“The inner life of video games is bound up with the inner life of the player whose response is aesthetic.” (Poole, 2000)
Virtual worlds may be the future of e-commerce. The game designers who fashioned these flourishing virtual worlds have invented a much more appealing way to use the internet: through an avatar. This usage of the term was coined in 1985 by Chip Morningstar, a user of the first avatar environment created by LucasFilm called Habitat. Habitat lacked many of the features we have in today’s games such as quests and puzzles. It was more similar to a social MUD in which the interactivity between avatars was the ultimate goal. According to Encarta: “Avatar [Sanskrit]: 1. incarnation of Hindu deity: an incarnation of a Hindu deity in human or animal form, especially one of the incarnations of Vishnu such as Rama and Krishna. 2. embodiment of something: somebody who embodies, personifies, or is the manifestation of an idea or concept. 3. image of person in virtual reality: a movable three-dimensional image that can be used to represent somebody in cyberspace, for example, an Internet user.”
Unlike previous video game alter-egos, these avatars can be completely customized and are designed mainly for social interaction. (Lastowka and Hunter , 2004) The average player dedicates hundreds of hours (and hundreds of dollars, in some cases) to cultivate his avatar. A survey suggested that approximately 20 percent of Norrath’s citizens deem it their place of residence; they just commute to Earth and back. To a large and growing number of people, virtual worlds are an important source of material and emotional well-being. (Yee, ) Ordinary people, who are bored and frustrated by regular web commerce, participate vigorously and passionately in avatar-based on-line markets.
A. What is an avatar, and how do I create one?
Economists have asked, “What features of the virtual worlds give them this competitive edge?” (Castronova, 2001; Simpson, 1999; Barzel, 1997; Lehdonvirta) A synopsis of the conditions for existence in virtual worlds will provide some interesting answers. To enter a virtual world, the player must first connect to the server via the internet. Once the connection is established, the player enters a program that allows him to choose an avatar for himself. In all of the major virtual worlds, one can spend a surprisingly lengthy time at this first stage, choosing the appearance of the avatar as well as its abilities. Avatars, like their human counter-parts, express themselves through appearance and body language. “Ultima Online gives you the option to choose your character from a set of templates of traditional professions. You are certainly not required to build your character from a template, but we highly recommend it for the first-time player. You may create multiple characters on each shard (except the Siege shards), so do not worry about creating a character you may not like. Using a template for your first character is an excellent way to get a feel for Ultima Online.
To create a character from a template, choose the ‘Samurai’, ‘Ninja’, ‘Paladin’, ‘Necromancer’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Mage’, or ‘Blacksmith’ option. The ‘Advanced’ option is for those comfortable enough with the UO skill system to build a character from scratch.
Once you have chosen a starting profession, you will need to customize the ‘look’ of your character. The image you create will be visible to other players in the game whenever they double-click on you. This image is also known as your ‘paperdoll.’ You can specify gender, skin colour, hair style and colour, shirt colour, pants/skirt colour and, if you’ve chosen to play a male character, facial hair style and colour.
Your first character will show up with defaults for all of these options, to change them, simply click on the corresponding part on your character. If you click on an item of clothing, you will then be able to select a colour by clicking anywhere in the palette box to the right of your character. If the selected item is a hair-style, you will see a drop-down menu appear to the left of your character listing all of the style options. Clicking on one will apply it to your character. When you are satisfied with your appearance, click the small green arrow to continue.” (http://www.uo.com/newplayer/newplay_0.html)
Depending on the game universe, the player can freely, within the confines of the world’s ‘realities’, select sex, appearance, profession, and physical features. (Damer, 1998) Always wondered what it is like to be a dwarf? Choose a very short avatar. Want to be one of the geniuses amongst your peers? Make your avatar a brilliant wizard. Need to work on your anger management skills or just get out your aggressions? Give your avatar immense strength and a high skill in wielding a mace. The player then divides the residual pool of ability points between Strength, Stamina, Agility, Dexterity, Intelligence, and Charisma. Most role-playing games have a system for the selection of the numbers mentioned above with intricate rules and many choices. Attributes represented can range from fundamental (endurance, social skill) to the trivial (favourite colour, height) depending on the nature of the game and the degree of detail the players want to go into. These attributes describe the way in which that character will typically act and what the character is capable of doing. (See for example, Ultima Online, supra. at http://www.uo.com/newplayer/newplay_0.html)
The initial choice of character occurs under a budget constraint of these attributes so that equality of opportunity in the world occurs. Your mace-wielding troll will be stupid, and your clever wizard will have a glass jaw. Simultaneously, the budget constraint guarantees equality among avatars along dimensions that most people think should not matter for social achievement. In particular, male and female avatars have the same initial budget of skills and attributes. Avatars whose physical characteristics (i.e. skin tone, size) are associated with any benefit in the game must accept some compensating disadvantage. Any inequality in the virtual world can only be due to one of two things: a) a person’s choices when creating the avatar, or b) their subsequent actions in the virtual world. (Filiack, 2003; Castronova, 2003)
Once the avatar is created, she needs a name. So the player must choose one. If they cannot think of one which matches the game’s universe, an automatic name generator can be used. This name will become your identifier; your identity, in fact. Your name will be on what you build your reputation. This will become your trade mark. (Walsh, 2004) For example, in Marvel Enterprises, Inc. and Marvel Characters, Inc. v NCSoft Corporation, NC Interactive, Inc. and Cryptic Studios, Inc., Case No. CV 04-9253-RGK in US District Court for the Central District of California, Marvel claimed that NCSoft’s computer game ‘City of Heroes’ infringed their trademarks with their character creation system which allows and encourages players to create heroes that are similar to, or identical in appearance to Marvel’s well-known comic book characters. In the United Kingdom, the courts have found these types of characters ineligible for copyright protection, but have not been presented with the trademark question. (See e.g., King Features Syndicate Inc v O&M Kleeman Ltd.,  A.C. 417,  2 All E.R. 403 regarding the character of Popeye).
