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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Avatar -- Are You An Avatar and What If You Are?

Wide-eyed Avatar
According to Wikipedia an avatar is "a computer user's representation of himself/herself or alter ego, whether in the form of a three-dimensional model used in computer games, (Keith Stuart, 2007) a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities, (Richard Aihoshi, 2000-09-27 and Jason Dobson, 2007) or a text construct found on early systems such as MUDS." In online gaming, a MUD (multi-user dungeon), pronounced /mʌd/, is a multi-user real-time virtual world described entirely in text. It combines elements of role-playing games, hack and slash, interactive fiction, and online chat. The etymology of the word avatar illustrates the historical significance of the term.The World Encyclopedia (2005) defined an avatar in Hinduism as "an incarnation of a god (especially Vishnu) in human or animal form that appears on Earth to combat evil and restore virtue. In Hindu tradition, there have been nine incarnations of Vishnu and a tenth is yet to come: these include Buddha, Krishna, and Rama." From this etymology, one would expect the gaming avatar to be virtuous and good in character. This is not always true. Fantasy worlds or science fiction settings based on universal books, movies, and history populated by fictional races and monsters are implemented in which players choose from a number of classes to gain specific skills and powers. Players slay monsters, explore the fantasy world, complete quests, go on adventures, create a stories by role playing, and advance the created character. Many MUDS are constructed around the dice-rolling rules of Dungeons and Dragons. At first glance, avatars appear to be nothing more than imaginary personal extensions of avid game players. Some MUDS referred to as MOOs, are used in distance education or for virtual conferences. MUDs have attracted the interest of academic scholars from many fields, including communications, sociology, law, and synthetic economies.
Old Frank As Free Avatar Representation
Adventure, created in 1975 by Will Crowther on a DEC PDP-10 computer, was the first widely used adventure game. (Nick Montfort, 2003 and Bill Stewart "Summary MUD History") Most MUDs are run as hobbies and are free to players; some may accept donations or allow players to purchase virtual items, while others charge a monthly subscription fee. Unfortunately, cases have occurred where people have paid large sums for virtual "money" and lost their entire investment in such games. The virtual world avatar also has an inventory. The inventory includes items the avatar has collected, earned or purchased. In gaming, these might include things like tools, weapons, ammunition, and food. The non-gaming avatar might collect clothing, accessories, memberships to clubs inside the virtual world, pets, vehicles, virtual currency, and many other items. Virtual world software remembers the avatar’s most recent appearance and inventory and restores them with each session. Inventories become very important extensions of power and prestige to avatars as they conquer their virtual domains. Last month, Ailin Graef (avatar name Anshe Chung) issued a press release announcing that her company's total holdings, comprised mainly of virtual land in Second Life, were worth more than a million real-life dollars. For those like me who aren't familiar with the complex economies of virtual worlds , such a claim may seem incomprehensible. After all, a game is a game and an avatar is a game piece. To many players, Graef controls their avatar universe with supreme authority.

Anshe Chung is controversial to some Second Life residents for reasons such as inflexibility on land pricing, the signs she has placed in many areas of the virtual world that are visible to anyone flying overhead, and her ability to get many residents to sell their land to her.

According to Ailin Graef (Daniel Terdiman, CNet News, January 5 2007), "We are, by revenue and customers, the largest virtual-world (land) developer and service provider--if you do not count platform creators like (Second Life publisher) Linden Lab, of course. We develop various kinds of content, such as land and landscapes, buildings, objects and whole communities."

Recently, during an interview--which took place in a digital theater in front of dozens of audience members' avatars--a group intent on sabotaging the event attacked it with 15 minutes of animated penises and photographs of Anshe Chung's real-life owner, Ailin Graef, digitally altered to make her look as if she was holding a giant penis. Later, the attack was posted on YouTube without Graef's permission as she claimed copyrights had been infringed because images of her avatar were used unlawfully.

So, what are the legal rights for a second-life avatar? Is defamation of a second-life character still defamation of character dependent upon the intent of the accused? That remains a question. Yet, typically one may find stories of Hollywood celebs make regular fools of themselves over complaining about silly paparazi pics shown without their consent. Are avatars merely dolls and not a true extension of the real person?

In 1993, the Village Voice's Julian Dibbell reported "A Rape in Cyberspace." Mr. Bungle, a character in the well-known MUD called LambdaMOO, "raped" two other LambdaMOO characters, lebga and Starsinger – that is, Mr. Bungle forced legba and Starsinger to perform "sexual acts" against their will on the MOO. The "rapes" caused an uproar among LambdaMOO participants, who debated at length about how they should respond to Mr. Bungle.

Dibbell explores what these debates might say about the formation of online communities, with their own rules for behavior and explicit consequences for transgressing those rules.

As reported in allexperts. com), the LambdaMOO community realized that they lacked laws governing such incidences and needed to determine proper punishments for crimes. And eventually, Mr. Bungle was removed from the system permanently thanks to the actions of user TomTraceback. However, LambdaMOO still lacks the power to take real life legal actions against the person behind an avatar.

Dibbell confronts the question of the relationship between the virtual world and the real world of human beings who created and controlled the characters:

"...indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has defined it. The actors in the drama were university students for the most part, and they sat rather undramatically before their computer screens the entire time, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia." (Dibbell, 450)

Does this enter into the Platonic binary of the mind-body split: "indeed no rape at all as any RL court of law has defined it."? Does the virtual environment of the MOO dramatically illustrate the separation of the intellectual self (mind) from the physical world (body).

According to Dibbell, much has been made in the professional literature of the ways in which online environments demonstrate postmodern "fragmented subjectivities," but even if people assume that the selves they present online – in a MOO or a chat room or on a listserv – are their "true" or "real" selves, stable and definable entities, they are still "a disembodied self, an intellectual self; it is a self that is separate from the physical world."

This view would suggest that new technologies must enhance that sense of self to enable the MOO participants to overcome the physical and explore the broader implications of the uses of modern technology.

I am not an avatar, and I don't believe I ever wish to explore their domains. Virtual worlds invite players to invest emotionally in their characters, and while the avatars are virtual, the players and their feelings are not. Definitions of emotional devastation and invasive behaviors remain the same. Yet, now the internet has allowed the distance required to inflict harm to others to increase, whether that harm results as abuse to an avatar or abuse to the real person. The threat remains the same, no matter the distance.

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