Thursday, April 24, 2008

To Be Accepted... Even an Avatar Can Dream

What I found during my virtual quest through Second Life was that in a world where anything goes, nothing really matters. Molly and I decided to begin our adventure disguised as two hot, intriguing, scantily clad avatars. Or at least I though I was hot and intriguing… let's just say that when I actually figured out how to turn my camera angle around to actually see myself head-on I realized why my only interactions with other avatars was with their backs. Once I fixed my hideous malformities Molly and I began the exhausting process of getting our avatars to dance... once I figured out how to animate her and got her rolling with a move called the "glitterbug" I was ready to begin the mingling. The only thing was I couldnt figure out how to direct my conversation at any one person so I was pretty sure that as a guy who dubbed himself Goldie began to flirt with me that the entire dance floor knew what was going on. This is interesting because it allows everybody within the appropriate distance to be an observer, so I decided to do just that. What I found was alot of noise about club promoting and things you could buy, but every once in awile Id catch onto a conversation between two people that seemed interesting. The most interesting one I heard was between a person named Athena and a guy named Samuel. Samuel began by asking Athena where she'd been and commenting on how he hadnt seen her around for the past couple weeks and Athena actually told him that she'd been in New York on vacation and was back in Amsterdam. I was amazed by two things: 1. That these two seemed to know each other "so" well and 2. That they were able to seriously take part in this convo that was so obviously steeped in bullshit. But then again, what do I know? Maybe Athena really is a globe trotter who kicks off her shoes every Wednesday night to go dancing in a virtual nightclub. Thats really the beauty of it all, you know that it is within every person's power to make up whatever stories they wish about who they are, and yet you still play along. Id say that for me in almost every case of being asked where I was from and who I was I lied. The reason being that I didnt want to be creeped on mainly but also because if you could be from anywhere, why not be from anywhere?

The issue of the real life you versus the virtual you seemed to come up quite often during our experience. One of the first things other avatars asked was "Where are you from?" This, to me, seemed incredibly ironic not only because of the aforementioned bullshitting paradox but also because it seemed to me that in a world that prides itself on its members being able to create their own identities and being whomever they wanted to be, they seemed awfully caught up in what was going on in the real world. Now maybe I had mistaken the purpose of this question. Maybe, as an avatar, you are supposed to pick the one place you're from and own it. Maybe it has nothing to do with your real life location at all. But on the other hand, maybe its true that we identify with people based on certain similarities. So it is easier for me to interact and have things to talk about with a cat lover from Palm Desert than it would be for a practicing magician in Chicago (although Im sure I could find ample things to discuss with that kind of individual). I think that these connections bring a level of comfort, as if you've found "your people"; people that you know how to deal with and what to talk about. However, Molly and I witnessed a hysterical abuse of this connection when we met a man who claimed he was from Tulsa when I falsely admitted that about myself and then ten minutes later claimed to be from Houston when Molly said that was where she was from. The abuse of this connection is obviously suspicious but also not very well thought out on his part given that Molly and I had obviously been stumbling around the dance floor together trying to figure this world out (I even had to figure a way to get her out of a bed that she had mysteriously attached to herself).

(I had a picture to insert here but it refuses to upload... so lets just paint a picture of a particularly hot, storm-like chick surrounded by attractive and groovy avatars)

Once we had established that we could successfully interact with other avatars and move our bodies around on the dance floor we decided to begin our social experiments. Our first experiment focused on body types. We had begun our adventure as sexy vixens and been treated pretty well with people very willing to help us and chat with us. I decided to put on an extra 200 pounds, threw a mousy brown mop on my head, and changed into the most hideous clothes I could find in my decidedly bare wardrobe. Molly decided to whip out her alternate persona as a small curvy Asian woman-child and off we went. At first it didn't seem like we were treated any differently, in that people mainly ignored us, but then we began noticing a couple interesting trends. For one, people had the unnerving tendency to vanish the moment we struck up conversation with them. Then, once we were able to strike up conversation and they didn't go poof in a cloud of smoke we found that they hardly ever asked us where we were from in the real world, or really any questions pertaining to that life at all. Maybe people dont have that much in common with Amazon women and pygmy Asians, but you would think the people who are looking to make avatars that interesting would probably also have something interesting to say. Or at least thats what we told ourselves. During my fat phase I decided to teleport to an island whose name was written completely in Italian and whose main purpose, it seemed, was to sell rich avatars expensive virtual Italian leather. I walked the streets in my faux outfit feeling very out of place and so decided to see if I could hit on one of the attractive Italian men roaming the street corners. Maybe there was one out there who had a thing for big boned women. I went up to a guy standing next to a Merc and asked, with oh, so much wit and humor, "this your ride?" Of course he said no and literally turned away. So I rounded the corner, effectively lost the extra two hundred pounds, threw on something sheek and sexy, and tried it again. To my great disappointment he still maintained that he was not the owner of the vehicle. Maybe having my name dancing above my head clued him into the fact that I was the same Sarai Metall that had just crossed his path. Maybe it really wasn’t his car. Either of the way I had grown bored. But at least this time he hadn’t turned his back on me…

(If my picture was able to upload you would have seen me throwin' my weight around the dance floor with no men in sight)

Our final experiment was to change our diction when chatting with the other avatars. We thought that by doing this we might see a difference in how people treated us. We began by using that which we all know and love, full sentences and perfect grammar. People were very warm and receptive to us and seemed interested to help us around the island, which this time was very chic and seemed to be operating off of some James Bond fantasy. We changed our clothes to fit the d├ęcor and in no time at all we were one of the regulars. We began schmoozing at the bar and chatting amiably with all the men who seemed to balance precariously on the line between guido and Christian Bale from American Psycho. Once we felt at home we decided to mix it up a bit and slip into our not so native inner city slang…well, our version of it. We, or course, had to move to a different part of the island to accomplish this, as Im sure our new “friends” would have caught on to our scheming. This time when chatting people seemed to be just as receptive to our “word up” and “wat u dooin” as they were to our previously carefully composed sentences. We found in both cases that however we chose to talk, the person we were talking to would usually choose to talk in the same way. People seemed more interested in getting to know who we were when we sounded smarter yet it seemed they were more than ready to slip into internet lingo when given the chance.

Overall our experiments led us to believe that the amount of discrimination is much more minimal in Second Life than it is in the real world. My hypothesis is that because the common inclination would be to make your avatar as attractive as possible, when people come across a particularly ugly or unintelligent avatar they recognize that it is your choice to be that way, and therefore not enough grounds to ridicule or snub you. Granted it is hard to completely shy away from our stereotypical perceptions of people, it seems much easier to accept funny looking avatars in the virtual world than to accept funny looking people in the real world.

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