Monday, 7 October 2013


 A thought: Second Life is a wide and varied platform for social creation and experimentation. It is a new world, ready to be shaped by our values and desires. It is already well-established, both on this blog and abroad, that those values and desires are pre-conceived, and are often implemented wholesale in the virtual world without any interrogation. We haven't created a new world so much as re-created the 'old' one, making changes that are based on ideas from our real-life selves living in a world of more-limited creation and social rules. We know this.

Avatar customisation is left almost entirely to the SL user. The loneliness of this is enhanced by the way it is deemed inferior to dress yourself in the library stock clothes and accessories provided by Linden Labs. And in the age of free-things-on-the-marketplace, and mesh, it's not difficult to pick up 'better' items.

In the past, I have decried the sense of 'variety' Linden Labs advertise Second Life as having when it comes to avatar customisation. Logging in and deciding you would like to be a cyberpunk tortoise today is the easy part, but finding the type of neon-filled brain tubes you're looking for, in a colour that isn't pink, is much more difficult than dreaming them up in the first place. The masochistic would say 'build it yourself!', which is an option open to all SL users, but again...this is not as easy as it sounds like it might be (and if you think it sounds tough, the reality is probably double that).

Technically speaking, you can build your avatar from a thousand assorted bits and pieces. But there is another limitation I haven't talked about, and which I am finding now endlessly difficult to word. Despite the advances made in the last sixty/seventy years, race is still a difficult issue in real life worldwide. In the UK at the moment, we are contending with a huge percentage of the population expressing fears of a 'flood' of Islam - as if being a Muslim makes you automatically of a different race, and not a different religion. Personally, I don't care what country you're from, what colour your skin is, or what your religious beliefs are, but this is not a viewed shared by the majority. 

Here's the more difficult-to-word bit. Avatar customisation is also inhibited by those real life fears and prejudices.  We are not yet in a position, in the real world or the virtual, to pull apart the pieces that make up what we call 'race' and use them in any way we see fit. There are too many tensions and prejudices involved - too many connotations, too much fear of national identity and cultural appropriation. To wear a black African skin over a white American shape, just as to wear a white American skin over a black African shape, is to make a political statement and not an aesthetic one. I can't decide to have thick, long black hair like one of my university friends today because I find it beautiful, because I don't share in her French-Algerian descent. What this fails to take into account, too, is the way our real life world is changing, and the way immigration has allowed people with completely different physical characteristics to come together and produce children who have a share of both.

The countries we are attempting to tie ourselves don't even exist in SL - at least, physically. Admittedly, a few have been recreated, although if anybody tries to tell me that the numerous sims claiming to be London (UK) look like the real London, I'm going to start laughing hysterically. They are brought into the equation more truly by our real life selves, sharing the information that we are English or French or Indian or Japanese because we like to share, and/or because we are trying to make friends across time zones.

How is any of this policed in SL? Vigilante-ism. I don't think Linden Labs care one hoot, but some other users do, and something as simple as sharing your time zone could start a riot. There are two instances that I am aware of in which people have 'come out' about their avatar not being of the same race as they are, and the responses that each faced were vastly, vastly different. I'm not going to share the details of those instances, but I will say that if we began to unpack either, our sense of race and gender equality would take a thorough beating.

I'm not saying it should be a free-for-all at the table of worldwide physical characteristics. I'm certainly not saying that SL needs to invent an entirely new combination of features to create a look we can attribute to a 'Second Life-ian', separate from everything else. I'm simply pointing out another way in which our second world lies in the shadow of the first. And it's a damned thorny shadow.

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