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The Big One: Research Project on Second Life

The Social Implications of Customization

English 103

Professor Essid

December 8th 2008

Word Count: 3,353




Discrimination in Second Life was a topic aroused by Wagner James Au’s article The Skin You’re In, which followed the experience of resident Erika Thereian after changing her appearance from a Caucasian woman to an African-American woman.  In her midnight skin Thereian had racist remarks directed at her illustrating the racism present in Second Life.  When first entering Second Life I was immediately enthralled by Second Life’s idealistic concepts of what is beautiful.  It seemed at first that there was a clear need to be fair-skinned, have a ‘perfect’ physique, and be beautiful to be accepted in Second Life.  Though, after spending approximately three months in Second Life I came to realize that standards in Second Life have changed as users of Second Life have become more international.  Discrimination is no longer based on the color skin an avatar wears or how big his or her waist size is, rather discrimination in Second Life is based on customization of an avatar.



When first becoming a resident in Second Life I was surprised by the standards an avatar must meet to be accepted in this virtual world.  It seemed customary for female avatars to have bodies that mirrored those seen on the catwalk and for male avatars to have very muscular and defined bodies, and be willing and able to walk around in clothing that showed off these attributes.  According to Meadows “the avatar is an interactive self-portrait used for social interaction,” (Meadows 124) and explains that “ portraits have always been combinations of realism and the techniques artists use to communicate the subject’s personality” (Meadows 106).  It was clear from Second Life’s start that people were obsessed in how they represented themselves through the appearance of their avatar.  Early users would spend hours following the tutorial that taught them how to customize the appearance of his or her avatar through the use of multiple sliders.  Developers of Second Life would watch as women shrunk the waists, and increased the bust size and height of their avatars (Au 70).  Meadows questions if the act of representing oneself as overly beautiful through his or her avatar is an act of narcissism.  It definitely can be because the creator creates his or her avatar in an image that he or she feels best represents him or herself.



The claim made by Meadows gives explanation for the desire to be represented as beautiful resulting in an overwhelming number of beautiful avatars in Second Life.  Though, one would think that although the standards of beauty are ridged in Second Life, since everyone can be perfect, have ripped abs and perfect breasts (Melby 4), that all types of people would be accepted since the “driver” (Meadows) can represent him or herself however he or she desires.  “If you have a particular thing you want to be, say a walking television set, you can do that” according to Brenda Brathwaite (Melby 4).  There are even whole islands dedicated to housing societies such as the furries, where the avatars resemble animals more than they resemble people. 



An example of a “furry” I encountered in a Christian Ministry.



After reading Au’s article The Skin You’re In, I learned that acceptance of all types of avatars was not true, because according to Au, racism was prominent in Second Life, and this was illustrated through the experience of resident Erika Therian.  Thereian described that after putting on Midnight skin on her once Caucasian avatar that “some of her friends shied away” (Au) to the extent that she lost, some of her what she thought were, her good friends.  Strangers would even exclaim phrases of disapproval because of her dark skin color.  Linden Lab, the creators of Second Life, tried to avoid acts of racism that are seen in traditional Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) that often occur between different characters, such as Ores and Elves, by giving all avatars a default appearance and limits in which they can modify it; for example, all avatars are between four and eight feet tall unless they create an object and attach it to their legs to make themselves taller (Au 56).  Since residents could not target creatures they had to resort to an aspect of a person that is more real life, which is the color of an avatar’s skin.  Although Linden Lab tried to prevent racism in Second Life it promoted creating a standard of beauty by employing a rating system that allowed a resident to both positively and negatively rate fellow avatars in the hope that the negative ratings would “inspire the negatively rated to reform themselves,” (Au 59).  This system discouraged users from being creative, and was abused by groups of residents who would target residents that did not have a ‘perfect’ figure and who were not beautiful; therefore Linden Lab disabled this rating system.



Au wrote his article in 2006 and Second Life was first launched in 2003 (Linden Lab) so ideals of beauty no longer revolve around the fair-skinned, thin women as Second Life residents have become more international.  Users from Brazil, which have a high concentration in Second Life, have leaned towards creating their avatars with more realistic female figures.  Some Second Life users, such as Stella Castello, create avatars so that they feel true to themselves and not frauds by portraying themselves as having this thin figure.  Castello’s avatar started out like many of the other female avatars with a thin figure, but Castello felt uncomfortable representing herself in Second Life with this avatar.  Therefore, as time passed she slowly moved the slides, increasing the size of her avatar’s hips and waist, creating an avatar that was more realistic and relatable to her and the majority of real women (Au 69).



