Monthly Archives: November 2014

Avatars, Consumerism & Identity

This post is a response to Eoin Tierney’s “Avat, You!”  Representations of Avatars in Virtual Reality and MMORPGs. This post will analyse the role of the avatar within virtual worlds such as Second Life and World of Warcraft in order to deepen our understanding of the avatar as a cultural entity.

To publicise the English National Opera’s production of Nico Muhly’s opera Two Boys (2011), Will Self gave a series of micro-lectures. Among the thematic concerns of Two Boys is how identity is construed in a post-digital age. In his lectures, Self spoke on this subject. He contends that authenticity of experience is shed within the medium of digital interaction. In contrast to the kind of communication one on digital platforms such as second life are far less satisfying than those had in the real world:

“a relatively rich and engaged and nuanced human experience in which you would be looking at somebody’s face, checking their body language…that was a relationship.”[1]

In SL, the avatar is an entity that the subject invests oneself in. This concerns Self as the avatar has the capacity to strip oneself:

“of all our contingent characteristics as a person. You’re free of your gender, of your race, of your class…all of these things that…are…contingent to your being.”[2]

This notion of the avatar divesting the subject of their individuality in such a harmful way would probably be contested by Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca, who carried out an analysis of clothing and fashion trends in the MMORPG World of Warcraft. Klastrup and Tosca argue that the avatar is useful as a means of personal storytelling and individuation for their players. One would be aware of the importance of certain items and armours to provide bonuses to important stats. In these instances, they would provide a quantifiable difference in terms of protecting one’s character from harm, but even in informal in-game settings where this would not matter, players are heavily invested in how their character looks. For these players, dressing a particular way is done in order to draw attention, or to promote their high status. This is carried out through the overt presentation of a rare or expensive article of clothing.

Is Self’s belief in the dehumanising, alienating nature of digital interaction therefore untenable? Even if an avatar is sometimes an idealised projection of oneself, is it really as damaging as Self makes out? This blog contends that it is, by outlining some more facts about the virtual geography of SL.

In an issue of the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research that analyses consumer behaviour within virtual worlds, Jennifer Martin details the in-world economy of SL, in which users of the social platform spend real-world dollars on virtual goods. For Martin, this is an example of Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the symbolic value of a good overriding its use or exchange value. The function of these goods in SL is similar to the role that rare, ostentatiously displayed objects play in WoW, as an indicator of status. Pricing patterns in SL also tend to replicate those in real life. For example, a piece of art to be displayed in one’s virtual home will generally cost more than a set of clothing. This desire for status is often exploited by vendors of said virtual goods, they will often pledge their uniqueness or produce fewer of them in order to increase their value. As Martin puts it: “By positioning commodities in terms of the status and prestige they convey, developers are able to sell their goods to residents despite the absence of use-value by playing off symbolic needs and desires.”[3] This opportunity to make money within the context of virtual worlds has not been lost on a number of companies who have begun to establish their brand within SL. Such as Cisco Systems, American Apparel, Reuters, Mazda and others.[4] Music companies, in pursuit of new business models within the digital media paradigm have sought to engage consumers through virtual live events, which track consumer reaction and then recommend them to other users based on the varying levels of audience participation or interaction.[5]

For those that would argue that an avatar is merely a creative outlet that allows the expression of individuality should bear Martin’s analysis of SL in mind. While the platform promises creativity and community alongside commerce, one should note the extent to which creativity and community feed into further commerce.[6] As Edward Castronova writes: “Virtual worlds may be the future of ecommerce, and perhaps of the internet itself.”[7] Klastrup and Tosca’s study describes virtual fashion publications within WoW such as Gizmopolitan that promote particular patterns of consumption. These are not merely outlets of personal expression, but implicated in a wider economy of ecommerce and one should not neglect the role that avatars have in the aestheticisation of one’s spending patterns in the name of displaying one’s individuality. The avatar as it is used in SL and WoW therefore demonstrates Self’s dictum that: “the internet promises us the idea of actualising ourselves in a creative way and then in fact we fall victim to a much cruder kind of sorting into types of people.”[8]

[1] Will Self, The Internet is a False Friend (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqDoBqeV6Lc

[2] Ibid.