Now it is time to deposit the avatar at some place in the virtual world. As many of the laws of earth science apply, much of the time, it is relatively simple to ‘become’ the avatar as you observe this new world through its eyes, seeing only where you are looking. If you are at Point A and want to get to point B, you will have to walk or fly your avatar in that direction. You cannot walk through walls. If you jump off a cliff, you will fall and hurt yourself, possibly die. When the sun sets, it gets darker and you will need a light. If you do something repeatedly, you will get better at it. If you hold things, you might drop them; if you drop them, someone else may pick them up. You can give things to another avatar if you wish. You can hit other avatars and biots. Biots are characters controlled by the game and not by another player. You may kill them if you can. And they may kill you.
As defined above, the avatar is the representation of the self in a given physical environment. This environment creates an idealized situation in which a player may freely shape her own ‘self’. She has full control over her own image. The majority of players create avatars which resemble themselves to simplify identification. Nonetheless, they tend to take advantage of the game’s possibilities to improve their representations, making themselves prettier, stronger, and smarter. It is also significant to note that people talking about their activities while in the game world use the pronoun ‘I’, each identifying his or her ‘self’ with their avatar they have created. (Filiciak, 2003)
As virtual worlds support diverse social interaction, many who have chosen to visit virtual worlds remain residents of them. For example, the average EverQuest player (Norrath avatar) spends about twenty hours a week within the virtual world. (Yee) Virtual world citizens design clothes, create furniture, and build houses for their avatars. They also sell their creations to others. (Dibbell, 2003; Damer, 1998) They buy and barter virtual chattels on eBay. They form clubs and organizations devoted to mutual aid and protection. Notwithstanding substantial investments of time and creativity, and in light of the emergence of new virtual social orders, the activities within virtual worlds are viewed still by some as games and diversions, not worthy of serious attention. The standard argument is that, at a fundamental level, these social environments are not real and, therefore, not worthy of serious consideration. This argument is mistaken. (Lastowka and Hunter, 2004)
The Earth is a natural physical world, with certain natural physical laws of motion, gravity, force, and so on. Events which occur on Earth are seen, heard, and felt by us, through our physical senses. Thus, when our minds experience the Earth, they do so through our physical bodies. These physical bodies must react to the forces imposed on them by the Earth’s atmosphere. When we sense an occasion to achieve a goal, we must focus our bodies to act in the Earth’s atmosphere to achieve the goal. In that regard, our real bodies are our Earth avatars. Whilst we are in Earth, our selves are embodied in and symbolized by a body that exists in Earth, and only there. (Castronova, 2003; Damer, 1998)
When we travel in a virtual world, we do so by engaging with a body that exists there, and only there. The virtual body, like the Earth body, is an avatar. When travelling in a virtual world, one uses the avatar in that world like a means of transport of the self. It is like a vehicle that your mind is driving. You ‘get in,’ look out the window of your virtual eyes, and then travel around by making your virtual body move. The avatar mediates our self in the virtual world: we inhabit it; we operate it; we collect all of our sensory information about the world from its viewpoint. (Id.) I find that I sometimes suffer from a sense of vertigo if I move too quickly or too fast in a virtual world.
B. Presence and Immersion
“. . . Video games allow the viewers to engage actively in the scenarios presented. . . . [Players] are temporarily transported from life’s problems by their playing, they experience a sense of personal involvement in the action when they work the controls, and they perceive the video games as not only a source of companionship, but possibly as a substitute for it.” (Provenzo, 1991) Avatars create ‘presence’. This is a technical term used for the scientific application of virtual reality and is the basis for developing a set of aesthetic criteria for analyzing three dimensional video game designs. ‘Presence’ means the successful feeling of ‘being there’.
“Presence is closely related to the phenomenon of distal attribution or externalization, which refer to the referencing of our perceptions to an external space beyond the limits of the sensory organs themselves. In unmediated perception, presence is taken for granted. What could one experience other than one’s immediate physical surroundings? However, when perception is mediated by a communication technology, one is forced to perceive two separate environments simultaneously: the physical environment in which one is actually present, and the environment presented via the medium…. Telepresence is the extent to which one feels present in the mediated environment, rather than in the immediate physical environment…. Telepresence is defined as the experience of presence in an environment by means of a communication medium…. In other words, ‘presence’ refers to the natural perception of an environment, and ‘telepresence’ refers to the mediated perception of an environment. This environment can be either a temporally or spatially distant ‘real’ environment (for instance, a distant space viewed through a video camera), or an animated but non-existent virtual world synthesized by a computer (for instance, the animated ‘world’ created in a video game).” (Steuer, 1992)
“Presence: the artificial sense that a player has in a virtual environment that the environment is unmediated.” (Bolter and Grusin, 2000) “Immediacy (or transparent immediacy): A style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium (canvas, photographic film, cinema, and so on) and believe that he is in the presence of the object of representation. One of the two strategies of remediation; its opposite is hypermediacy, ‘A style of representation whose goal is to remind the viewer of the medium.’” (Id.)