I first developed the idea that beauty and what is accepted as beauty in Second Life may have changed since Au’s article after altering the race of my avatar for my race or gender switch project and after reading the results of my fellow classmates when they modified the color of their avatar’s skin.  Rae Belgar, my avatar, was once a Caucasian female with large brown eyes, full lips, and a tall runway worthy figure.  Her hair was standard brown and neatly put up in a ponytail.  The clothing she wore was very cosmopolitan: black leggings with a contrasting fuchsia shirt, and patent turquoise heels.  When Rae approached avatars they were generally very willing to talk, give interviews, and answer her questions.  For the race switch project I had the intention of mirroring Thereian’s actions by changing my avatar’s appearance so that she resembled an attractive African-American woman in hopes of receiving a dramatic reaction.  Although being referred to as an “n***** b****” (Au) or hearing remarks such as “’Great, they are gonna invade SL now’” (Au), which is what Thereian experienced, would have been hurtful I felt that I was ready to experience the truth about racism in Second Life.  Though, after putting on a new skin I realized that Rae did not appear African at all, rather Rae appeared to be a dark skinned Indian woman.  I believe Rae appearing to be an Indian woman was caused by her small pointed nose, light brown eyes, a thin upper lip, and long flowing hair.



Rae in her dark skin and original clothing, being ignored by two fellow residents.


            When Rae first began exploring Second Life in her new skin, while wearing her original clothing, I felt as if her fellow residents were ignoring her. I assumed if Rae was being treated differently just because she altered the color of her skin I thought that it would be very interesting to see how she was treated if she was wearing a sari, traditional Indian garb, and really showed her ethnicity.  Once the whole sari outfit was in place I thought Rae looked like a beautiful Indian princess, and felt that this ethnic beauty was more attractive than the original Caucasian Rae. 



Indian Rae in her sari, sitting next to a hookah illustrating her ethnicity.



Based on the positive reactions and attention Rae received from other male avatars it was clear that other Second Life residents approved of and liked Rae’s new appearance.  It was when wearing a sari that Rae was first virtually hit on by an avatar whom I shall refer to as Mexico Man. I asked Mexico Man what he thought of my appearance and if I would fit into Second Life; his response was “I think it is very good!!! You look very good!!!”  Acts of racism and instances of flirtation are impulsive in Second Life because as Meadows describes the avatar is a type of mask and a persona because a person can be more him or herself and feel freer to speak his or her own mind (Meadows, 36).  Since no avatar has to give his or her real identity “virtual worlds are ripe for abusive behavior,” (Giles) but “since many residents are attracted to Second Life precisely because of its anything-goes ethos, such behavior is generally tolerated,” (Giles).  This attitude was illustrated in Au’s article when Thereian said that there are "Better things for Lindens to worry about," than the acts of racism occurring in Second Life (Au).  Though, Linden Lab encourages that users settle disputes on their own since it’s the users that created Second Life and Linden Lab prefer not to be a governing force (Giles).  Although Thereian did not consult Linden Lab on her experience in midnight skin she did wait for the ‘perfect’ opportunity to retaliate.  In her midnight skin Thereian approached one of the men that aimed a racist remark at her while he was standing with a group of fellow residents and “‘thanked him for the wonderful night of sex,’” (Therian, Au 74) causing him much embarrassment.



            These rash and destructive acts of racism are disruptive and seen as very disrespectful by residents who employ Second Life as a business tool.  The Patriotic Nigras, a Second Life virtual gang formerly led by resident Mudkips Acronym, are notorious for their disorderly actions that are done to provide the 35 to 60 members laughs.  Acronym explains that the motivation of the gang is to “annoy the Second Lifers ‘who take their ‘metaverse’ enormously seriously,” (Giles).  The acts done by the Patriotic Nigras are not only seen as childish, such as hurling virtual feces at U.S. Presidential candidate John Edward’s Second Life headquarters (Giles), but much of what the Patriotic Nigras do or say are seen forms of racist abuse.  Resident Prokofy Neva, a Second Life real estate dealer, claims that she frequently receives racist and obscene messages from the Patriotic Nigras that hinder her business.  On several occasions tenants have left Neva’s properties because of the Patriotic Nigras intolerable messages.  Neva is a prime target for the Patriotic Nigras because she does not “view Second Life as a fantasy world,” (Giles) but instead views Second Life as a business; therefore, Neva is one of those serious people whom the Patriotic Nigras enjoy annoying since they view Second Life as more of a place for enjoyment (Giles).



