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Aronica 1 Janet N.

Aronica Introduction to Digital Media Professor Sarachan 1 Dec 2008

Second Life Avatars: Artistic Virtual-World Manifestations of Internal Identities

Second Life allows users to create their own virtual identities. Providing an everincreasing variety of hair, clothes, skins – Second Lifers have the tools to fine-tune their alteregos right down to the minute details. Given the attention paid to the creation of avatars, this calls into question the artistic significance of virtual personas. Are avatars art? There are numerous ways to support the view that, yes, avatars are art, as well as cultural reflections of individual and social aesthetic values. In her article, “Avatars, Second Life, and New Media Art: The Challenge for Contemporary Art Education,” author Christine E. Liao suggests cultural and esthetic approaches to Second Life art. Liao explains that SL is a cultural interface that creates a unique visual culture, concurrently mirroring the society it originates from. Liao also considers the various techniques Second Life users can employ to create one’s virtual body – a version of oneself that exists in this cultural interface (Liao 89). Liao recalls an article by Lev Manovich, which explains that new media art cannot be divided into medium and content, rather, should form a cultural interface. The cultural interface is “the way(s) in which computers present and allow us to interact with cultural data” (Liao 88). Liao writes:

Aronica 2 “By approaching technology as a cultural interface, it is possible to interpret meanings of new media art in terms of technology’s impact on humans, culture, and society. Culture encoded in technology, translated by new media art, becomes a language of art that reflexively criticizes its cultural meaning…The concept of cultural interface allows understanding of a new technology to communicating socio-cultural meanings and the role of the technology to decrypting new media art.” (Liao 88) How users reflect real life culture by the aesthetic choices they make in the creation of their avatars is evidence of what people aesthetically value in real life society. If the cultural interface is the canvas, an avatar is the Mona Lisa and the mouse is a paint brush. Along these lines, “fashions” would be the palette. “Fashions” are the clothes, skins, body parts, etc. that Second Lifers employ to cultivate a 3D avatar in Second Life. In real life, personal style helps people project a certain aesthetic image. Similarly, “fashions” are the necessary tools needed to create virtual aesthetic identity. Because of the design, the intention, the detail – this is art. What distinguishes this identity is the element of fantasy, introduced by the wall of the cultural interface. In real life, personal style is restricted by necessity (the weather), social expectations (business attire vs. casual Friday), and status (price). Second life liberates the user: On the other side of the wall exists an unrestricted virtual world in which you can create, and live, any identity you want. Andy Warhol once said: “Art is what you can get away with.” Perhaps, if we could be anything we wanted, if we could look anyway we wanted – and get away with it – we would be our artistic creations, our avatars.

Aronica 3 As Second Life avatar FoxDemonia said, “Second Life is a fantasy, and you can be who you want to be in Second Life.” Cod Easterwood, another Second Life avatar (a James Bond look-a-like) questioned: “Why you want your avatar to be like you when you don’t have to? You spend your whole life as you and this is a chance to be different.” In his article, “Alter Egos in a Virtual World,” NPR reporter Ketzel Levine interviews several users on why they chose their particular avatars. Becky Glasure, a 27-year-old wife and mother, complains that people don’t take her seriously because of her short stature and “squeaky Filipino voice” (Levine 1). An Everquest gamer, Glasure’s original avatar was a woman “but all people noticed were her pixel breasts, and this despite her considerable gaming expertise” (Levine 1). Glasure quickly switched her avatar to embody a large, black man. She says: “When I play this big guy, everybody listens to me. Nobody argues with me. If there’s a group of people standing around, I say, ‘OK, everybody follow me! And they do. No questions asked” (Levine 1). Enter, Jason Rowe. Rowe is a 32-year-old gamer, a victim of Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. The debilitating condition confines him to a wheel chair with a ventilator strapped to his face. Alternatively, his a avatar “is a steely, robot-like character” who fights monsters and rides speed bikes (Levine 2). Rowe says: “(I’m not) disabled. Not in a wheelchair. In virtual worlds, everyone is on common ground” (Levine 3). The cultural interface is not only the canvas, but the fantasy is the great equalizer. Levine comments that oftentimes, avatars are just younger, prettier, skinnier versions of the users. It is no secret that real life society values youth, beauty – the skinny. As Liao would suggest, Second Life echos this. Additionally, these choices show that culture values power. It can be sexual power (expressed through a seductive avatar – provocative clothes, a come-hither

Aronica 4 strut), economic power (expressed through designer avatar clothes – bought with Lindens), or physical power (expressed through giant, intimidating stature). Liao writes: “An avatar does not usually fully represent a person, but rather, represents an alter ego or pretend persona…The body images they create usually do not mirror their physical body but are accumulations of imagination and desires” (Laio 89). The examples of Rowe and Glasure, coupled with the aesthetic and cultural ideas of Liao, provide insight into artistic expression in Second Life. Avatars, an artistic expression, portray the desires and values that already exist in real life. Second life is the virtual platform for this art. The cultural interface is the reason we can “get away with it.” Desired identities can travel from our minds to the computer screen – but can they travel back? At what point does life imitate art? Levine explains: “…stay in costume long enough – whether a general in a Civil War re-enactment, or a wench at a Renaissance fair – and the lines may blur between who you are and who you’re pretending to be” (Levine 3). Levine mentions the experience of a shy college professor who assumed the character of necromancer avatar (a commander of the dead) in Everquest. “She began to become much bolder, stronger and more assertive as a result of playing this character. She was able to carry that over into her real-life interactions” (Levine 3). There is much support for the notion that avatars are an intentionally designed, outward, artistic expression of an internal desire or identity. But the long-term effects – the level to which these virtual personas translate back into real life – are still being explored.

Aronica 5 Works Cited

Levine, Ketzel. “Alter Egos in a Virtual World.” 31 Jul 2007. 17 Nov 2008. Liao, Christine L. “Avatars, Second Life, and New Media Art.” Art Education. Mar 2008: pgs. 87-91. FoxDemonia. Personal interview. Second Life. 26 Nov 2008. Cod Easterwood. Personal interview. Second Life. 26 Nov 2008.