The terms immersion and presence are seen together, although both have been so loosely defined as to be interchangeable. Immersion means the player is caught up in the world of the game’s story (the diegetic level), but it also refers to the player’s love of the game and the strategy that goes into it (the nondiegetic level). It seems clear that if we are talking about immersion in video games at the diegetic level and immersion at the nondiegetic level, then we are talking about two different things, with possibly conflicting sets of aesthetic conventions. No specific terminology has yet been proposed to clarify those issues. In addition, humanities scholars have started to pick up, from scientific literature on virtual reality, the term presence, defined loosely as ‘the feeling of being there.’ (McMahan, 2003)
A rousing narrative in any medium can be experienced as a virtual reality. “In short, he so buried himself in his books that he spent nights reading from twilight till daybreak and the days from dawn until dark; as so from little sleep and much reading his brain dried up and he lost his wits. He filled his mind with all that he read in them, with enchantments, quarrels, battles, challenges, wounds, wooings, loves, torments, and other impossible nonsense; and so deeply did he steep his imagination in the belief that all the fanciful stuff he read was true, that . . . [h]e decided . . . to turn knight errant and travel through the world with horse and armour in search of adventures.” (Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote de la Mancha (1605), Walter Starkie trans., 1957)
Our brains are designed to tune into stories with a concentration that can eliminate the world around us. The experience of being carried away to an elaborately imagined place is pleasurable in itself, regardless of the fantasy content. This experience is referred to as immersion. This is the gaming world’s corresponding theory to the Reader-response Theory discussed early. Immersion is a metaphorical term derived from the physical experience of being submerged in water. “The same feeling is sought from a psychologically immersive experience as that from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool: the sensation of being surrounded by a completely other reality, as different as water is from air, that takes over all of our attention, our whole perceptual apparatus… in a participatory medium, immersion implies learning to swim, to do the things that the new environment makes possible… the enjoyment of immersion as a participatory activity.” (Murray, 1997)
Today’s technology does not allow complete immersion in a computer-mediated reality. “Actually, current technology allows a person participating in an internet-based shared virtual reality environment to receive sensory input from two sources at once. To see things in the virtual reality space, one looks at the computer screen. The screen displays an image of the virtual reality space as it would appear to the eyes of the avatar. At the same time, peripheral vision and momentary sideward glances also deliver images from Earth reality to the mind. Similarly, the mind receives sound from both cyberspace and Earth; it receives tactile sensation exclusively from the Earth. Thus, given current technology, “inhabiting an avatar” actually involves nothing more that receiving significant sensory input from a shared virtual reality space. As technology advances, the degree to which signals from cyberspace can dominate total sensory reception will increase.” (Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peuter, 2003)
However, players in virtual worlds appear to experience these worlds fully. They fully ‘immerse’ their minds in the virtual place. The extent of immersion is such that the player is in effect oblivious of his Earth surroundings. After ‘jacking in’, (term by Gibson, 1984) the player gives his core mental attention to indicators from virtual reality, with only minor input from Earth. They no longer give the impression of being ‘here,’ but rather ‘there.’ This is true even to the point that events ‘there’ have more emotional meaning than something the person experiences on Earth. For example, Ric Hoogestraat (aka Dutch Hoorenbeek) is married to Sue Hoogestraat in Phoenix, Arizona and to Tenaj Jackalope (the avatar of Janet Spielman). Ric has never met Janet nor spoken to her on the phone. “But their relationship has taken on curiously real dimensions. They own two dogs, pay a mortgage together and spend hours shopping at the mall and taking long motorcycle rides. This May when Ric needed real-life surgery, [Tenaj] cheered him up with a private island that cost her $120,000 in virtual world’s currency, or about $480 in real world dollars. Their bond is so strong that three months ago, Ric asked Janet to be his virtual wife.” Needless to say, his real life wife is not amused. (Alter, 2007)
When sensor impulses or signals are being received from cyberspace, they received by the mind through the eyes and ears (and, in the future, nose, skin, and tongue) of the avatar. More concretely, a computer program registers a sensory input to the avatar in cyberspace, and that input is delivered via internet, and then interface devices (monitors, speakers, force-feedback gloves, etc.) to the sensory receptors of the mind. (Kline, et al, 2003) Most agree that total photo- and audio- realism is not necessary for a virtual reality environment to produce in the viewer a sense of immersion, a sense that the world they are in is real and complete, although this awareness has not stopped virtual reality producers from aiming for photo- and audio-realism. Also taken for granted is that the more surrounding the virtual reality exhibition technology is (the bigger the screen, the better the surround-sound) the more immersive it will be. However, it is quite possible to become nearly wholly immersed in a desktop virtual reality, for immersion is not totally dependent on the physical dimensions of the technology.
McMahan (2003) identified three conditions which create a sense of immersion in a virtual reality: (1) the user’s expectations of the game or environment must match the environment’s conventions fairly closely; (2) the user’s actions must have a non-trivial impact on the environment; and (3) the conventions of the world must be consistent, even if they don’t match those of ‘meatspace’. (term by Gibson, 1984)
Narrative and narrative genres are often used as a way of defining the conventions of a world and to help the user align their expectations with the logic of the world. It is no accident that role-playing and adventure games, the video game genres that have the most in common with more linear time-based narrative forms such as the cinema, were among the first to go three dimensional. However, narrative is not necessarily a key component of most video games. Instead, many players value games at a nondiegetic level – at the level of gaining points. They try to formulate a winning (or at least an extravagant) strategy, and want to show off their expertise to other players during the game and afterward, during replay. To be so engaged with a game that a player reaches a level of near-obsessiveness is sometimes referred to as deep play. The term originated with Jeremy Bentham, in his The Theory of Legislation (Amsterdam: Thoemmes Cortinuum, 1931 reprinted 2005). Bentham was referring to a state of mind in which users would enter into games almost irrationally, even though the stakes were so high it was pointless for them to engage in them at all. “The example given was: a man whose fortune is a thousand pounds; if he wagers five hundred of it on an even bet, the marginal utility of the pound tie stands to win is clearly less than the marginal disutility of the one he stands to lose. ‘Having come together in search of pleasure [both participants] have entered into a relationship which will bring the participants, considered collectively, net pain rather than net pleasures.’” (Id.)
According to users, the term deep play, as used in gaming magazines, refers to “a player accessing/accumulating layers of meaning that have strategic value… like ‘deep play’ in a Dungeons and Dragons [board game] context would mean knowing all the monsters and the different schools of magic, for example, whereas ‘shallow’ play would mean more ‘up and running hack and slash’ style of play.” (Herz, 1997) The term deep play, when referring to video games, then, is a measure of a player’s level of engagement.
Seeing how much time is devoted to virtual worlds, it seems that a significant portion of the population finds a life mediated through one’s Earth avatar less fulfilling than life mediated through an Earth avatar and one or more virtual others as was seen, for example, with Dutch and Tenaj. (Alter, 2007) Digital media, including video games, enable them to manipulate their ‘selves’ and to multiply them indefinitely. (Filiciack, 2003) Many appear to enjoy these different identities each of which enjoys its own reputation.
