(Photo credit: New World Notes)
My friend Silelf pointed me to this article in the Uk Register, and article which challenges the lack of avatars of colour in Second Life. The writer comments:
But one feature struck me immediately, and hard, when I first joined the game: the whiteness of it all. I almost never ran into a black person. Even in the “urban contemporary” and Caribbean clubs, one has to search persistently for a glimpse at a suntan.
Second Life residents will turn their avatars into any form imaginable: they’ll gladly make themselves aliens, cartoons, animals, even insects. But not Negroes.
and then she goes on to explore the notion of class:
A myth that I hear repeated by residents is that SL reflects life, because people create it. People like sex, so there’s plenty of sex. People like gambling, so there’s gambling. People like music, so there’s music. People like art, so there’s art.
I’ve found this to be quite naive. SL reflects a slice of life: a very white, Protestant, progressive, bourgeois slice. I can’t recall if it was in Paul Fussell’s Class, or Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook that I encountered the fine observation that it is the upper middle classes who typically play at life.
The idea of playing at life comes to us from the middle and upper-middle classes, where leisure time and income come together in a fairly good ratio. The rest of us are either too enervated by the constant demands of noblesse oblige and tax avoidance, or too busy scrambling to pay the rent on time, to give much thought to play.
She concludes with this:
Second Life is perhaps the whitest environmet I’ve ever experienced, and the most middle-class: I’m hard pressed to recall a single conversation with an undeucated resident. By and large, everyone is playing, and everyone has a fairly healthy bank account, as the basic costs of entry - even for a free account - are dictated by some rather pricey computing paraphernalia. Everyone is concerned with arts and science, and speaks with pride about information technology; everyone likes to learn; everyone believes in progress. It is, literally, an online white suburban paradise.
Because one of my key research areas is identity, and commentary on race and class in virtual worlds fascinates me. There is a long tradition of research which suggests that the internet perpetuates stereotypes of gender, race and class. And I think the author is right about many aspects of Second Life culture here. One of the most interesting articles I have read on the SL news blog New World Notes was the one called “The Skin You’re In“, which recounted the way one woman felt silenced and marginalised once she adopted a dark skin. Other stories of course countered this one, with people saying that race is just not an issue in SL.
I think race is an issue though - how could it not be? But not perhaps (only) in the ways people might think. So let me just add a couple of my own reflections to the race debate.
(Photo credit: Slatenight)
The first point is that I have and do see groups of dark skinned avatars. Not many to be sure, but a few. Contrary to what this author said, some of the people I met wearing dark skins were not African American in their real life. The most visible case of this is the one of artist Filthy Fluno. Filthy has appropriated the African American skin to develop his “ghetto-rap-gangsta” persona - an entirely fictional persona given that in his own words he is “just some white Jewish guy” - to sell his art work. And not surprisingly, he became famous within weeks of launching this identity, selling his virtual art pieces for L$6000 + each, and gaining notoriety and attention in a number of resident in house news sources and magazines. He was interviewed by the Boston Globe, who seemed to delight in his identity play, foregrounding the following:
In real life, Jeff Lipsky is an ordinary-looking white guy — 35 years old, 5 feet 8 inches tall, thinning hair, T-shirt and jeans — who creates abstract drawings in his Tyngsborough townhouse. Online, in the lush, three-dimensional, user-created universe called Second Life, he’s the cartoon character Filthy Fluno, a bearded, wide-bodied, wild-tressed, fang-toothed, black gallery owner who sells virtual versions of his drawings to other denizens of this virtual world.
Everybody in fact seems to falling over backwards to get a piece of Filthy - and I suspect that it has less to do with his art work and more to do with his colourful identity. His adoption of the persona goes beyond the avatar and into his carefully crafted language, also appropriated from urban ghetto style slang: “Move over Degas, Da Filth is Here. Word” is a slogan on the notecard accompanying each piece of artwork. And don’t get me wrong, I like his artwork, and I even bought some - before I had ever met him or knew about his persona.
I think in the past it has been the Oriental that has been exoticised and “consumed” by the white in shades of post-colonialism. Certainly this has been evident in Second Life with every single report about Anshe Chung going ga-ga over the fact that she is an Asian woman. But Filthy marks a new fetishism for the dark African American skin. And people are loving it, and throwing money at him left right and centre. I think Filthy is a very clever businessman.
The second point I want to make is about the aestheticisation of the avatar. I recall some research being done in the early years of the avatar (late 1990s) which claimed that in a Western colour palette, there was not enough distinction between dark tones and so dark skinned avatars just looked unrealistic, lacked subtlety in shading, and were most unappealing. I’ve been hunting for a while to find any references to this research - it was done by some colour scientists I think and if anybody can find it for me I would be most grateful to get my facts precisely accurate. The skin in the top avatar here by skin designer Chip Midnight looks gorgeous to me though, so maybe graphics have advanced considerabloy since that research. However I’ll never forget the impact that report had - to think that the very system features we used were marked by race was a rude wake up call!
Finally, it seems to me that most of the skin designers are from the US, so its unlikely we’ll get gorgeous Indigenous Australian skins coming out for some time. I can’t even recall seeing any Italian or Mediterranean skins. So whilst the African American skin is being fetishised and discussed at length, there are still numerous races that are invisible in SL.
(Thanks Silelf for the the link to the article!)