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Thinking about my relationship with avatars and online worlds…

2009 April 12
by Melinda C.

Last week, I tried out Second Life on a few different occasions. I first signed up for an account and downloaded the program to my own computer (and discovered that, although my laptop is pretty fast & efficient, it has a hard time handling such an intense program!). Although I complained about the limited options on the avatar-building sites, I found that I was frustrated with having too many options on Second Life. I don’t feel the need to customize everything down the width of my nostrils!

I found myself plunked down in the beginning world of Caledon, Oxbridge, which seemed fine, though I wasn’t entirely sure why I ended up there of all places. A few people (mods, I’m assuming… is that what they are called in SL?) asked if I had any questions, but I responded that I was just looking around. I spent a little time messing with my avatar’s appearance (and could not for the life of me figure out how to change the hair!), and did not pay much attention to other users, except for when some person with huge, crazy hair came up and stood behind me, and said, quite profoundly, “i’m behind you.” That creeped me out a little bit, so I moved, tried and failed to change my shirt, and got off SL not long after that.

My second foray into SL was right before class on Wednesday, and somewhat more eventful than the first. I finally figured out how to alter the color of my shirt and pants, and how to make my hair longer and brown instead of short and blackish/brown. My avatar still looked nothing like me, really, but I felt better moving about in the game once I was able to customize it a little more. I realized that I felt less of a desire to make it look exactly like myself than I did when making the stationary avatars, partly because I knew I would be interacting with other people on SL, and also because it would take way too long for me to get it to look exactly like me… and too much work to find the items that would make that possible. So, I wandered around the Oxbridge area for a bit, purposely trying to find populated spots. I stopped in an area where a couple of mods were chatting, said hello to them and again assured them that I had no questions, and played with my appearance a little bit more. This is when I was approached by a male avatar. At first, he didn’t say anything, just stood there. I watched and wondered what would happen. And then he told me I had a nice ass. Just like that: “nice ass.”

I have to admit, I was a little taken aback. Sitting here at my computer, I laughed out loud, but was not entirely sure how to react. It hit me that I could say a dozen witty things, insulting this guy’s choice to sit here and hit on computer-generated images… or I could just ignore it and walk away. In real life, I would probably, by instinct, ignore the comment and get away as quickly as possible, even though I feel like that gives the accosting person the satisfaction of knowing he got to me. But on SL, I felt like I had a little more power. Before I had a chance to decide what to say, however, one of the mods came over and asked the guy not to say things like that, as this was a place for people to learn more about Second Life. He responded by saying to me something along the lines of “but I want to learn more about you.” Again, the mod told the guy to leave me alone. Keep in mind that at this point, I hadn’t actually responded to anyone myself. At this point, in response to the wanting-to-learn-more-about-me comment, I told him   that in that case, “my ass is not the best place to start.”  The female mod responded to me in a private IM, saying something like “LOLOLOL! That was great! I love it!” which struck me as an interesting moment of… female solidarity? Or something. Anyway, the guy didn’t really reply to my comment, just asked if he could show me around, if I would follow him somewhere else, etc. The mod eventually kicked the guy out, and another, male, mod said to me “Do not worry, Miss Zykuri, he will not be bothering you anymore.” I stuck around for a few more minutes as they chatted about the guy and the situation, but I was running late for class, so I got offline and started trying to figure out the significance of the whole interaction.

