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Virtual fashion and zero-sum games

Whenever I read an article like this one, from today's WSJ, about spending real money for objects that only exist in virtual worlds like Second Life, my first thought is usually something along the lines of "How pathetic." I assume that the online life is a compensation for a circumscribed real life (as though mine was so free and uninhibited) -- without autonomous scope in reality, one seeks refuge in a virtual world where one has quasi-divine powers of generation. And that's not such a terrible thing, I guess, even though it leaves the existing institutions that crush aspirations in the name of "being realistic." Online, unconstrained by the givens of genetics and circumstances, one can build an entirely new self that conforms more closely to one's aspirations without having to undergo the struggles and compromises, without having to take the risks or confront the failures that one would while pursuing such ambitions in real life. You start off on a somewhat equal footing, but making the initial decisions yourself about the context that will shape your Second Life destiny. Decisions have consequences on a much more insigificant scale, and aren't irreversible. So matter what you look like or what your ethical standards are or how poor you are in real life, you can be both a stripper and a fashionista in Second Life: "The scene -- drama and all -- keeps Janine Hawkins engaged in fashion in a way that wouldn't be possible for her offline. 'It's totally different to pay $15 to keep up with the fashions in Second Life than' the $1,500 that would be necessary in real life, she says. Her avatar, Iris Ophelia, originally paid for outfits by dancing at Second Life bars. 'Every time I had enough money, I'd run there and buy everything I could,' she says." One can leverage technology much more directly on the narcissistic project of identity, while shifting this project ouside of oneself to appear to legitimize it, as if it were the same as making art or pursuing an entrepreneurial scheme. So in short, my immediate judgmental reaction is to see involvement with these worlds as the product of stunted, misdirected energy, and the economic transactions that mediate between real and online worlds as enabling the misdirection, as making the pretend world seem more real, like having a toy Fisher-Price gas station for your Matchbox cars.

But economic penetration into these worlds actually renders them less of an escape, because it introduces the very elements one may have been trying to flee from -- the competition for limited resources, the positional status games that come along with unequal distributions of income. Suddenly one's limitless autonomy is constrained not by the desired Pavlovian obstacles and rewards built into the game by programmers but by the very same intractable realities of money and status that it would seem one would use role-playing games to render insignificant. The invasion of real-life economic considerations is all the more likely in a game that doesn't dictate an objective, like Second Life: "There are no dragons or wizards to slay. Instead, San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, has provided a platform for players -- median age 32 and 57% male, with 40% living outside the U.S. -- to do whatever they want, whether it is building a business, tending bar or launching a space shuttle. Residents chat, shop, build homes, travel and hold down jobs, and they are encouraged to create items in Second Life that they can sell to others or use themselves." It almost sounds like an unbounded space wherein individuals can be left alone to construct their own fantasy lives without the constraints of social pressure or necessity -- a utopian space where both egalitarian and individualistic norms can prevail.

But human nature abhors a utopia. Without a specific fictive goal to pursue, the goals we improvise to direct our ambitions in real life will invade, and the anxieties that beset such ambitions will also follow them into cyberspace. And one of the fundamental invented ambitions to keep ourselves preoccupied is keeping up with fashion, or staying ahead of its curve. Sometimes fashionability is a proxy for wealth, another way of demonstrating it conspicuously. But often -- think of Lower East Side youth innovators, or spontaneous ghetto street styles -- fashion is an alternate means for accruing status, for partcipating in a game with winners and losers in the absence of other clearly delineated goals and in conditions where vast sums of money are inaccessible. Fashion creates a zero-sum game where none otherwise exists, and that no one has an excuse not to play, to sate our need for "meaningful" competition and purpose across any boundary within a society. Hence Second Life becoming overun by the fashion business, which combines two compelling ways to create winners and losers:

Because Second Life creators own their products and can sell them, the game has attracted both professional and amateur designers, says Linden spokeswoman Catherine Smith. That has led to a thriving fashion scene that includes not just dressmaking but also jewelry, hair and even skin design, as people purchase the elements to create a look for their online alter egos. Selling virtual clothes to real people for their avatars can even be lucrative: In August, the 20 best-selling Second Life fashion designers generated a combined $140,466 in sales, Linden says. "We found out pretty quickly that people loved owning things," Ms. Smith says, and many start by buying items for their avatars. "It's not surprising that fashion and hairstyles and skins are as attractive and as exciting and as valuable as they are, because it's part of individualizing" the appearance of a player's online persona.

Individualization online is not an innocuous project of self-actualization but a competition, a contest, just as we are encouraged to see it in real life. Fashion, in order to thrive, must make sure we never forget it.

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