BY STAFF WRITER FERAL MOSSRIDER
You might be forgiven for thinking that a great many people who use Second Life are suffering from some sort of identity crisis. Certainly, there are many for whom Second Life allows either an escape from the real world or the chance to explore and experience different lifestyles and alternatives to reality – there’s nothing at all wrong with this and that’s not really the area I’m concerned with. In fact, it’s once we get inside the virtual world of Second Life and the way that we behave when we’re there that I find far more interesting.
You might think, for example that once we have chosen our name, adjusted our shape, skin and hair, found a suitable AO and dressed ourselves in our favoured attire that we would be in a position where we could happily state ‘this is my virtual identity… this is who I am’ – and yet, I do wonder whether this is really the case.
Let’s start with the way in which we create our avatar: Some of us may choose to create an onscreen presences that reflects the real-life person, even down to the way we dress, whilst others will create an idealised ‘me’ – something that we’d like to be or might aspire to. Then, there are those who choose to be utterly different from their real world persona… there might be many reasons for this, anything from roleplay, to wanting to stand out in a crowd, or simply being different ‘just because we can’. Second Life provides us with the means to ‘customise’ our identity, or not, depending on our personal preference to any extent we want. That. in itself does not scream ‘identity crisis’, if anything it points to someone who has a very strong grasp on their identity which, in the real world, they may be unable or unwilling to explore to its full. Alternatively, Second Life gives us the opportunity to ‘hide’ behind an identity quite distinct from the real person and experience life through interacting with the virtual world and those around us in a very different way to that which we are used to.
Again, I’m not convinced that having a separate identity in Second Life is necessarily a sign of confusion, however things become more interesting the deeper we dig into a person’s virtual life.
Take profiles, for example, where we can glean a vast amount of information about the people we meet. Back in the pre-Viewer 2 days, when we had a tab devoted exclusively to ‘First Life’ – and to a lesser extent in later viewers, where we only have ‘More Information’ – we often find that great myth: SL=RL.
I often chuckle when I see that particular assertion, or any one of its variations, particularly when the profile happens to belong to a scantily-clad neko, or a Gorean overlord… here SL quite patently is not at all equal to RL, it’s actually quite different, unless of course the real person behind the avatar is feline, purrs continually and has a tail, or walks down their high street clad like Conan the Barbarian, with nubile slave girls in tow! Surely the proper equation should be: ‘SL=What I’d like RL to really be like’? This to me says that here is someone whose fantasy/idealised life is actually nothing to do with the real world but, in their minds, they so completely identify with their characterisation that the lines between the two worlds have become somewhat blurred. The confusion is often easily brought to the fore – try asking Conan about his real life and you’re more than likely to find him rather reluctant to reveal that his real name is Timothy and that he works behind the fish counter at his local Tesco’s. You see, Timothy doesn’t really mean SL=RL: What Timothy wants, is to forget that he’s a fishmonger altogether and immerse himself as much as possible into his Second Life identity.
There’s another phrase, often seen in profiles that interests me… ‘Remember, there’s a real person behind the avatar’. It speaks volumes to me that anyone should feel the need to state this rather obvious fact and it makes me wonder whether we have here the complete opposite to Conan?
Does this kind of assertion mean that here is a person for whom their avatar is merely a point of connection – a means of engaging with others, so that they can be brought close enough to emotionally connect with the person sat at the computer screen? Again, you’re likely to see this in the profile of someone who presents in Second Life as a mythical creature or an animal but, in my experience, not so often in the profile of someone whose avatar resembles a ‘normal’ looking person. What is the message here? Could it be that the avatar’s appearance or their activities are an invitation to enquire further? Should the profile perhaps be saying… ‘There’s a person behind this avatar who is every bit as interesting and intriguing as the pixels you see before you’? I’m pretty sure that the sort of person who broadcasts this message would be far more open to sharing personal details than Conan ever would.
Let’s also consider the relationship that we have with our own avatar. I’ve heard people say that they ‘become’ their avatar when they are inworld, whilst others will impose a kind of psychological barrier and speak of being their avatar’s controller. Some of us refer to our virtual selves in the First Person, whilst others keep their distance and talk about their character as a completely separate entity in their own right: “Feral went snorkeling yesterday” – neither approach is necessarily wrong or right, it is purely a matter of how we wish to identify with our creation. In my experience, those of us who see our avatar in terms of ‘myself’ are less likely to be comfortable with alts, or even screen names and will prefer to keep their own primary identity within clearly defined boundaries, even to the extent that changing appearance and skin are not activities easily undertaken. Those who keep some sort of distance between their real life and Second Life identities however, tend to be more than happy to change at will and may have several alts that they employ whenever they feel the need.
I’ve only looked at the tip of a very large iceberg in this article – there’s a vast amount that can be discussed, analysed and theorised about on the subject of Second Life and identity and, personally, I find the whole matter fascinating and intriguing. Don’t let it bother you though: Second Life – for whatever reasons you are here – is primarily about exploration, learning and enjoyment… whoever, or whatever, you wish to be whilst doing those things is entirely your choice, and don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise!