February 23rd, 2006

In cyber space — when you get right down to it — we’re nothing. We’re ones and zeros. We’re collections of thoughts, of ramblings, of chatter. The closest we get to actual, physical forms is the boxy outline of our own computer screens. In existing online, we’ve abandonded the body and, as Lain would creepily add, entered the neXt. We’ve moved beyond our limited forms and become something mutable, something new.

So why, oh why, are we quite so obsessed with our virtual bodies?

Perhaps things go differently in other MMO’s; perhaps no one cares if your pointy night elf ears are perfectly in proportion. In Second Life on the other hand, the obsession (if that’s even the right word. It’s more like a preoccupation, or a pressumption — the unquestioned assumption that your avatar’s looks are incredibly important to you.) borders on the absurd.

I mentioned a few days ago I’ve recently created a new alt. Not that I claim to be any kind of toon-shaping wiz, but I put time into making her: her hair, her make-up, her curves. And, if I do say so myself, she looked pretty cute.

That was last week. Now she looks like a porn star.

A few sessions in my alt acquired a dom/sugar daddy who took her shopping for “the essentials” – interactive sexy bits, skin, hair, shape. It wasn’t up for debate. Posing as a noob, I was told all that jazz was necessary just to lead a fulfilling second life.

Dancing today, I met a woman who has skins in all colors of the rainbow.

When we were finished shopping, my dom looked me over. He told me I looked hot. I was (and still am) afraid my breasts would weigh be down and I would fall flat on my face. Extreme plastic surgery with none of the mess. I missed me. Of course, it wasn’t really me to start with, but you get the idea.

In a place where body is utterly meaningless — where, in my opinion, watching avatars fuck on poseballs isn’t sexy, it’s hilarious –, why is body so important? Even in text-based worlds like LambdaMOO, physical character description became an art. Long tresses of auburn hair flowed down her pale, creamy shoulders… yada yada yada…

Maybe we cling to the physical, we insist on it even, because it grounds us in the face of the great, daunting mass of selflessness that the internet represents. Online, our identities become blurred. We can change ourselves. While this has its advantages, it also inspires fear. So, while we go about our daily business confusing each other, and ourselves, about just who we are online, we counterbalance that uncertainty with an utter certitude of body.

Not that body too can’t change. But it’s importance seems to be here to stay.

Tags: Blog

28 Responses to “Persistence of Body”

  1. Duncan Says:

    People need something to cling to. We are fundamentally very insecure. So, as we move into a digital realm, we have to rely on a virtual self to express ourselves. Even in a medium where the avatar is a simple picture, or a tag, or even a name, the abused and fragile psyche invents a persona that allows us to be easily identifiable within the mass of faceless entities that exist.

    This is probably why it shakes us so much when we find out that someone is something other than what they claim to be. We feel hurt and insecure again because we are reminded that everything we are doing is purely virtual. It is inconstant. Without a form of some sort, we are hard-pressed to express ourselves in a unique and definite way.

    We are how we perceive ourselves. Everyone has an inner image of themselves. Within the worlds the computer provides we can perfect this image. Or we are forced to adopt a new one, how ever imperfectly it may fit.

    (Note: This is the conjecture of someone who really knows nothing of psychology).

  2. VinceD Says:

    To me, the explanation could be somewhat more boring. I always picture the human being as its most rough definition: an animal. Very social and psychologically complicated, maybe, but mostly with biological needs. I think that those biological needs drive most of our actions and perceptions, probably more than we actually realize on a day to day basis.

    For example, one of our most important needs after food, shelter and sleep, is to mate, and deep down inside our reptilian brain, we’re all looking for the best possible partner. I think that’s the original basis of human “beauty”. If you forget about modern fashion, beauty is most of the time synonym of health. So we’re looking for someone beautiful. Even in situations where sex is not involved, that’s the same story. When we’re in the middle of a group of strangers, we’re naturally attracted to people that look good. Thinking of it, it might even be our first defence mechanism against diseases.