Obviously, several aspects of the situation struck me as being gendered. This guy walks up and makes some crude comment and expects me to respond, obviously just based on my avatar’s appearance. And here I am, the real me, sitting in front of my computer trying to decide whether I should say something or walk away and ignore it (which I hesitate to do since I shouldn’t HAVE to put up with crap like that just because I chose to represent myself with a female, conventionally attractive avatar, and if I don’t say anything, he’ll just move on to someone else, and not defending myself feels like a way of giving him more power & satisfaction, etc. etc.). This whole time, my heart was beating rather quickly, and I had a weird sinking feeling in my stomach… I guess this physical reaction makes me realize that I do see my avatar as an extension of myself in a way. I did feel like it was me in that situation, not just my little avatar. I automatically connected the situation with my own ways of seeing and handling things like this in the real world, but because it was online, I felt more able to respond in the way I wanted to respond rather than being inhabited by the physical aspect of a real-life interaction, or by my own appearance (which is not particularly intimidating, and physically not very strong). Based on the mod’s highly amused response to my (not terribly hilarious) comment, I wondered how often things like this happen, and how often the accosted person actually responds in a way that implies they are not going to take crap like that.

Others from our class have shared experiences in which other players immediately jumped to defending them from users who could potentially be harassing them, and I have started wondering what this says about the assumption that women in this world are not able to defend themselves, that we are too gullible, do not know their way around, etc. In the real world, I have to admit that I am rather paranoid when interacting with strangers (especially male strangers), and the same is true for me in virtual worlds – though as I said, I do feel a greater sense of power since I can quit the game at any time, I am not in physical danger, and I feel more able to verbally shut down undesirable situations. In Second Life, we have more power over the situations, but people are still so quick to jump to our defense for us, and to assume that we cannot handle it ourselves… why does this seem to be such a common thread?

I have to admit, my little moment of defiance, albeit brief and not terribly exciting, was a little empowering. Now, part of me is tempted to wander around in Second Life and try to find these people just so I can think of witty responses and shut down their attempts to hit on unsuspecting women who are just trying out this program, perhaps for the first time. It pisses me off that these guys go around and try to exert power over women in that way, and have probably come to expect a submissive response because that is how we are taught to respond in real life. I have to admit that I also derive satisfaction from being able to respond in that unexpected way, since I do not personally feel as able to do so in “meatspace.” It feels good to exert that little bit of power myself, rather than feeling powerless or like my only safe response is not to respond at all. In SL, I can always just close the program or shut my computer if I end up in a really bad situation. It is a relatively safe place for me to do something that would otherwise seem unsafe or impolite or simply out of character, and it is nice to be able to do that occasionally, even if it is not in the “real” world.

This whole thing reminded me of why interactive internet applications like these are so madly addicting for me. In real life, I have a lot of inhibitions based on my appearance, my tendency to learn to trust people rather slowly, etc. Participating in these online worlds is one way for me to act out pieces of myself that I cannot necessarily express in the offline world without feeling too exposed or too far outside of my comfort zone. I suppose I find that opportunity to be a little intoxicating sometimes. I know that “intoxicating” seems like a strange word choice, but I feel like it accurately describes the feeling. It gives me a rush to be able to enact an aspect of myself that I cannot normally convey for whatever reason. I suppose I do feel very limited by my body at times, and the internet eliminates, or at least severely diminishes, that boundary. I don’t even know how to begin to analyze the relationship that I feel between mind and body and avatar; it is, obviously, quite complicated for me.

Anyway, I will probably end up uninstalling Second Life soon enough, before I get too used to it, because the last thing I need is to get hooked into an online world when my real one is busier than it’s ever been! I feel like most people in our class are approaching these online worlds with a three-foot pole and looking at them with a certain sense of contempt, but I guess it’s hard for me to do that since I have a tendency to get invested in online communities like these.  I think I’ve learned to back away when it gets to be too intense, at least.

Okay, sorry for the extremely long post! 🙂 Going now!

2 Responses
  1. Aline permalink
    April 18, 2009

    Hey Melinda, I didn’t know how to contact you, but I was wondering if I could interview you for my multimedia project. How is after class on Monday?

  2. Melinda C. permalink
    April 18, 2009

    Sure, I would be happy to be interviewed… but after class on Monday kinda depends on how long you think it would take. We’re signing up for library shifts, and I’d like to get there pretty early (4:30 or so) to make sure I’m not at the end of the line again this year. 🙂 My email address is mcanter@bmc… perhaps we can work it out from there?

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