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"AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL FANTASIES":
IDENTITY CONSTRUCTION IN A VIRTUAL WORLD



The advent of the digital age has brought about an identity crisis not seen since the turn of the twentieth century; a time which prompted Gertrude Stein to dub the generation of writers during that period the “lost generation." That term, though, is often applied and aptly so to the population-at-large in the West as so many were disillusioned about modernity.

Today, academics such as Scott Seider and Howard Gardner have dubbed the generation that was born in the 1980s the “fragmented generation." What is important to realize, however, is that this fragmentation goes beyond the narrow band of individuals born during the Reagan years and refers to a Western world that is dominated by internet-related technology.

Curiously enough, one can see parallels between the way the generations are described and even the types of changes that occurred during both periods of time. At the turn of the twentieth century, the commercial print age and the rise of industrial cities were the driving forces in the bitterness that dominated that period. In One Way Street (1925-26), Walter Benjamin noted that the urban dweller had become alienated by the conditions created by modernity.

It was also in 1926 that Henry Seidel Canby wrote on the death of anonymity. He noted that, after 1850, there were far fewer works printed anonymously because, as he posits, "…[w]hat we are encountering is a panicky, an almost hysterical, attempt to escape from the deadly anonymity of modern life, and the prime cause is not the vanity of our writers, but the craving – I had almost said the terror – of the general man who feels his personality sinking lower and lower into a whirl of indistinguishable atoms to be lost in a mass civilization."

With the benefit of hindsight and an understanding of the anxiety and destabilization that modernity produced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, it is apparent that the Internet age is again seeing a similar type of crisis. The radical expansion of the Internet, in a way similar to the mushrooming of the commercial print age and the migration into cities, manifests in people a feeling of just how insignificant they have become in this new landscape. Once again, people feel their “personality sinking lower and lower,” this time, “into a whirl of indistinguishable” data and images transmitted across a network of fiber-optic cables and satellites. As with the earlier backlash against anonymous print publishing, it is into this new digital landscape that people have set forth to reestablish their sense of self and expressions of their agency. Through the use of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, and virtual worlds such as Second Life, Active Worlds, There, Moove, and Kaneva, individuals attempt to define their personalities in a world that reaches far beyond their neighborhood.

This article examines how people are using the virtual world Second Life as a third space between anonymity and a classical sense of selfhood - a type of "ambivalent anonymity," which is best described as a state in which the person simultaneously moves to remain unnamed and yet creates identity. These contrary values manifest in several ways. Although the person using Second Life may remain either nameless or faceless, their "selfness" rises to the surface regardless of how they might try to mask their identity. In other words, it is in this liminal space, which simulates a three-dimensional world, that a performative subject emerges, which is partly in response to the anxiety of anonymity in their actual lives in a technological age. Furthermore, play (in this case, playing in Second Life), as John Huizinga points out in Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture, is voluntary and a way of “stepping out of ‘real’ life into a temporary sphere of activity.” This “play-element” is crucial to the performance of the characters in Second Life. In fact, Second Life is almost a perfect example of a space “where the customary differences of rank are temporarily abolished,” as Huizinga has phrased it.

What one finds in Second Life, then, is an extremely complex set of sociological norms through which the residents (users) have to navigate, and they do so by using a variety of strategies including ambivalent anonymity. All of this becomes culturally relevant when one recognizes that Second Life is a high-speed microcosm of everyday life as there are six daily cycles every twenty-four hours and people are considered “old” if they have logged more than one year in the game. In essence, people can use the game as a testing ground for changes they might consider in their actual lives. The user can reconstitute subjectivity in the game world, but that newly formed subjectivity cannot be confined by the game space and inevitably makes its way into the user’s actual life.

Second Life and other virtual worlds are at the crux of debates as to whether they are legitimate areas of study. A recent special issue of the journal Reconstruction attests to the importance of gaming in popular culture, especially in regard to many of the fears and misconceptions of gaming, online and otherwise. Again, a parallel with the emerging media shift late in the nineteenth and early in the twentieth centuries can easily be drawn. Benjamin, in his seminal essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” writing at a time when film was becoming a more powerful medium, noted, in direct contrast to the prevailing thought of the Frankfurt School, that not only is film a legitimate and necessary area of study, but that as a form it is important for two reasons: its ability to reach the masses, and its tendency to invite more critical analysis than “high art.” Some of the same arguments made by Benjamin can be applied to Second Life. To that end, I am going to preface a discussion of the history of this virtual world by addressing its importance and its palpable impact on people, especially those who have been disaffected at the outset of the twenty-first century.

