Avatar Bodies

Research into the avatar as companion species

2012 This paper was written for school purpose. University of Utrecht // Faculty of Humanities Degree/program // MA New Media & Digital Culture Course // Technobodies in Cyberspace Student Salko Joost Kattenberg // 3614875 Paper // Avatar Bodies: Research into the avatar as companion species Supervisor Dr. Kathrin Thiele // www.uu.nl/hum/staff/KThiele/

In this paper I will critically address our perception and use of online identities (avatars). I do this by asking the question if an online identity can be seen as companion specie, as conceptualized in Donna Haraway’s The Companion Species Manifesto. To answer this question one cannot only look at the feminine studies perspective, there is too much that the avatar body entails. Aspects like technology, virtuality, immersion and interactivity are rooted in the ontological question what an online identity is. Therefore I will also use game/media studies for analyzing the construction of online identities and will also try to form a perspective on how our own identities interact and immerse with it. Are we ourselves becoming hybrid? Looking at the online identity as a transgressing concept and companion specie, I will try to address the online identity as an autonomous subject which we relate and connect with. In the end this gives us new perspectives in the way we think about our embodiment, virtual reality, construction of identity and our perception of the avatar. Keywords: avatar, online identity, embodiment, companion species, virtual reality

He seems to be with me everywhere I go, at every place I discover and present whenever I meet someone. Lost in my cognitive world I find myself occupied by his train of thoughts and his perspective of the world around me. In him I see a reflection of myself, an alternate version of me, but we are far from the same. Even though we originate from the same (incorporeal) being, we inhabit totally different worlds, with completely different cultures and societies. How would we sort things out? Physical, digital; real, fictional; unique, mutable; human, immortal. One of us travels across the globe daily; the other has resided in the same place for years. One connects to all his friends on a daily bases; the other tries to keep up with the social jungle around him. One appears to be well thought-through and decant; the other one has mood-swings and is flawed in his social appearance. One inhabits a world of wonder where everything’s seems possible; the other is bound to the cold physical reality. One tries to get some sleep at night; the other is the classroom definition of an insomniac. One is tied to the binary numeric system; the other is bound to physicality and laws. Together we go on amazing journeys and transgress the boundaries of time, space and our own imagination. We are constitutively considered to be the same, but are jet so different. We make each other up, in thoughts. Although his existence was my doing, he has now enriched my life with countless experiences that were otherwise impossible. He has changed me and made me a better person, the person that I am today. In my life I have been more inside him than with anyone else: engulfed in his thoughts, immersed in his perceptions, taken by his feelings and stories. If I wouldn’t have known better, I would say I am in love with him.
Anyone who has read The Companion Species Manifesto by Donna Haraway would probably detect her introduction in the words above. The Companion Species Manifesto begins with this to raise fundamental questions about the way

we define the other. In Haraway’s introduction it becomes clear that in many ways we are historically and presently entwined with the evolution, tasks, environments and behavior of dogs, and for Haraway especially her dog Ms. Cayenne Pepper. This brings her tell a story about co-inhabitation, co-evolution and embodied cross-species sociality (Haraway, 2003. pp.4). Although my introduction is far less groundbreaking then Haraway’s, one begins to get a grasp on the question that I like to pose in this paper. I wonder about a common digital species, namely the avatar or online/digital identity. Can an avatar be seen as a companion species? As an autonomous being with which we coexist, the other with which we constantly live. Before we dive into Haraway’s concept of companion species, I would like to explain why I urge to research this bond. In whole my life I almost cannot think of a day without my computer. I have spends several years, of my short 24, behind a computer screen. During a large portion of that time, I was lost inside other virtual worlds. I believe that therein I am not the only one. Behind the computer I have learned much. So much in fact that I can honestly say that a lot of my own identity was formed by playing games and communicating online with my friends. It has made me what I am today. When I look at my own online identity I begin to believe that’s he is someone else, apart from the physical me. Although carefully manufactured to represent me, he is different from me. Sometimes I believe that my online identity has been living a life of its own. These observations have driven me to explore our understanding of our online identities and avatars in cyberspace. I believe that this digitalization-process is embedded much more in us than we have previously suspected. In this paper I hope to link and compare different game, media and feminine studies perspective to come to a critical understanding of how we constitute, use and live with our online identities.