    Anyways, I think this is so much part of us that we can’t make abstraction of it, even when we are part of a virtual world, where the body has no meaning other than what people chose to look like. Even if consciously, we know that the avatar we interact with is unlikely to accurately represent the person, we can’t help but to refer to it in our general impression of this person. And in the same fashion, we want to be positively perceived by our peers, so our unconscious makes us try to look good. And good looks in a virtual environment can only be represented by our avatar.

    I guess that’s where the obsession on the virtual body takes root. For the exact same reasons as in real life. Maybe we are more obsessive about it in the virtual world because it can be so easily changed.

    But maybe I’m wrong. Virtual worlds are only emerging right now. The first generation to be born in an age where virtual worlds are commonplace has yet to come and then, maybe perceptions will change?

  3. qDot Says:

    Maybe we cling to the physical…. our identities become blurred

    Maybe YOU cling to the physical. Identies become blurred? Pffft, come ON.

    Me? I’m a cube, damnit.

    You meshys are so DONE, with your “hair” and your “legs”. I manage to be cuter than you, AND I do it with WAY less sides!

    I don’t get you meshys at all. Everyone’s like “Look at me, I’ve got legs and arms and a head”! Big freakin’ deal. In worlds where you can be anything, you chose to think “inside the skin” and choose something that looks like an idealized version of a person. How is that sexy?

    Now, say, a gigantic floating screw? That’s fucking hot, right there. OH, or I know, maybe the failed electron who’s position and momentum ARE known at the same time! I’d totally hit that.

    But meshys? Pffft. Where’s the creativity in that?

  4. Brummbar Says:

    Maybe we cling to the physical, we insist on it even, because it grounds us in the face of the great, daunting mass of selflessness that the internet represents.

    Or maybe because the physical IS sex, when we get right down to it. I’m with VinceD on this one.

  5. FerrousBuller Says:

    People are shallow. We know people will make snap judgments about us based on our appearance, because we do the same thing to them. So we decide what sort of image we wish to project to others and craft our appearance to match that mental image, as best we can. Videogames just make it a lot cheaper and easier to do it in the virtual world than the real one. :-)

    We are all physical beings: it’s what we know best, it’s what we relate to, it’s what we usually fall back on. And while we may decry the shallowness of beauty, of appearances, of physical things, that doesn’t stop most of us from obsessing about them – even in the virtual world. Whether you create an idealized version of yourself or play make-believe as someone else, it’s still an act of self-expression, even personal exploration. Even those who choose non-human or inorganic forms – or hit the “Random” button on the character generator – are making a statement, conscious or otherwise.

    Now tell me honestly: does this chainmail bikini make my ass look fat? ;-)

  6. FerrousBuller Says:

    What I actually found most interesting about your post, Bonnie, was that it sounds like you let someone else – your virtual sugar daddy – do the shopping for you…and you weren’t exactly thrilled with the results. You had invested a certain amount of effort into crafting your avatar, then someone else came along and gave her a makeover: turning her from “pretty cute” into “a porn star.” It’s sorta like…hmmm, how to describe it…like your virtual persona was subsumed by someone else’s: like he got to mold your avatar into his ideal, robbing you of your own identity – and implicitly suggesting there was something “wrong” with your original avatar. He changed your avatar into someone you’re not. Like you said: you missed yourself.

    Of course, I may be misreading all that. But its implications intrigued me nonetheless.

    I also find it interesting that, considering this was supposed to be your “slutastic alt,” you started out making her “pretty cute,” rather than, well, slutty. Just wondering what that suggests about your personality. :-)

  7. Noche Kandora Says:

    I think the virtual body is extremely important and does wonders to enhance our immersion in a virtual setting. I mean, it’s bad enough that there are zero to little opportunities for the average cybercitizen to experience online spaces in a more three-dimensional and tactile fashion.

    Also, having a really elaborate or seductive avatar enriches the fantasy, I think. Isn’t that one of the big reasons why people are flocking into online games, as well as virtual worlds like Second Life? I think a large part of the allure is being able to superimpose one’s alter ego or fantasy/ideal self on an existence that might otherwise be much, much more out of reach for various reasons.