Sheer numbers alone tell a part of the story. In 2008, Second Life user numbers increased from 10.5 million to more than 16.4 million, and in 2011 the company registered more than 10,000 new accounts per day. At any given time, twenty-four hours a day, there are somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000 active users according to Second Life’s login page. The users are also quite global. As of January 2008, there were 101 countries with 100 or more users represented, including countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Tunisia. The rapidly growing number and the diversity of users are astounding, and it is this growth that is driving the Second Life economy. Within the Second Life economy, complete with a U.S. dollar exchange rate, millions of actual-world dollars pass hands. In January 2008 alone, over 8.2 million U.S. dollars were exchanged for over 2.2 billion “Linden dollars."

Capital is not the sole metric for measuring Second Life’s impact. Roughly 200 colleges and universities, including Duke, Harvard, Penn State, and Princeton (to name just a few), have a presence in Second Life, and many universities offer online courses completely “in world.” Furthermore, several countries have opened embassies complete with information on visa requirements and other governmental and cultural information. For example, when I visited the Estonian embassy in Second Life, I was able to begin the application process for a visa even though their representative was offline.

In addition to the global reach of this virtual world, its study, according to Tom Boellstorff, who wrote the first book-length anthropological study of Second Life is indeed an arena that is worthy of serious investigation: "[It] is not only feasible but crucial to developing research methods that keep up with the realities of technological change. Most virtual worlds now have tens of thousands of participants, if not more, and the vast majority interact only in the virtual world. The forms of social action and meaning-making that take place do so within the virtual world, and there is a dire need for methods and theories that take this into account."

The “meaning-making” that Boellstorff mentions in his book is of particular interest here. Meaning is created through the various channels of communication that are offered in Second Life, and it is there that the performative subject emerges. The performative self is defined and refined through such communication channels as text, voice chat, and the visual representation of oneself as an avatar. As Paul Adams, in The Boundless Self, argues, “[t]hrough communications, I actively define what it is to be me, and you actively define what it is to be you.”

This “self,” or this subject, is complicated by two additional issues in Second Life. The first is the issue of naming, which is crucial in self-determination yet the residents have some but not complete control over their name. Linden Labs, the company that created Second Life, allows residents to choose their first name, while their last name comes from a list of preselected names chosen by the corporation. It is a paternalistic move that is similarly indicated by the fact that all of the company’s employees have the last name “Linden” for their avatars. There is a sense that, like children, while you live under the roof of the parents (in this case, Second Life), you live by the parents’ rules. The second issue is that the communication happens with a certain degree of anonymity. To further complicate the matter, the level of anonymity is variable and permeable. If users feel that they know someone well in Second Life, they may reveal their real-life identity. Others use their accounts in Second Life to promote an actual-life activity (such as those who teach college courses “in world” or artists or musicians who promote their work in virtual galleries and concerts) and post personal information including their names in their profiles, which can be accessed by all of the other residents. Many residents, however, will not offer any actual-life personal information, claiming that the two lives are completely separate, thereby essentially ignoring their actual self, who is responsible for the “meaning making” in both worlds. This effort to maintain anonymity, however, is problematic at best, and most users discover that they have difficulty completely separating their avatar’s identity and ethos from their quotidian realities.

Anonymity in Second Life operates on two levels as it is a way to simultaneously remain nameless while revealing identity. It would therefore make sense to start by briefly tracing the term’s usage since in this article its usage will deviate somewhat from when it was first introduced into English. According to Anne Ferry, who has traced the literary history of anonymity, the word entered the lexicon in the late sixteenth century, and for some 100 years stayed true to its Greek root: without name. She goes on to demonstrate that by the 1830s the implications if not the meaning began to stretch somewhat when writers, in an effort to “escape over-personal interpretation of their [work],” removed their names from their work and published anonymously. The next major shift - and the one that is most pertinent here - occurred in 1926 when Henry Seidel Canby wrote “Anon is Dead.” The term took on a more radical change as it no longer simply meant “without name,” but the name instead became forcibly cleaved from the subject; in other words, the name became faceless. Both the name and subject are present, but they had become disconnected within the rising tide of modernity.