            Naïve and enthusiastic residents are also targets towards these acts of racism and destruction as they may provoke it (Giles) through being overly friendly and not knowing proper Second Life etiquette.  New Second Life residents are fairly easy to recognize because their appearance is rather standard and not customized or have a unique look.  At the end of Meadows’ book I, Avatar : The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life Meadows gives multiple illustrations of different avatars in Second Life showing all the unique approaches people take to modifying the appearance of their avatars.  Two avatars, one male and the other female, are both dressed in form fitting black leather outfits with stud detailing.  The female’s shirt exposes the avatar’s midriff and a significant amount of shoulder and cleavage.  Their hairstyles are very voluminous and feminine.  These avatars would not be noticed in a crowd because there are numerous avatars that share a similar look to theirs.  An avatar known as YadNi Monde is not just recognized for his exceptional building skills but also for his robot like appearance.  A very industrial exterior comprised of rigid edges and a blue skin accented with grey ‘parts’ cause Monde to have a lot of attention drawn towards him.  Haruspex Hax also stands out due to his fantasy appearance comprised of the upper half appearing as a human male while from the waist down Hax is a horse. 



Avatars do not only receive ample amounts of attention for having an ethereal appearance but those that appear so realistic that they almost appear human are also highly recognized.  When glancing through Meadows’ “A Gallery of Avatars” I had to do a double take when passing Lili Brink; her hair with its delicate shading, the supple appearance of her skin, her tortoise shell sunglasses, the cigarette between her lips, black turtle neck, and floral flowing skirt all together gave the illusion that I was looking at a photograph of a real person and not a snapshot of an avatar.  This effect of an avatar looking like a real human is known as “the uncanny valley,” an appearance that requires much skill to achieve but once complete it is scary how realistic a virtual figure can appear.  It is likely that Monde, Hax, and Brink are all eyeballed by fellow residents because of their complex appearances and treated with respect because their unique appearances illustrate that they are established users of Second Life.




Two avatars I encountered on Help Island Public illustrating the difference between a customized avatar, (on of the left), and an avatar who appears more simple and default like (on the right). 



            Customization of an avatar is a key element that influences one’s experience in Second Life.  Resident Ignatius Onomatopoeia, Iggy for short, was approached by a few of his female friends in a flirtatious manner after his “driver” (Meadows) Joe Essid gave Iggy dreadlocks for fun.  Iggy was constantly complemented and told that he was cute, which made Essid uncomfortable (Essid).  Essid is an established Second Life resident who has immersed himself in this virtual world and is very respected to the extent that he is asked to speak at conventions and the Lindens, the creators of Second Life, value his opinions.  Due to Essid’s status in Second Life one would imagine that his main avatar, Iggy, would appear very professional, but this is quite the contrary.  Iggy walks around with a peg leg, and top hat under which are thick shoulder length dreadlocks.  Pappy Enoch is Essid’s hillbilly avatar who has become so popular Essid infrequently logs into Second Life with him because of all the messages and marriage proposals he receives from fellow residents.  Since female avatars swoon after Enoch it’s customary for one to think that he would have defined abs like many of the other male avatars in Second Life, but it is the opposite.  Enoch has a beer belly, a long scruffy beard, and like Iggy, wears a top hat.  Enoch receives so much attention because he is unique and because Essid has put in so much dedication into developing this character that Pappy even speaks ‘hillbilly’.  Essid’s two male avatars are illustrations that it is not the standard appearance of the perfect-bodied avatar that captures peoples attention, rather it is the avatar that is customized and unique who is most noticed.



            The experiences of Essid gives explanation as to why Rae was more recognized when dressed in a sari than in the standard clothing that was painted on her.  Based on the trends that I have noticed in Second Life it is not necessarily the color of an avatar’s skin or how beautiful he or she is that determines how he or she is treated in Second Life, rather it is how customized and unique an avatar appears that determines the driver’s (Meadows) experience in the virtual world of Second Life.


  The research done by Chris F. supports the theory that Rae was treated differently not because of her race.  Chris’s avatar Deklin Windlow had outrageous looking ghost-white wolf skin making him appear very pale.  For the race and gender switch project Windlow exchanged his odd complexion for dark brown skin, a large black afro, and clothing that caused him to appear like a hip person from the 1970s. 



Deklin Windlow (left) in ghost-white wolf skin, standing with fellow group member, Donatello (right), before altering his race/gender. (Used with permission) (F., Chris).


Our groups’ avatars after altering our race/genders.  Donatello is second from the left and Deklin Windlow is on the far right.



