Exercise 4.1 – Alter Egos Online

The virtual world of Second Life was launched by Linden Labs in 2003 as a digital experiment which allowed users of the application access into what is essentially a user-generated, multi-user experience. It was the first time that an unlimited virtual reality connected users from across the world in an environment such as that imagined by writers such as William Gibson.

The basis for this virtual world was in fact the dream state of the unconscious mind by writers of the Romantic period. Byron and Coleridge both used opium and laudanum to achieve a state of consciousness where they could explore their id beyond their body’s physical limits. Their use of mind-expanding drugs started the ball rolling on what became, via the paper-based imagined realms of dungeons and dragons players, through the text-based adventures on IBM mainframes, the simple graphic displays formats of the BBC Micro and the Sinclair ZX Spectrum, this new virtual reality.  As advances in computing allowed users to access better graphics and the technology passed the 8bit and 16bit limits, it kick-started the development of games which originally were played on game consoles onto the PC which then became the ubiquitous device with which users connected to the internet. Here, through the new graphic interfaces which were easier to access, inexperienced computer users could start to learn new skills through the open-source world of the internet. These new skills allowed the users to experiment with new worlds and new virtual experiences in a manner similar to the Romantics but without the damage to their physical bodies.

Second Life was born from the cumulative advances in technology and the user-generated need to meet and converse with like-minded people without having to delve through newsreaders and websites. The central spire of the development of Second Life was that users could reimagine themselves by designing an avatar, their digital presence, within Second Life to be whatever they wanted it to be. Users could choose between animal, human, mineral, vegetable, or a combination of these. The avatar allows the user to go beyond their physical limits. Freed from their own bodies, they can become something better or something different, only limited by their imagination, their programming skills and the technological limits of the virtual world container. This freedom allows the user to experiment beyond their physical and moral limits and experience new things without damaging themselves physically. There however have been cases of addition to Second life and issues with people having difficulties with interpersonal interactions within the real world. Because of these issues mainly with Second Life, users can seek advice for mental health issues, including addiction to virtual life itself with the Second Life virtual world.

The only real limit to these digital alter egos is the Linden Dollar, the in-world currency. Just like in the real world, this part of the Internet, the digital world of Second Life, requires consumerism to drive it along. Within Second Life there is limited altruism, and very little anarchy (in the old sense of the word). You can be all you want to be, but there are limits to the world you can create within Second Life, it requires real-world currency, converted into Second Life currency, to take advantage beyond the limited “free” digital experience and customisability of the Avatar.

Unlike Second Life, the world of Minecraft, with its open-source Java Language base, limits it, users, to the 8bit graphic block or pixel. Users are free to create a world of their own – whether it reflects the real world or not is down to the individual or group working together. These worlds can look almost real, but unlike Second Life, there is no avatar and therefore no patrons are created. It instead gives the user a first-person perspective of the world around them. Due to this, there are no digital representatives and therefore no alter egos. The first person point of view comes from early computer games, where the worlds are designed to guide the user or player on a path, their point of view being the point of interaction and representation on the world.

Games, such as the Grand Theft Auto franchise, Red Dead Redemption, and the Assassins Creed series, provide a third-person point of view. This perspective, along with the limited but customisable character, makes the player into a controller; the user guides their digital stand-in around a free(ish) world. While the game avatar is customisable to an extent it only allows a small transfer of the id into the digital world, once again allowing the user to experience a world where their moral and physical limits differ from reality but are still restricted to the world designed by the game creators.

Second Life does not have these limits. As a user-generated world, interactions are not limited, and users are free to talk to other users via the keyboard or headphones and a microphone. It also does not limit to specific areas of the virtual world. Through their avatar, the user has complete freedom to go wherever they want. Unlike the Romantics, the world the avatar inhabits is limited by another kind of mind, that of the calculator within the processor of the computer. Without the adequate power, the user and their avatar have a limited, stuttering experience, the world appearing and disappearing in blocks around them, a nightmare state that they can only escape by exiting the application and returning to the real world. Of course, the avatar will continue to exist within the digital world, unanimated and unaware until it is back under the control of the user. No Second Life account is ever deleted so there could be many digital ghosts of unused accounts haunting the virtual world waiting to return to digital life.

References

ALVAREZ, A. (2001). Drugs and Inspiration. Social Research, [online] 68(3), pp.779–793. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40971911 [Accessed 11 Jan. 2021].

AnnaIvanovna (2012). Second Life addiction is a very real problem. This is my story. [online] Second Life Community. Available at: https://community.secondlife.com/forums/topic/132418-second-life-addiction-is-a-very-real-problem-this-is-my-story/ [Accessed 11 Jan. 2021].

https://www.facebook.com/WebMD (2019). Video Game Addiction. [online] WebMD. Available at: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/video-game-addiction#1.

Sanford, K. (2015). The Man Who Created Second Life Thinks We Can Make an Earth-Sized Virtual World. [online] Nautilus. Available at: http://nautil.us/blog/the-man-who-created-second-life-thinks-we-can-make-an-earth_sized-virtual-world [Accessed 11 Jan. 2021].

Sharon Ruston (2001). Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature. [online] The British Library. Available at: https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/representations-of-drugs-in-19th-century-literature [Accessed 11 Jan. 2021].

Today, P. (n.d.). The Digital Self. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/the-digital-self [Accessed 11 Jan. 2021].


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