These shifts in meaning or applications of the word can be seen today in Second Life. The residents can choose to be anonymous, in the original sense of the word, in order to “escape the over-personal interpretation” of the self. After all, many residents are trying to escape a reality that, in some cases, has been unkind. They may find fault with their personal appearance, feel that there is some flaw in their personality, or feel that their personal circumstance is one that they can overcome in Second Life. The self can be performed in a way that is free from many of the constraints that are found in the actual world. At the same time, however, residents are forced to cope with the same type of anonymity that was faced by the urban moderns at the turn of the twentieth century. That is to say people who sometimes feel lost in their actual lives can have the feeling repeated in Second Life. Just as in the everyday world, interactions in Second Life can be equally as unfulfilling. When residents of Second Life feel that their avatars are suffering from lack of identity, the users can turn to other social sites for relief and sometimes set up Facebook accounts in the names of their avatars, complete with biographies, likes, activities. Some set up blogs, websites, and twitter accounts for their avatars. It is a way of combating the anonymity as explained by Benjamin without threatening the anonymity desired by the users.  It is as if the fear of complete anonymity, of not mattering in the world has extended to the avatar that the user created in order to break through the lack of subjective identity in their everyday lives. A brief history of virtual worlds will demonstrate how people have reached this latest stage of anonymity.

The idea of virtual worlds can be traced back, of course, to early mythology as stories were told of worlds where gods and humans moved about and interacted with each other. However, the more direct antecedents of the virtual world Second Life date back to the mid- to late 1970s. The precursor to the internet, ARPAnet (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network), had already been established in 1969, and video games such as Pong were already widely available. The confluence of internet and video game development would transform the way in which people interacted. The first widely used virtual world, according to Boellstorff, was “Colossal Cave Adventure,” created in 1975-76. This was a text-based adventure game, but it offered players a virtual world through which they had to navigate. In the 1980s, the sim games, such as SimCity, made an appearance at a time when the internet was beginning to allow individuals outside of specialized research communities to communicate. Habitat (1985), created for Lucasfilm, was the first social virtual world.  Habitat transformed the social networking landscape as it was the first “game” that had “users (for the first time referred to as ‘avatars’) interacting through text chat and moving around a built environment that could change through time,” as explained by Bruce Damer. By the late 1990s, virtual worlds began to proliferate, though many of these early games were and still are fantasy or combat oriented.

Launched in 2003, Second Life was one of only a few virtual worlds that were more social-interaction oriented as opposed to gaming oriented. Second Life differs from the rest of the ever-expanding array of “massively multi-player online role-playing games” (MMORPGs) in a few ways. First, it is free of charge, which opens the world up to anyone with high-speed online computer access; granted, this is a fraction of the world’s population, however the lack of startup costs or monthly fees is an important factor. There are subscription levels that have monthly fees, but many people just keep the basic account. Second, Second Life is primarily a social space. It is not a game in the sense of competitive interaction in which there are winners and losers (there are, however, competitive games that can be played “in world” including the fantasy and combat types of games). The third major difference is the fact that Second Life has an economy where there is an active exchange rate between U.S. dollars and Linden dollars. Residents can work to earn Linden dollars, or they can purchase the in-world currency to rent apartments, buy houses, and shop for almost anything imaginable.

Second Life, then, is a 3D social virtual world where almost anything in the actual world is possible and where a variety of real-life impossibilities, such as human flight and teleportation, are also made possible. To enter Second Life, a user creates an account and chooses a starter avatar from about twelve different standardized options. The word “avatar” comes from the Sanskrit and means to pass down from deity to human form, which makes it an intriguing word to use for the “self” that the Second Life user creates as it implies that a user is a deity who creates the form taken in the virtual world. The Second Life users, however, do not inhabit that form; instead, as Boellstorff points out, avatars were “not just abstract anchors of virtual perspective; they were the modality through which residents experienced virtual selfhood.” For most users, that virtual selfhood tends to take on the human form to represent their idealized selves: young, attractive, and physically fit; creating a homogenous society. However, there are some interesting exceptions to the norm. Since the user can choose whatever form they wish, some people who choose animals, called “furries,” to represent themselves. Others may simply decide to explore what it might be like to experience a different part of the gender spectrum. The significance of this type of gender bending cannot be understated as emotions and attitudes toward actual life differences can be affected by experiences in Second Life. I have met heterosexual men who have taken on female avatars who worked very hard at exploring their feminine side.