The notion of identity is one of the most important questions posed by Western culture; ‘self’ is the measure of reality. (Bolter, 1984) We match our ‘selves’ to social relations and in specific situations we present a different ‘version’ of ourselves. To be conscious is to be engaged in a world that embeds and defines the subject. (Davies, 2002) Carl Jung wrote about personas, the mask being an integral part of our personality and shaped according to the need to match it with cultural requirements. (Campbell, 1972 citing Jung, 1959) Today individuals are encouraged to create their personas according to standards presented by mass media. One creates a persona for oneself in a manner similar to the celebrities who are creating trade marks for not only their products but also for themselves. (Walsh, 2004; see also, Pickett v Prince, 207 F.3d 402, 403 (7th Cir. 2000))
A random sample of the moniker changes of celebrities shows a rather predictable fact that when authors and celebrities adopt new symbols to identify themselves, they pick better trademarks: shorter, more memorable names with more appealing connotations. Fabricated monikers include Woody Allen (Allen Konigsberg), Alan Alda (Alphonso D’Abruzzo), Anne Bancroft (Anna Maria Italiano), Pat Benatar (Patricia Andrejewski), Jack Benny (Benjamin Kubelsky), Mel Brooks (Melvin Kaminsky), George Burns (Nathan Birnbaum), Tom Cruise (Thomas Mapother IV), Tony Curtis (Bernard Schwartz), Kirk Douglas (Issur Danielovitch), Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman), Cary Grant (Archibald Leach), Elton John (Reg Dwight), Karl Malden (Mladen Sekulovich), Barry Manilow (Barry Alan Pincus), Ricky Martin (Enrique Martin Morales), Walter Matthau (Walter Matuschanskayasky), Chuck Norris (Carlos Ray), George Orwell (Eric Blair), Jack Palance (Walter Palanuik), Martin Sheen (Ramon Estevez), Ringo Starr (Richard Starkey), Sting (Gordon Sumner), and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens). For more examples, see Nom de Guerre, http://go.to/realnames. Such monikers are not always voluntarily adopted. Some performers have been pressured to use stage names. This was allegedly the case with John Mellencamp (ne John Mellencamp, but previously called Johnny Cougar, John Cougar, and John Cougar Mellencamp). Not all celebrities take or are forced to take this course – for instance, Madonna and Britney Spears are well known for the hyper-fabrication of their popular images, but have retained their birth names: Madonna Louise Ciccone and Britney Jean Spears, respectively. Another example, Prince Rogers Nelson (who was formerly known as “Prince”) changed his name to a symbol defying conventional articulation. Though the symbol defies articulation, it has the benefit of being registered as a trademark and also subject to copyright protection, unlike the vast majority of personal names. Judge Posner explained: “The defendant, identified only as “Prince” in the caption of the various pleadings, is a well-known popular singer whose name at birth was Prince Rogers Nelson, but who for many years performed under the name Prince and since 1992 has referred to himself by an unpronounceable symbol reproduced as Figure 1 at the end of this opinion. The symbol is his trademark but it is also a copyrighted work of visual art that licensees of Prince have embodied in various forms, including jewellery, clothing, and musical instruments.” Pickett v Prince, 207 F.3d 402, 403 (7th Cir. 2000)
C. Identity and Reputation
In a place that offers numerous different virtual worlds, the virtual body becomes the vehicle of choice. The thinking part of humanity – the Self – will find it expedient to don and remove avatars as economic, social, and political circumstances dictate. (Huhtamo, 1995) Avatars “are much more than a few bytes of computer data – they are cyborgs, a manifestation of the Self beyond the realms of the physical, existing in a space where identity is self-defined rather than preordained.” (Reid) Some have taken this idea all the way to court. In Tyler v Carter, 151 F.R.D. 537 (S.D.N.Y. 1993), the plaintiff claimed she was a cyborg who received her information through ‘proteus’. Among other things, the plaintiff alleged that former President Jimmy Carter was the secret head of the Ku Klux Klan and that he, former President Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot were responsible for the murder of at least ten million black women in concentration camps. Needless to say, the case was dismissed sua sponte for being fantastic and delusional under United States Federal Rule of Procedure 12(b)(6). Virtual environments are the domain of liquid identity. This identity question causes all kinds of insecurities. Just who is the puppeteer hidden behind this little mass of bits and bytes displayed on my computer screen? Can I trust this person? Are they who they say they are? Are they really representing what they say they represent? Can I do business with someone I can not see?
In any medium, social cooperation relies on trust. “The very possibility of achieving stable mutual cooperation depends upon there being a good chance of a continuing interaction” because it is through repeat play that trust is developed. (Axelrod, 1984) Signals of commitment are needed to support cooperative behaviour. We usually rely on face-to-face mechanisms for creating these signals and trust. (Moringiello, 2005) Cyberspace by its nature facilitates interaction which is independent of geography, physical space or even physical place. It changes how we engage in social relations. (Noveck, 2005) As soon as something is valuable and persistent, we seek to associate rights and duties with it. What will those rights be? And what will be the law of online identity to which those rights apply? Raph Koster (2000) has drawn up a Declaration of the Rights of Avatar. “Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.”
At first blush, this may seem to pose a marked challenge for legal theory. Law is built on the concept that the self is a unitary, rational actor. Nevertheless, psychologist, Sherry Turkle, has contended that “the ability of the agent to represent herself as a different person in different online communities, without anyone being able to trace one identity to another, effectively creates multiple ways of knowing, which can be thought of as multiple selves.” (Turkle, 1995) This may be a semantic issue. In such an argument, what are referred to as ‘multiple selves’ are not the same as the ‘unitary, rational, choosing self’. To be more precise, the ‘multiple selves’ exist purely because a unitary higher-order actor, deciding rationally, chose to generate and then occupy them. This higher order actor is the “Self”. (Id.) At any given moment, one can actively create himself. One’s ‘self’ arises just to be revoked a moment later and replaced by another ‘self’ – equally as real as the previous one. Michel Foucault (1980) stressed that “there is no inside ‘self’, no essence making me who I am.” For Foucault, people do not have a ‘real’ identity within themselves; that’s just a way of talking about the self — a discourse. An ‘identity’ is communicated to others in your interactions with them, but this is not a fixed thing within a person. It is a shifting, temporary construction.
