Avatars awaken second selves

[14 February 2008]

By Rick Montgomery

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

KANSAS CITY, Mo.—Bryan Mnemonic can fly. His suit never wrinkles, and his chiseled body never bruises, not even if he crashes into trees.

Bryan Carter wishes he could afford Mnemonic’s diamond cufflinks. But a mouse click makes it possible for Carter—Mnemonic’s maker—to indulge in a little bling in the virtual world.

Pixel by pixel, Carter created an online alter ego, an avatar mostly in his own image. True, Mnemonic’s goatee lacks the gray hairs in Carter’s. The waist is tighter, the biceps beefier. Understand that where avatars dwell, and there are millions of them, vanity alterations are expected.

Some avatars dance. Some educate or perform concerts, perhaps in the form of an ogre or a large squirrel. Some have sex or annihilate armies of other avatars.

They are whatever you wish to be in a cyber-land that doesn’t exist, yet does.

“Life beyond reality ... where imagination knows no bounds,” announces a video clip for Second Life, an online site that Carter recently introduced to his English students at the University of Central Missouri. “So vast, so versatile, so exhilarating!”

And to the uninitiated, so very weird. The uninitiated, however, shrink by the hour.

Worldwide, at least 9 million 3-D avatars exist in Second Life, buying islands, racing cars, raising pets and attending church (or strip clubs).

The fantasy role-playing game “World of Warcraft” boasts more than 10 million subscribers, many of whom cultivate multiple characters—a healing priest one night, a shape-shifting druid the next.

“An avatar is your embodiment in virtual worlds and virtual game spaces,” explained Matthew Falk, an Indiana University researcher of what he and others call “synthetic worlds.”

“That ability to create an idealized self, or a desired self, is very appealing.”

“Avatar,” in Hindu philosophy, refers to the embodiment of a higher being in earthly form, usually as a human or animal. On the Internet, the meaning gets reversed as humans assume otherworldly forms.

Sometimes, the characters possess none of the traits of the creators, save for the ability to make their peers LOL. (Advisory: Readers who don’t yet know what LOL means may wish to stop here and LOBR, let overworked brain rest.)

In Second Life, “I had a good friend walking around as a giant taco for a while,” Falk said. “And he’s a normal guy! Like, wife-and-four-kids normal.”

For Todd Schrivener, a superhero avatar named Shocking Blue helped zap away the worst despair of his life.

In June 2006, Schrivener’s wife, Becky, was diagnosed with breast cancer. A friend suggested Schrivener try the online game “City of Heroes” to fill his restless nights.

He was skeptical at first. “Geeky,” he thought. But as his wife began her fight through chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, Schrivener realized “I had things I wanted to blast” while she slept next to a monitor.

Maybe it was his wife’s radiation therapy that drove Schrivener to equip Shocking Blue with an arsenal of lightning bolts.

Maybe it was the avatar’s mission to vanquish evil that got Schrivener hooked. Or could it have been the support he found among fellow players—like the New Zealander who sent flowers when Schrivener’s wife had surgery.

Whatever, it all worked. As Shocking Blue, “I was able to lose myself and my sense of time—exactly what I wanted,” said Schrivener, 42. “This guy was with me through some very bad nights.”

Shocking Blue thunders on, and Becky Schrivener’s cancer is in remission.

People may develop profound feelings for their avatars, said Donna Russell, an instructor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who won a grant from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation to develop Second Life as a teaching tool.

Russell recalled one gamer who, after signing waivers to take part in a research project, wanted her avatar to sign off, too.

“In the minds of some,” Russell said, “that avatar is a different person” from themselves.

Avatar and creator also have been known to psychologically morph into one. Last year, a Belgian woman phoned authorities to report a rape. The victim was her avatar in the virtual world.

Now search the Internet, if you dare, for “World of Warcraft funeral.”

You can watch a video clip of a virtual memorial service—attended by dozens of respectful avatars—for a player who died in the real world. Stranger yet, a rival clan launched a bloody ambush on the mourners, setting off howls of protest and, ultimately, more than 2 million hits on YouTube.

One viewer, representing many, asked, “Can someone please explain what I just saw?”

Was it maybe the need for millions to get a life? Or was it the growth of healthy, global networks that allow you to play, make friends and learn cool stuff—in another life much safer and more liberating than the real kind?

Between people and their avatars, gender reversal is nothing. Ethnicity, too, is a matter of choice. Children with physical disabilities can heave boulders.

“It’s not the avatars that make the network. It’s the people behind those avatars,” said Jeff Arant, 27, the founder of MadGamerNetwork.com.

Students at the University of Kansas School of Medicine learn how to prepare someone for surgery by logging onto Second Life and transporting to the hospital’s “island,” where an avatar patient awaits on a gurney.

Librarians Bill and Diana Sowers—aka “Rocky Vallejo” and the vivacious “Cindy Elkhart”—built an island they named “Rachelville” that emphasizes children’s literature. The girl whose image and artwork adorn the site is their daughter, who died of leukemia seven years ago.

“It’s been a great experience for us,” said Bill Sowers, 54.

“I don’t walk around in a cowboy hat in real life, but it works for Rocky. There’s a little more of a strut to him.”

In a darkened classroom in Warrensburg, Mo., about 20 college students got animated.

English teacher Carter led them through the basics of avatar birth. Soon their 3-D alter-egos were projected on the big screen, flying, stumbling, bumping into one other in search of their virtual classroom, headed by Bryan Mnemonic.

“Come into my class!” Mnemonic commanded, and with a wave of his avatar hand the door of a computer-generated school magically swung open.

“Greg, welcome! Miranda’s flying in—great! Who’s that walking up? Maximum? Watch your step. Andy, hi.”

Their avatars started out blandly human. Then again, they were only 15 minutes old.

“You’ll learn,” Carter told his students. With time and practice, these “newbies” will stretch out.

Some probably will acquire tails, rams’ horns or wings—dragon avatars roam everywhere. As part of their course work, they will explore “Virtual Harlem,” set in the 1930s jazz age, and write accounts of virtual-world religions, sexuality and cultures.

On this day, however, freshman Marlana Davis just didn’t get it.

“I’d just rather go out in the real world, you know?” she said. “Socialize with real people, my real friends ... in places that really exist.”

The leap can be difficult, but devotees such as Stacey Fox contend that avatars and their surroundings are real—just as sculptures are real, stagecraft is real and the Internet as a social network is real.

Fox’s avatar is a fox, of course: Sage Duncan, “composer, filmmaker, and master percussionist.” It even has its own Web site.

In concerts billed “Sage Duncan” in Second Life, the fox plays percussion. In the real world, it’s Stacey Fox pounding away into a microphone for a live audience.

“That’s what can be so hard for your head to get around: Is it Sage playing or is it me?” said Fox, a guest artist in the University of Kansas art department. “To them, it’s Sage.

“... This is a growing underground, really. A lot of adults don’t know how huge it’s become. One day we’ll wake up ... and everyone will have an avatar.”

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/article/avatars-awaken-second-selves/