FROM VITRUVIAN MAN TO THE AVATAR: THE SECOND LIFE OF HUMANITY Synopsis Amy E. Cross, PhD
The primary purpose of this research was to create a model of the components of the avatar and to understand how our personalities and identities move through the components. Furthermore, I wanted to better understand the effect of the technology in that movement and on our experience of the environment. To accomplish this, I combined extensive review of available research with my personal and shared experiences with the Second Life community.
When we create an online identity, we put the best of ourselves in the public eye. We struggle to find the right quotes, movies, books, music, and photos as representations of ourselves and our preferences. We slant things a particular way whether we’re creating a work/career profile, social media presence, or an avatar in the virtual world. We want all our best features, real and sometimes imagined, to be what others see of us.
I rezzed millay in her first virtual world in late September of 1997. I had participated in some online forum type things before that, but Virtual Places was the first time I had an avatar beyond the profile. Our representations (avatars) were little squares that we could individualize with images that we chose. I don’t think I knew a single person at that time that used their own picture. There were a few but it wasn’t the most common representation that people chose. I stayed in VP until 2003 though my time spent online dwindled dramatically after 2001.
10 years later, nearly to the day, millay rezzed again in Second Life and there I’ve been for these 11 years. I learned chess and competed, I’ve made some of the closest friends in both offline and online life through virtual environments. I’ve fallen in and out of love. I’ve been to concerts, museums, political rallies, and art exhibits. I’ve visited Italy, Spain, Darfur, and other peoples’ imaginations. I’ve had some of the best and worst times of my life in virtual environments. I wouldn’t change a moment of any of it!
Doing this research was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Studying virtual environments and the avatars that inhabit them has been like having a bird’s eye view into my own personality, motivation, and identity. I got to learn about myself while studying us. Thank you, to all who participated in the survey to give me such a wide perspective and deep insight. I’ve learned a lot from you and will take that into any further research that I do. It’s been an incredible journey. Summing it up isn’t going to be easy but let’s get started and see what happens.
The following diagram is a representation of what I’ve learned. I’d like to talk about each of the separate components, going into more detail with some but not all of them.
THE OFFLINE IDENTITY
Let’s start with the offline component. I’ve heard it called the “user”, the “typist”, “real-life”, “physical”, and “cellular”. I like “offline”. It insinuates that it is separate from the virtual connection provided even by a land-line telephone. It’s us. Just us in our skins. It’s our personalities and identities and may be different than what we present online. It’s the carrier of our motivation for joining the virtual environments and is subject to the 5 levels of identity. I like the acronym PRISM for the 5 levels of identity: Professional, Relational, Individual, Social, and Material. Many researchers have supported all but the professional but, when we’re talking about avatars and our motivation for joining a virtual environment or being active in the environment, research shows that it is an important distinction and impacts our identities.
A brief introduction to PRISM (Levels of Identity):
P - Professional - When we enter a virtual environment for professional reasons, we tend to think of our avatars as objects, the first stage of virtual identity formation. (We’ll talk more about the stages of virtual identity later.) We tend to use the same avatar for all our professional endeavors in virtual worlds and may choose to use alts for interactions outside of professional.
R - Relational - The relational level of identity is formed through our interactions with others. This is me as wife, sister, mother, daughter, teacher, etc. and is formed in conjunction with how others see us or how we perceive others’ perceptions of ourselves.
I - Individual - The individual level of identity includes the traits and characteristics that we ascribe to ourselves. It can include our dreams, goals, vales, beliefs, etc.
S - Social - Our social (collective) identity is formed through groups with which we associate. I am a woman. I am a human. I am an American. I’m a Mainer. I am a member of the Four Bridges Project.
M - The material identity is the material extension of myself. It’s my car, my clothes, my possessions.
