How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Three Online Alter Egos
This is an article I wrote back in early 2007, when I was working full time on projects that utilized the virtual world of Second Life. It was never published, and just resurfaced in my mind, so I figured I’d share. Enjoy!
Sometimes when I go to work, I wear jeans and a t-shirt. Sometimes it’ll be more of a blazer and khakis kind of day. On others I might go for something more formal, like a tuxedo. Lately I’ve taken to dressing up as an elf, a sumo wrestler and a lava monster, depending on my mood. I save my Godzilla costume for special occasions, like when I facilitate a workshop. No, I haven’t been asked for my letter of resignation yet, though some of my colleagues do give me funny looks as they pass by my desk and see me talking to a mermaid. I work in the virtual world of Second Life, an immersive three dimensional online environment populated by ‘residents’ from across the globe. It is a place where the odd and surreal are the norm, and a place that is surprisingly rich with lessons about the nature of identity, if one looks at it from the right angle.
Second Life, to give a short and hopefully useful description, is essentially like a three dimensional internet. Instead of going on Amazon.com to purchase SlaughterHouse-Five, you could have gone to hear an interview with its author in a virtual cafe´ with Vonnegut’s live voice streaming into your computer. (This happened.) Or, in addition to signing a petition denouncing the Bush administration’s foreign policy online, you can go and participate in a virtual sit in with hundreds of other people from across the globe, walking and chatting with them about how many different ways the Iraq War was botched. Any physical space can be recreated, from your house in Massachusetts to the Empire State Building in New York to an island in Hawaii. My organization has a space in this virtual world where we run educational workshops and programming related to global issues. It’s a tropical island with a volcano in the center that erupts every couple of hours. At this point I’ve stopped being distracted by the flying molten lava.
More important than the physical, though, is the social. People sign on, choose names and create characters. Avatars, as these are online physical representations of self have been dubbed, can be shaped to look any way a person can think of and are the point of contact and interaction with others that inhabit the space. It’s the presence provided by these avatars that makes this new technology so compelling and fascinating. Browsing the web, you’re by yourself. In Second Life, the richest experiences arise out of the immediate interaction that’s made possible by the fact that you can simply walk up to someone and start talking.
It’s this aspect of the virtual experience, that of how we choose to represent ourselves and behave, that I thought would be most interesting to discuss from the perspective of my own meditation practice. One of the core ideas in the Buddhist tradition is that the self is not something that is static amidst our experience, something we’re born with and stays with us, but rather it’s understood that identity is more verb than noun, and self as something that is constantly created, dissipates and is reformulated, even on a moment to moment basis. Rafi the hockey player disappeared about 10 years ago, but can just as easily pop back into existence as I pick up a hockey stick or maybe even when I recall a harsh memory of being cross checked…
In our daily lives, we create many different selves. As siblings. Friends. Cooks. Advocates. Scholars. Meditators. The list goes on and on. We have sets of things associated with different selves. Clothes. Paraphenalia. Mementos. Behaviors. Patterns of thought. The process of creating these selves is fluid and organic, it comes to us almost automatically, and unfortunately, often without much thoughtful intention.
In the online world, we do the same thing, though often in somewhat less fluid a manner. We create work and personal email addresses, sometimes numerous of each over the years. Some of us might have profiles on various social networking sites, some relating to friend circles, some to university communities, others to our professional lives, still others to various interests we have like photography, social justice, or music. In each of these instances we recreate ourselves, our identity, sharing bits that are pertinent and leaving out others depending on the context and on who we might think is viewing ‘us’.
Second Life and other 3D immersive environments like it, though, simply reach a new level of ‘selfing’ that previously has been unimaginable. As I mentioned, so often our identities are not formed with a great deal of intention. They can come to being in an ad hoc, on the fly, sort of way. Second Life does not provide you with this luxury. You start off with numerous blank slates which force you to be somewhat more intentional than you often might be offline, mainly because pretty much everything about you and your world is not established.
To start with, you have no name, and simply choosing your “real life” first and last name is not possible due to the sign up structure that allows you to create any first name you like, but has you choose from a varying list of last names. Before you’ve even entered the world, you’re already operating under an alter ego of sorts. Physically you’re also practically undefined at the start. You first choose whether you want a basic male or female avatar, and then go on to change it in whatever way you decide you want to, whether it be into a squirrel wearing a baseball cap, a martini drinking frank sinatra look alike, or a golden, multi-armed Hindu goddess. (I’ve seen this avatar, it’s pretty awesome!)
Aside from the physical blank slate is the social one. Signing into Second Life can often feel like arriving in a new city and not knowing anybody or where anything is. You have to figure out, using whatever resources you have, what you want to do and how you want to do it. We’re essentially offered the rare opportunity of re-inventing ourselves.