Post-modern identity is a self-aware identity. The mechanisms running and ruling today’s world are complex social relations which require maximum flexibility. Therefore, we relinquish the attempts to maintain a single constant “Self”. (Id.) Identity is merely a set of facts: name, location, employment, position, age, gender, or merely certain online behaviours. Identity in the real world is carried with an individual from context to context – the office meeting, the cocktail party or the football field. He ‘is’ those set of facts. On the other hand, reputation is contextual. On the football pitch, one may be the great coach. But in the office meeting, one might always be the late comer. The fact that one is a winning sports coach is unlikely to automatically earn respect as an expert at a wine tasting. People do not carry a “good” reputation into all the different areas of their lives. Reputations are earned within particular contexts. (Zimmer, 2000)
Conceivably the emergence of avatars will expose behaviours that seem contradictory under present theories about the nature of tastes. This flexibility would have been condemned in the old paradigm as inconstancy which is associated with insincerity, hypocrisy, or mental illness. Nowadays, it is a positive attribute. A new, more useful model replaces the non-functional monolithic self. Everybody is a player, and must do everything to the ‘Self’ to the conditions of the game in order to play better. Anthony Giddens describes this as the “narrative of the self”. He believes our everyday activities consist in strengthening and reproducing a set of expectations (theory of structuration). (as cited by Gauntlett, 2002) This leads to hyper-identity which is related to identity as a hypertext is to a text. (Filiciak, 2003; Foucault, 1980) It is more of a process than a finished formation, a complex structure that is updated incessantly by choosing from the multitude of solutions. The argument could be made that the emergence of anonymity on the internet changes nothing essential about the nature of human behaviour. “There will be times and places where it may be alright or even desirable for people to be anonymous, perhaps in areas where confidential feedback is sought or where knowing specifically who someone is just is not important. Alongside such anonymity, there will be occasions and locations where any kind of dissimulation about identity is not only wrong, it is a felony.” said Irving Wladawsky-Berger, chairman emeritus of the IBM Academy of Technology, “For instance, an adult pretending to be a child so that they can enter a virtual world that’s meant to be only for kids.” (reported by Martens, 2007) Throughout history, technological advancements have allowed the “Self” to act in assorted ways in diverse communities, without anyone being the wiser. The internet only exaggerates this ability.
Hence, it can be suggested that what is changing is not the “Self”, which remains unitary, but the effortlessness with which the “Self” can manipulate its appearances in different physical spaces. It exists in the state of continuous construction and reconstruction. (Giddens as cited by Gauntlett, 2002) But again, this is nothing new. People have lived double lives since time began. Liquid identity is not in conflict with constancy if the object that integrates the individual’s activities. The significance in which these lives are ‘double’ is wholly a social construct. But it is the individual mind that decides what style coheres. The history of video games indicates that there is no perfectly ‘reflective’ avatar; i.e., one that resembles the player visually (like in a mirror) and seems to gaze back on her. If the avatar is a reflection, its correspondence to embodied reality consists of mapping not of appearances but of control. One way to consider this ‘reflective relationship’ in third-person games such as the Tomb Raider series (1996 – present), in which a ‘chase camera’ follows the avatar but rarely reveals her face, is by analogy a two-mirror system. Positioning a hand mirror so that its reflection is visible in a larger mirror, I can, for example, glimpse the back of my own head: the image is still recognizably me, yet I do not return my own gaze.
From the point of view of theory, no incongruity occurs when someone appears in Second Life as both a young man and an old woman. If variety is really the spice of life, theorists would predict that the unitary actor will opt for a number of different physical appearances by which to materialize. The development of avatars, and the shifting of the “Self” between them, has no real consequence for the applicability of rational choice theories. (Castronova, 2003; Turkle, 1995; Rehak, 2003) In conventional terms of reasoning, post-modern identity can be considered schizophrenic; however, it should not be looked upon as pathology but as a virtue.
However, these changes have consequences for the communities that humans form. Rational choice theories of social effects stress the importance of information for the preservation of social norms. The enforcement of norms is effective only if it is possible to impose some kind of penalty on the violators. Resolving problems is less likely to involve law enforcement and more likely to centre around the contracts entered into when becoming a member of a particular virtual world, according to Beth Simone Noveck, a professor of law at the New York Law School. “We’ll see the emergence of more sophisticated contract services,” she said, “so that the residents in a virtual community set the rules on which their world is based and take all the major decisions on the criteria for the entry contract.” (Martens, 2007)
As such, past reputational data should be preserved, transparent, and widely shared in order to produce reliable and persistent online identities. “Our conception of identity is dependent on the technology that mediates between social interaction.” (David, 2005) In a virtual community, the ‘real’ “Self” is hidden behind the avatar generally. Consequently, any punishments the community may dictate can only be imposed on the avatar, not the “Self”. The “Self” is free to simply exit the avatar and escape unscathed. (Mnookin, 1996; Lessig, 1999) Although, identity online is more easily created, abandoned or shielded than in real life, virtuosity is making that both easier yet more difficult. Tools such as OpenID and ClaimID are the beginnings of managing virtuosity across online spaces. OpenID allows people to carry their identity from one virtual place to another for convenience, while ClaimID gives them a tool to pool and manage their various reputations. OpenID is a solution for the log-in problem of having multiple identities online. With OpenID, a person creates one master identity online at a site that he uses a lot and tends to remain logged in to–for instance, a social network site or a personal blog. When that person needs to identify himself to another new site, he points that site toward his main identity-providing site where he is already logged in. His main site sends the new site his log-in credentials, so the new site now knows who he is. In theory, if OpenID was adopted on every Web site around the Web, you’d need only one universal log-in and could forgo the often tedious practice of remembering user names and passwords. (http://www.openid.org/news.aspx ; http://www.virtuosity.com/)
Technology, thus, defines the scope of social relationships and our online social interaction has different characteristics. The most important characteristic being that identity is becoming enriched with more persistent forms of reputation. Reputation is of course tied to an identity. They are two sides of the same coin. Reputation, however, is earned over time. As such, identity without reputation is nearly meaningless. It is a measure of reputation allowing us an assessment of risk in doing business with someone. In business at the moment of “transaction” (however it is defined) what is needed is to know and determine is reputation. So, reputation devices like credit scores or a domain name system or eBay ratings have been created. (Resnick, Zeckhauser, Swanson, and Lockwood, 2006)
A reputation is the “estimation in which a person or thing is commonly held.” (Oxford Dictionary, 1975) Reputation is a fundamental part of your virtual self. Conversations in virtual worlds can be stored, and who you are becomes more a function of the community’s view of you, your behaviour and your contributions to a particular piece of a virtual world. In this social software environment of collaborative creativity and interaction, representation becomes malleable and reputation becomes community-created. As such, online reputation needs to recognize the interests of the collective as well as of the individual in the manner in which identity is constructed online.
