Pride & Prejudice, Dissertation Remix

Given our discussion yesterday on stereotypes and prejudices in SL and other virtual worlds, I thought I’d share this section of my dissertation on the subject. If anything, it gives good references 🙂       


Persistence of social norms in virtual identity exploration. Identity and role identification in MUVEs, as argued by Cleland (2008) is malleable in that the relative anonymity afforded by these environments allows users to experiment with and create alternate identity forms. While Cleland (2008) further argued that identification of the self with an avatar parallels Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) rhizomatic model of identity and the “Body without Organs” where the user can escape, by making the self fluid and mutable, totalizing social norms and society-imposed inscriptions, virtual worlds are shaped by these same societal values and mirror, as argued by many (Annetta et al., 2010; D. Bell, 2009; Boellstorff, 2008; Gazzard, 2009; Harrison, 2009; Herold, 2010; Messinger et al., 2008; Moore et al., 2007; Schultze & Leahy, 2009; Waterton, 2010; Yee et al., 2007), actual world identities and behaviors. Identity in virtual worlds is further limited by culturally and technically embodied hardware and software design constraints, most notably the extent to which actual world cultural norms and stereotypes are programmed into virtual environment software (Cleland, 2008).

                While freedom in these environments is limited by the socially constructed and value-laden functional abilities programmed in the metaprogram itself (Cleland, 2008), virtual worlds such as SL are designed to be, to some level, personalizable and encourage user-creation. Most users, however, whether due to limited programming abilities or personal choice, adopt stereotypical or idealized avatar identities (Messinger et al., 2008), leading to, as in the actual world, a commoditization of identity (Cleland, 2008; Harrison, 2009). Avatars, as discussed by Geser (2007) can never be authentic expressions of their creators’ true selves, but are rather shaped by expectations of how avatars should look like to conform to established social norms as well as to garner positive attention from other avatars.

For example, Herold (2010) argued using Baudrillard’s (1981) concepts of simulation and hyperreality that in-world identities, like actual world identities, are often created to produce references to specific situations or contexts where the avatar becomes identifiable through their assumed role in a given community and in SL in general.  Quoting Debord (1995), Boellstorff (2008) similarly argued that identity in virtual worlds is primarily understood through the customization of socioeconomic structures where production or within this context, creation, becomes a form of spectacle. As argued by Harrison (2009), commoditization of identity is particularly rampant and at the same time, essential to the sustainability of SL as a virtual community in that it allows for the materialization of a social memory that maintains a sense of belonging and shared values while excluding those that do not share these commonly held ideals. This thought, while radical and fundamentally rooted in ethnography, is also mirrored in some of the literature on in-world education.

                Riva (1999), for example, posited in an early exploratory study informed by Situated Action Theory that since any form of communication requires a framework of rules and meaning, many users are forced to resort to stereotypical attitudes and behaviors in-world for their identity to be not only recognized and accepted, but also to achieve an intersubjective understanding of actions and situations. Arora and Khazanchi (2010) similarly argued that for learners to attach meaning to a virtual space, it must replicate the physical and cultural characteristics of the actual world learning environment. Arora and Khazanchi have further posited that this sense of belonging fostered by the familiar environment could increase motivation to learn as well as help learners in utilizing the unique educational advantages afforded by the technology. While this has yet to be proven, such an approach to virtual world learning does, as argued by Savin-Baden (2008) and borrowing from Giddens’ (1984) work on identity and society, legitimize in-world institutions by naturalizing societal norms, values, and standards that should instead be challenged by the knowledge created in and through these same virtual environments.

                As argued by Cleland (2008), SL does allow for users to experiment with new modes of identity and being, but instead of leading to a self-alienating misrecognition of the self in a Lacanian sense, identification of the self with the avatar often reinforces, unlike Deleuze and Guattari’s (1980) conceptualization of the “Body without Organs,” hierarchies of socially produced meanings and inscriptions (Harrison, 2009; Waterton, 2010). It is instead the field of museum studies operating under dominant patterns of cultural values that is, as argued by Waterton, engaged in a process of misrecognization and which, in turn, feeds from the devaluation of immersive virtual experiences as inauthentic. After all, if in-world identity is only a continuation of our current postmodern non-linear reality, the cultural and social values of these virtual environments, as posited by Bukatman (1993) and empirically investigated by others in terms of in-world behaviors and social norms (Herold, 2010; Messinger et al., 2008; Moore et al., 2007; Prasolova-Førland, 2008; Schultze & Leahy, 2009; Yee et al., 2007), has also infiltrated into actual world identity, reinforcing the reversibility of the seer/seen relationship and creating a “third space” in which to learn (Salmon et al., 2010; Savin-Baden, 2008).

