Monday, October 18, 2010

Human, Avatar and Doll: The Conflation of Identity, Image and Story

125 Years Later
The subject in the foreground is a 2010 Delilah Noir doll. The image in the background is from an antique reproduction of the 1879 lithograph, Cherry Ripe.
Although we "know" that the underlying humans we interact with in virtual worlds look nothing like the avatars who meet our eye, it is almost impossible to refrain from relating to them outside of a significant psychological association with their visible form. In my personal experience this is not only true when the viritual identity is pseudonymous, but also when the human is known to me, even when he or she is of a different gender than the avatar representation.

What is the relationship between the stories we hold about people related to their physical appearance and the real beings we encounter? Noticing how we psychologically conflate the obviously constructed appearance of avatars with the underlying person can help us upon our eyes to the same processes at play in the physical world.  Another place to notice the fictional construction of identity based upon physical form is our projection of personality on inanimate objects such as the doll and lithograph in the image above. 


Gracie Kendal said...

Great post. Funny, I was out and about looking at art yesterday and someone had photos of a Barbie Doll out in the real world. In one image, she was in the desert waving back to real people who were waving to her. It was very surreal to see, especially since as artists we are dealing with this very idea in Second Life.

I do have to say though, I don't really look at avatars anymore. Of course I'm referring to other people's avatars, but I don't pay attention. To me it's what is said in text or voice which is how I get to know someone and even then, gender doesn't matter. I seem to look past the avatar without thinking about it.
I have met several people from Second Life in real life. In fact even yesterday I met a friend while looking at art. I couldn't even remember what her avatar looked like, but her personality was exactly the same, vivacious, funny, exciting.
I do have to say though, I have had people tell me that in real life, I look like Gracie. I don't necessarily believe this, but I believe as you said, they already have this notion of who Gracie/Kris is based on the avatar and that idea may stay with them. I don't know. Definitely deep material to think about :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Hi Gracie: I recently discovered that there are avid collectors, photographers and artists who focus on dolls, toys and action figures. Two of my favorite groups on Flickr are The Secret Life of Toys" and Emotion in the Inanimate.

Focusing on text chat instead of avatars sounds like one way to mitigate the impact of the kind of subconscious confluence I described in the post. I tend to do that too, although in some sense that interrupts the immersion.

I've also heard from a number of people that when they met someone in RL who they had only known in avatar form, that the avatar expression did embody their sense of the human personality in some significant way. I don't believe that there is NO connection between one's inner being and the visual expression of an avatar, only that the visual aspects of BOTH humans and avatars can have a great impact on our perception of people than is reasonable.

Anonymous said...

When I meet someone from SL online, their uppermost thought seems to be how I do not resemble my avatar.

However, there are two flaws with that thought. First, they recognised me instantly, and second, after about 15 minutes or so, I'm almost invariably told how much I do look like my avatar (or vice-versa).

Botgirl Questi said...

Tateru: The human mind is pretty amazing! I was just chatting with a good friend of mine who I met in Second Life. Although I know what they look like in RL, it takes a concerted act of will to think of them in their human form rather than the avatar form. Although I don't think it makes any difference in terms of our friendship, it's a really interesting process to observe.

Mera Kranfel said...

Again an awesome blog posting =)

I am exactly like Gracie. I listen or read chat. I dont pay attention to avatars. I have never done that. I think its as simple as we are different. Some people use their eyes more, other their brai... hmm.. listen instead ;)

In irl I have a really bad memory for faces. Im slightly "face-blind" and that may be MY reason.

Irl I resemble my female avie a bit maybee(i have a mixed pic at my blog) but NOT the rabbit avie (I hope?)! =))

sororNishi said...

I have not met many SL people in RL but those that have, when asked, usually say..."oh, s/he is EXACTLY the same as in SL".

I think Gracie is completely right and that, in some way, we are better able to look past the physical form searching for the soul behind the avatar than we are able to in RL.

I find this very therapeutic in that I am not judged by my biomass.

Jim Tarber said...

I think both views here may be accurate: that our view of a person's being is subconsciously driven by our perceptions of the avatar, but also that we tend to try to see past that an learn who the person is behind the mask. Perhaps it is because of the former that we worker harder at the latter.

What is most interesting to me is that it seems to work the other way around as well -- when I get to know someone well in a virtual world, then meet them in RL, I see physical similarities in their RL visual appearance. To me they often look like their avatar, possibly because it is their avatar that I know best. And when I spend a lot of time with them in both worlds, I find myself mentally trying to focus on one or the other, because of the seemingly subconscious mental crossover to the other environment. I actually find it difficult to keep the avatar in the virtual world, and the RL human in the real world.

Mera Kranfel said...

Jim - I think you are right that we try harder to see who is behind the mask.

But I have met some avies irl and I have difficulties in seeing any similarities between the supermodel avie and irls often "plain jane" =))

I must add, i have nothing against "plain Jane", no the opposite, its the inside that are most important. And the behaviour is often similar =)

Miso Susanowa said...