    Yeah, having a knockout avatar might seem shallow to some, but not me. My personal philosophy is rooted in the fact that man, at his core, is a carnal creature who likes to take pleasure in physicality first and foremost, and that includes an affinity for objects and people (and avatars) that are visually enticing.

    I also believe the virtual body helps us achieve what I personally call secular transcendence — generally, removing oneself, at least temporarily, from everyday existence through out-of-the-ordinary and fulfilling corporeal experiences. Again, this is obviously attainable in real life, but possibilities are greater in cyberspace in many instances, even though the simulated experience may not be as rewarding due to the inadequacies of our still-primitive computer interface.

    Know what I'm sayin'?

  8. Bonnie Says:

    Duncan: “This is probably why it shakes us so much when we find out that someone is something other than what they claim to be. We feel hurt and insecure again because we are reminded that everything we are doing is purely virtual.”
    I think you’re right, but I also think there’s another layer here, a sort of mutually-accepted ignorance that people assume in order to keep up their secure world. For example, I’ve had a hell of a time finding cross-gender subjects for cybering. It seems, while many people are perfectly aware that a large number of female toons are controlled by men, no one is willing to admit that they know it, or even that it’s a possibility. Nine out of ten female toons I’ve talked to have said “yuck” to the very idea, when, by the numbers, the likelihood is some of them are in fact men themselves.

    Vince, I hear what you’re saying, but two questions for you: Why is it, if biology is what determines sexiness, that we do have this current trend to like stick-thin women who would be unable to effectively bear children. You mention this, but I think it’s important to address. Also, if we’re so wired for sex, which is to say reproduction, how can this translate to sex (i.e. cyber sex) where reproduction is an impossibility? Questions like these, while they may lack simple answers, seem to me to seriously undercut the straight forward biological/evolutionary approach.

    qDot, how do a cube and a giant floating screw have sex? Seriously, I want to know.

    Brummbar: “Or maybe because the physical IS sex, when we get right down to it.”
    So why do we so constantly bring it, even prefer it, in the realm of the non-physical? If the physical world is sex, then aren’t we being wholly restrictive in trying to reimpose it on the non-physical world? Can’t we create some new, thrilling, but body-less way to fuck (i.e. interact)?

    Ferrous, you say “people are shallow” and that these worlds give them a chance to recreate themselve as they would like to be seen. That is definitely true. And it brings up an interesting question: when people create their avatars, do they think of themselves as creating an avatar, or recreating themselves? Of course, you can never really escape from recreating yourself. Which answers your question about my “cute” vs. “slutty” alt. Even if I try to make someone totally ridiculous, I still end up wanting her to be playful, sweet, and represent me. As for my alt’s sugar daddy taking over, I think you’re right. I would never have let it happen except for research purposes, but it is strange to come out the other end as someone else’s idea of an ideal woman.

    Noche, I know what you’re sayin’. But I would argue that Second Life, where you see complicated avatars as part of the emmersive experience, is one of the least emmersed worlds out there. Every time I meet someone new, they tell me something about their real-life selves within minutes. And SL sex – eek! Can we get back what organ you’re rubbing IRL? No one can seem to keep up a descent, in-scene chat, but everyone wants to know when the fake woman behind my alt is coming to sex them up for real.

  9. qDot Says:

    how do a cube and a giant floating screw have sex? Seriously, I want to know.

    The fun in that question is coming up with your own way for them to do it.

  10. Brummbar Says:

    Brummbar: "Or maybe because the physical IS sex, when we get right down to it."
    So why do we so constantly bring it, even prefer it, in the realm of the non-physical?

    It’s precisely because non-physical pleasures cannot hold a candle to the power of sexual release that people are forever sexualizing things. They want to harness that power. No man with a generous natural endowment ever looked in the mirror and said, “Wow, I hope this makes women think I have a sports car!” But the opposite is what keeps Porsche in business.

    If the physical world is sex, then aren't we being wholly restrictive in trying to reimpose it on the non-physical world? Can't we create some new, thrilling, but body-less way to fuck (i.e. interact)?