Companion Species
I would like to look at our online identities as a companion species. We turn to Haraway’s work relating to companion species, which also brings us to her work relating to the concept of the cyborg. Haraway writes that a being is formed not by itself, but is constituted by the presence of the other, therefore we constitute each other. Haraway called this

prehension a process that according to her always is in motion or taking place: “the world is a knot in
motion”(Haraway, 2003. pp.6). Prehension also shows us that we do not preexist before we related to each other, which means we need each other in order to be called something apart. “There are no pre-constituted subjects and objects, and no single sources, unitary actors, or final ends”(Haraway, 2003. pp.6). This statement already shows Haraway’s thought on the anti-anthropocentric concept that companion species is. The many ways in which we define ourselves through which we differ, is what companion species signifies. The way we need each other in order to become something distinct. She uses the work of Marilyn Strathern to show that even after becoming another, one is still parts of the whole. In which Haraway introduces her concept of significant otherness, the ways/parts in which we are defined other than the other. Over the rest of the text Haraway shows that we indeed share a lot of history, events, uses and spaces with dogs. From the use of dogs as instruments of terror in the European Conquest of the Americas, to Scottish sheepdogs working to shepherd flocks of sheep. All these examples are meant to bring the reader to realize that we need companion species in order to constitute us as humans. “The Companion Species Manifesto is, thus, about the implosion of nature and culture in the relentlessly historical specific, joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in significant otherness”(Haraway, 2003. pp.16). For Haraway the concept of the Cyborg, a previous concept written in A Cyborg Manifesto, fits right into her urge to cross boundaries and transgress dichotomies. The idea of the Cyborg was made in order to think about crossing boundaries in the way we think of ourselves as human. What can be called human and what is natural or technological? The Cyborg gives us insight into a world of different thinking. Mainly, thinking in a postmodern perhaps even post-human way about he construction of a being. The groundbreaking thoughts given in A Cyborg Manifesto

help us readers to cope with an changing environment where biology and technology are starting to transgress the boundaries of what can be called human, and thereby venture into non-human perhaps cyborg science. A cyborg is a hybrid being which entails animal, men and machine. “The cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self”(Haraway, 1991. pp.163). The Cyborg Manifesto tries to, just like The

Companion Species Manifesto, transgress the boundaries and break open dichotomies of what it means to be human
or therefore also other. But what is different about the cyborg, is that this concept crosses the borders of physicality and ventures into the world of the artificial and cybernetic. This is a process that Haraway describes as already beginning; are we already becoming partially cybernetic? “High-tech culture challenges these dualisms [human/machine] in intriguing ways. It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine. It is not clear what is mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices. In so far as we know ourselves in both formal discourse (for example, biology) and in daily practice (for example, the homework economy in the integrated circuit), we find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others.”(Haraway, 1991. pp.177178). Here I find the source in which online identities are born. This is the precise reason why online identities excite me. Online identities are in fact us (the natural, biological, physical beings) only then digital (mechanical and cybernetic). Online identities can perhaps be seen, as our first transgressing steps towards becoming something like a Cyborg, our first human attempt to become a hybrid being. If these observations are into the right direction, one can instantly think about the consequences of these findings. What does it mean to be a hybrid being? How does our digitalization affect our physicality? These questions instantly become too difficult to answer if one would state that we are not hybrid, that we are not becoming cyborgs. Here I introduce a new way of thinking, the way Haraway broadly encourages. It is a postmodern anti-anthropocentric way of thinking that emphasizes on the way that the other rather than the self constitutes us. In this paper I will search for a new other in order to better define ourselves, and ‘our’ the online identity. This is why I chose to address online identities as a companion species. Looking at online identities as an autonomous being/companion specie, one can easily look at the way we co-inhabit and coevolve. Looking from this angle we can trace the previous questions to: Do online identities affect physical beings?

