Virtually Speaking

Second Life along with the First.

You Are Your Avatar

As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent’s computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. –
Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash

Color me surprised when, in the process of implementing a members-only rule at Archan that required candidates to have upgraded their avatars and create a profile, I actually took grief from some people for thinking that virtual appearance mattered.   Even after they were given free skins and hair and instruction cards on how to fill out their profile, some of them grumbled. 

I still hear it, too.  Maybe it’s an unfair generalization taken from subjective experience, but I hear this more from male residents than I do from female (excerpted from an actual conversation with a newbie):

“How do I get to know people and make friends in this game?”
“Be courteous, have fun, relax.  Oh, and it always helps if you upgrade your avatar.  Want some landmarks to free skins and hair?” 
“What for?”
“So you can get to know people and make friends.  People react more positively to a nice looking avatar.”
“But this is pretend.”

… Followed by gentle, patient explanation on how human nature works, how important appearance can be, and how much better that resident will feel about Second Life if he has some pride in how he looks.  As soon as we break past the wrong idea that I want people to all be cookie-cutter Ken or Barbie dolls, it gets easier.  All I’m suggesting is that they take advantage of the incredible custom skins and clothing that are easily available in Second Life –whether you’re a furry, a mecha, an alien, a human or whatever you want to be.  And it doesn’t have to cost you an arm and a leg.

Sometimes I strike paydirt.  After escorting (in the platonic sense) one newbie to Sarah Nerd’s where he got a free Nora skin and clothing, he told me “I like looking at myself now!”.   Some people do get it.

This constant war against male Ruthness puzzles me, but I really think those who don’t get it are a small minority.  For most of the rest of the masses of newbies, it’s probably a simple matter of not knowing where to find free skins and hair.  For the others, I have to think if they hang around long enough they’ll start to realize how much it matters.  In a virtual world, all we have to convey our personalities are our typed words and our pixel appearance. 

All of this led me down another of my nebulous streams of consciousness this week.  I recalled reading Paul Ekman’s Emotions in the Human Face in my college psychology classes.  That led me to Umiker’s Nonverbal Communication, Interaction, and Gesture – another weighty tome on how human emotions and interaction key so heavily on nonverbal cues.

The quick summary is this:  Human survival has always relied upon our need to form communities (bond, acceptance, nuturing) even more than our brain complexity.  Primitive man killed woolly mammoths for their food and skins when parties of hunters herded them off cliffs, not by using their spear to go Conan one-on-one.  We banded together and thus increased our chances of survival.   That bonding and interaction required communications systems – spoken language was actually a development that came after and grew out of body gestures, facial expressions and grunts.  Every mammalian species on this planet has nonverbal intra-pack communications methods.  Ours just happened to have evolved further.  Face time is probably the single most important key to good communications.

It’s long been accepted in the online world that typed words cannot convey meaning and context as well as the spoken word – when we lose the ability to emote with our bodies or inflect with our voices, we lose two thirds of our communications tools.   Thus, we started using emoticons in chat channels to express smiling, anger, silliness, sadness.  It’s only natural that as humans begin to populate more virtual worlds, we’ve wanted to represent our physical bodies in pixels.  And why not?  Many of us envision a deity who is represented by an old man with a grey beard.  We represent our governments as people – Uncle Sam or John Bull put a human face on a concept.   We even do it with Santa Claus, the human icon for the Christmas spirit of charity.   Stanley Kubric’s 2001: A Space Odyssey was neither the first nor the last Sci-Fi story to depict robots as either looking like humans or thinking and acting like us (see also Terminator;  I, Robot and The Matrix). 

Will it really surprise anyone if, someday in the future, the first functioning home assistance robots are fashioned to resemble humans?  The most advanced, complicated circuits in history would not require a head and 4 limbs to function, but because humans identify more readily with a nice face and a friendly voice, the successful Sears robot of the future will be very human in appearance.  People will buy it before they’ll buy the black box with wires and lights,  just like we prefer dogs and cats to snakes and spiders.  We identify more with faces that more closely resemble our own.

People love to anthropomorphise and see faces and personality in things that may not have human qualities.   So why would anyone question the influence of avatar appearance on how you are perceived in Second Life?