    I don’t think so. It would be like eating music.

  11. Duncan Says:

    I think you're right, but I also think there's another layer here, a sort of mutually-accepted ignorance that people assume in order to keep up their secure world.

    I think that it is not so much ignorance as mutual embarrassment. It’s like everyone online is scared that if they reveal they are doing something even slightly taboo, then people they know might find out. This creates a sort of internal taboo. Can’t let people I know find out my dirty little online secret because it would be like them finding out that you like to go commando at board meetings (or something). Even further, you might be accepting and reveal something equally embarrassing about yourself. It’s like the British (or, to a lesser degree, Canadian) self-abasement and reserved-ness. No one wants to reveal or find out something potentially embarrassing, it could get to someone you know.

    You can say that this doesn’t affect you, but most people who do are lying. It does. I’ve seen this kind of thing (and felt it myself) in forum environments. People hide it by being quiet about themselves, or by loudly yelling something else to distract you from it. The psyche is odd that way, embarrassment is a large driving factor.

  12. Bonnie Says:

    Cube and a floating screw, eh? I would say some sort of crazy, drug-induced mind meld. Or, it we have to be physical, maybe the screw roles across the surface of the cube. I’m not joking either. I’m so sick of normal, genital, naked sex. We’re post-modern; we’re post-reproduction. Sex is play; sex is interaction. There are worlds of possibilities out there (Yes, I know it sounds like I’m tripping.).

    Brummbar, so you’re saying that non-physical pleasure is used as a way for people to gain control over physical pleasure? Also, I don’t know how to eat music, but I wish I did.

    Duncan, I think that’s true, but it’s interesting to see how irrational people are about it. Even when their real, vulnerable identities are completely hidden, even when they’re empowered by their online selves, they remain embarrassed and scared for their real-life dignity. It’s as if, in some ways, the real-life person and his reputation can never be completed separated from the online personna, as if, for all our talk of forming new definition of self, we’re still very much bound by old ones, and that we impose these bounds on ourselves.

  13. Brummbar Says:

    Brummbar, so you're saying that non-physical pleasure is used as a way for people to gain control over physical pleasure? Also, I don't know how to eat music, but I wish I did.

    More that the physical, and its desire, is invoked by and yoked to the non-physical. That’s why you see articles about “Using Sex to Sell Games” as opposed to “Using Games to Sell Sex.” You don’t need the latter. Sex sells itself. It’s the product AND the pitch, all in one.

  14. Duncan Says:

    Bonnie – I think that we do self impose these taboos. I think it is done by a majority of people who still seek physical interaction. I do stuff online and I inherently want to show it to people I know, in real life. But if the stuff I do would be considered questionable by people I know, I have to circumscribe myself somehow. I, in fact, have to prevent them from finding out that it is me who wrote that questionable blog post, (or made rude comments on a forum, or asked for socially taboo advice, or drew a naughty picture, or played a trans-gender character in a life-simulating game). Even if I don’t point them to it there is always the chance that they will google my name, or come across a reference to me. Or even meet me in-game. So we are still careful about our online identities because we cannot separate them from ourselves, and what we do in public, even if virtual, is still available for scrutiny by anyone we might know.

  15. qDot Says:

    (Yes, I know it sounds like I'm tripping.)

    Then I must sound like a crack addict.

  16. Brummbar Says:

    Neeeeeeeed luuuuuuuuuuuuudes.

  17. FerrousBuller Says:

    Some rough layman’s conjecture:

    The physical and non-physical are always intertwined, because all perception still hinges on the brain: all pleasure and all pain and everything in between are quite literally all in your head. Physical sensations send nerve impulses back to your brain, which interprets those sensations: sever the nerves or damage the brain in a way so that it is no longer able to perceive those sensations and you feel nothing.