Agree with Gracie also. In RL, I am used to costumery and people consciously designing their outward appearance. I am not fooled by that either; it is the person's reactions, statements and actions that tell me who they really are.

Take for instance Van Deisel of XXX and other fame; he looks like a skinhead punk, his voice matches that look... and he is known to be really a vegetarian, emo-type guy, totally at odds with his physical presentation.

In RL, I will often attach a nickname or name other than that presented to me by a person because it matches who they are, what I know of them much better than the label they have presented to me.

From being online a long time, I've met many people in atomic life after knowing them online. For the most part, their presence corresponds to their online identity; their looks are secondary to me. Also, I call them by the name I have known them and there doesn't seem to be any problem (they call me by my online names too). It's just a label.

re: your Barbie comments - you might look up (good friend) Kari French, who has been using Barbie this way for many years (her house is stuffed with over 500 "alternate Barbies")and has extensive photography and installations using them.

Vanessa Blaylock said...

I was at IJCAI with Rod Brooks once, and he said pretty much the most amazing thing I've ever heard in my life...

"I think we over-anthropomorphize... people"

I think it's clear how powerfully we project onto pets, dolls, toys, but it's fascinating to realize how much identity construction of others we do when we interact with them.

We craft elaborate personas for them - often more in-sync with us than they truly are... or more oppositional to us than they may be.

I love your post, it's a powerful insight. As you and others have explored in the comments, there are a lot of reasons it makes sense and a lot of reasons it could be deceptive.

Consider also that it's not just us mapping persona onto different virtual, or physical, avatars we encounter, but we map this onto ourselves as well.

FL or SL, we do wear different things on different occasions and they do give us different sorts of self-projections and empowerments. I had a college friend who wore different brands of shoes for different activities. He liked to wear Puma's for wrestling because them made him feel tenacious, Nike's for running because they made him feel fast.

And, of course, going on a first date with a zit on your face does not, generally, increase your confidence.

Perhaps you should try redoing (the brilliant) Episode 1 of Night & Day and replace your and Night's smexxy avatars with "Brains in Jars" talking.

Or alternately, keep the smexxy avatars, but replace your voices with Hamlet & Torley.

For 10 million years at least, our progenitors have refined the most complex machine in the known universe, and among it's primary tasks: the recognition of faces. We've been wired for a long, long time to recognize, discriminate, and care about faces and bodies.

Here are some of my own posts on Avatar Identity:

Anonymous said...

I agree...a great post. What I keep coming back to is that the appearance we give our avatars is an expression of our inner selves. This is true even if we are consciously trying not to look like our physical selves, changing genders, or adopting non-human appearances. We are still saying something about our inner reality.
That said, the absence of some of the physical cues and the awareness that the avatar is just a representation frees us to tune in and focus on one another in different ways. We pay less attention, as Grace said, to the appearance and more to word choice, sentence length, even the pauses and kinds of emoticons that are used. At the risk of sounding airy fairy I would suggest that we intuit and put our energetic feelers out to get to know one another as well. As for dolls....well we all need vehicles for our stories. If a doll can put a face to a character or help the storyteller visualize the tale, I say go for it. For years I had a set of little plastic horses that starred in an ongoing and quite complex series of stories. The day I realized I could no longer slip back into their world and forget about my own was a sad one for me. Why does that happen anyway? - Jenaia

Mera Kranfel said...


you said: "I think it's clear how powerfully we project onto pets, dolls, toys, but it's fascinating to realize how much identity construction of others we do when we interact with them."

Exactly. And i think that is part why i shift shape. I want people to see I am the same, what so ever. Its part of it anyhoo... But its not easy.

Maybee we should all be boxes for a day? Then we would be equal. The official BOX AVATAR DAY, w00t! :)

Botgirl Questi said...

Vaneeesa: Brains in jars would be fun. Love your site! Just poked around a little bit, but plan on returning when I have time to take it in.

tvwsp: I agree that just about every outward expression reflects some facet of our inner self. And that certainly applies to the rhythm and tempo of our texting.

Mera Kranfel said...

- Botgirl and Tvwsp: "I agree that just about every outward expression reflects some facet of our inner self. And that certainly applies to the rhythm and tempo of our texting."

True I also believe that to be honest. I just cant see any physical similarities between my male avie Vesper Kling and my rl self (165 cm, 48 kg and slightly curly hair) irl lol.

But as that avie I may be a little more secure in worlds sort of. He make me feel secure and I am therefore more outgoing I believe. In our society its sometimes easier to be a man. You get away with saying things you would not be able say as a female. I sort of "inherit" a male self esteem i lack irl =)) Otherwise I am the same I think..

My main struggle is more that I am not a native english speaker, Im swedish. I would be able to express myself more "vivacious" if I was a native Im sure. This is rather a handicap in this "game" =)