In a pay-for-play game like World of Warcraft for example, reputation is key. Listed below are the different reputation levels. Generally speaking, you start out as neutral with most factions; gaining friendly takes some effort, but it’s not excessive. Honored is a bit more challenging; revered and exalted are monumental accomplishments requiring tremendous effort.
Exalted: The highest level of reputation attainable with any faction.
Revered: Special reputation level reserved for heroes.
Honored: 10% discount on bought items from vendors.
Friendly: Standard reputation level which gives access to certain vendor items.
Neutral: Standard reputation level for factions that are not on a players list and are not KOS (Kill on Sight).
Unfriendly: Cannot buy, sell or interact, but are not KOS either. Isn’t that a real peach?
Hostile: KOS, there’s no coming back from this one folks.
Hated: KOS (all opposing team factions are set on this level).
(Reputation Guide at http://www.worldofwar.net/guides/reputation/)
Unfair play is punished by banning a player from the game. The player’s account is terminated, and all his avatars effectively eliminated, permanently. Unfortunately, nothing can stop the banished player from opening a new account, with a different credit card, and starting new avatars. (Mnookin, 1996; Lessig, 1999) Hence, it appears that nothing thwarts anyone from violating any and all social norms, without consequence. This may cause one to think that the future of a stable community in such an environment seem hopeless. The instability of online communities has been studied by sociologists for a long time. (Id.; Damer, 1998; Turkle, 1995; Yee) However, economists suggest that people/players will sort themselves into discrete units based upon how interested they are in living in a community regulated by particular social norms. (Samuelson, 1994; Johnson, 1997) Such arrangements are apparent in existing virtual worlds. Virtual worlds with built-in systems for maintaining player reputations seem immeasurably more popular than worlds where reputations cannot be known.
For example, AlphaWorld bestows upon all avatars the same capabilities at all times. AlphaWorld is the oldest collaborative virtual world on the Internet, and home to millions of people from all over the world. Since its birth in 1995, AlphaWorld attempted to do for 3D virtual worlds what web browsers did for the 2D Web: it created a tool for exploring and building three-dimensional spaces. The programmers at Active Worlds created a library of objects that users could assemble like Lego blocks into buildings, cars, and other composite structures. By 1998, they had released a software development kit that enabled users to build their own custom objects, called blocks. See The Active Worlds SDK, http://www.activeworlds.com/sdk, and particularly the timeline of changes to the SDK, at What’s New in the Active Worlds SDK, http://www.activeworlds.com/sdk/whatsnew.htm. With these tools, AlphaWorld users have not only replicated Rome’s Coliseum, but have created entire parallel worlds. For all this construction and creativity, Active Worlds has never been a commercial success: it only instituted a monthly-fee model in September 1997, and to date has only registered a total of 70,000 users, see The Activeworlds Corporation: Company Information, http://www.activeworlds.com/info/index.asp, partially because the world has no teleology. That said, AlphaWorld set the stage for a new generation of virtual worlds, like Linden Lab’s Second Life, that not only offer malleability to their users, but also economic freedom to sell their creations in both virtual markets and real-world exchanges. AlphaWorld has rapidly grown in size and is roughly as large as the state of California, and now exceeds 60 million virtual objects. (Id.) Consequently, a player who defies a social norm in AlphaWorld, if banished, can generate a new avatar immediately, using a different name, which will have all of the same capabilities and skills as previously. The community can have no effect on behaviour.
This is in direct contrast with a game like EverQuest. In EverQuest, a player’s ability to be a nuisance to others depends on his level of skills. These skills and talents can only be acquired by dedicating hours to an avatar, in team-based operations with other avatars. As a result, advancement in the game necessitates that a player become recognized for good play, so as to be invited into teams or guilds. A player who breaches the unwritten rules will not advance very far, purely on grounds of reputation. Indeed, there is little or nothing a player can achieve in EverQuest without the help of others. A player may weigh up starting again to obtain a new reputation by simply creating a new avatar; however, the new avatars are so weak and poor that they can be of very little use to anyone.