Identity construction
In the previous chapter I wrote that we needed to look at online identities as companion specie. Before we fully constitute the other it is important to look at why and how we constitute the other. After all, humans are its maker. For that I look at media philosophy, in media these new identities are born and reside. “It [the virtual body] has been transformed into the very medium of cultural expression itself, manipulated, digitalized, and technologically constructed in virtual environments. Enhanced visualization technologies make it difficult to continue to think about the material body as a bounded entity, or to continue to distinguish its inside from its outside, its surface from its depth, its aura from its projection” (Anne Balsamo, 1996. pp. 131) Balsamo writes about our virtual bodies and its constitution in The Virtual Body in Cyberspace. Balsamo sees that although we construct the virtual body, we are far from the same. According to her there are no humanoids in cyberspace. Our sensors are perceived by a willing suspension of disbelief (Balsamo, 1996. pp. 126). This process

creates simulated experiences allowing us to think as if it where our own. While Balsamo might agree with me on looking at the online identity as companion specie, there are others who would disagree. Johan Fornäs writes about how media is also able to form or incorporate culture. For him “each situated interaction between people, symbolic networks and technological hardware is a constellation of subjects” (Fornäs, 1998. pp.2). Culture is present in cyberspace and finds his origin in the shared meanings of humans that thereby create connected identities. Fornäs argues that by digitalizing these processes culture has become less transparent and more visible (Fornäs, 1998. pp.1), which would explain us thinking like it as an other. While technology might have his own agency in the way it defines our communication and relations, there is also another side: “Mediated Communication is not only about complex techniques for transmitting fixed and packaged meaning-contents from senders to receivers, but also about social interactions where people gather around meaning-inviting text to develop interpretations, experiences and relations” (Fornäs, 1998. pp.5). I think Fornäs is not the only researcher who has this idea about the use of mediated communications. Although I am compelled to agree with Fornäs I believe that it is not true in the case of our online identities. It might look like we translate culture into cyberspace but is perceived and transmitted through another, namely through your online identity. Thereby the physical person has become only the observer to what happens in cyberspace, while in your cognition you have already become the other. Later in the text of Fornäs he writes about the concept of ‘mental bodies’, because he sees that “all interaction and narration demands some kind of recognizable embodiment of its interacting subjects” (Fornäs, 1998. pp.5). This already shows that Fornäs acknowledges the fact that there is something else at work here. Perhaps it is the other that he hopes to find. In my opinion this cannot be subscribed by looking from our normal anthropocentric human thinking. However Fornäs does introduce another very difficult aspect of the constitution of our online identities. Namely, that our online identities exist through our choices, experiences, interpretations and relations online. To examine this closer I introduce the work of Jos de Mul, professor in philosophy of man and culture. De Mul has written a lot about how we form our identities off and online. In Under Construction De Mul writes (along with Valerie Frissen) about the way we construct our identity in our modern society. Their main thesis could be seen as “The diversity of information that is distributed through media means that identities are becoming more changeable and are actually always under construction” (De Mul, 2000. pp.3). They write that by using many different technologies we have more opportunities in which a person can form his identity. This also directly means that the diversity and also the amount of social rolls/identities have drastically increased. Technology is not merely to blame for this increase, social goals, political choices, institutions, companies and governments all impact the construction and constitution of our many identities. In the text they mention Haraway and recognize the way in which our embodiment has become to blur the boundaries between body and technology. “Although we are our bodies, at the same time the body is something we have/possess, which is mainly independent of our experience functions and often seem act on its own” (De Mul, 2000. pp.14) In the text they distinguish between different identities which all focus differently on personal or cultural aspects. Cultural identities are focused on social behavior, the way you act when norms and hierarchy are presented for instance. Personal identity is the way you look at yourself, or you want to be yourself. They see that both identities have been drastically changed by ICT’s. Both ways of creating identity have merged together in the use of new media technologies. Through our ever connecting and ever present technologies we have formed a reflective dimension. “Reflectivity indicates self-reflection, speculation, having a self-image. We express ourselves and recognize ourselves in self-representation” (De Mul, 2000. pp.11). In the text they see the internet as a theater to play and experiment with the many possible selves in order to test the diverse way to reflect one’s self. In another text of

