Estimated reading time: 3 minutes —
Given our discussion yesterday on stereotypes and prejudices in SL and other virtual worlds, I thought I’d share this section of my dissertation on the subject. If anything, it gives good references 🙂
Persistence of social norms in virtual identity exploration. Identity and role identification in MUVEs, as argued by Cleland (2008) is malleable in that the relative anonymity afforded by these environments allows users to experiment with and create alternate identity forms. While Cleland (2008) further argued that identification of the self with an avatar parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) rhizomatic model of identity and the “Body without Organs” where the user can escape, by making the self fluid and mutable, totalizing social norms and society-imposed inscriptions, virtual worlds are shaped by these same societal values and mirror, as argued by many (Annetta et al., 2010; D. Bell, 2009; Boellstorff, 2008; Gazzard, 2009; Harrison, 2009; Herold, 2010; Messinger et al., 2008; Moore et al., 2007; Schultze & Leahy, 2009; Waterton, 2010; Yee et al., 2007), actual world identities and behaviors. Identity in virtual worlds is further limited by culturally and technically embodied hardware and software design constraints, most notably the extent to which actual world cultural norms and stereotypes are programmed into virtual environment software (Cleland, 2008).
While freedom in these environments is limited by the socially constructed and value-laden functional abilities programmed in the metaprogram itself (Cleland, 2008), virtual worlds such as SL are designed to be, to some level, personalizable and encourage user-creation. Most users, however, whether due to limited programming abilities or personal choice, adopt stereotypical or idealized avatar identities (Messinger et al., 2008), leading to, as in the actual world, a commoditization of identity (Cleland, 2008; Harrison, 2009). Avatars, as discussed by Geser (2007) can never be authentic expressions of their creators’ true selves, but are rather shaped by expectations of how avatars should look like to conform to established social norms as well as to garner positive attention from other avatars.
For example, Herold (2010) argued using Baudrillard’s (1981) concepts of simulation and hyperreality that in-world identities, like actual world identities, are often created to produce references to specific situations or contexts where the avatar becomes identifiable through their assumed role in a given community and in SL in general. Quoting Debord (1995), Boellstorff (2008) similarly argued that identity in virtual worlds is primarily understood through the customization of socioeconomic structures where production or within this context, creation, becomes a form of spectacle. As argued by Harrison (2009), commoditization of identity is particularly rampant and at the same time, essential to the sustainability of SL as a virtual community in that it allows for the materialization of a social memory that maintains a sense of belonging and shared values while excluding those that do not share these commonly held ideals. This thought, while radical and fundamentally rooted in ethnography, is also mirrored in some of the literature on in-world education.
Riva (1999), for example, posited in an early exploratory study informed by Situated Action Theory that since any form of communication requires a framework of rules and meaning, many users are forced to resort to stereotypical attitudes and behaviors in-world for their identity to be not only recognized and accepted, but also to achieve an intersubjective understanding of actions and situations. Arora and Khazanchi (2010) similarly argued that for learners to attach meaning to a virtual space, it must replicate the physical and cultural characteristics of the actual world learning environment. Arora and Khazanchi have further posited that this sense of belonging fostered by the familiar environment could increase motivation to learn as well as help learners in utilizing the unique educational advantages afforded by the technology. While this has yet to be proven, such an approach to virtual world learning does, as argued by Savin-Baden (2008) and borrowing from Giddens’ (1984) work on identity and society, legitimize in-world institutions by naturalizing societal norms, values, and standards that should instead be challenged by the knowledge created in and through these same virtual environments.
As argued by Cleland (2008), SL does allow for users to experiment with new modes of identity and being, but instead of leading to a self-alienating misrecognition of the self in a Lacanian sense, identification of the self with the avatar often reinforces, unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) conceptualization of the “Body without Organs,” hierarchies of socially produced meanings and inscriptions (Harrison, 2009; Waterton, 2010). It is instead the field of museum studies operating under dominant patterns of cultural values that is, as argued by Waterton, engaged in a process of misrecognization and which, in turn, feeds from the devaluation of immersive virtual experiences as inauthentic. After all, if in-world identity is only a continuation of our current postmodern non-linear reality, the cultural and social values of these virtual environments, as posited by Bukatman (1993) and empirically investigated by others in terms of in-world behaviors and social norms (Herold, 2010; Messinger et al., 2008; Moore et al., 2007; Prasolova-Førland, 2008; Schultze & Leahy, 2009; Yee et al., 2007), has also infiltrated into actual world identity, reinforcing the reversibility of the seer/seen relationship and creating a “third space” in which to learn (Salmon et al., 2010; Savin-Baden, 2008).