The incorporation of team effort and level-based advancement seems ample to support very strong social norms in the games. Consequently, such norms appear to be present. The wider implication is that the diversity of avatar characteristics is of practical use not only as an end in itself, but also as a means to force players to develop and maintain good reputations for their avatars. In World of Warcraft, the players are encouraged to go on quests and adventures for certain factions. What the player gains on the successful completion of the quests is a reputation. Gaining reputation with some factions allows you to purchase items that are unavailable to other players. Building reputation also opens up some unique quests, usually with impressive item rewards, that are similarly unavailable to others. (Reputation Guide at http://www.worldofwar.net/guides/reputation/) Specialized traits allow coordination of joint efforts, which can have the derivative consequence of inducing conformity to social norms. Avatars tend to mimic their players as they develop personality, individuality, and an ability to act within the virtual world – as any person on their way to maturity. (Rehak, 2003)
At the same time, no hierarchy of norms in virtual worlds can be really oppressive. Anyone wanting to participate according to a certain set of rules, or without any rules at all is free to occupy avatars in their chosen virtual worlds. A noteworthy point is that the systems that encourage norm formation also tend to slow down the shifting of populations which, in turn, leads to equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity becomes apparent as dissatisfied players can develop capital in different kinds of avatars. It becomes more obvious more quickly if the substitution of one powerful avatar for another can be accomplished swiftly. Reputation is a fundamental part of your virtual self. Conversations in virtual worlds can be stored, and who you are becomes more a function of the community’s view of you, your behaviour and your contributions to a particular piece of a virtual world.
In spite of that, a system that promotes reputations will need to require that it is not simple to develop capital rapidly in another avatar. If it were, players could ruin their reputation with one avatar, terminate that avatar, and then merely re-emerge with another avatar of comparable powers. Harriet Pearson, IBM’s vice president of regulatory policy and the vendor’s chief privacy officer, wonders about the concept of reputation bankruptcy. Might an individual who has fallen from grace in the virtual world and acknowledged their shortcomings then be able to effectively hit a “reset button” deleting their previous bad reputation and start over? In the same way that in the real world juvenile offender records are sealed so they can not be widely accessed, in the virtual world a former bad reputation could perhaps be expunged. “You don’t want to be bugged by what you did,” she said. “Avatars, our stand-ins in virtual environments like Second Life, Active Worlds and There.com, give little away about who’s pulling their strings in the real world.” (Martens, 2007)
The credibility of social norm enforcement relies on the degree to which a player has a vested interest in the fate of the avatar. If players are deeply invested in their avatars, and are reluctant to create new ones, it will take more time for the levelling process of population shifting to occur. A big problem in Second Life is that it takes a long time to figure out how to do things. Once this is solved, Second Life could become a smoother road than the web itself. “So taking that average of the four hours it takes now for people to understand Second Life down to 40 minutes will move us from 10% retention of users to more than 50% and then the 3D web will rapidly be the dominant thing and everyone will have an avatar.” (Bulkley, 2007) There is a trade-off between equal opportunity and social order. Players will choose virtual worlds based on their relative desires for both. (Johnson, 1997; Castronova, 2003)
Of course the natural laws of earth do not necessarily apply in a virtual world that exists entirely as software. As such, much of what characterizes an avatar’s uniqueness is its ability to bend or break some of these laws and not others. Contingent on the skills selected, an avatar may be able to see for miles, cast spells, hypnotize, heal wounds, teleport themselves, or shoot great flaming fireballs at other avatar’s heads. However, there are budget constraints. Those who can heal or hypnotize often have difficulty summoning a fireball worthy of mention. Accordingly, avatars come to view themselves as specialized agents, much as workers in a developed economy do. The avatar’s skills will establish whether the avatar will be a demander or supplier of various goods and services in the virtual world. (Damer, 1998) Each avatar cultivates a social role.
While the undertaking of designing enjoyable avatars and virtual worlds may be complex and somewhat byzantine, the fact remains that these virtual worlds are in demand which, consequently, suggests that they will have the net effect of increasing cumulative well-being. IBM believes that virtual worlds and other 3D Internet environments offer significant opportunity to our company, our clients and the world at large, as they evolve, grow in use and popularity, and become more integrated into many aspects of business and society. As an innovation-based company, IBM encourages employees to explore responsibly and to further the development of such new spaces of relationship-building, learning and collaboration. As we engage in these new environments, IBMers should follow and be guided first and foremost by our values and our Business Conduct Guidelines. (IBM Virtual World Guidelines)
All told, the readiness to pay for participation in a shared virtual reality environment is conditional upon the emotional experiences that the environment provides which, in turn, is a function of the attributes a player is permitted to have, as well as the player’s inherent non-physical attributes and the attributes of the environment itself. The virtual world builders control the coding authority, and the coding authority can make the virtual world into absolutely anything that the mind can imagine. Philip Rosedale CEO of Linden Lab told the Guardian that they are building the technology to allow a Second Life avatar identity to wander out across the web. The founder of the virtual world Second Life believes that his company, Linden Lab, is at the forefront of the internet’s next big revolution – the 3D web. “We are building the backend to support that. We believe the concept of identity through your avatar will span the web. We are going to seek to enable that. Technology-wise, it’s only about 18 months away. I do think we will see some interconnected virtual worlds… But reputation must come right along with identity.” (Bulkley, 2007)
Therefore, anything that the players can do to influence the virtual world creators, in some manner outside the game, can be used to change the very nature of the virtual world within the game. (Lessig, 1999) As we delve deeper and wider into virtual spaces, both our identities and reputations are scattered across them. The rise of these types of difficult problems of choice in cyberspace has nothing to do with the fact that human beings are interacting via avatars in virtual reality; it has everything to do with the fact that they are human beings, interacting. The next chapter explores whether identity gives rise to personhood which, in turn, could create a property right.
