Estimated reading time: 2 minutes —
Reading Ravanel’s fantastic article on identity in online gaming environments reminded of my initial shock at the RL stereotypes in virtual worlds. As I have previously discussed, I entered SL with little knowledge of the community and found my niche in cultural/educational groups within the virtual world. With that said, I did not come with much baggage (aka preconceived notions on SL OR SL residents), but I had a general feeling, from experiencing cultural and educational settings, that the vibe was one of community, sharing of knowledge, and individuality. Of course, as in RL, different communities within SL share different values, cultures, morals, etc. One thing which I can safely say transcends all these communities (even “fantasy” communities, in my opinion), is a heavy reliance on RL stereotypes. And why wouldn’t that be the case? Virtual worlds like SL are, after all, created by individuals anchored in RL.
What disturbs (for lack of a better word) me is that I would think that virtual worlds developers, programmers, and residents, would strive, by the very definition of a second life, to escape the banality of RL. Some of the stereotypes, especially concerning body image (as discussed by Kris and Van) are culturally based, while others stem from the very foundation of the virtual world, in that ANY artificial world is “tainted” by the prejudices and biases of its creators. It is obvious that how SL operates, for example, is a reflection of its creators and ultimate purpose – to make money.
On the other hand, as hard as we may want a better life, it is extremely difficult for us, as human beings, to think outside of ourselves and our history. Even in literature, which is not constrained by space or time, fantastic elements are always limited by the author’s imagination. RL elements always manage to infiltrate the most extraordinary scenes – mainly because that is all we know. Could we even relate to something so foreign that in would have no RL reference? By very definition, I would lean towards no. Which brings me back to the question of identity and stereotypes in SL – why do so many avatars look alike if we can truly be anything we want? The fact that so many do look alike is in itself reveling of our nature and natural tendencies toward mimicry, begging the question – who are we really?