De Mul (2002) he writes that technology is also no longer the machine that it used to be. Technology has become entwined with our daily lives that causes these technologies to impact our thinking and activities much more then that they used to do. Thereby De Mul sees that technology can be the cause and the effect of social and cultural changes. This notion was also implied by De Mul in 2000, but not emphasized. Although in 2000 he seems to align himself with Haraway and brings forth the work of philosophers Lock and Hume who state: “Our conscience according to them [Lock and Hume] is nothing more than a constant flow of observations and ideas, where behind no stable ‘I’ resides” (De Mul, 2000. pp.11). This way of reflecting and presenting one’s self has become second nature to us in the modern society to the point where a lot of people see the many identities as whole. In 2002 De Mul seems to add to this that this constant state of reflecting and presenting is entwined with our use of communication technologies. We seem to be at a crossing point looking back at our online identity. By accepting De Mul and Haraway’s notion of a constant in motion way of presenting and reflecting one’s self, where do we pinpoint the other? Is the other not in constant flux in this way. I would say although it may be in constant flux, we still constitute it as being apart from us. Perhaps it is made even more into a real other, because it precisely does what we also do: change. So I would say it still could be seen as, the other that differs from us and by it also defines us. An addition to this complex notion of a constant changing other is given by Katherine Hayles. She writes about the way we perceive bodies and how this has been transformed by the introduction of the computer. According to her, bodies consist of information due to the fact that computers are filled with interconnecting information forming gigantic computer networks. Although a lot has happened since 1993 she still poses an interesting thought on how to define a body that is in constant flux. Relating this body of information to a book, she comes up with the way in which we form bodies. “Only when the titles of the parts are perceived to form a sentence is the literary corpus reconstituted as a unity. Significantly, the recuperation is syntactical rather than physical. It does not arise from or imply an intact physical body. Rather, it emerges from the patterns -metaphorical, grammatical, narrative, thematic, and textual- that the parts together make” (Hayles, 1993. pp.85). Hayles shows us that our perception of a body is always found in our understanding of what a body is. So a body of information like a digital body, which is in a constant state of change, is also not a problem once we perceive it as a whole. In the case of an online identity it is clear that although we change it a lot, we still perceive it as a whole and can therefore still be recognized as another. In more recent work of Hayles she has started to embed Haraway’s writing and thinking into her own. Here we see that she gives even more credit to technology than De Mul. Hayles comes with the concept of cognisphere, as introduced by Thomas Whalen, a global phenomenon that everyone is subjected to. The concept is derived from a cognitive sphere and means, “cognition as embodied throughout human flesh and extended into the social and technological environment” (Hayles, 2006. pp.161). Hayles sees that in this cognisphere there is no distinction between technology and biology, “human and machine cognitions have now become intertwined”. Referring to Haraway’s cyborg and companion species she writes: “Understanding that humans and animals have co-evolved together is entirely consistent with the contemporary but nevertheless potent phenomenon of humans and machines co-evolving together” (Hayles, 2006. pp.162). Looking back at the beginning of this chapter we can now see that we indeed are the creators of our online identities. However, the plausibility that they differ from us is great and there are reasons to believe that they coexist alongside of us making them another, a companion species.

Accepting the other
In this paper I have mentioned a lot of philosophical and plausible ideas. I have argued that an online identity can be seen as another and therefore also as a companion species, co-existing and co-evolving alongside of us. With that I answered the main questions if an avatar can be seen as a companion species. But how about the other questions raised. Are we already hybrid being? If yes, how does our digicality affect our physicality? I will try to answer these questions by actually looking at the here and now. Game studies has one of the most commonly known forms of online identities, namely the avatar. The most basic definition of the term is considered to be, a graphical representation of the player in game, common examples are Mario in Super Mario and Pac-man. In recent years avatars have become part of the largely integrated emergent systems. Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman define these emergent systems as systems that produce countless outcomes by designing the game with a large variety of choice. Many avatars can even be user specifically customized, which gives way to endless varieties of avatar and representation/reflections in game. In this chapter I will use three anthropological researches into the way people use, build, think and live with their avatars. First is the work of Sisse Siggaard Jensen who researched avatar behavior and communication in EverQuest and Second Life. Jensen sees that actors (the ones that are acting the avatars) create whole worlds and histories behind their avatars. Avatars are therefore the mediators of us between the physical and the virtual world. When she conducted her surveys to get empirical data things start to get interesting. Hours are spent to “make their avatars meaningful and personal from the perspective of their owners” (Jensen, 2009. pp.33). Virtual norms and behavioral codes and ethics are introduced to adjust and design their own online representation. Immediately we see the

