Parts of the digital world have created a place for men and women to go and create a new identity. Social media allows users to create posts about themselves, in ways that either bend the truth or throw it away altogether. However, another corner of the digital world exists that allows users to not only create a new identity, but even abandon their first life while living their second. This post will focus on the ways in which the online virtual world, Second Life, shows that cyberspace allows users to create an identity that depicts their own wants and desires, no matter how they defy reality.
Second Life’s creators, Linden Lab, created the website in 2003. To use Second Life, users download the software and connect to the Internet. After downloading software, users can create an account for free or purchase a premium account for a set monthly price. Furthermore, if users want to create structures and control a space within Second Life, they can make additional purchases using a credit card or PayPal account. This money is converted to Second Life’s online currency, Linden Dollars (L$), which can then be used in the virtual world (Blasing 98). Once a user creates an account they “may edit their avatar’s appearance by adding free or purchased features such as clothing, hair, skin tones, gestures and accessories… Some users modify their avatars to resemble their own physical appearance, while others adopt imaginative visual representations of themselves,” (Blasing 98-99). In other words, users can either choose to create an avatar that resembles their own physical appearance or create an avatar that varies in appearance such as age or gender. Once a user creates his or her avatar, he or she is free to roam the world of Second Life and do as they please.
Second Life seems to fall under the virtual social world of massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. Other popular examples of MMORPGs include Club Penguin, Dungeons & Dragons Online, and World of Warcraft. However, its creators, Linden Lab, insist that Second Life is not an MMORPG, but rather a real world, based in the virtual world. On the Second Life website the experience is described as
“a 3D world where everyone you see is a real person.”
This asserts the notion that Second Life is not a game, but rather an extension of reality.
The concept of Second Life being “real” calls the identity of its users into question, and whether or not they believe their avatars are real versions of themselves. Users have the opportunity to create an avatar that is a complete departure from their physical appearance. They also have the means to give this avatar a different personality and history than their own in the physical world. This is possible through the chat feature within Second Life. In the video above, various Second Life avatars hold of photos of what are presumably the people who created them. In some cases, the avatar resembles the creator, while in others the avatar and the creator do not resemble each other. User “Meerkat Basevi” drives an avatar that has the head of a meerkat and the body of a man. The clip also shows the avatar fighting other avatars that resemble zombies.
It is doubtful that the user Meerkat Basevi chose his avatar because he identifies as a zombie-fighting meerkat. However, other user-avatar combinations suggest the opposite. In the documentary Life 2.0, a man chronicles his beginnings on Second Life and the creation of his avatar, an eleven-year-old girl named Ayya.
These two photos show Ayya, the avatar, and her driver, who is never named throughout the documentary nor is his face shown. To avoid confusion, let’s refer to him as John. In the documentary John says things like,
“[Playing as Ayya] was a physical feeling, it was a mental feeling, and it affected everything about me and about the way I acted,” and, “I felt like [Ayya] was always familiar, and somebody I’ve always known. It was some sort of exploration into my subconscious,” (Life 2.0).
John’s avatar in Second Life is a complete departure from his appearance, personality, and history in the physical world. Nevertheless, John views Ayya as a very real and vibrant person. While he never refers to Ayya as “I” or “me”, it is clear that she is an extension of his identity.
John often talks about how Ayya teaches him different things about life. He discusses her past and how she “always wanted more, and she always wanted new things.” Through this, John realized that in his own life, he too was unhappy and ignored another side of himself, that other side of him being Ayya. John says, “I moved from having this great real life, which was amazing and I was very thankful for, to pursuing this second life with this other part of me that I really didn’t have time for,” (Life 2.0). In pursuing Second Life, the online world, John discovered another side of his identity, Ayya, and felt fulfilled in doing so. John’s experience as Ayya allows him to express his identity in a way that would be impossible in the physical world.
An article by Christine Liao in Journal of Art Education provides an explanation as to why John and other users of Second Life create these avatars that differ from their physical selves. Liao notes “the Internet provides a space for many people to experiment with different personas and challenges traditional understandings of identity,” (Liao 89). In some instances, these personas employ a user’s imagination and desires. For instance, a Second Life user, who is disabled in the physical world, could create an avatar that is not disabled. In John’s case, he expresses his gender through his Second Life avatar, Ayya. Liao states, “[Second Life] provides space to create personal stories. Through narrative, people construct and reconstruct their identities,” (Liao 90). This online-world allows its users to mold their identity to whatever they wish.
The construction and reconstruction of identity through Second Life, shows how cyberspace allows users to express themselves without the social confines of the physical world. In John’s case, we have to question whether or not this is a good thing. A grown man-using cyberspace to portray an eleven-year-old girl provides ammunition to say that expressing oneself in cyberspace is wrong. However, the example of a person, who uses a wheelchair, using cyberspace to express themselves outside of the confines of said wheelchair shows the harmlessness of the situation. Despite the ethics of online identity, it is clear that cyberspace provides a place for men and women to overcome the obstacles of the physical world, and start anew in the virtual world. Settings, such as Second Life, allow for very real and vibrant experiences in which users can express their identity, and feel that this avatar is a mirror image of themselves.