“I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together.”
“I am the Walrus,” The Beatles (Lennon/McCartney, 1967)
Some people think that inhabiting an online world is a way of escaping from yourself; others think it is a way of escaping from others. This is not the case; not in my case, and certainly not in the cases of those I study. Being an avatar means exploring the self as much as it means exploring others; more specifically, it means exploring the self through others. The other becomes the medium for exploration of the self. The context of networked play creates a very intense level of intimacy that is not greater or less than intimacy in the real world: just different. Play and imagination open up avenues for connections that we might not have access to otherwise. And these connections are often a surprise. You never know what will happen to you once you become an avatar.
There is a certain audacity in this process of embracing dual roles; an element of the grand experiment. Within the overall experiment, each individual’s experience is unique. A player once told me that at first he felt himself to occupy a different role than his avatar, but that over time, his avatar became more like him, and he became more like his avatar. To quote one of my Uru study participants, making a twist on a Marshall MacLuhan adage: “We create our avatars, and thereafter, our avatars create us.” (ref)
What does it mean to be mediated, to extend your self into another form, to create and express yourself by means of a social prosthesis? To be mediated is to be transformed. Yet avatar play is not only transformative, but it is also uniquely social.
When I, Artemesia, was born, on 12 March, ten days before the birth of The Gathering of Uru in There.com, I was the sole creation of my Creator, Celia Pearce. But now, over two years later, I have transformed into something else. As the group’s ethnographer, I have been socially constructed by The Gathering of Uru. As the avatar has been socially constructed, so has the person, Celia Pearce. So the question becomes, did she make me or did they make me? And to what extent have I made her? Being me has changed her in ways she never anticipated. She made me to study others like me, and now she has become one of them, one of us. At the same time, I have also served as an instrument for the social construction of Dr. Celia Pearce, PhD, for her transition into her new performative role.
One thing I have learned, we have learned, is that you can find out nothing about life on the screen unless you go into the screen. You have to be an avatar to study and understand them.
Objectivity is often reified in research and science, but can you really learn about anything from studying it objectively? Can we not learn more from studying multiple subjectivities including our own? There is no way “study” an avatar’s behavior without placing yourself into that online space: without being one. Once you become an avatar, you are on a level playing field and anything can happen. Emotions creep in. Friendships form. No-one is immune to the Avatar’s spell.
As Artemesia, I exist in several forms. In There.com (my home), I am a graduate research student with a copper bob. Like my brother and sister avatars in There.com, I have physical attributes inspired by the prevalence of Disney cartoons and the pervasive Barbie doll aesthetic, though with smaller than “average” (for Barbie) breasts. In Second Life, I present as a pirate with ruddy dreadlocks, who lives on a galleon nestled in a cove. In Lineage, EverQuest and World of Warcraft, I am a mage- with a fair complexion and titian hair. Here, my identity is constructed largely of statistical powers encoded into the software: I rely on spells and my wits to conquer monsters and protect myself from harm.
When I “log off” of these worlds, when I untransform, or retransform, from Artemesia to Celia, Artemesia pops off the screen. The screen image of the various “mes” dissolves like a bubble, but Artemesia still exists inside Celia: she is still part of the complex of “mes” that is both Celia and Artemesia. Each of the “shes” is a ghost that haunts the rest of the complex “me,” and each haunts the others domain. The real world Celias haunt the virtual Artemesias, and vice versa. Even when Artemesia rests, when all of her “selves” are at rest, asleep somewhere in the memory of a hard drive, the essence of Artemesia still lingers somewhere, nowhere, but present in memory and impression, dormant, asleep, in a dream state. Perhaps my life as Artemesia is contained within Celia’s dream, or vice versa. Even so I, as Artemesia, am also present to others when I am resting from the screen. I am in their memories, remembered, referred to, and imagined by, and therefore in some sense “real” for those who have seen and played with me online. It is like what my friend and colleague Katherine Milton calls “cognitive haunting” (Milton 2006), thoughts that percolate in the back of your mind and return at unexpected times. My cognitive haunting is the lingering sense of the alternative persona, which wafts in and out like a ghost. We who inhabit avatars all know each other in this way. We can hold multiple identities both within ourselves and in our conceptions of each other.
