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Avatars and identity


Yesterday I did my regular guest lecturing spot at Newman University College – oh excuse me – it’s now Newman University, Birmingham, on digital identity in virtual worlds, which is a big part of the research I do (and there’s a book on it http://www.springer.com/computer/hci/book/978-0-85729-360-2). I do a brief lecture, talk about the students’ avatars that they’ve designed, then they do a task that gets them thinking about how their identity has evolved. I posted something on FB about it, so my friends can see I do actually do a proper job. This is the conversation I had with one friend about it (her comments in italics). I thought they might be interesting here for anyone that’s not aware of how these things work so asked her if I could paste it to here.

Just admitted to my class that, not only am I in bed, I’m also wearing Iron Man pyjamas. #tmi #underminingprofessionalimage  Lots of students, many very interactive; two naked, a couple of furries, a lot in hats and one a Ferrari. Also one very very fat which is* unusual.

Also one very very fat which is* unusual. So, you can be anything you want. Humanoid. Robot. Little ball of mist. Even a car. Something out of The Only Way is Essex. Dressed, undressed. (Do the naked ones improve on what nature gave them?)

Yep each avatar can have lots of forms if they want, you can swtich between them as easily as dragging and dropping files from one directory to another. Usually people have one form that they stick with for most of the time with a small range of costume changes. They might have a freaky one for occasions. There’s some stats that 94% might be more, of participants have avatars with a main form that’s human. And yes, they can be humanoid, robot, ball of mist, car, I have an eyeball, an airship, werewolf, minotaur, loads actually. Most people stick to the gender and ethnicity of their physical forms. But almost always younger, thinner, more muscular, taller.

Change gender. Fly. Be really fit  – in both senses of the word – or not.

In fit terms, only in the sense of muscly. You can be in a wheelchair, but  none of this affects the speed of the avatar. They can all fly, but you can acquire scripted objects that change the way you move, fly better, teleport along line of sight, that type of thing.

How do people decide what their avatar will be?

Ahhh that’s the interesting thing. That’s what my session was about. What makes them choose their appearance? There are some standard answers. some say “I want to be me” meaning they want to appear as they appear offline. Some will actually match body shape, most will go for skin colour and so on. Some people pick something that will shock. The naked guy in my class said he did that. Others will also say that they want to be themselves, but mean it has being their hidden true self that they can’t be IRL. They will pick something that will represent something unrealised in their physical self, if they’re transgender they’ll pick another sex, the otherkin love it because they can finally be the animal they identify with. The people that don’t really care are usually the ones that aren’t taking to SL particularly. they may be using it just as a form of communication, or they may think the whole thing is damn silly. The guy who just wanted to shock couldn’t see the point of SL. If he was upsetting people it wouldn’t matter to him so much presumably. Whereas those  for whom it does matter would want to be seen for who they really are.

You said something about people referring to their avatar as “I” when they’re more confident. So does the avatar evolve, learn to do different things, look different as the student gains confidence?

It’s not so much about confidence as about presence, the feeling that they are part of the world, that people see them and react to them, that they start noticing communities or make contacts. The experience becomes more real to them – it matters more. They also learn things like where to shop, where to get the good stuff, how to modify or build things, all of this drives them towards more personalisation and also gives them the skills to personalise. It’s very close to how we build up an image IRL … it’s called a technology of self … how we learn to represent ourselves to others through the clothes we choose, through modifying our bodies.

But it’s unusual for an avatar to be very very fat. Now, this was the thing that made my ears prick up. You could probably (?) be a Doctor Who Adipose. That would be kawaii, so it might be acceptable whereas maybe being fat isn’t 🙂
Yes … there are some users who think it’s griefing to be ugly, that because everyone can be beautiful that they should be, and that if you’re not you’re just doing it to be confrontational. For example http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=672 The adipose would be more acceptable, but some places don’t approve of non-humans, I’ve been banned from some places because my avatar isn’t human enough. an adipose would be a tiny and that’s a specific subset of avatars that have their own places and their own culture and are recognised as such. Being kawaii is key for them and people are usually more accommodating than other non-human avatar precisely because they are so cute. Actually an adipose would make a cool avatar.

I started thinking: Is that student reflecting how they are in real life or how they think they are in real life? Do they have some kind of body dysmorphia?

There is a definite allure for things like SL for people with body dysmorphia … although i think body dichotomy is more accurate a phrase, when you get down to it; since everyone has some sort of dissonance between their physical self and their idealised or “true” self it’s not really “dys” any more. Some people feel trapped in the wrong sex, others wrong species, or wrong age. but for others it can just be height or weight or eye colour. All of them would probably act out that preference in SL., But for those for whom the dichotomy is greatest, for example the morbidly obese, then there is something about the rejection of the physical that i think makes SL particularly pleasurable.

Has anyone built the avatar equivalent of a fat suit to explore the idea of morbid obesity?

I don’t know. I did take part in an experiment where we all were pregnant  for a while. The bottom line is though, that you’re not really phyiscally disadvantaged by any of these things, what does happen is that you can get some idea of the social responses that someone may experience, and that in itself is interesting.

Are older people more prone to have fat avatars as theoretically they’re less prone to peer pressure?? Is peer pressure ever an issue?

I think peer pressure is hugely an issue for everyone who spends a lot of time in SL and becomes immersed. Even if you’re like me and you’ve got an avatar that gets a negative response often, you’re conscious of the reactions of others and are consciously resisting peer pressure. So it’s still a factor. I think older people are perhaps more prone to peer pressure because SL tends to mean more to them. The younger ones are likely to be having too much fun IRL to really care.


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