Many researchers suggest that identity starts with the individual and moves outward to relational, social, and material. In my mind, we move through these levels in a multitude of ways through a variety of pathways depending on our interactions. I also believe, as Nagy and Koles, that the material aspect is a distinct level of identity, and, as I indicated previously, the professional level should be included…PRISM is just an easy way to remember it. Our identities are as a prism.
The offline identity is also subject to its own personality. In researching personality, I found the easiest model to use to analyze the results of the survey is the Five Factor Model of Personality (FFM) developed by Robert McCrea and Paul Costa to be the most consistently used in self-reporting questionnaires. The FFM breaks personality components to 5 distinct factors: Openness to new experiences, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism…OCEAN. Finding consistent definitions and adjectives proved to be more difficult than anticipated in analyzing the survey. I didn’t make t very easy for myself when I designed the survey. Lessons learned, and, even so, I got some great information relative to the personality.
THE PROJECTIVE IDENTITY
The projective identity is the culmination and collection of all our online identities. It’s Facebook, My Space, LinkedIn, and even your playlist on Spotify is part of the projective identity. My research didn’t concentrate on this aspect so much as it is much more complex and varied than the other components. I like to think of it as the storage closet for all the pieces of our identities that are online. It may or may not change based on another avatar component, place, which I’ll talk about soon. It interacts with both the offline and virtual representation identity (virtual identity). Our identities transfer through the projective identity and it, too, is subject to the Five Factor Model of Personality and the Levels of Identity. Understanding the complexity of the projective identity was well outside of my research but not my interest. It is worth further consideration and research.
THE VIRTUAL REPRESENTATION IDENTITY (VIRTUAL IDENTITY)
I hesitate to call this identity the “avatar” as I believe that it is but one component of the avatar. Our virtual representation varies based on place, which is the fourth component of the avatar. Sometimes it varies within that place. Many users have an “alt” (alternative avatar) for various roles in the virtual environment of Second Life. Sometimes these alts represent different aspects of the user’s identity. I have included, as Table 1 in the appendix, variations of 3D environments and customization features as a reference.
When we are motivated to join a virtual environment, our identities go through stages as we explore and interact in the environment. The length of time that we spend at each level is dependent on the interactions. The more we interact with others, with objects, and with the environment itself, the faster we develop through the stages. No easy acronym here (unless you rearrange them to CORE) but that is not the order. We begin in the Object stage, then move to the Extension stage, the Connection stage and then the Reflection stage.
A brief introduction to OECR (Stages of Virtual Identity):
O- Object - When we first join the virtual environment, many of us see the avatar as an object, a tool or something not really connected to the user. “This is an avatar. I use this to move around the environment.” Some people don’t get beyond this stage. Many who come in for professional reasons and interact only in that context stage in the avatar as an object stage.
E - Extension - As an extension, we are projecting an aspect or aspects of our personality into the virtual environment. It becomes a projection or extension. “I have an avatar and I use a virtual environment for…” This comes after we begin interacting in more diverse ways and as we branch out and explore further. Perhaps when we begin interacting with others more regularly.
C - Connection - This stage comes when we have formed contacts and possess material goods. As we begin to feel more connected to the environment, other avatars, the appearance of our avatar, and our material possessions, we begin to feel more connected to our avatars. “This is me in Second Life.” The avatar may begin impacting the user’s offline identity at this stage. We develop a reputation and begin putting stock in who we are in the virtual environment. We have relationships, group memberships, and an attachment to our material goods which may or may not impact our offline realms.
R- Reflection - I like to think of this as a mirror image. Nagy refers to this as the Persona or “this is me” stage. We begin to see the virtual representation as ourselves. I am me and I am my avatar and I am in a virtual world.” Some people, no matter the time that they spend in the virtual world, never reach or want to reach this stage. For others, it is the natural progression.