I am as far away as I ever was from knowing what this all means. But I can say that it is much richer and deeper than most people even suspect that a deep role play experience can be. These words are the voice of the avatar of my avatar, the extension of the extension. I can do my best to explain, but you can never really know until you do it yourself.
One of the first days I spent exploring the terrain of There.com, in March of 2004, I came upon a kind of Moroccan-style pavilion on a sandy beach. There was a fountain in the center, and off to the side were four people playing spades. By their nametags, I could see their names were Ember, Daisy, Teddy and Clousseau. This was in the days before the voice feature was added, so communication took place via text that ascended from our heads in pastel-colored cartoon bubbles. These people were very nice, friendly, funny, fun-loving and open. They were horsing around a lot, and at one point, Clousseau got up on the spades table and started dancing. They were among the first people in There.com who I put on my Buddy List.
Around that time, I was trying to identify the type of emergent behavior that I wanted to study for my PhD project. I knew I wanted to find something that showed large-scale emergence. My original intention was to study mafia sub-culture within The Sims Online (TSO). I had heard and read that TSO had a thriving culture modeled after mafia movies and TV programs like The Sopranos, and that players involved in this scene were engaged in a variety of mob-related activities in-world, such as extortion, protection money, as well as some of the game’s “legitimate” businesses, like casinos, night clubs and pizza parlors. In fact, a philosophy professor named Peter Ludlow, one of the first journalists to cover events in cyberspace, had been recently barred from The Sims Online for exposing mafia activities and prostitution rings via his online newspaper, The Alphaville Herald. (footnote) (REF)
When I logged Artemesia onto TSO to investigate, I saw evidence of the mafia culture everywhere. From the aerial view of Alphaville, I could see numerous houses, casinos and pizza joints with names from mafia lore, like Gambino and Soprano. However, on closer inspection, I found that most of the mafia-themed locales were empty. I finally entered one of the mob houses, which appeared to be some kind of telephone solicitation business. Players sat at a bank of virtual phones making calls. Whenever they made a sale, you could hear the ka-ching of a cash register. When they finished their workday, they stopped at a desk where a woman who was apparently in charge gave them their cut of the day’s take. I made an attempt to communicate with them, but got no response. After wandering around for some time, I realized that whatever had happened here was well past its heyday and most of the people involved in the TSO mafia were no longer in the game.
Where had everybody gone? And Why? I logged back into There.com, where I recalled seeing an avatar in a “TSO Refugee” T-Shirt. A search revealed several groups of self-titled “Sims Online refugees,” the largest of which had about 800 members. When I looked up its founder, Zach, I noticed that he used a picture of his TSO avatar in the real life section of his profile, and that in creating his There.com avatar, he had used the same name and tried to approximate the appearance of his character from TSO. This was my first glimpse of inter-game immigration and persistent trans-ludic identities.
I contacted Zach and he invited me to the regular Wednesday night meeting at the TSO clubhouse in There.com. At the meeting, I told the group of about five or six people that I was a researcher and was interested in learning more about their immigration from TSO; they were very forthcoming, and clearly one of the aims of this get-together was to discuss their different experiences in online worlds. When I asked them why they left TSO, one said, “because I was tired of greening”—the activities such as eating, resting, socializing, washing and using the bathroom that keep your health and happiness bars in the green rather than in the red. Others complained that it was too much work: in order to earn money, players had to do mundane jobs, such as the phone solicitation or food service. Another player said that he had found in There.com everything he had hoped for but not found in TSO, namely a social environment. Most of the players at this meeting had, like Zach, transported their TSO identities into There.com by using the same names and attempting to re-create their avatars. In the course of the discussion, one of the players said something which at the time seemed like an offhand comment, but which was to set the course of my research, and my life in multiple ways.