This practice seems to run counter to the gender studies discussed at length several articles found in a 2006 special issue of Reconstruction dedicated to gaming. There are two articles in particular worth noting that discuss the topics of masculinity, feminism, and cross gender identification. Natasha Chen Christensen found that first person shooter games such as Quake promote and reinforce stereotypical ideas of masculinity: “Rather than creating a world where gender is fluid and multiple, the gendered environment of Quake is even more stringent and rigid than in real life.” As Second Life is not a first person shooter game, but a social game, and in many ways reproduces actual life experiences, it is more of a reflection of actual life values where gender has becoming increasingly more fluid and multiple. What may be possible and worth study is the idea that people who are uncomfortable with the increasing acceptance of shifting gender roles are seeking refuge in games that reinforce the stereotypes.

The other article by Marc Ouellette uses the Tomb Raider game to challenge Laura Mulvey’s ideas concerning the “male gaze” and adds an interesting addition to the ideas of Chen Christensen. I will discuss Mulvey in more detail later, but whereas Ouellette may use Lara Croft, the main character in the game, to challenge the ideas of masculinity found in action adventure video games and praise the use of a female protagonist, the fact remains that the female body is still fetishized by the “camera” and although male gamers may play Tomb Raider the suggestion that they identify with Lara Croft is a bit overstated. I think this will become clearer as I move on to the complex relationship one has with the avatar. Cross-gendering in Second Life is more complex than it is in Tomb Raider since the avatar choices are seemingly limited only by one’s imagination. Since the phenomenon of cross-gendering is not as uncommon in this virtual world, people interact with these men sometimes without knowing or really caring about the gender of the other. Furthermore, since people are exploring different sides of themselves they often become more accepting of themselves and their feelings in their actual lives. These changes all begin with the creation of the avatar.

The choice of basic avatars are all relatively homogenous there is the boy/girl next door, the business person, musician, and two elf-like creatures. There are two African-American avatars available, but there are no other ethnic or racial choices. It is at this point the resident also decides on a name for his or her avatar. The user then downloads the free software and enters Second Life, which is also known as the “grid” or simply referred to as being “in world.” Once the residents are in world, there are myriad ways in which they can alter their avatar to more uniquely represent themselves. They can continue along with the avatar with which they entered, or they can change the physical features of the original to better reflect the self that they are hoping to represent, and there are a variety of ways to accomplish this task. Users can use the “edit appearance” tool in the program where they can change the shape of every part of their bodies including separate categories for chin, torso, ears, nose, legs, etc. With sliding buttons they can alter their head shape twenty-four different ways including the size of the head, the ratio of forehead to chin, the brow size etc. There are twenty-two different ways to change the eyes on sliding scales as well. Other ways they can change their appearance is with the purchase of premade body shapes, hair, and “skins” (skins are an outer layer that can approximate both the color and texture of human skin), and they can clothe their avatar in any style that they choose. There are a variety of free items available, however, many users decide to pay, and sometimes quite a bit, for the best looking shape, hair, and skin. Users can also purchase genitalia that range from “freebies” to rather costly genitals that have a variety of functions including mimicking the various states of arousal.

After a brief time on an “orientation island,” an area that provides the most basic of tutorials in movement and communication, the residents move onto the main grid where they then can begin to navigate this 3D world, which was mostly created by previous users. The new user can meet others, play board games, water ski, study languages, open businesses, build things, or develop virtual real-estate, to name just a fraction of the possible activities available in world. Users can also play out their darkest fantasies, often without judgment or physical repercussions. Nevertheless, there can be and often are real emotional consequences for social interaction within Second Life. On more than one occasion, I have met people who had made very real emotional connections to others. Although those connections can, just as in actual life, end in pain, they may also result in marriages or friendships that transcend the virtual/actual divide.