[3] Jennifer Martin, Use-Value, Exchange Value and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Two (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2008) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/300, p.9

[4] So Ra Park, Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, David DeWester, Brenda Eschenbrenner, Virtual Worlds Affordances: Enhancing Brand Values, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Two (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2008), p.3 https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/350

[5] Marco Lüthy, Jean-Julien Aucouturier, Content Management for the Live Music Industry in Virtual Worlds: Challenges and Opportunities, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume 6, Number 2 (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2013) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/5958

[6] Jennifer Martin, Use-Value, Exchange Value and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Two, p.3 https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/300

[7] Ibid, p.4

[8] Will Self, The Internet is a False Friend (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqDoBqeV6Lc

Bibliography

Lisbeth Klastrup and Susana Tosca, “Because it just looks cool!” Fashion as Character Performance: The Case of Wow, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Three (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2009) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/305/427

Marco Lüthy, Jean-Julien Aucouturier, Content Management for the Live Music Industry in Virtual Worlds: Challenges and Opportunities, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume 6, Number 2 (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2013) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/5958

Jennifer Martin, Use-Value, Exchange Value and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Two (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2008) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/300

So Ra Park, Fiona Fui-Hoon Nah, David DeWester, Brenda Eschenbrenner, Virtual Worlds Affordances: Enhancing Brand Values, The Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, Volume One, Number Two (Journal of Virtual Worlds Research: 2008) https://journals.tdl.org/jvwr/index.php/jvwr/article/view/350

Will Self, Will Self Asks ‘Is The Internet Inherently Psychotic?’ (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8eLiW6iPGjE

Will Self, Will Self: The Internet is a False Friend (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FqDoBqeV6Lc

Will Self, Will Self: My View of the Internet Has Not Changed (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pP_lVat3YA4

Will Self, Will Self Questions The Rituals of Our Digital Life (English National Opera: 2011) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VwFAF4g9JLM

Eoin Tierney, “Avat, You!”  Representations of Avatars in Virtual Reality and MMORPGs (WordPress: 2014) http://longpigblog.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/digital-humanities-blog-post/

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A Lugubrious Commentary on a Soulless Society – On Reading Will Self’s ‘My Idea of Fun.’

A number of critics that I’ve come across have compared My Idea of Fun (1993) with Bret Easton Ellis’ 1991 novel American Psycho. This is not, I imagine, generally intended as a compliment. My Idea of Fun merits the comparison, probably due to its gratuitous level of violence visited towards women in the course of the narrative and, in one memorable section at the outset of the text, the homeless.

If one was inclined to reclaim this contrast as a potential badge of honour for Self, one could do worse than bring together a number of comments the author has made outside the context of the novel, that prove illuminating for those seeking to understand exactly who and what the targets of his satire are.

Earlier in the year, Self spoke at an Intelligence Squared debate. He spoke against the motion: “We’ve Never Had It So Good.” Self, in his own inimitable style, argued that contemporary society’s sole moral prerogative is amoral. The only communal bonds that can be said to link us in our (post) post-modern world, is that of commerce and our raison d’être is the endless purchasing of an ever-increasing list of unnecessary things. The video is here (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFNOWnklxAA) and is worth watching for those seeking to grasp the intent behind My Idea of Fun.

Much like Ellis’ darkly comic invention, Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of My Idea of Fun, Ian Wharton, is a monster. He is a psychopath, a vicious murderer and guilty of every deviant behaviour that Self can conceive of. This is curious, because of how banal his upbringing seems to be. He is brought up in a single parent household in Saltdean in East Sussex. Ian is lower-middle class, (though his mother’s changing mannerisms and dress sense implies that she is engaged in some form of social climbing) and he attends university. There is nothing in Ian’s developmental years that plant the seeds for his future psychopathy.

Self has said elsewhere that he considers the very notion of characterisation in novels to be “romantic.” This should inform one’s reading of this novel and Self’s work in general. When Ian comes under the mentorship of the enigmatic Fat Controller (moonlighting as the industrialist and entrepreneur Mr. Broadhurst), becomes employed at a PR firm for second-rate products while engaged in an intensive course of regressive psychotherapy, one can be certain that Self’s novel exists strictly in the realm of Ideas. The reason Ian seems to have so little to him, and nothing to point to in his childhood that ultimately leads him to become murderous is because he is a product of a vacuous, materially fixated culture. Like Bateman in the Manhattan of the late eighties, he is an empty vessel.

Towards the end of the first chapter, Ian informs us that the reader will be permitted to choose their own ending to the narrative. “I’m all for audience participation,” he says. Ian is here talking about whether or not he will murder his pregnant wife. This is all made with a definite point in mind about our society’s fallen state and our wrong-headed faith in an unfair economic system. It just seems unfortunate that a writer with such intellectual heft such as Self couches such an observation in a rather gruesome scenario. Even when the issue of characterisation isn’t at stake, it seems wanton to be so wasteful.