AV : SL :: Body : RL

I’ve been meaning to write this entry for a long time, and (assuming I actually manage to finish it up and post this) I was finally pushed over the edge to doing it by an acrimonious debate over in a Second Thoughts comment thread, where one of the parties declared forcefully that (paraphrasing) anyone who identifies with their SL avatar is insane. (As I said in my one comment in the thread, I think the people involved are actually arguing over uninteresting matters of word usage, but it was this particular bit of it that drew my mind back to this draft weblog entry.)

All sorts of questions come up in the virtual worlds and their associated web-o-sphere, about and/or framed in terms of avatars. Just what is an avatar, what is an AV? (And why do we capitalize “AV” even though it isn’t an acronym? But I won’t talk about that here.) What is the relationship between a Resident and an AV, a human and an AV, and so on? Do avatars have rights?

One technique I’ve found useful in thinking about these things is to see what happens if I replace the SL terms in the issue with RL terms, and replace “avatar” or “AV” with “body”. Not that it’s always the same thing: the SL-AV and RL-body relationships aren’t exactly the same. But they’re surprisingly the same surprisingly often, and when they’re different the ways and reasons that they’re different can provide insights into things.

That’s really all I have to say :) but I will draw out the thought by applying it to a few examples. Feel free to add more in the comments, or in email, or in the privacy of your own home.

Why do we identify with our AVs?

Well, okay, so why do we identify with our bodies? That’s a question to make one blink, because it’s so obvious: of course we identify with our bodies, don’t be ridiculous!

There’s room for a good deal of variation in thinking about just why, though. I imagine there are people who would say that we are our bodies. (I’m not one of those.) At the very least, our bodies are the things that allow us to experience the world, to interact with the world, and with each other.

And in the virtual worlds, avatars are exactly the same: they are the things that allow us to experience and interact with the world and each other. And that’s why we identify with them.

(I don’t know how this would sound to someone for whom we are our bodies. Maybe insane.)

Of course the identification isn’t as tight (in general?), because we aren’t nearly as tightly bound to our AVs are we are to our bodies. We can’t feel physical pain or pleasure through AVs, we can change from one AV to another (and we even have to when we switch between non-interoperable worlds, boo), and so on. But it’s
the same in principle.

So when Chestnut Rau remarks quite accurately that our feelings about posting pictures of our bare pixel bottoms on the web “just goes to show how much we humans identify with our avatars“, she’s quite right. And our (often) even stronger feelings about pictures of our bare cellular bottoms shows how much we humans identify with our bodies!

“I met this avatar last night…”

Some people use “avatar” in ways that sound bizarre to me. One example I happened to read the other week describes how someone “was approached last year by an avatar from the Australia Council who was researching Australian artists…”. And that just sounds Wrong.

Applying the AV : SL :: Body : RL rule suggests why: that sentence comes out describing someone who “was approached last year by a body from the Australia Council…”.


Many times when I hear someone use “avatar” to mean “person” rather than “body”, I jump to the conclusion that they Don’t Get It. Although it’s jumping to a conclusion, it’s also often correct. :) On the other hand, I’ve also heard the word used this way by people who definitely do get it. Here is Eureka Dejavu:

And so it was that on my second night in Metaplace I ran into an avatar named Joe Castille.

The place was abuzz with avatars, many of whom, I learned, were interns and students participating in 3DSquared and involved with its parallel venture, GameCamp.

I know that Eureka Gets It, so my theory here is that she’s just in a slightly different linguistic community than I am. (I will speculate further that she may be more aware than most of us of the original meaning of “avatar”, as a deity embodied in physical form, and is using it as a word for a person as embodied in their AV, a concept that I admit I don’t really have a word for since I use “AV” to mean the form itself, not the person as embodied in it.)

I also wonder (since we’re getting into the subtleties) whether there’s a difference between “AV” and “avatar”, in either Eureka’s dialect or mine. Would she find it odder to refer to a person as an “AV” than as an “avatar”? I should ask her. :)

But anyway back to my own dialect, in which AV : SL :: Body : RL…

Do AVs have rights?

Well, do bodies have rights? I don’t think so. Part of what I wrote over on Second Thoughts was:

Bodies per se don’t have rights, avatars per se don’t have rights, vibrations in a phone line per se don’t have rights. People have all sorts of rights, and some of those rights involve their bodies, their avatars, and the vibrations that they cause in phone lines.

