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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