Obviously, though, people are not coming in with nothing, they still possess their entire pantheon of personal habits and histories, talents and interests, and soon enough people find their way and likely do things that they often do in some context offline. They might go to political rallies, live music events, attend an arts class, go dancing, or even have sex. (Yes, sex is a pretty large part of Second Life, it still being the internet and all…) But they’re doing so in the context of this alter ego character that is always on the screen before them as they move around. The avatar literally takes on the role of their virtual ‘self’. And it’s in that context that the most interesting things occur in terms of identity formation and self perception.
Some natural questions arise at this point as to why this phenomenon of the avatar is actually something distinct in the scheme of things. Sure, it’s neat technology, and somewhat odd on occasion to be sure, but identity creation and formation have existed since the first sentient being, and have taken on a multitude of permutations over the course of history. Actors are constantly creating and taking on new identities on stage, on Halloween and Purim millions dress up to ‘become’ others, authors have used pen names with distinct voices for centuries. What makes this type of projective identity distinct? A large part of the answer to this question has to do with the physicality (at least visually) of the avatar, as well as the fact that it is not our body.
Though still in its infancy, research is beginning to emerge on some of the effects of avatar usage in virtual environments. In a recent paper titled The Proteus Effect, researchers at Stanford University outline how the ways that people perceive themselves as looking (ie – what they think their avatar looks like) in virtual worlds effect how they end up interacting with others. In one study, participants alternately controlled attractive and unattractive avatars with which they then interacted with a confederate. While the participants were aware of the attractive or unattractive state of their avatars, the confederate was blind to that condition and always saw a participant with an average face. The study found that participants in the attractive condition on average moved physically closer to the confederates and were willing to share more personal information with them than in the unattractive condition. (Note: the ‘attractiveness’ of the face was pre-tested by separate participants, not arbitrarily determined by the researchers.)
In another study the height of the participant’s avatar was altered, still with the confederate being blind to the condition and always seeing the participant’s avatar as being the same height while the participant saw themselves as shorter or taller. The participant and confederate then engaged in a negotiating exercise. It was found that participants in the taller condition were significantly more willing to make unfair offers than participants in the shorter condition, and those in the shorter condition were were significantly more willing to accept unfair offers than those in the tall condition.
This study, and others like it, are showing that there are significant behavioral changes associated with avatars, that the way we choose to construct our virtual identities, even just on the physical and visual levels, will change the ways we behave and relate to others in those environments. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. What happens when you start to mix in other factors like the use of multiple avatars, or of one person having multiple accounts each with a different name and social history?
Rafi Gkid, Bhikku Beeks and Theravada Young (forgive my penchant for Buddhist names) are all iterations of Rafi Santo, but each of them are, to some degree, different people online. Rafi Gkid lives in the teen only version of Second Life, where he’s locked to the educational island of the non-profit organization Global Kids. He’s young, makes corny jokes, runs workshops about international affairs and has strong social networks that include teens from around the globe. Bhikku Beeks also works for Global Kids, but is significantly older than Rafi Gkid; with long grey hair, a lanky frame and elf ears, he is evocative of a mage character from a fantasy novel. He lives in the adult area of Second Life, where he networks with other educators, does presentations on his work and visits other educational environments to learn best practices. Theravada Young is a middle aged black woman who has spiky charcoal hair. She’s my ‘recreational’ avatar, for when I have something I want to do or see in Second Life, but don’t want to be “at work” while doing so. She has some gender and ethnic identity issues, having a female body of a person of color but identifying both online and off as a white male.
What’s neat about these personas is that each of them is uniquely intentional. Like the previously mentioned multiple online selves that we intentionally construct through various email accounts and social networking profiles, these are each compartmentalized, but unlike with an email address, I’m taking actions through an ‘other’ self. And in each of them, the types of places I go and things I do are different, as are the ways that I interact with others, both consciously and, I’m sure, otherwise. Watching how this manifests is always fascinating, and my ‘selves’ continually surprise my ‘self’.
The opportunity that I see in Second Life from a Buddhist practice perspective is that millions of people are doing online what they do offline all the time, creating selves. The major difference, I believe, is that online the process of doing so is more evident and even transparent, and those millions of people can see that they’re doing just that, creating something, and begin to ask some key questions: Is this me? Is maybe part of it me, and part of it not? If it’s not me, then who is it? Until they finally get to that ultimate koan : Who am I?
As more and more people begin to spend time online in virtual worlds, as well as in other online spaces where there is self representation and creation involved, there will be many unintended effects on both the personal and then societal levels. It is my hope that amongst these myriad effects will be a resurgence in mainstream dialogue related to these core questions of who we are and what the idea of self is, and hopefully, out of that, we might even get to a place as a culture where we don’t take our egos quite as seriously. It might be a long shot, but hey, in virtual worlds pigs can and do fly.