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Categories: Identity, Second Life, Virtual Reality


I am a graduate student studying how people experience informal education, particularly art, in virtual worlds such as Second Life. My background is in both Art History and Computer Science. Please feel free to email me or IM me in SL (Kathleen Koolhoven) if you have any questions regarding my current research or want to participate in my study.

6 Comments on “Pride & Prejudice, Dissertation Remix”

  1. Saturday, 18 August 2012 at 19:05 UTC #

    This is a really great essay Kathleen – wow – yay!

    I’m almost afraid to start commenting as I’ll probably go on for days on each paragraph… so, haha, I’ll start with a couple of formal thoughts…

    The academic tone is interesting… it does go a long way to legitimizing both the research and the environment itself. That this “play” is “serious play” of real cultural significance.

    Still, while it’s not that dense, I do wonder if the same ideas expressed with the accessibility of a Hemingway piece, might not reach a wider audience. Many of the authors you cite have written fairly dense works that have none-the-less achieved enormous power in many spheres. Still, IDK, maybe it’s just me, but it seems like there is a degree of cultural elitism in deciding that you will be one of those who crosses that line and delves into these “difficult masterworks.”

    Are they difficult because the concepts are truly that complex? Or is it a conceit of the authors? Or, in some cases, might it be an artifact of reading translations?

    Whatever with all that, it IS exciting to see “serious” writing “professionally” executed in a public space more typically characterized by joccy opinion. Your solid arguments backed up by evidence (citations) is compelling work.

    And I don’t have to dig up an expensive journal subscription or have a password or cross a paywall, I can just read it, anywhere on earth, no matter who I am. So awesome.

    Of course, like that proverbial chain of flowers, the knowledge network needs its attribution, needs its links. You’ve given tons of attribution, but no links. If we’re really going to build a new media salon of ideas, then we’d like our nodes and links to be as rich as possible.

    In some cases you may be able to link to HTML or PDF of the actual article, in other cases it might have to be to Google Scholar or Google Books or Amazon or Library Listings… but that’s still a fantastic start in building a powerful, open repository.

  2. Saturday, 18 August 2012 at 19:32 UTC #

    As you know, on Saturday 8 September, we’re performing VB42 – Avatar Pride Parade

    I’m hoping for a diverse range of participants, but yes, I presume the preponderance will be humanoidesque.

    Perhaps we should write up a previz for a “Transmogrification Festival” where we have another “parade” where your avatar can be anything BUT human…

    As this and a number of previous posts you guys have been putting up here on iRez have noted, both RL & VR we do cling to traditions and stereotypes for many reasons. Partly it’s what we know. Partly it’s what we’re comfortable with. In many cases it’s about gender and sex. It can be about possibilities either too far out to have been thought of yet, or too far out to be comfortable with (yet)

    And, hahaha, I guess it’s about a sort of body-mind problem! 🙂

    I think for many of us it’s all about “mind,” but body still matters. As far as I know most of we iRez authors haven’t met each other RL F2F, so really, I or You, or anyone else actually COULD be a Space Alien or “Secretly a Dog” or a blob of protoplasma behind a keyboard somewhere on Earth, or now, Mars.

    So who knows, maybe “I” am the only “real” human author on the blog and everyone else is secretly another species or a robot or alien or sentient program, etc…


    the question is, do I want to walk around virtual space in a humanoid, bipedal body? Or would I be happy floating thru the VW as a bamboo stick? If it’s all about my “mind,” then a bamboo stick or a cloud or nothing, should be fine.

    In my limited experience with non-human avatars, I do think the more “exotic” ones, like a bamboo stick or a piece of plastic or a sandwich wrapper, do feel less “real” or less “present” or less “immersive” to me.

    We humans love our dogs; when frustrated we hit our computers; yet I think we do draw mental lines that they are different. Wikipedia is, in fact, “smarter” than any human alive, yet we don’t think of it as a great social companion, nor do we afford it human rights. Wikipedia is simultaneously more than human, and less.