1. Alter, A. (2007) Is This Man Cheating on His Wife? The Wall Street Journal 2. Allakhazam’s Magical Realm at http://links.allakhazam.com/EverQuest/Guilds retrieved 3. Axelrod, R. (1984) The Evolution of Cooperation. 4. Barzel, Y. (1997) Economic Analysis of Property Rights. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press 5. Bentham, J. (1931 reprinted 2005). The Theory of Legislation. Amsterdam: Thoemmes Cortinuum 6. Bolter, J.D. (1984) Turing’s Man: Western Culture in the Computer Age. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 7. Bolter, J.D. & Grusin, R. (2000) Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 8. Bulkley, K. (2007) Today Second Life, tomorrow the world. The Guardian 9. Campbell, J. (1972) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press 10. Castronova, E. (2001) Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 618 11. Castronova, E. (2003) Theory of the Avatar. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 863 12. Cervantes, M. (1605) Don Quixote de la Mancha. Starkie, W. trans. (1957) London: MacMillan & Co 13. Damer, B. (1998) Avatars! Berkeley, CA: Peachpit Press 14. David, P.A. (2005) “From Keeping ‘Nature’s Secrets’ to the Institutionalization of ‘Open Science’” in CODE: Collaborative Ownership and the Digital Economy, Ghosh, R.A. ed. 15. Davies, E. (2002) “Synthetic Mediations: Cogito in the Matrix” in Prefiguring Cyberculture: An Intellectual History. Toffts, D., Jonson, A.M. & Cavallaro, A. eds. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press 16. Dibbell, J. (2003) The Unreal Estate Boom: 79th Richest Nation on Earth Doesn’t Exist. Wired Magazine 17. eBay listings, Internet Games at http://listings.ebay.com/pool2/listings/list/all/category4596/index.html 18. Filiciak, M. (2003) “Hyperidentities – Post-modern Identity Patterns in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games” in The Video Game Theory Reader. Wolf, M.J.P & Perron, B. eds. London: Routledge 19. Foucault, M. (1980) Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977, Gordon, C. ed. London: Harvester 20. Gauntlett, D. (2002) “Anthony Giddens: The Theory of Structuration”, extract of Media, Gender, and Identity: An Introduction. London and New York: Routledge 21. Gibson, W. (1984) Neuromancer. London: HaperCollins Publishers 22. Herz, J.C. (1997) Joystick Nation: How Video Games Ate Our Quarters, Won Our Hearts and Rewired Our Minds. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, and Company 23. Huhtamo, E. (1995) “Encapsulated Bodies in Motion: Simulators and the Quest for Total Immersion” in Critical Issues in Electronic Media. Penny, S. ed. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press 24. IBM Virtual World Guidelines at http://domino.research.ibm.com/comm/research_projects.nsf/pages/virtualworlds.IBMVirtualWorldGuidelines.html 25. Johnson, S. (1997) Interface Culture: How New Technology Transforms the Way We Create and Communicate. San Francisco, CA: Harper Edge 26. Jung, C. (1959 reissue) The Undiscovered Self. New York: Signet Books 27. Kline, S., Dyer-Witheford, N. & de Peuter, G. (2003) Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. Montreal, Canada: McGill-Queen’s University Press 28. Koster, R. (2000) A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. http://raphkoster.com/gaming/playerrights.shtml 29. Lastowka, G. & Hunter, D. (2004) The Laws of the Virtual World. 92 Calif. L. Rev. 1 30. Lehdonvirta, V. Real Money Trade of Virtual Assets: New Strategies for Virtual World Operators, Helsinki Institute for Information Technology (HIIT) at http://www.hiit.fi/u/vlehdonvirta 31. Lessig, L. (1999) Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace. New York: Basic Books 32. Martens, C. (2007) IDG News Service, Boston Bureau, WORLDBEAT: ID malleability creates virtual-world issues, IDG News Service at http://www.itworld.com/Net/2614/070627id/ 33. Massive Multiplayer Online: Clans and Guilds, Open Directory Project at http://dmoz.org/Games/Video_Games/Roleplaying/Massive_Multiplayer_Online/Clans_and_Guilds 34. McMahan, A. (2003) “Immersion, Engagement, and Presence: A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games” in The Video Game Theory Reader. Wolf, M.J.P. & Perron, B. eds. London: Routledge 35. Mnookin, J. (1996) Virtual(ly) Law: The Emergence of Law in LambdaMOO, 2 J. Computer-Mediated Comm. Vol 2 Issue 1 36. Moringiello, J.M. (2005) Signals, Assent, and Internet Contracting. 57 Rutgers L. Rev. 1307 37. Morningstar, C. & Farmer, F.R. (1991) The Lessons of LucasFilm’s Habitat, in Cyberspace: First Steps available at http://www.fudco.com/chip/lessons.html 38. Murray, J. (1997) Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press 39. Noveck, B.S. (2005) Trademark Law and The Social Construction of Trust: Creating The Legal Framework for Online Identity. 83 Wash. U. L. Q. 1733 40. The Pocket Oxford Dictionary (1975) Oxford: Clarendon Press 41. Poole, S. (2000) Trigger Happy: The Inner Life of Videogames. London: Arcade 42. Provenzo, E. (1991) Video Kids: Making Sense of Nintendo. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press 43. Rehak, B. (2003) “Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar” in The Video Game Theory Reader. Wolf, M.J.P. & Perron, B. eds. London: Routledge 44. Reid, E. Text-based Virtual Realities: Identity and the Cyborg Body at http://www.rochester.edu/College/FS/Publications/ReidIdentity.html 45. Reputation Guide at http://www.worldofwar.net/guides/reputation/ 46. Resnick, P., Zeckhauser, R., Swanson, J. & Lockwood, K. (2006) The Value of Reputation on eBay: A Controlled Experiment, Experimental Economics, Vol 9, Issue 2 47. Samuelson, P. et al (1994) A Manifesto Concerning the Legal Protection of Computer Programs. 94 Columbia Law Review 2308 48. Simpson, Z.B. (1999) The In-game Economics of Ultima Online at http://www.mine-control.com/zack/uoecon/uoecon.html 49. Steuer, J. (1992) Defining Virtual Reality: Dimensions Determining Telepresence. Journal of Communication, 42, No. 4 50. Turkle, S. (1995) Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster 51. Ultima Online, New Player Guide at http://www.uo.com/newplayer/newplay_0.html 52. Walsh, M. (2004) I, Product Wired Magazine 53. Yee, N. The Norrathian Scrolls: Real-Life Demographics at http://nickyee.com/eqt/demographics.html 54. Zimmer, L. (2000) Identity versus Reputation: Wandering and Wondering in Virtual Spaces, at http://freshtakes.typepad.com/sl_communicators/2007/05/identity_versus.html