    When it comes to physical pleasure, it’s intuitive: we don’t have to think about it. When we eat something tasty, we don’t think about the biochemical reactions which occur, the way our taste buds respond to food, the whole process by which we perceive taste – all we think is “YUM!” Likewise, we don’t have to understand the physiological responses which occur within our minds and bodies during sex to recognize what Nintendo says: touching is good. :-)

    Thus, there’s no such thing as “purely physical” pleasure or pain: the brain is still what rules. So is it so surprising that we can enjoy or dislike something without a physical component? You just need to find a way to stimulate the mind without physical stimulus: it’s usually the imagination which rules in those cases. But the imagination tends to frame things in terms of what we know – namely the physical world. In practice, until we find a way to turn ourselves into non-corporeal beings, we will always be bound to the physical world to some extent.

    [And hell, even as disembodied spectres, I still expect women to ask the dreaded “Does this glowing nimbus make my ethereal ass look fat?” question. :-]

    All of which is a roundabout way of saying: gaming stimulates us through largely non-physical means – or at least through an abstracted simulacrum of reality – but we still generally frame things which occur in games in terms of the physical world we know. Which, obviously, includes sex: we know how things work in the real world, so most of us project those expectations into the virtual one, even if they seem silly, absurd, or contrived in their new context; so “geometric shape meets hardware fastener” sex isn’t too likely to break out of its fringe-market appeal. :-)

    Ok, so who wants to take the next hit from the hookah?

  18. FerrousBuller Says:

    “And it brings up an interesting question: when people create their avatars, do they think of themselves as creating an avatar, or recreating themselves?”

    I’ve had this conversation before and I think it depends on both the player and the game – and in particular, how one approaches one’s avatar. Do you see yourself as an actor filling a role; or do you see your avatar as a projection of yourself? In the former case, you’re less emotionally invested, I think: you’re just playing make-believe in someone else’s world. But in the latter, you tend to see your avatar as an extension of yourself, as an expression of who you are; and so you’re more sensitive to how people react to it, both good and bad.

    I’ve played as male and female characters in all manner of games, online and off, and I rarely get attached or emotionally invested in them: for me, my online avatars are just the vehicle through which I explore the game-world (and, usually, beat the crap outta things). I try to make them visually appealing, since obviously I’m gonna be staring at them a lot; but in terms of emotional attachment, they might as well be blank cubes, for all I care.

    I want my avatar to look cool – or silly, or otherwise interesting – but that’s about it. So when I say people are shallow, I’m pretty much describing myself. ;-)

    But that’s me: I’m not a very social gamer, I’m not playing to meet new people or anything, I’m just there to hang out – usually with RL friend(s) who also play that game – and beat the crap outta things. I don’t care what people think of me or my avatar. Other people approach their avatars differently.

    “Even if I try to make someone totally ridiculous, I still end up wanting her to be playful, sweet, and represent me. As for my alt's sugar daddy taking over, I think you're right. I would never have let it happen except for research purposes, but it is strange to come out the other end as someone else's idea of an ideal woman.”

    Yeah, exactly: even though this was your “purely for research purposes” alt, you were still trying to make her reflect your personality and tastes. Which means she’s not only a projection of how you want others to perceive you, but also how you perceive yourself. As such, it’s natural to be a bit weirded out – maybe even upset or insulted – when someone remakes your avatar.

    You had to submit yourself to someone else’s will. And of all the adjectives I would use to describe you, “submissive” is not one of them… :-)

  19. Bonnie Says:

    “Even if I don't point them to it there is always the chance that they will google my name, or come across a reference to me.”
    It’s funny, when I first started publishing things a few years back, I used to be really proud of my google results. There were maybe 30 or so, all links to local-area news stories or fiction. My mother even sent an email out to my family saying, “Look what happens when you google Bonnie!”

    Now that my results are in the (modest) thousands, my family is less thrilled. Which is to say, no one mentions it. My mother thinks I write porn, not video game reviews. She sees the checks in the mail and doesn’t say a thing. I try to explain, but she doesn’t even want to know. It’s just funny, when we’re not ashamed of our online lives, other people do it for us.

    “The physical and non-physical are always intertwined, because all perception still hinges on the brain.”
    I guess what I have in mind during discussions like these are art works like Lain or Ghost in the Shell – things that suggest that self and identity is not necessary linked to the physical (but of course needs the physical to manifest itself). It’s like the idea of ghostly possession…

    Ooh, hookah!