This seems to me to be nice and simple and correct; a place where the AV : SL :: Body : RL rule applies quite nicely. The rights that people have regarding their bodies are somewhat different from the rights regarding their AVs, but in both cases the rights belong to the people, they are just about the bodies or AVs.

“Nice AV!”

Here’s a place where the rule works less well, for a reason that’s at least moderately interesting to think about. Unless you’re a drunken immature male, you probably don’t say ‘Nice body!’ to people in RL as a general rule. But in SL, “Nice AV” or variations thereupon is a reasonably common and generally inoffensive thing to say.

Why is that?

It’s because, I think, we have so much more control over the look of our AVs than we do over the look of our bodies. Saying “Nice body!” to someone is complementing them on something they have only a limited amount of control over, and therefore (perhaps, or in some sense) reducing their agency, by reducing them to a piece of physical accident. But “Nice AV!” is complementing someone for something that they did in fact do (even if it was only to make good choices at their local BIAB store), and is therefore (perhaps, usually, among the people that I hang out with) less objectionable.

Which brings us quite naturally to…

If I said you had a beautiful AV, would you hold it against me?



15 Responses

  1. A thought-provoking post, which I agree with. Especially interesting is your take about AV rights, which I had wondered about…. It makes sense that it’s not the AV itself with rights, but the person behind it.

    I guess the RL equivalent of “Nice AV!” may be more like complimenting someone on their dress sense or hairdo, which they also have some control over. In SL “Nice AV!” is probably rarely used to refer just to someone’s virtual body alone, but their entire “look”, though “hello beautiful” can work in both worlds :)

  2. Hello, beautiful! :)

    That’s a very nice point: clothes and jewelery and tattoos and so on are just as much a part of the AV as shape and skin and hair (although some of us change some bits more than others, perhaps mostly out of RL-derived habit?). So “Nice AV” really is more like some combination of “Nice body”, “Nice outfit”, “Nice look”, and maybe “you’re looking lovely tonight”. Inneresting…

  3. As I was reading this very interesting post I got to thinking about those that consider themselves digital people. Does your logic fit with that approach?

  4. I tried to read the original thread, but once it went down the same old path of people shouting at P and P shouting at the world I grew weary and gave up.

    You post did give me pause for thought because I *do* identify with my Av. The half-gazelle HBA is how I’d love to look if we lived in another universe. and when I’m not RPing (so about 99% of the time) HBA is me, only a more outgoing, funnier me :-D

    I do say nice av to ppl, but am aware that to members of the opposite sex it may sound like a come on so I am careful how I do it. I remember one lass at XStreet, on of the staff, who had this whole corporate sexy bomb thing going on that pushed my buttons and I’d typed Nice Av! before I’d thought about it and it made me feel icky (I don’t do the relationship thing in SL you see). I tend to say it for unusual Avs rather than sexy avs – that way it’s more obvious I’m appreciatiing the skill and not looking to cyber anyone :)

  5. a body is like a temple. it is the spirit’s residence. and to consider the actions not part of the act is downright stupid. Of course a body has rights like even a rock or a virus has rights. Nature doen’t differentiate between one species and the next…they are all one and the same and goaded with the same stick.

  6. @Ches: Good question! At the simplest level I think it applies pretty straightforwardly: a digital person’s relationship to their AV while in SL is analogous to an atomic person’s (love that phrase) relationship to their body in RL. The main difference for a digital person is (as I understand it at least) that she considers herself to be a different person than the associated atomic person. Exactly how this works is something I’ve never really talked to a digital person about (figuring that they probably get too much curiosity on that subject already). A conversation with Extropia Dasilva over on Gwyneth’s weblog has recently shown me that my grasp of just what’s going on there is pretty shallow :) so I will not try to get any more definite on the subject.

    @hba: Yeah, the last person I can remember actually saying “Nice AV” to was some sort of wild fluid alien moth or something. :) Not the sort of thing that comes up much in RL (and if it does, it’s probably best to run away, just in case). Another interesting complicating factor!

    @yukio: Thanks, that’s a very interesting perspective! I don’t think that rocks or viruses have rights in the sense that I’m using them here; I think that only people (and some other sentient beings) do. On the other hand I’m also perfectly willing :) to allow that (to the extent that they exist at all) people and bodies and avatars and rocks and viruses all have Tathāgata-garbha, all have Buddha-nature, and (being a pantheist) are worthy of worship. Even at that level, the title principle there, that AV : SL :: body: RL, still holds up I think…

  7. I’m very immersed and there is no question that I identify with my avatar. Which does not mean that I am unable to differentiate between my physical presence and my digital representation.

