The Irony of Identity

According to Mark Dubin, in a recent article about people with disabilities finding new freedoms in Second Life ®:

“You feel like you’re there. Literally your brain will show activity typical of what the avatar is doing.”

This supports some quotes from disabled SL residents in other parts of the article, who emphasize how real and beneficial the experience is for them, and how much they feel they can identify intimately with what is going on. Dubin does make note that the SL experience happens ‘through’ an avatar (by proxy, if you will) — it is inherently 3rd person. However, this seemingly does not diminish the very tangible reality felt by residents, especially where a reasonably ‘normal’ real life for them is difficult or impossible.

Presumably, the exact same links and personal identification between user and avatar can and do exist for the thousands of non-disabled users, so the question must be “why?”. If an individual is capable of leading a ‘normal’ real life, why do they prefer a virtual world instead?

Let’s consider a little background first. What’s interesting is that the identification between user and avatar happens despite the limited sensory perception available through SL. Sound and vision suffer from:

  • reduced acuity/range
  • limited dynamic range
  • artificial artefacts
  • limited variety

Other senses effectively do not exist when in SL. Of the 5 major senses, the remaining three (touch, taste, smell) are practically impossible for a virtual world… at least for some time yet. And yet disabled residents report feeling like they are genuinely moving when they see their avatar moving. And if the neuroscience is accurate, our brain is capable of ‘filling in the blanks’ to some extent, which is an awesome thought.

However, most of the time, we are aware of the limitations, even if we choose to ignore them. For many, Second Life is to reality as the Stanislavskian system is to theatre. No matter how much the two worlds blend together, you need to have a willing suspension of disbelief (or an unfortunate mental condition) to believe the virtual world and the real world are one and the same.

One might say, philosophically, that we all (non-disabled people included) have things we personally view as our own (minor) disabilities. For example, I am not a terribly social or talkative person in RL… and yet I am can happily chat away in text when I am in SL (not that I do so terribly much). I am sure other such issues exist for other people, and that the anonymity over the identification is the lure to keep people engaged, as it can provide an outlet for ‘life’ free of such problems.

This is the irony; this virtual world thrives because its users feel comfortably anonymised by the veil of artificial creations, while they are perhaps in fact simply exploring and exposing a deeper identity of themselves that would not otherwise reach the surface. At SLCC08, Phil Rosedale mentioned this very issue — SL gives us the freedom to be who we are or want to be, rather than who or what the real world expects.

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