When users enter Second Life, they often believe that they are entering a world in which their avatars are nothing more than objects to play with, and they are often surprised when there is a carryover of experiences and relationships into their actual lives. Part of this belief may be encouraged by how the residents set up their profiles. Along with an avatar, each user constructs a profile that can include text, hypertext, and pictures from both in world or actual photographs, which can then be viewed by any other resident. The profiles are separated into seven sections, including areas where residents can describe themselves in terms of both their “second” and “first” lives, expressing their interests, likes, and dislikes, as well as their “limits” within the confines of the Second Life. For example, many profiles will have statements in which the user will warn other residents that any questions regarding their real life is off limits for discussion. All of these activities, from creating the avatar’s name and their physical features to creating their profile, are a part of the “meaning making” that Boellstorff mentions.

Everything from the form of the avatar to its clothing and associations with groups or individuals can say something about the personality of the person who is constructing that virtual-world identity. Furthermore, there are almost no financial restrictions that determine how an avatar looks, as there are so many free items available in world. In other words, the performance of the self is not significantly constrained by financial concerns. In this regard, Second Life has a carnivalesque quality to it. The self is temporarily released from prevailing social or class restraints. During time spent in Second Life, the user is released from their actual material conditions. I recently met a woman who had been unemployed for six months, in world, however, she found employment. Though there was very little in the way of pay, the user took a tremendous amount of pride in the fact that she was working and took her responsibilities seriously. There could be some debate as to whether or not the release is temporary since the virtual world is persistent, however, the release for the individual is temporary as actual life will invade and the user will eventually have to find employment in their “first life." Nevertheless, within this carnivalesque atmosphere, the avatar provides a mask through which the surface self may be obscured and the inner self is revealed.

Performance artists have explored this dichotomy by examining the self in public through the use of character play. On a very basic level, in the early 1970s, performance artist Eleanor Antin created a video in which she “showed herself making up with the camera as a mirror, while in a companion work, called Sculpture, displayed daily nude photographs of herself taken over a period of a month during which she lost eight pounds, changing her body to present a different ‘self’ to the world,” according to Marvin Carlson. What took a month for Antin to create can be accomplished within minutes in Second Life, and the effects of physical change are instantaneous, as one of my students learned. She decided to add weight to her avatar, after which she noticed that even though the inner self remained unaltered, by changing the mask she encountered harsh treatment from the other residents with whom she was attempting to interact. She found that, like Antin, physical appearance created limitations even within Second Life. As Carlson explains, Antin decided that “‘[t]he usual aids to self-definition - sex, age, talent, time, and space - are merely tyrannical limitations upon my freedom of choice,’” and she set out to create more “imaginative and exotic versions of her self.” The mask or the persona that the user creates with their avatar instantly moves beyond the tyrannical limitations and into the more creative realm of self-exploration that Antin was seeking, but without the burden of time or financial constraints of actual physiological transformation. There are significant implications to this type of body image play. The vast majority of individuals, again, opt for the idealized version of the human form. By the idealized version, I mean the Hollywood, Playboy, Victoria Secret version of the human form. It is not difficult to imagine the effects of people spending time in this digitized world with bodies impossible to obtain in their actual lives. However, a psychological or sociological study of those effects could prove valuable. Of course, there is no reason that an avatar has to take human form or even a life form. Many residents choose animals or, in rare cases, inanimate objects to represent themselves. Through the creation of their avatars, the users engage in what may best be described as “autobiographical fantasies.” This term originates in a series of performance pieces created in the mid-1970s by Antin and seven other performance artists, and it applies well to the possibilities afforded to Second Life residents because of the ambivalent anonymity found in this virtual world.