    Like many of you – I tend to reserve my “nice av” comments for the “unusual” avs. Yet I enjoy and appreciate it when someone tells ME nice af. I DID put some time and effort and thought into how I look. I accept the compliment in that light.

    Last night I was at a concert – no tip jars. When I asked about them, I was told to tip the performers directly: “Just touch them” eeewwwwwww. LOL. See – to me – the avatars are “real” in that respect. Touching them seems unduly familiar and rude. *grin* I know – that sounds silly to me logically even as I type it. But emotionally??? I don’t walk around touching strangers. (I touched their names – felt much more polite – like shaking hands. *smile*)

  8. A great example! I’ve always felt funny paying performers directly instead of via a tip-device, and I’ve never known why. Maybe that’s it: overly familiar touching.

    So to extend the analogy:

    other people’s AVs : SL :: other people’s bodies : RL !

  9. For anyone who has been inworld for a while and spent time customizing their appearance, their av is an aspect of who they are. Even in the physical world we usually show a mask to the world so I see it as a matter of degree. I simply refer to people as people. :) An avatar is like an outfit of clothes.

    And I agree about tip jars. In the context of a performance or a class it just seems improper somehow to pay someone directly.

  10. Nice post!

    At the moment, my view is that avatars are like costumes and Virtual Worlds are like perpetual masked balls.

    In addition to the visible form of my avatar, I also have an associated, but independent virtual identity “Botgirl Questi” that lives in many places which do not support the Second LIfe avatar form (like this blog, Twitter, etc.)

    I’m starting to see both avatars and virtual identities as storymaking/telling vehicles. I don’t think they have any objective “meaning” outside of the narratives we attach to them.

  11. Thanks! :) At least for me, I think “costume” is too weak; I identify with my AV more than I would with a costume. Or actually not always: there are times (usually when I’m being a tiny, for instance) that I do feel like my AV is a costume. (For people who *are* tinies, I expect it’s the other way around: they may where a big-person costume sometimes, but what they identify with is the tiny.)

    I will grant you your last sentence, as long as you agree that bodies and physical identities also don’t have any objective “meaning” outside of the narratives that we attach to them…

  12. Hmm… Given our prior conversations, I suspect we have pretty compatible beliefs from a Vast Zen perspective. And once we get down to the level of relative existence, I think there are many useful ways to think about this stuff. But for the sake of debate:

    I don’t think the word “costume” necessarily denotes a weakness in identification. Think of how strongly people associate their identity with costumes worn in RL, such as a policeman’s uniform, doctor’s garb, etc. Just like such costumes, we can modify our avatars at will, changing their appearance, gender or even species.

    Although people can be psychologically attached to their avatars, people are permanently embedded in their RL bodies and depend upon them for life. Sure, the way someone chooses to represent himself or herself as an avatar can impact (at least temporarily) personality attributes such as level of extroversion. But the physical body (which include the brain, nervous system, sense organs etc.) is the ground of our experience, both of ourselves and the world around us.

    Even when in avatar form, we can only experience our avatar and the virtual world through the mediation of our body. Although I agree with you that the meaning associated with our physical bodies is also based upon storymaking, there is a life-and-death difference between the realities of the physical world, and the make believe of the digital.

  13. Fair enough. I personally identify much more strongly with my SL AV than with anything in RL that I would call a “costume”. But it’s another interesting comparison to think about, at least.

    I’m currently an agnostic about whether or not I die when my body dies. I hope to remain ignorant on this question for a good long time. :) But of course you’re right that whatever the details, our bindings to our RL bodies is much tighter than to our SL AVs. I think the only nontrivial thing I want to claim here is that it’s mostly a difference of degree, not of kind. Whatever that means in this context!

  14. “Why do we identify with our AVs?”

    Ask yourself this. When we’re driving along and someone crashes into us, why do we say “someone crashed into *me*”?

    An avatar can be considered an extension of ourselves in this way. It can also be considered a vessel for our consciousness. This definitely ties into the immersionist vs augmentist debate about what avatars actually are, don’t you think?

    • Absolutely! And nice to see you here. :)

      I think of the “avatars are just like bodies (in some ways” thing to be sort of a deconstruction or reconstruction of immersionism vs augmentationism. The original idea of the latter was sort of narrow: that virtual worlds had to be either separate from the atomic world, or connected in a subsidiary role (as a sort of animated Rolodex).

      It feels righter to me to think of the virtual worlds as *peers* to the atomic world in various interesting senses.

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