In my previous post, I discussed an attitude that tends to portray Second Life as a whole in a negative manner simply because there is a strong sexual side to it – what I have called the “X-rated smear of Second Life“. In that post, I touched upon the general culture that lies behind this attitude and targets mostly women, aiming to control and censor them. Today, I’m going to turn my attention more to the proponents of the “let’s appeal to the mainstream” line of argumentation, through the academia and its attitude towards SL that is largely driven by the same factor.
In the wake of the Virtual Worlds Best Practices in Education 2014 Conference, the 15th installment of The Drax Files Radio Hour podcast was dedicated to the usage of virtual worlds (and Second Life in particular) in education, and featured a joint interview with Liz Falconer, professor of Technology Enhanced Learning and Director of the Education Innovation Centre at the University of the West of England (UWE), and Stylianos Mystakidis, e-learning manager at the Library and Information Centre of the University of Patras, Greece. The interview provided some important insights for anyone interested in understanding the relationship of SL and virtual worlds in general with the educational sector.
Of bikinis and sexual promises
So far, so good. Yet, the “bikini babes” banner marketing campaign showed up in the discussion. In fact, it was the first item in that discussion. It was said that this kind of marketing plays to a stereotype (young male gamers) – an audience that the academic community isn’t particularly interested in. Furthermore, as can be inferred by the discussion, this stereotype-based advertising tends to pigeonhole the platform as merely a haven for those whose only interest in virtual worlds is the quest for “pixel sex”. This is an opinion shared by many, including Jo Yardley.
Much criticism has been levelled at this particular campaign. From the aesthetic qualities (observe the ugly default feet) to allegations of objectification of women.
I believe my previous post covered some part of the allegations concerning women’s objectification (in SL, we wear what we wear because we choose to wear it, and because that’s how we want to imagine ourselves – we basically dress up the way we do first and foremost, if not exclusively, for ourselves), so I’m not going to dwell on it further here.
Here’s my point of contention with this widespread point of view. It’s true that Linden Lab’s marketing so far has been rather unimaginative and consistently failing to notice what SL’s users do with the platform and the way its potential is harnessed by the creative part of the user base: See the much-criticised “Become your avatar” campaigns that were panned in 2010, 2011 and 2013 (when they brought this concept back for a third time).
Or the Amazon marketing campaign, which was yet another missed opportunity and was rightly criticised: See Ciaran Laval‘s, Honour McMillan‘s, Inara Pey‘s and Tateru Nino‘s coverage. It’s also true that the “bikini babes” ads were lacking in aesthetics and seemed like a hasty and rather botched attempt to lure some users from IMVU – therefore, I wonder how appealing they were to their intended audience in the first place. Let’s face it: The “bikini babes” were not that hot, especially if you compare them to the truly stunning styles sported by the likes of Kaelyn Alecto and Strawberry Singh.
Is it all that bad?
The “bikini babes” campaign was problematic for a number of reasons. I don’t have a problem with the fact that it caters to a (significant) portion of SL’s user base that wants its virtual world experience to be a Malibu-style beach with sexy representatives of all genders that are willing to engage in what is derogatorily (and with a dose of guilt, I might say) referred to as “pixel sex”. However, I don’t think it’s as bad as it’s made out to be, and I’ll say once again that I agree with Pussycat Catnap’s point of view.
Quite honestly, I don’t have a problem with the fact that it condones and encourages the pursuit of romance and sex within Second Life at all. Don’t forget, after all, that the in-world sex industry generates a considerable part of the revenue LL gets from Second Life; it’s a cash cow for LL, and they’d be fools to ignore it or turn their backs on it. I’ll also go out on a limb and say that LL’s “sexy time” advertising is far more subtle than IMVU’s. Don’t believe me? Look to the left. Do you think this is an isolated example? Think again. After this cold shower of reality, I think the “Ooo errr, kinky SL” crowd should realise they’re barking up the wrong tree and shut up. OK, fat chance of that happening anytime soon – just wishful thinking.
I think it’s obvious that I don’t agree at all with the notion that LL should not advertise its potential for someone to enjoy sexual adventures and romantic experiences in-world, because the “mainstream” audiences might be “offended”. In fact, while discussing this topic with prominent apparel and avatar component designer Siddean Munro (of Slink Style fame, for the few ones that don’t know who she is), she pointed out that Second Life has three winning points over any other virtual world platform:
- The freedom for people to explore their sexuality in-world in a safe way that is not always provided in RL;
- A fairly low barrier for entry to the content creation market (I’d say that, if you want, you could say SL is fairly socialist in this respect);
- A stable virtual currency that is traded against major RL currencies and is successfully kept on tax authorities’ good side.
Siddean also pointed out that these are precisely the three things that other pretenders to SL’s crown seek to restrict, and this causes them to fail. LL, despite its numerous failings in other departments, got it exactly right and this places it in a far more advantageous position than any other company that might try its hand at developing a new virtual world or entering the existing market using existing (i.e. SL- and OpenSim-grade) technologies.
It might be surprising to some that such a successful and prominent content creator embraces SL’s sexual potential, but it makes sense. One only needs to consider what avatar identity means to users of virtual worlds: The freedom to express ourselves, breaking away from societal and physical restraints, with a moat placed between our avatar and our RL identity, providing us with an unprecedented sense of privacy and safety. This has always been a major selling point, not only for SL, but for many other platforms (not necessarily virtual worlds). That said, I believe it’s counter-intuitive and counter-productive to say LL should not advertise a strong selling point. If SL (and its tentative successor – let’s call it SL 2.0) is bowdlerised, I doubt people will bother with it.
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