  20. Brummbar Says:

    My mother thinks I write porn, not video game reviews.

    The difference being…?

  21. FerrousBuller Says:

    “My mother thinks I write porn, not video game reviews.”

    “The difference being"¦?”

    Porn pays better. And has more respect.

  22. FerrousBuller Says:

    “I guess what I have in mind during discussions like these are art works like Lain or Ghost in the Shell – things that suggest that self and identity is not necessary linked to the physical (but of course needs the physical to manifest itself). It's like the idea of ghostly possession"¦”

    I like scifi like that too, but we’re not there yet: we haven’t reached the state of true disembodied consciousnesses – either AI or human. So while it’s fun to speculate about such things in fiction, when we discuss what’s possible now, it’s kinda irrelevant, IMHO. One might as well discuss ghost stories, while we’re at it. :-)

    [And to be pedantic, in such scifi, you usually haven’t completely severed ties with the physical world, just ties with your human body. You still have to exist inside machines, if nowhere else.]

    Still, it does all lead back to that fundamental question: what makes us who we are? If we presume we are more than the sum of the chemical compounds which compose us – more than just ambulatory organic meatbags – then what defines who we are? And if we accept that our “true” essence is this noncorporeal thing we call a soul, of what relevance are our bodies? Do we still exist after our bodies die; or is all that we are gone from the moment we expire?

    And if we have such high-falutin concepts, why on Earth are we all so obsessed with f*cking, anyway? ;-)

  23. Brummbar Says:

    "My mother thinks I write porn, not video game reviews."

    "The difference being"¦?"

    Porn pays better. And has more respect.

    Porn also leaves one feeling less dirty than dealing with Dave Halverson, IGN or PC GAMER. ;)

  24. Brummbar Says:

    And if we have such high-falutin concepts, why on Earth are we all so obsessed with f*cking, anyway? ;-)

    Because it’s fucking?

  25. FerrousBuller Says:

    “Porn pays better. And has more respect.”

    Actually, I meant to say, “And gets more respect” – subtle difference. :-)

    “Porn also leaves one feeling less dirty than dealing with Dave Halverson, IGN or PC GAMER. ;)”

    That’s because porn is still a step up from streetwalking.

    ;-P

    *sigh* Poor Bonnie! She keeps trying to elevate the level of discourse, we keep dragging it down…

    :-)

  26. Brummbar Says:

    What is discourse, anyway? I’m still working on my salad.

    THANK YOU! Tip your waitress! I’ll be back tomorrow night.

  27. Bonnie Says:

    till, it does all lead back to that fundamental question: what makes us who we are? If we presume we are more than the sum of the chemical compounds which compose us – more than just ambulatory organic meatbags – then what defines who we are?

    That’s my point. I don’t mean to imply I think life is like anime, just that art often raises questions we find it hard to articulate though the logic of everyday discourse, but are still critical to understanding ourselves.

    *sigh* Poor Bonnie! She keeps trying to elevate the level of discourse, we keep dragging it down"¦

    Poor you two! You have to talk and I just get to watch the show.

  28. FerrousBuller Says:

    “I don't mean to imply I think life is like anime . . .”

    And more’s the pity! ;-)

    “. . . just that art often raises questions we find it hard to articulate though the logic of everyday discourse, but are still critical to understanding ourselves.”

    True. But when discussing scifi, I think you need to distinguish clearly between what’s actually possible now versus what’s speculative. You spoke of Lain and GitS and those two clearly fall under the latter category. And a lot of what we discuss is inherently unknowable: I don’t think we’re gonna prove or disprove the existence of a soul anytime soon, much less demonstrate how you can load it into a SPARCstation. ;-)

    But in general I agree that it’s fun to talk about the physical vs. non-physical aspects of identity et al…wouldn’t be here otherwise. :-)

    “You have to talk and I just get to watch the show.”

    Hmmm…suddenly wondering if I’m Punch or Judy.

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