In his new, clearly African appearance Windlow did not experience any acts of hatred, but like me felt that others ignored his avatar.  Though we both reasoned that this discrimination in conversation might not have been because of our dark complexions, rather the avatars may have been engaging in a personal conversation or did not want to be bothered at the time and were occupied in other activities.  We both hope that the latter is the case, and this is likely since Chris received several positive and enthusiastic reactions from fellow residents regarding his avatar’s race.  Second Life resident Whirly Fizzle, the avatar Chris interviewed said to the African Windlow “when I first saw you I thought…thank God…someone has a black AV!!!” (Chris F.), (Whirly Fizzle granted permission to be quoted for this project.).  This quote illustrates that there are not many avatars of color in Second Life but that people are accepting of different races and enthusiastic to encounter minorities. Yvonne Caerndow, a fairly new Second Life resident, views Second Life as a place for fun, and is accepting of all avatars; if fact Caerndow encourages dressing avartars daringly because “if someone (in Second Life) judges you, you can ignore them,” (Caerndow) (Yvonne Caerndow granted permission to be quoted for this project.) so why follow the trends of the crowd.  As Zick explains humans have an innate desire to belong to a group, and by looking the same as the others one surrounds him or herself with, he or she automatically feels as if he or she fits in.  This behavior carries over into Second Life where it is easier to assimilate to a standard look since appearance is not based on the arrangements of nucleotides but on how far left or right the “driver” (Meadows) move the toggles adjusting the bridge on his or her avatar’s nose or the length of his or her avatar’s legs.


While a “driver” (Meadows) can make his or her avatar appear to be Barbie or Ken and blend in with the majority of the residents he or she will not receive as much attention or respect if he or she used the appearance tools to make the figure of his or her avatar unique like Meadows’ did to his avatar.  Meadows’, a good looking man, created his avatar that did not blend in with many of Second Life’s residents but rather looks scary with his extremely pale skin color, bald head with a cut, and creepy eyes.  Although Meadows’ avatar appears frightening is it unique; because of this customization Meadows received a lot of respect while conducting his work in Second Life because he definitely did not appear to be a ‘newbie’.



It is because of this discrimination against newbies that Second Life is not able to grow and evolve because new residents are being pushed away.  Instead of facing more real life discrimination that is based on beauty and the color of one’s skin, as the users of Second Life have become more international, grieffers and other troublemakers in Second Life began to single out the new comers to Second Life, which are easily spotted.  The users of customized avatars, who are clearly Second Life veterans, are hindering the development of their virtual world by not immediately helping and accepting these new residents.  It is this new form of social discrimination in Second Life that may lead to Second Life’s disappearance.



Works Cited:

Au, Wagner J. "Self-Made Mankind." The Making of Second Life. 1st ed. New York,   NY: Collins, 2008. 69-84.


Au, Wagner J. "THE SKIN YOU'RE IN." Weblog post. New World Notes. 23 Feb. 2006. 2 Nov. 2008 <http://nwn.blogs.com/nwn/2006/02/the_skin_youre_.html>.


"beauty." Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Nov. 2008. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/beauty>. 


Caerndow, Yvonne. "In-world Interview." E-mail interview. 21 Oct. 2008.


Castronova, Edward. "The User." Synthetic Worlds. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago P, 2005. 49-78


Essid, Joe. "Avatar Appearance and Acceptance." E-mail interview. 1 Dec. 2008.


F., Chris. "Chris F Race and Gender Switch Project." Weblog post. Fall 103. 7 Nov. 2008. 20 Nov. 2008 <http://fall103.pbwiki.com/chris+f+race+and+gender+switch+project>.



F., Chris. Deklin and Donatello at Burning Life. 30 Sept. 2008. Burning Life Snapshots.


Giles, Jim. "Virtual Entrepreneurs and Griefers Spoil the Fantasy of Online Worlds." New Scientist 195.2619 (Sep. 2007): 28-29. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Boatwright Library, Richmond, VA. 27 Oct. 2008 <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.asp/Giles>.


Linden Lab. "What is Second Life?" Second Life. Linden Lab. 3 Dec. 2008 <http://secondlife.com/whatis/>.


Meadows, Mark S. I, Avatar : The Culture and Consequences of Having a Second Life. Grand Rapids: New Riders, 2007.


Melby, Todd. "How Second Life Seeps into Real Life. (Cover story)." Contemporary Sexuality 42.1 (Jan. 2008): 1-6. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Boatwright Library, Richmond, VA. 27 Oct. 2008


Zick, Andreas, Thomas F. Pettigrew, and Ulrich Wagner. "Ethnic Prejudice and Discrimination in Europe." 19 May 2008. 4 Dec. 2008 <http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/120083788/htmlstart>.



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