The residents of Second Life often allow themselves to play out their autobiographical fantasies as a result of the ambivalent anonymity that is afforded by Second Life. The residents can choose to provide as much or as little information about their actual lives to others in their profiles; however, even if they, as so often happens, decide to attempt to keep Second Life and “real life” separate, their personalities or some part of them are represented in the avatar. The avatar is still the vehicle through which the self is constructed, and aspects of the self are revealed (oftentimes inadvertently), precluding the total anonymity that is often sought by the user. This unstable duality is what gives the user a space to perform. The anonymity enables the user to engage in fantasy, to break from the constraints of their actual lives. Users engage in fantasies that range from dressing in tuxedos and gowns to go ballroom dancing with complete strangers, to shopping for clothing they would never actually dare to wear, to acts of vampirism. Despite the fact that the anonymity allows for a variety of fantasies, the performance of those fantasies is always to some extent autobiographical. Sidonie Smith argues in “Performativity, Autobiographical Practice, Resistance” that there is no singular “true” self that emerges as a result of autobiographical storytelling. Though there is no “singular true self” in the case of Second Life, a subject does emerge from the performance, a subject free from the actual life flesh that Smith notes can influence the autobiographical narrative. In some ways, through the use of the mask afforded by the avatar, a clearer picture of the self is revealed. Again, as Smith notes, “[t]he autobiographer, and the narrator is both the same and not the same as the subject of narration.” In the case of Second Life, the fact that the avatar/user acts as both the subject and the object of the autobiographical narrative becomes even more apparent. The users are in the position to narrate themselves, yet at the same time, they watch - sometimes at a comfortable distance - the object of their narration play out even their darkest fantasies.

Although the subject/object binary argument made by Laura Mulvey in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” has long been parsed by literary or cinematic critics, as well as by Mulvey herself, it is still an important essay that is applicable to virtual worlds, which are a primarily visual medium, especially in the areas of anonymity and narration of the self. Her argument centers on the idea of “pleasure in looking as being split between active/male and passive/female.” In the visual media, even the female spectator is directed to see through the eyes of male protagonist. The male always controls the gaze and is in the position of subject. The female is always the object of the gaze, the object of male desire. Whereas there are films that can be viewed through that prism, many films have used alternative ways of viewing the male and female body on screen, and many films simply objectify both bodies. After all, audiences are always in the position of voyeur, and whatever is on the screen is the object of their gaze and often of their desire. The male/female or masculine/feminine binary which had already been complicated by a series of critics including, for example, David N. Rodowick in The Difficulty of Difference: Psychoanalysis, Sexual Difference and Film Theory, is further complicated in Second Life by the anonymity issue. The actual gender of the players in many cases is never definitively known, and it may differ from the form that the user has given to the avatar. Avatars can be presented as being positioned just about anywhere along a gender/sexuality spectrum. The pleasure in looking is not necessarily gendered in Second Life; however, there is still a pleasure in looking because, after all, this is a visual medium, not just a text-based chat room or message board.

The avatars, therefore (including one’s own avatar), are always in a position of object - something to be looked at. That in itself does not create a problem in that what one sees on screen is technically nothing more than a pixelated image. However, the relationship between the user and avatar is far more complicated than one might expect as people become rather attached to their avatars. The avatar becomes a version of the self. As Boellstorff explains, “Avatars make virtual worlds real, not actual: they are a position from which the self encounters the virtual.” With the avatar being something of a vessel for the self to experience the virtual world of Second Life, the constructed self does then become an object of desire. The question then becomes: Whom does the avatar serve in the role of object to be looked at and desired? Since the other avatars do not see, they are not the ones controlling the gaze; instead, it is the user on the other side of the computer screen looking in on the avatars that becomes the voyeur - the anonymous subject who can look in without being seen. Tantamount to the voyeuristic spectator sitting in the dark deriving pleasure from the act of looking, users experience the pleasure of looking at the representation of self as embodied by their avatar on the screen. 

The avatar not only is in the object position, but also possesses subjectivity, or rather, it is the means through which one’s subjectivity is performed. The user types for, speaks through, and moves the avatar, or at least makes the decisions to perform certain movements or gestures. More importantly, the user is always, due to anonymity, in a subject position. Whereas being named does not imply that the user cannot serve as active subject, the anonymity, though, means that they cannot be objectified. They are the ones who, regardless of rank, gender, or race, control the gaze. Oddly enough, however, due to empathy felt for the avatar that they themselves created, on occasion the anonymous user, who cannot be seen, can certainly feel objectified. In these instances, the user imaginatively identifies with the object, the avatar thereby creating a vicarious objectification.

