When we encounter an unknown situation or person in Real Life (RL), we tend to “fill in the gaps” using assumptions from contexts familiar to us – contexts we know or think we know, exposing ourselves (and the ones around us) to the often dire (see: drama) consequences of incorrect conclusions and misunderstandings. This is even more obvious in virtual worlds such as Second Life (SL), because a great number of people there try to be something else than what they are in Real Life – in fact, they are invited and encouraged to do so (and rightly so).
In virtual worlds, we are represented by “avatars”; incarnations and projections of what we want to be in this virtual world (or any other virtual world, for that matter): from fashionistas (and trashionistas) to robots and furries, from demons to children and from über-smooth lotharios to ushimimis. Whenever we see an avatar (however familiar or unfamiliar, or even outlandish, it may look to us), we are pretty sure that it is controlled by a human being. When we see a female avatar, it may well be controlled by a man; and vice versa: a male avatar may very well be owned and controlled by a woman. A child avatar may be controlled by an adult. Someone who acts all giddy within the virtual world may very well be actually feeling terrible in RL and barely holding back their tears due to something extremely unpleasant that has happened to them – they went in-world to get their minds off their RL troubles.
Virtual worlds are a step beyond the pseudonymous and anonymous identities and personas that people assume on the internet (or in the printed media of the pre-internet times). People don a pseudonym and a different identity and persona in order to express something that they need to express, but, for one reason or another, they do not want to have it linked to their real identity. Jillian C. York put it very succinctly in her 2011 article “A Case for Pseudonyms“; an individual adopting a pseudonym may fear political or economic retribution for their views. They may fear that what they want to express might put their livelihood, or even their life (and, oftentimes, the lives of their loved ones) at risk. They may wish to avoid discrimination; they may wish to use a name that is easier to spell and pronounce in a different culture – or, perhaps they merely wish to adopt a name that is in accordance to the message they want to convey.
Pseudonyms are indeed used by activists, whistleblowers, authors, poets, or even by otherwise perfectly ordinary people who might want to safely express some other facets of their personalities. A pseudonym often acts as a shield that protects someone’s life.
Privacy and a disconnect (unlinkability) from our RL identity are de riguer if we are to be able to feel free and express ourselves in ways we desire but cannot in RL.
This begins with the avatars we choose: I know RL men who chose to exist in SL as women (attracting the wrath of certain hypocritical idiots and trolls); there are RL women who have male avatars in SL. Regardless of their RL appearance, many users try to make their avatars as “conventionally attractive” (see: desirable for their preferred gender) as possible. And there are relatively few users who choose to have an avatar depicting an elderly person; most prefer to be depicted as being in their prime.
This new-found freedom provided by privacy also enables us to behave differently in SL than we would in RL; this change, more often than not, follows the form of our avatar: we act in ways that match our avatar’s appearance. But there are also other, deeper changes in our behaviour: in SL, it is not uncommon for people who are shy and veritable wallflowers in RL to be outgoing, outspoken and have a large circle of friends and acquaintances in SL, whereas in RL they might actually be very lonely or insular. Other people, who are repressed in their RL, may very well sample erotic, sensual and sexual desires, fantasies in SL to the fullest, oftentimes going to extremes – from exploring experiences that come in contrast to what they readily and comfortably define as their RL sexual identity and orientation to the darkest of fantasies, and from adopting a behaviour in matters of romance and sex different to the one they display in RL (or are forced to display) to exploring fantasies that are downright physically impossible in RL. Thus, Second Life can very well be our Secret Life, our escape and even a way to pander to our unadmitted Walter Mitty complex.
Then again, even this cannot be considered as a rule carved in stone: there are people out there who model their avatar after their RL appearance and generally act the way they would act in RL. There are people who choose to connect their SL avatar with their RL identity and be open about it. How many are like that? I honestly have no idea.
That said, one can easily understand that an avatar’s appearance says precious little about the person behind it.
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