When virtual life mixes with real life
Sherry Turkle talks in ‘Video Games and Computer Holding Power’ (1984) about Jimmy, a fourteen year old. Jimmy isn’t gaming (with the game Space Invaders) and thinking of winning and losing. He wants to see how long he can be perfect. In real life, Jimmy isn’t perfect, he has some handicaps. The game is perfect in its consistent response. In it, Jimmy can be perfect, at least for a while. The game puts Jimmy in an altered state.
In the documentary ‘Droomwereld‘ (‘Dream World’, see also below for the video) one can see how virtual design and art affect real people’s behavior. Patrick is a Dutch guy who has a girlfriend. He, much like his girlfriend, is very active on Second Life. Note: he calls it a game. Noula is an American girl who has a girlfriend as well, although it’s not clear for me if the other girl seen on the end is her girlfriend or just a friend. She also is very active on Second Life. Patrick and Noula – called by her avatar name Christine by Patrick – meet each other many times on Second life and they have cybersex. Patrick and his real life girlfriend agreed that it would be ok if the cyber friends would meet up in the real world. And so it happens, Patrick calls Christine on the phone, while his girlfriend sits on the couch and listens to the conversation. Within a week he travels to the USA. The real Patrick and Noula meet. A few days later you see Noula and a (girl)friend in a room while Patrick is heading for the journey home. Patrick admits (In Dutch!) that he had physical contact, maybe sex, with Christine/Noula. But he’s disappointed. He says that his ‘true love’ is his Dutch girlfriend.
Although one can say Second Life isn’t a game –that’s a discussion on its own — the character Patrick’s motivations for participating are comparable to reasons Turkle gives for interest in computer games and virtual worlds. Unlike the real Patrick, his avatar looks perfect. Patrick, in bits, is in his eyes a perfect man. The virtual Patrick has more friends than in real life and the avatar isn’t even called Patrick, but Taro. Patrick says that the most important thing in Second Life is his very good relation with his (virtual) friends. ‘It’s almost freaky’, he says. And it is, he has virtual sex with another girl, cheating on girlfriend? Today, people divorce after virtual cheating.
Noula also admits that her real life isn’t very good. Second Life is kind of escape for her. She can be anyone through the game and it offers her an escape from her conservative family. With these examples, one can say that the experiences Turkle describes in his characters, if you can call Jimmy and the others in Turkle’s narrative characters – with the people interviewed in the documentary. Acting in a virtual world, whether in Space Invaders or Second Life, offers an escape from the real and imperfect world.
During the documentary one sees how Patrick and Christine ‘perfect’ themselves by creating a virtual perfect body (the Marilyn Monroe beauty spot). You have to buy body parts, so it seems, “choose your favorite nipple, mouth, hair, etc.” In the real world one can’t design oneself (yet). Although one can procure a facelifet, or lose weight and change hair color, there are many limitations on the “art of the human body.” In Second Life, you can practically do anything. Patrick describes how he constructs his body by choosing his skin, his nipples, his hair, and, of course, his gender.
One of the creators of Second Life, John Lester, says in the documentary any design in Second Life is possible. You can create your own environment. You don’t have to follow the rules of the real life, whether they are nature laws like gravity or laws made by any national government. The approach of the documentary director is the same as Turkle’s: interviewing people that use a game or a virtual world, asking the psychological why and after that, editing it all into a story.
Differing from Donna Haraway’s proposal in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ (1985), of the gender freeing properties of the Cyborg, bodies in Second Life illustrate the importance of gender, even in this virtual world. The desire to be a perfect version of oneself, as illustrated by Patrick and Christine, shows clearly that dominant beauty ideals still exist in this virtual world. And what about online/offline? One can’t be offline in the real world; that would mean simply ceasing to exist.
The documentary (In Dutch, with English quotes that are subtitled in Dutch):
Here a documentary in diary style made in Second Life, in English, subtitled in Dutch.