The self, in all of its manifestations - whether it is the self represented by the avatar or by the actual person behind the keyboard - is put into a simultaneously complex and seemingly contradictory set of positions. The self is both the active subject and the passive object of desire, oftentimes of the users' own desire; they are at once the voyeur and the exhibitionist. The Second Life residents both act and watch their “self” act and interact in a wider community from a limited third-person point of view. Although there is an option to shift the “camera” to a first person position, the default is an adjustable third person view. This interaction within the wider community is also tempered by ambivalent anonymity, with avatars serving a role that meditates between the anonymous user and the Second Life social order. T. L. Taylor examines this mediation in a chapter of her book her book Play Between Worlds entitled “Where the Women Are.” She notes: “Avatars are central to both immersion and the construction of community in virtual spaces. They are mediators between personal identity and social life.” These statements by Taylor deserve more examination through the lens of ambivalent anonymity. How are avatars central to the immersion into the overall culture of Second Life? Second Life itself has a pre-established culture complete with a distinctive vocabulary and social norms.  The first thing that one learns upon entry into the culture is that you are a “noob,” and that the Second Life culture is foreign and hard to break into. Like most cultures, the more respectful one is to the established norms, the more helpful the more experienced residents will be. Nevertheless, it does take time to gain acceptance. There is a cultural learning curve that can feel quite steep. However, if users learn too quickly, they may be viewed with suspicion. If your “avi” (avatar) “looks too good” or if you understand too easily the terminology or the technical issues, the other residents might think you are an “alt” (a person who has been around for a while using another avatar in order to hide from someone or some past indiscretion). There is some text-type such as TP (teleport) and LM (landmark) that people would need to learn. If users are polite and patient, a more seasoned resident may take them under their wing and teach them the ropes. It must be said that many people who visit Second Life do feel as though they are in a foreign land, where they just do not understand the appeal and many do not return. If one does manage to navigate the meta-culture in Second Life, the subcultures or communities within Second Life become of interest.

Most of these subcultures exist in actual life such as people who attend live music or go clubbing. There are others that exist but may not be quite as accepted in actual life such as the BDSM lifestyle. Finally, there are those that cannot exist to the same extent such as the furry communities in SL, where the residents choose animals for their avatars. People do feel more at ease exploring counter cultures in Second Life for a variety of reasons all of which revolve around the idea of ambivalent anonymity, autobiographical fantasy, and identity exploration. 

Players use Second Life as a way of creating an identity that goes beyond their quotidian realities in light of the disorienting technological and sociological changes of the twenty-first century. Benjamin wrote of the alienation of the urban dweller and Canby added that this alienation triggered a panic that caused people to look for connections and reduce the disaffecting anonymity of the modern city. They are describing the death of community, where people become disconnected and everyday life becomes impersonal. So how then does one create community in a virtual world within which the level of anonymity is inherently raised? In Second Life, the spectrum of anonymity that is afforded to the players allows them to play out their autobiographical fantasies and be a part of communities that they might not otherwise have participated in or perhaps been accepted into. In many cases, then, communities are formed around people’s fantasies. People become powerful business entrepreneurs, builders of landscapes and high-rises, or clothing designers. They engage in skydiving, learn about medicine, and travel the world, all the while building communities of like-minded people. Just as in actual life, people meet in virtual bars and cafes to discuss their activities and share advice, often without knowing the names, locations, professions, or even genders of the person behind the other avatars with whom they are interacting. In other words, people can be successful in a myriad of social situations, transcending the issue of whether or not they are able to find success in their actual lives. Again, part of the reason for this success comes from a level of risk-taking while engaged in play within the temporary Second Life release of their everyday realities and the ambivalent anonymity found in virtual worlds. On the one hand, there are advantages to the fact that anonymity and indeed the carnivalesque nature of Second Life can improve imaginative behavior and intellectual risk-taking without regard to age, gender, and the tyrannical limitations mentioned by Antin.

On the other hand, since there is relative stability - a persistence - of Second Life identity, given its tendency to draw in the actual subject through the autobiographical fantasy, success may be long lasting and eminently fulfilling for the player from the standpoint of their actual lives. The ambivalent anonymity allows players to escape from their codified actual-life behavior, where they may fear judgment by peers, which sets up more equitable communities than one might find in real life. This level of play becomes more personal, which is why many residents consider Second Life to be more than just a game. On the contrary, they consider it an extension of their actual lives, within a wholly different realm of winning and losing, with implications that cut to the very heart of the self.

 

January 2012

From guest contributor Henry James Morello, The Pensylvania State University

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