reflective dimension in what actors tell about their avatar(s). Jensen goes on in her paper and shows the reader how
actors and avatars are confined and constituted by: virtual opportunities, virtual social networks, virtual day to day life, experimenting with social boundaries, education and learning, improving in the virtual hierarchy and manipulation or harassment. All of these findings were taken from different interviews and online questions answered by many actors. If you read their thoughts on their own avatars, how they describe them, love them and cherish them, you can hardly spot a difference from the real/physical world. In the conclusion written by Jensen she writes: “On the one hand, in the process of making sense of their virtual world, the actors are transformed and become avatars, while on the other, the avatars also transform the actors. There is a continuous interplay of transformation of meaning going on.” (Jensen, 2009. pp.42). It seems that according to Jensen there is a distinction between the avatar and the actor and both are influenced by the other. Jensen speaks as though the actors are indeed co-existing and co-evolving next to their avatars and can affect each other greatly. This becomes also visible when reading Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman’s Rules of Play. In the chapter on games as culture they show that self-expression in games can be used for all sorts of cultural expression or counter politics. Modifying (MOD) avatars were one of the first ways in which gamers showed their independence and revealed femininity in older games (Salen and Zimmerman, 2004. pp.559-565). Thereby differencing themselves, allowing to change the in-game reflection and representation. In another anthropological study by Yasmin B. Kafai, Deborah A Fields and Melissa S. Cook we see the same instances occurring. Here they particularly study the online virtual world called Whyville. The research is focused on players ranging from 8 to 16 years old, which is also the biggest part of the games users. They are interested in the construction of identity in relation to the avatar and are particularly interested in this age group, because in this time of your life your identity development is deemed very important. They found out that in Whyville representation is almost directly related to online identity. Whyville therefore also has embedded several design and customizing tools in relation to an award system. Making sure that the more you play the better you can look.

“Choosing which personal characteristics to embody, decorating avatars with video game characters or flags, and playing out personal desires all show the way that avatar design in Whyville is like an identity playground, experimenting with what aspects of oneself to show or not show, and what fantasy elements one might bring in.”(Kafai et. al,2010. pp.34) In the paper there almost seems to be no difference from the way we create or form our physical identity and how to create a digital one. Above of that it is very common in the game to possess more than one avatar, which was also the case with the EverQuest players described by Jensen. Here we see that indeed players have different avatars for different moods and behaviors, stretching the experimenting with identity even further. After they have come to that conclusion they go on. The virtual world has given rise to its own social sphere and cultural differences and different social groups. These fight for certain rights, how to properly be represented in the game. Questions of ethics and race are raised and give way to real discussions. Avatars seem to react to these topics from their avatars perspective, even if they conflate with their physical identity. Overall the findings of the research indicate that it is a good thing that these children play in online worlds and become aware of their own self-image and can therefore make more conscience choices in their physical lives. Which means that these children have been affected greatly by their avatar’s behavior, ethics and experiences, either bad or good. In the last anthropological work, that of T.L. Tylor, she writes about The Dreamscape, one of the first graphical 3D environments. Apart from what the others conclude in their findings is Tylor’s book chapter a lot more philosophical, addressing notions of embodiment and cognition. Tylor also finds that representation in the game environment is an ever changing and altering activity in which the player defines herself. Here again we see reflective and exploring behavior taking up a huge part of how people decide how they want to look. But The Dreamscape enables a lot more than mere human avatars. Tylor interviews a women for instance who was at first not comfortable being a human in The Dreamcast en chose to be a cat. After playing the game for a longer period she was finally able to show herself and become a human avatar. This meant that she shifted from a shallower avatar like the cat, to a deeper en refined avatar like a human. Here you see that the avatar really controls the way we experience a game and therefore also change the way we learn and experience ourselves. The immersion into The Dreamscape also seems to be far greater. Avatars are questioned who have virtual relationships which include online sexual activities. “As one woman put it, “When I get an appropriately placed [online] hug, I really feel the rush of endorphins”. (…) People are able to engage with the world and with others in ways that link their corporeal body to their digital one” (Tylor, 2002. pp.49). These findings might suggest that we are not separate beings, but can be considered to be the same. Or that we are so entwined that we have this much effect upon each other. The players of The Dreamscape seem to be far more engaged with the virtual environment, this leads Tylor to write about the fact that these avatars are perhaps even surpassing the physical body. “In one of the more complicated twists on the subject, some users have even come to identify their avatar as “more them” than their corporeal body.” (Tylor, 2002. pp.49).