I found a few definitions for stages or levels of virtual identity that I considered. Richard Bartle says Players become Avatars the progress into Characters and finally Personas. Neustraedter said that there are Realistics (it’s just you), Ideals (a better you) Fantasies (a fantasy you) and Roleplayers (many fantasy yous). I really liked Botgirl Questi’s breakdown. She has a great diagram in her Kindle book (which I highly recommend). She started with Augmentationists - those who augment their offline lives; Immersionists - those who keep the two places (offline and virtual environment) separate; Emergents - those whose virtual identity impacts on offline; and Laterals - those who have avatars in other places (Second Life, World of Warcraft, Minecraft, etc) and all move between. I consider these to be more about how identities move and relative more to motivation than stages.
The way that our identities and personalities move through these components is dependent on so many factors and will be a different experience for everyone. When we start getting into the survey results, I’ll go over this in a bit more detail. For now, suffice to say that the way our identities move in virtual environments and through the projective and offline identities is an individual as our DNA. It is impossible to track.
THE PLACE COMPONENT
The final component is the place. I am not the same in Second Life as I am on Facebook. There are different types of interactions and I have less interaction with the environment. It isn’t about the environment at all in fact with Facebook. It’s all about the interactions with the people. Most of those interactions happen asynchronously. I’ll post something and then others will react, or not. Same with a blog or a website. In order for a place to be considered a virtual environment, there are specific required components. These vary a bit across researchers, but it basically breaks down to the following:
1) It must provide a sense of place (motion, direction, distance (visual impacts on the user) and attention (scope - the outer boundary, scale - the inner boundary, focus - direction of attention, and context - interpretation of the space).
2) It must include a virtual representation of the user in the virtual environment.
3) It must provide synchronous interaction with other users, with objects and with the environment itself. There must be a sense of presence - a feeling of being there and having an effect on the environment. I talk a lot about presence, embodiment, and immersion in my thesis dissertation. I’ll spare the details here and offer just a brief definition of each. Embodiment is the entanglement of identity, technology, and our interactions within the environment. It’s the connection between the user and the representation strong enough to give the user a physical or emotional reaction to what happens to the representation. Immersion is the mental sense of engagement that a user experiences and the sense of control over the environment that the user feels. Presence is the sense of “being there” and the strength of dissociation from the user’s physical surroundings.
4) It must provide a sense of persistent identity. That means that when the user logs out the environment still exists. Wen they return, their history, inventory, etc. is still there. Their identity must be shareable as well through profiles and artifacts.
Those of us that live in virtual environments, or ANY environment for that matter, know that there is so much more to “place” than that. I love the places that I create in Second Life. It’s a feeling of community, comradery that can’t be explained, only experienced. Place is feeling, a belonging, a connection, a bond. It’s an emotional experience and attachment. Still, place is an important aspect of the avatar. We have to be somewhere. Those are the four major components of the avatar. As we interact through these identities, we MUST consider the technology, the Human-Computer Interaction and how that affects our interactions. To give an example of what I mean, let’s look at one small option - the backspace key! How many times have we backspaced through entire paragraphs when interacting synchronously through text? How many times have you wished for the backspace and delete key in your offline conversations? And camming, for another example! So many times, in my offline world I have wanted to cam around an environment or a picture. Perspective is another big one. Most people use third-person perspective. That’s not an option in our offline lives unless we can’t pass a mirror. We see our avatars in our view which makes their actions much more relevant to our experiences. We don’t have to view ourselves from within when we use a third-person perspective. We view ourselves in much the same way that others view us. This has a considerable effect on our sense of virtual identity and may relate to changes offline as well.
That’s a brief synopsis of my research into the components of the avatar. Of course, it was much more in-depth and included all the studies and papers that led me to each of these conclusions.
The survey that I conducted from August 2017 to December 2017 was only meant to be a small portion of my overall study, almost a sideline as I didn’t expect to have as many respondents as I did. I couldn’t analyze and present most of the results of the survey as it would have taken far more time than I was ready to invest in completing my dissertation. My goal is do complete that analysis and present in the coming months. For now, I’ll concentrate on some parts that I did analyze and some that haven’t been condensed but are interesting tidbits.
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