“If you think we’re interesting, you should talk to the Uru people.”
I had heard of Uru, had heard its designer Rand Miller give a presentation of it at a video game conference. I had even managed to get an invitation to the beta test, but had never ended up playing. Zach gave me the names of some of the Uru people. Among them were the four people I had met playing spades in the Moroccan pavilion.
Thus began my adventure with the Uru Diaspora.
Early Encounters with the Uru Diaspora in There.com (April-May 2004)
Journal Entry, April 2004
One of the first contacts I have made is with Lynn, the Deputy Mayor of The Gathering of Uru in There.com. She and others tell me about the history of the group, how they were formed in Uru, which then closed, how they decided they wanted to say together, and so the bulk immigrated into There.com. One of the group members is building a replica of Uru in Adobe Atmosphere, and the group is hoping that once that is done, they can leave There.com and make the ‘Atmosphere Hood’ their primary home.
In one conversation, Uruvians tell me they had to repeatedly move before settling at their current locale. They were concerned that each move would harm the group’s cohesion, but it seems like just the opposite is happening. Each move seems to make them progressively more determined both to stay together and to stay in There.com, at least until another more permanent option can be found.
Meanwhile, they have set up their own Island, run by Leesa, the group’s mayor and founder. Her house is located at one tip of the Island; at the other is The Gathering of Uru Community Center. I now realize that that early encounter I had with Uruvians took place at the community center when it was at a different location. Adjacent to the Community Center is the Library, run by Nature_Girl. Here I find links to a number of web pages and videos showing the last days of Uru. There is much documentation of the last night, including photos of avatars holding hands, the final screen saying ‘There seems to be a problem with your connection,” and an image of Leesa saying “I love you.” It’s quite amazing that there is so much documentation. I’ve heard a handful of versions of this story thus far, and I expect I shall hear many more. I get a chill each time I hear it. It is obvious from the documentation and my conversations that this was a very traumatic experience and the emotions are still quite raw.
On May 21, There.com announced that it was redirecting its focus and although public servers would stay open, the software would no longer be marketed or updated as an active product line. In the preceding months, a number of people had already left due to a growing perception that There.com was a “sinking ship.”
This announcement was a pivotal moment in the life of There.com. But, due to their prior experiences with the closure Uru, it had even more profound implications to the survival of the Uruvian refugees it hosted. On the one hand, There.com needed subscribers more than ever; on the other hand, this type of announcement tends to lead in a drop-off in subscriptions. It seems that there is a feedback loop in which the more people who are present in the game the more people will enter and stay; conversely, if the population begins to wane, people will tend to log on less and stay for shorter periods. As one player told me, “When I log on, if I don’t see any of my friends logged on, then I leave.” This illustrates the way feedback operates in groups; people tend to follow trends.
Following this announcement, responding to what was described in forums as the “sky is falling” perspective, a number of players left the game. Another faction, including TGU, took a more counter-intuitive tack, which was to stay. They recognized that staying, and even recruiting new players would actually help the situation, and that by leaving they would only be aiding and abetting in There.com’s demise, that “the end of the world” would become a self-fulfilling philosophy. Vaguely aware of the power of emergence to help or harm, these players recognized that they had a certain amount of power, that by staying en masse, they could potentially avert yet another disaster.
The Uru people of course had been through this already. Some left at this point, disgruntled and angry about once again being at the wrath of the bottom line of a heartless corporation. But a significant number were quite passionate about avoiding a repeat of the Ubi/Cyan scenario, and it was through their efforts and those of a number of other died-in-the-wool members (many of whom, incidentally, had been beta testers), that There.com ultimately survived the summer. It seems in all these worlds there is an ongoing tension between corporate governance and players’ insistence on self-determination. This very much parallels the situation in LambdaMOO in the late 1990s, and it seems to be a recurring pattern. The more reflexive or sophisticated players appear to have an understanding of their power as a group; they realize that they can talk with their feet (in other worlds, with their money) and that sometimes talking with your feet means staying rather than going.