Crossing the boundary
I have played games all my life, I am a real game fanatic and still I do not really feel good by saying that an avatar or online identity can be seen as another being. But I will show that these kinds of transgressing processes and activities can in fact cross the line, and can be considered to be as real as the physical world. I will do this by giving two very district examples.

The first comes from Julian Dibbell who wrote a very detailed ‘eye-witness’ account of a rape. The rape occurred in a texts-based online environment called LambdaMOO. All commands, actions and conversations are just texts based and other players or the game environment will respond in a texts-based message. It was in this setting that Dibbell’s avatar, along with other avatars, was present at the moment the horrible crime was taking place. Mr. Bungle raped Exu in the living room that night. What followed was far from virtual. Exu cried and screamed, tored her heart out towards Mr. Bungle but the deed had really been done. Due to this occurrence a full rage of countless of avatars irrupted, administrators were in shock and didn’t know what to do. After a long debate Mr. Bungle was punished and banned. But the impact of the rape has been, by all means, not far off from a real crime as Dibbell writes: “Where before I’d found it hard to take virtual rape seriously, I now was finding it difficult to remember how I could ever not have taken it seriously. I was proud to have arrived at this perspective — it felt like an exotic sort of achievement, and it definitely made my ongoing experience of the MOO a richer one.” (Dibbell, 1998) It is hard for us to imagine that this was a real rape, but a lot op people in the anthropological work of Tylor also said that they feel bodily responses to their action online, thus raising a very complex and different perspective on Dibbell’s case. The second example is a more theoretical one, but one that shows that these practices do in fact already transgressed the boundaries of the virtual world. Thomas the Zengotita describes in his book Mediated the concept of method acting. Method acting is the way in which we are able to act ourselves in daily lives. This means that we know in our head who we want to be and how we want to reflect upon others. We use this image of ourselves in order to act ourselves towards others. This way of reflecting and presenting one’s self has become second nature to us in the modern society, something De Mul also wrote about our online identities. It seems that we are making less distinction about constructing our identities online or offline then we previously thought. Zengotita addresses method acting as a product of media technology, which evolved to a point where we have become increasingly aware of our own reflection and representation. According to Zengotita we have become totally mediated and are unable to escape the ever-present media technologies (blob).

Final thoughts
The impact of avatars as companion species has raised many questions, although they seem sometimes odd and weird, we can say that they are not that strange. Insight in the way we construct and change our avatar has shown that we indeed have a very close relation with our avatars. Although our perception and thoughts collide, we are different and are affected by them. In the scope of this paper I only investigated game avatars, but one can easily see that investigating social network identities is perhaps one step further into our daily lives but on the other hand one step backwards of thinking of the online identity as another. In the future I believe we will see an even greater demanding and changing role in the form of new avatars. While my social media avatar is constantly accessible through the Internet he does not yet makes decisions for the physical me. I believe that with the use of high-tech algorithms and artificial intelligent we could perhaps in the future look at an avatar version that indeed may be fully accepted as another. For now, I am willing to believe that the avatars we now create are humanities first steps in becoming a cyborg.

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