Okay, I’m not a paper wasp. I don’t even play one on TV or in a video game, but if I did, that wasp would be my avatar. An avatar represents myself in another medium. The idea of the self in various media is automediality.
Thus, I can present myself, my concept of myself, my ego if you like, in a variety of media if I do so in a story or one of my attempts at novels over the years, I do so by the creation of a character that will resemble me in some ways. The reader can, if they like, attempt to describe my personality with reference to these characters. They may get some things right. They may find aspects of my personality that I wasn’t aware of. It was pointed out to me that, in a story called ‘Brown Town’ I had used myself as the hero that comes out of nowhere and saves the day. These personae of the author are known in fanfiction as ‘Mary Sue’. This observation was so disturbing that I checked other stories for it, and Mary Sues were in there, too. It isn’t always true, though. Sometimes I intentionally put myself in these stories, and you can see one that is intentionally me, but renamed to make it fictional, in in this clod of quasi-autobiography which I’m surprised to find turned up at number 2 on a Bing search when I typed in the phrase ‘life and mates’!
In the written form, of course, the characters can do and say anything I can think up and spell, so the possibilities for a more talented or competent writer are much greater than they are in a medium with more constraints. In a video game, say, where the rules for character look and behaviour are controlled by what the game makers can paint and program. Aspects of my personality, which is to say, knowledge of me, can be inferred from my avatars.
To jazz up this post, and to offer some insights into how this might go, I present four avatars from the game Lord of the Rings Online
Forgthryth represents an idealised view of myself. A Man (as opposed to Elf, Dwarf or Hobbit) tall, blond, blue-eyed and of course he’s wearing a hat and standing near the bar of the Prancing Pony. In his fabricated backstory, his last name describes his occupation – ‘filth reeve’ – my attempt at a Rohan word for the occupation of cleaning up all the horse shit that would be in Rohan.
Lychee is a Captain, one of the ways of life you can take up in the game. His backstory is that his father was from Dale but travelled to the east, where he met a population of albino people who were, unlike many in the east, against Sauron. He married there, brought back his wife, who named her son after a beautiful fruit from her homeland. ‘Iafvaer’ is my crap Sindarin for ‘beautiful fruit’. Anyway, he’s there to emulate my nickname ‘Captain Lychee’ from where this website gets its name, but he’s based on Freddie Mercury, hence the moustache.
You could interpret this cute little hobbit as my feminine side, but she is based on a friend of mine who is short and red-headed. Her name is from the breed of potato, and the second ‘T’ is because someone had already secured the name ‘Russet’.
She’s based on a kind of joke. ‘Gwaun’ is Sindarin for ‘goose’ and ‘might’ for ‘grey’. ‘Grey goose’ from the vodka of the same name. In actual Sindarin, it would be ‘Gwaunvith’ because of Sindarin’s lenition rules, but I didn’t know that then. She has no last name because I haven’t thought of one.
In the sense that these characters are created by me, within the choices provided by the folks at Standing Stones Games, these characters are me. Their actions are too limited to express the full range of my activities, though other people might argue that the few emotions they can display – burp, cheer, clap, beg, bother, for example – pretty much cover mine, and standing by a bar pretty much sums up my life. Oh, yeah? I write quasi-academic blog posts, you know!
Second Life is a virtual world with a much greater range of activities than LOTRO, and so can come closer to mirroring real life. There, you can create your avatar and do ordinary or extraordinary things. One of the people on the Larry Niven IRC group was working on a manned mission to Mars. Over at Full Sail University in Orlando, staff were ‘encouraged’ to get on to Second Life because all the fee-paying students were living great virtual lives there. I joined, too, as I have a ‘spousal’ connection to FSU, but I found the interface too complicated to design an avatar that resembled me in any way, shape or form. I did manage to get a pale, bespectacled person with a kind of corn-coloured topknot but then I couldn’t get him out of the lobby or wherever it is that you create the avatar.
This virtual world, and I use that term politely because they might object to it being called a game, was actually more dull than the life of a retired public servant eking out an existence in Ballarat with the nearest pub nearly a mile away.
In Bernhard Drax’s Our Digital Selves we see how Second Life has freed some disabled (or ‘ability diverse’ because every euphemism develops a euphemism of its own) people from the drudgery of their lives. They have altered the concept of ‘self’ by making equally valid characters in Second Life and, because that world allows actions much closer to real life than, say, LOTRO, these characters can do things the real people can’t. In one example, a very ‘diverse’ man who couldn’t talk well enough to be understood could get on to Second Life and interact with people by typing stuff to them. His life hadn’t changed, but his virtual life acted to improve communication in real life. Other people were using it to overcome various mental problems like PTSD and, like the Internet has in other ways, it has helped people to meet people they wouldn’t otherwise have even known of. (I met my current, er, Significant Other on LOTRO.)
While Second Life added to the closeness of disabled people, it also provided a social distancing from otherwise toxic people. In the movie there was an Englishwoman (if that’s not a racist term) with epilepsy who was one of the most unpleasant people I’ve run into in any medium in five real-life decades. Relentlessly hostile and complaining. With Second Life I could walk away from her, and she might even be nice and polite in the virtual world, or at least react differently to my avatar than she does to the poor harassed Herr Drax.
Second Life’s problem is that you need to connect from the real world to it, and thus limitations on the interface come into play. I pointed out in our class on it that none of the ‘differently abled’ (euphemism frenzy) people in it was blind. If they had been, interaction with Second Life would’ve been damn near impossible. As noted above, I had trouble making my avatar on the thing, and my sight back then was five times better than it is now. Later in that class, the Internet froze on me and I had to restart Adobe Connect and re-join. I mentioned that virtual worlds have a fragile ecology.
Assuming, though, that we overcome those limitations, we could spend our entire lives in a virtual world, overcoming the vicissitudes of real life and the vagaries of genes, gestation and happenstance that plague us. Our life in the real world, hampered by those things and our mortality, gets replaced by us existing completely in a virtual world. Such a thing is called posthumanism. If we live in a virtual world with perfect communication with other people in the world because the neural processes that make us ‘us’ are being executed by a computer, do we maintain a sense of ‘self’?
The promise of posthumanism is not that we would live in a virtual world freed of the physical problems we have and where this world is just a refined version of the real world, with nice trees, no traffic and free of any stinging insects chowing down on our fences – that’s a refined version of Second Life, and is a virtual world resembling the one we evolved in. Posthumanism means we become something other than human. If we’re part of a community of people in a computerised environment, where do we end, and the other people begin? And where does the environment begin, and we end? If we’re so enmeshed in the environment, do we even have consciousness of ourselves? If we have a soul, what happens to it, and do we get a new one from the computer?
The posthuman environment might be better thought of, like Second Life, as a medium. If the medium is the message, then whatever message my self is, it’s changed from what it is now. It’s an idea. It might be a goal for some people. I don’t think I’d care for it, or have I been programmed to think that?
Or am I writing this as part of a post-vespal environment where I’ve given up the humdrum of chewing wood and stinging the passers-by, and have retreated to a world much closer to the one I think I deserve?