Neil Stephenson has been regarded as something of a SciFi prophet since his 1991 novel, Snowcrash.   He regards himself as the first person to popularize the term “avatar” to mean our virtual 3D physical representation.  Actually, that honor should go to Origin Systems, whose roleplaying games in the mid-80s Ultima series assigned you the role of the “Avatar”.  In ancient Hindu Sanskrit,  an avatar is an incarnation of a deity in human form – roughly meaning “he passes down”.   In terms of virtual reality, it’s another way of saying that the creators of virtuality (humans) pass down to that virtual world.  We are, in essence, the Gods of the Grid and our avatars are our manifestations.

In Stephenson’s tale, status in the virtual world is a function of two things:  First, access to restricted areas (like the Black Sun, an exclusive Metaverse club) and two, technical ability which is expressed in the sophistication of one’s avatar.   The very clear parallels to Second Life are obvious:  those who have the ear of the Lindens, or at least wield great technical or financial power on the grid, have been labelled “The Feted Inner Core“, or FIC.   While the term was originally coined to be a negative, conspirational aspersion, it is part of the way human groups work that some people will be the caretakers (as Clay Shirky calls them) and others will be the followers.

The other parallel is the perception of our avatars as status symbols.   Well done avatars with the best skins, a well proportioned body and nicely textured hair are perceived as people with status — someone who knows enough about the world to create an attractive avatar.  With or without actual status or acumen, the avatar alone provides that perception.  I’ve even witnessed what I call Avatarism — those with default skins and shapes don’t get the same reaction from strangers as avatars that have been crafted and refined with care.   At times the reaction from older residents can even approach rudeness.

Avatarism takes on a new meaning when considered in light of things like Stephenson or Shirky.  And when we ponder the future with these behaviors in mind,  we begin to see how human expression may one day become more completely duplicated in a virtual world.

You finish strapping on the light VR suit, hooking up the USB plugs to your arms and legs.  It was a great bargain at Best Buy for only $299, and it’s well ventilated so you won’t drown in your own perspiration.  Pulling the helmet over your head, you activate the tiny laser sensors which will detect facial movement and replicate expressions.  You log on and find yourself in a large open area with trees and grass.  Park benches offer comfortable places to sit and chat.  Other avatars are milling about and you can hear their voices through the receptors in your headset.  A woman is standing in the middle of the clearing, reciting Ibsen’s “A Doll House” with a heavy Norwegian accent.  Her voice is strong with emotion and power as she delivers her soliloquy, her arms gesturing in the air, her fingers articulating the words.  Behind her, another woman is translating the delivery into sign language for the hearing impaired.  Off to the side on one of the benches, a man sits slumped, his body language telling you that he’s unhappy.

In this advanced world delivering millions of polygons per second, even nerve sensations can be delivered via USB hub (and of course, in my imaginary world, lag is something your grandpa remembers).  Facial expression and body language convey the same nonverbal meaning that they do in reality.   We may not be able to physically enter this Matrix, but to the human eye and brain, the symbols we see make us believe that what we perceive is real enough.

I’m wondering: if a few people resist the idea today that buying a custom skin can enhance the way they’re perceived in Second Life, what will they do when technology allows us to convey  human communications complete with gestures, facial expressions and voice?  When our virtual selves become less distinguishable from our real selves maybe the choices will be more obvious.  Or maybe the cultural divide between the computer adept and the non-adept will only grow.  

It will always be about status, of course.  Like the tribal leader Og who had the biggest spear, if you don’t have a nice avatar today you won’t be as readily accepted by your fellow metaverse residents.   If that doesn’t matter to you, maybe it’s time to find a quiet cave to hide in because you can’t stop the future.


February 19, 2007 - Posted by | Second Life


  1. Enhancing your avatar, whatever its form, is a way to carve your own identity. Without it, you are a bland Ruth clone. And it’s hard to be very interested in being friends with A_Default_Avatar_002361.

    I don’t know if loving yourself is as important as showing that you are an individual worth taking the time to talk to. After all, with IM’s and friends tending to be spread all over SL, we quickly move past the visualisation stage and onto what you say and how you say it mattering more than how you look.

    Also, that individuality has to do with much more than acceptance. If a default avatar comes and griefs you, you will sigh at the sameness of it all. But a carefully constructed and scarier avatar might strike more fear in the hearts of its victims (especially new players who don’t know all the tricks yet). That theoretical griefer probably doesn’t like himself and certainly doesn’t seek acceptance. But he/she expresses his individuality and purpose through a carefully constructed online persona.

