residents can recognise the real selves on the basis of their digital avatars or not.
5.2 Delimitations of the research
There is an unarguably experience to be felt, as we defined presence in its subjective sense. Only the person riding a buggy at There while having a cup of coffee is reality can truly experience the sense of immersion in both worlds. Fully realising this limitation of words, a vivid description was used intentionally to present a realistic picture of the virtual world, which under no circumstances should be taken as a ‘non-serious’ account of the subject.
The experiment provided all 8 participants with 4500 Therebucks each , which according to some participants were not sufficient. However, one positive aspect of the limited resources was to observe how people prioritise their preferences; whether they rent a car for the party or invest in a new dress.
Finally, as stated in research the effects of digital identities over real selves were observed to be extremely nominal. It is needless to say that it is attributed to short duration of 3 weeks that participants spent at There. Owing to limited resources, it was absolutely painstaking to arrange such an experiment and even harder was to fish for the pertinent data. A more prolonged experiment of similar nature is desirable, which was too exhaustive in the context of this research.
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 Current Affiliation?
 Department of Information Systems, London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, WC2A 2AE, London
 The concepts of presence and co-presence are controversial themselves. This research follows the subjective side, which is based upon the level of immersion of participant (Schroeder R. 2001). Therefore a person having a cup of coffee in reality and riding a car in SVE is considered ‘being there’ and present in both spaces.
Avatar Screenshots property of There.com.
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