    A Transmog Fest would be pretty easy to do. Some peeps will already have or want to make all sorts of things themselves. But as I commented on another post, there are more diverse noob avatar choices in SL today (available in your inventory even if you don’t happen to be a noob) so you can easily be a dog or car or robot.

    I’ve walked around in all those options for very brief bits of time… perhaps I should spend some more time in that experience…

  3. Saturday, 18 August 2012 at 20:06 UTC #

    Body Without Organs — vs — Commoditization of Identity is such a powerful idea.

    It IS pretty amazing how IRL, we “define our individuality” by the choice of which corporate logos we wear on our shoes, clothes, car.

    The BwO is of its nature limitless, but as we’ve said many times, constrained by the finiteness of our imaginations and/or desires.

    One idea I find so fascinating about VW’s… and really you can think of it as a continuum from “Organic Cultures” to “Developed World” to “Virtual World”… is the idea that all of culture becomes an aesthetic choice.

    In Organic Culture, I wear an arctic parka because if I don’t I’ll die… I wear an equatorial swimsuit because I’m freakin sweating out here… but in virtual space I choose to wear a parka or a swimsuit because that’s what I feel like ATM…

    But whether I’m in parka mode or swimwear mode, I’m hanging either on my “normal” human body. Instead of wearing a parka, why doesn’t my avatar become a ball of fire inside the arctic circle?

    Instead of putting on a swimsuit, why doesn’t my avatar become an iceberg floating around in equatorial waters.

    And did Cypher really think that steak tasted so great?

    Somehow we’re willing to have whoever our avatar may be, a sexy dance club avatar, a less obvious artsy / EDU avatar, a stick-like Liv Tyler “American Avatar” or a plus-sized Mia Tyler “Portuguese Avatar” “wear” many things, but we still identify with whatever basic, “real” “me” body image we coalesce on.

    Just as we cling to RL architecture we cling to RL (ish) bodies. Perhaps in the fullness of time these will seem like such quaint parochialities… but change is destabilizing… and large change can be disorienting… or worse, “break” our reality (virtual or otherwise)

  4. Saturday, 18 August 2012 at 21:16 UTC #

    Oh, and what about names?

    Facebook and Google+ both got really upset when I tried to be “Vaneeesa” on their services… and said if I waned to play on their platforms I had to change my name to “Vanessa”

    That’s sort of ironic, because internally they probably know me as “USER:8696787686” and my “English name” they, or their code, could really give a crap about.

    But do we need to be Vanessa & Kathleen?

    Or can we be 001001011010 & 100100100110?

    • Monday, 20 August 2012 at 05:54 UTC #

      I wasn’t around when you went through the G+ upset, but I am acutely aware that they want everybody to be “real” and don’t seem to like names like yours or Mr Crap or Strawberry, et al. I’ve heard a few of the stories. I remember especially reading about Botgirl’s incident. The truth is, when I created the name Yordie, I thought I invented it (too dumb to look it up). Luckily it is a real name.

      There must be some logic to their drive for real names. I think they’ve come to realize that writers have always used psuedonyms. The thing I find so puzzling is, Google’s former CEO stated (sorry i can’t cite the source, saw it on televsion) that he saw a day when young people will have tarnished their real names on Facebook so badly that it will become common for judges to grant them new names. To me, that says a lot.

      But the issue is much deeper than that. In this digital ages, common sense is not keeping up with the technology. We all know this.

  5. Sunday, 19 August 2012 at 00:50 UTC #

    kk, so I tried a Robot Avatar… haha… even cooler, I guess I’m not the bot… I’m the Homunculus Inside!! Ooh whee!

    Anyway, I was hanging out with Brazilian Vocalist Anndy Believe — we met up at Tom Boellstorff’s Ethnographia lounge… then came to LEA for a while, got pelted with flying purple apples (they are “physical” so you can kick them and they bounce and stuff) And then Anndy said she wanted to learn English, so we went over to Virtlantis, a free language learning group / area

    The homunculus-bot-vatar is kinda fun, but, after a short while at least, definitely “feels” less “me,” less immersive than my “normal” avatar.

    Vaneeesa Blaylock & Anndy Believe at LEA art installation featuring flying purple apples

    Vaneeesa “Homunculus” Blaylock & Brazilian Vocalist Anndy Believe being pelted by flying purple apples at LEA sandbox.

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