Pride & Prejudice

Reading Ravanel’s fantastic article on identity in online gaming environments reminded of my initial shock at the RL stereotypes in virtual worlds. As I have previously discussed, I entered SL with little knowledge of the community and found my niche in cultural/educational groups within the virtual world. With that said, I did not come with much baggage (aka preconceived notions on SL OR SL residents), but I had a general feeling, from experiencing cultural and educational settings, that the vibe was one of community, sharing of knowledge, and individuality. Of course, as in RL, different communities within SL share different values, cultures, morals, etc. One thing which I can safely say transcends all these communities (even “fantasy” communities, in my opinion), is a heavy reliance on RL stereotypes. And why wouldn’t that be the case? Virtual worlds like SL are, after all, created by individuals anchored in RL.

SL’s starter avatars and avatar creation tools could be argued to be a reflection of programmers’ stereotyping – notice the proportions, heights, availability of only two genders, etc.

What disturbs (for lack of a better word) me is that I would think that virtual worlds developers, programmers, and residents, would strive, by the very definition of a second life, to escape the banality of RL. Some of the stereotypes, especially concerning body image (as discussed by Kris and Van) are culturally based, while others stem from the very foundation of the virtual world, in that ANY artificial world is “tainted” by the prejudices and biases of its creators. It is obvious that how SL operates, for example, is a reflection of its creators and ultimate purpose – to make money.

On the other hand, as hard as we may want a better life, it is extremely difficult for us, as human beings, to think outside of ourselves and our history. Even in literature, which is not constrained by space or time, fantastic elements are always limited by the author’s imagination. RL elements always manage to infiltrate the most extraordinary scenes – mainly because that is all we know. Could we even relate to something so foreign that in would have no RL reference? By very definition, I would lean towards no. Which brings me back to the question of identity and stereotypes in SL – why do so many avatars look alike if we can truly be anything we want? The fact that so many do look alike is in itself reveling of our nature and natural tendencies toward mimicry, begging the question – who are we really?

Author: Kathleen Cool
I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

5 thoughts on “Pride & Prejudice

  1. Over the years many peeps have complained about the limited noob avatar choices… the current set while perhaps not “ideal” is actually far wider than the “old” choices you’ve shown above. The current set includes a wide range of “Animals, Robots & Vehicles” among others.

    As you note, it’s sort of chicken and egg — do World Developers use a narrow view of avatar embodiment because that’s THEIR narrow view? Or because it’s THE narrow view that the majority of users embrace. One thing for sure, since the Twilight films, SL has offered A LOT of vampire avatars! 😛

    An interesting SL place to me is a hair shop called Analog Dog. They make and sell lots of avatar hair there. The “shop” is a giant beach and all of the hair hangs over the water. You wade out ankle-to-knee deep in water to look at and try on whatever you like.

    As you stand in the water looking at hair you realize that just about every other hair shop, just about every other clothing shop, just about every other anything shop in-world, uses, or should I say “clings,” to the RL metaphor of brick & mortar, mostly right-angle, entirely gravity based building.

    I suspect that over time this will change, that we’ll get used to “Impossible IRL” architecture and think of more exotic and diverse choices. But that takes time first to even imagine it, and then to accept it.

    That’s true of architecture where our bodies physically, spatially exist, and it’s certainly true of bodies and gender. As Yordie just commented on a different post, if anything, many avatar bodies are more stereotypical than RL bodies.

    Interesting dichotomy: the range of possible avatar bodies FAR exceeds the RL range of possibilities… yet for many (but not all) the choices are more narrow and more stereotypical than RL.

    Of course IRL we have C-sections and acne and bad hair days and long hours of desk jobs.

    If there’s one thing I’ve come to understand, it’s that sex ALWAYS matters. I can be talking to some guy on Facebook, he’s on some continent on the other side of the globe and we’ve both got kids and we’re never going to F2F meet and the conversation can be about some abstract techno-philisophical concept, and he STILL wants to know what I look like IRL!

    Some time back I had a class read Ray Kurzweill’s book The Age of Spiritual Machines. Some liked it, many thought he was a nut, but the most amazing comment came from one student who said,

    Maybe that’s the future, but if it is, I don’t wanna know about it!

    1. I agree that our virtual world is and probably will always be limited by our (and the developers’) imaginations. I think many of us are online with one foot in RL and the other in the possibilities of the virtual world. For instance, I love looking at homes in SL…treehouses, castles, underwater grottos, caves…places we would never live in in RL. It stretches the whole concept of “abode.” On the other hand, there are amazing builds of homes that are beautiful, but in a real-world way…with luxury (and unnecessary) bathrooms and kitchens, media centers, swimming pools, garages equipped with cars that most of us would only dream of in RL…all to help us realize the dream of living in such a place in whatever reality that’s available to us. But I will say this: I AM learning to limit my imagination less. Boom…one more advantage to the wonderful world of virtuality.

      1. Hey aerielle! Thanks so much for stopping by!

        haha, yes SO many homes… SO many clothes… SO many bodies…

        I think you’re really on to something here – money and other factors create limits IRL, but in VR you can live in a treehouse house and an undersea house and live in the Taj Mahal, and live in the Chemosphere House…

        And if you “really” want them, you CAN live in them all… or if it’s not that important you can just pick one. Or, being a Hobo is also way easier in VR.

        Same is true for clothes and bodies… you can be the hot, hot dancing queen, and the mousy librarian, and a cat, and a tiny, and a space alien, and a robot, and the planet Saturn… you can be them all if you like the variety… or you can settle into one or a few. It took me a while to realize that I can see amazing clothes and not have to buy them. I can “window shop” and admire them without wearing them and just move on.

        The same is true of knowledge. Pretty much all of our knowledge tools and institutions are designed for a world of limited, finite, restricted knowledge. We’re only beginning to develop tools for a world of essentially infinite, ubiquitous knowledge. This abundance is just about the greatest human achievement ever, but it’s hugely destabilizing to institutions, processes and structures that were designed on finiteness.

        Just as one example that David Weinberger gives, in the past we filtered knowledge on INPUT, because the limitations of paper demanded it. Why did Britannica only have 32 volumes? Why did Britannnica only have 65,000 articles? Was it that in all of human history there were only 65,000 things that anybody would ever really want to know about?


        It was the limitation of paper. Britannica was already ridiculously huge and heavy and expensive, so stuff got filtered on input.

        The New York Times might say, well, all these Paris Hilton articles are crap, lets dump them and write more about Joan of Arc, because she really mattered. Then some future scholar is writing her PhD thesis on the representation of women in media in the late 20th / early 21st century, and they can hardly find anything, because some editor back in the day thought it didn’t matter.

        With Wikipedia, Google, the Internet Archive, Blogs, Wikis, etc, we’re able to “know everything” and filter on OUTPUT. So instead of a gatekeeper throwing info out that no one will be able to access, you try to “know everything” and filter by need when an individual “scholar” (or anyone trying to be the arbiter of some drinking game) needs the information.

        hahaha — did I just digress?? 😛

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