I also find it interesting how at-odds corporate priorities are with the core objectives of an online community. Although companies claim that they are all about the community, in the end, if they cannot maintain the bottom line or add value for their investors, all these Utopian ideals go right out the window. In the end, There.com, and Uru for that matter, is really only a business, isn’t it?
There.com did indeed last the summer and the TGU group continued going strong. In subsequent months, and no doubt because of their role in supporting There.com, the TGU family also began to embrace members who were not former Uru players. These were players who liked the ethos of the group, and, I would imagine, respected their determination to try and counter the trend and keep There.com open. It also became apparent to these members that Uruvians meant business and cared very deeply about community, a quality that was appreciated by some (although not all) members of the larger There.com populace.
Leesa and Revelation’s Wedding
Journal Entry, Logged in from Haslemere, Surrey, UK
Today was a kind of special day for the TGU group: Leesa and her in-world boyfriend Revelation got married, staging an elaborate in-world wedding. I have been to many weddings of all kinds, and was amazed by how much it felt like being at a “real” wedding. It was also clear that a great deal of preparation had been done not only by the bride and groom but by their friends as well, so it really had the sense of a major event.
And no wonder: while not the first There.com wedding that involved group members it was certainly the most significant. The chapel where the ceremony took place was completely packed. For the TGU community, this was more than just an in-game wedding; it was a royal wedding. Leesa is, for all intents and purposes, the Queen of TGU. In fact, it was pretty much de rigueur for everyone in the community, including me, to attend.
I had asked Leesa in advance if I could take pictures for my research, and she asked if I wanted to be the official wedding photographer. This posed a couple of challenges. One was a technical issue with the server architecture of There.com: As more avatars entered the chapel, they began to degrade into “blockheads,” low-polygon models that replace avatars in high-traffic areas, so-called because of their cube-shaped heads. Naturally, this became a topic of discussion. As I often say, lag and related technical problems have become the “weather” of cyberspace. So it was if it was raining, I suppose, in avie terms. And just as would be the case had it rained during a real-life wedding, it impaired the experience somewhat, although I think the basic emotional content remained unchanged. If anything, this glitch just reinforced the constant frustration with There.com and its technical problems. The second issue really involved my own technical ineptitude and my lack of familiarity with Windows. I had trouble with the screen capture function, which required me to paste each individual image into a document, so in the end, I lost many of the images, but I was able to post some online for the attendees to see.
The ceremony itself took no more than a half an hour. As Deputy Mayor of TGU, Lynn was the obvious person to officiate. The vows were not unlike typical contemporary self-authored wedding vows; however, based on the fact that There.com was mentioned numerous times, coupled with the knowledge that the bride and groom had not met in real life, it seemed very clear that the commitment they were making was, at least for now, contained within the game. I’ve noticed with a limited sampling thus far that in-game commitments do not always translate into rl relationships. Zaire, a TSO refugee in There.com, told me she divorced three in-game husbands because they wanted to meet her in real life. It will be interesting to see what happens with Leesa and Revelation.
The significance of the wedding for the community could be clearly seen by how people were dressed. The men were wearing tuxedos, and the women wore glamorous outfits and formal attire. Some used the opportunity to change outfits frequently, presumably to gain “fashionista” points. I was surprised not to see anyone wearing a Yeesha costume. In fact, I rarely see anyone wearing a Yeesha in day-to-day interactions. Most Uruvians where civilian street clothes while out and about in There.com.
The ritual was modeled after a typical Western wedding. The only Uru tradition observed was the placement of the Uru fountain at the center of the area where the reception was held. As soon as the ceremony was over, everyone went over to the reception and jumped into the fountain, a tradition carried over from Uru.
(*Leesa and Revelation did eventually meet and became real-life partners.)