    As you rightly say, this is not about all looking like Ken and Barbie. If we did, we would be no better than the Ruth avatar. We wouldn’t stand out nor be individuals. My avatar has remained largely unchanged since June ’05. It’s not the best looking avatar in SL. But Wendel has his own identity and I want to preserve it…

    Your entry also brings up an interesting thought on that “avatar status”. We are at a kind of turning point now. One where avatars can be roughly realistic looking (but still in a very computer graphics kind of way) and reasonably animated but not real beings yet. At best, computer graphics are in the uncanny valley. And SL is not quite at the leading edge of computer graphics.

    But have a look at this BBC article:

    (Ermm… How do I create cool looking quotes anyway?)

    David Kunkler producer for Obsidian Entertainment and makers of Neverwinter Nights 2, said games are currently in an “uncanny valley.”

    “They look strange – they’re too close to real, but not quite real,” he added.

    “Give us another year or two, and we’ll be able to completely get across that uncanny valley,” he told BBC World Service’s Digital Planet programme.

    Getting emotional

    This super-realism, where human characters look completely convincing, has been seen as an elusive next step forward for game programmers for a few years now.

    But with motion-capture methods – where computers read sensors which monitor the movements of an actor – rapidly being perfected, it will not be long before it becomes part of the gaming world.

    “People are doing motion capture very well, getting the ‘exactly right’ facial expressions – eyes moving correctly, every little crease, wrinkle and nod – really coming across,” Mr Kunkler said.

    “That’s when we’re going to be able to fool the player into thinking, ‘this is a real actor’ – and that’s when we’re going to move to emotional content in games.”

    This ability to capture human emotions will be particularly important for serious games designed to help train people for real-life situations.

    If we really want to share who we are online (even if said form is totally different from what we look like in real life), this form of realism, where we not only look like a real being but can convey all our mannerisms and facial experessions (we better have a seriously good HUD to manage all those :) ), is certainly a future to aspire to.

    But SL, or whatever virtual world we inhabit then, content creators are going to be in for an interesting transition if being recognised in an online world involves this kind of avatar. As technology pushes ever forwards and allows this kind of realism, I wonder who will have the financial means and time to actually provide that content for virtual worlds.

    This is a different topic and one maybe worth discussing at another time. But there will, IMO, come a day when having a status avatar will cost not thousands of Lindens but thousands of dollars. Interesting times…


    Comment by Wendel Gascoigne | February 20, 2007 | Reply

  2. Woot! Jeez Cindy, you’re rather literary. I didn’t know…
    I’ve been leafing through your blog since discovering it today. Great stuff!

    Comment by Jezebelle Voom | March 1, 2007 | Reply

  3. Something that might save us from thousand dollar avatars are routines which generate art from fairly simple inputs. This is kind of a new idea in the gaming industry…Spore I think is the first big project to really try it as far as I know. It’s these easy, yet powerful content creation tools that make Spore really interesting. If it works improvments on that technology could save us from the skyrocketing costs of making video game art.

    Comment by Estella Jimenez | March 9, 2007 | Reply

  4. Interesting point Estella. Of course, procedural pretty much equals cartoony and / or unrealistic at this point for models more complex than a cell. But there might be something about that in the longer term.

    Spore certainly brings its own solution to convincingly animating the craziest models that can’t be motion captured. But then again, you do not have the very precise expectations you have for a humanoid model. Witness the hand animated dances vs the motion captured ones in Star Wars Galaxies. They were easily distinguished in the level of realism attained. Getting past the current “close but not quite” human modelling is not going to happen procedurally overnight. But I like the idea of it happening at some point…


    Comment by Wendel Gascoigne | March 14, 2007 | Reply

  5. I found this fascinating and well referenced reading, Cindy-oh-my-darling.

    I think there is also the question of intention when people make their avatar, in terms of how quickly they have immersed in-world and how creating a form which says ‘This is me’ also says ‘… and this is my life’.

    I’ve always harboured the sneaky feeling that those who play a lot are rewarded with some digital assistance from LL. I’m sure this is just wishful thinking, since as far as I am concerned I will always look like a well dressed monkey. It’s true though, to me, that if you really want to stand out as an individual then personality will shine through avatar. Some people will stay forever looking vaguely baby new, some people will just arrive almost from day one fully formed (yes I am thinking of someone in particular).

    I remember when I first started playing, and being absolutely awe struck and amazed at the avatars around me in their pretty clothes … and feeling quite humble. I’ve actually never lost that humility.

    Comment by Cherry Czervik | March 20, 2007 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: