Hi! I'm an academic in Australia. I teach English Education and my research interests include new literacies, digital fiction, fan fiction, blogging, identity, pop culture, computer games, systemic linguistics, feminism and young people online. Recently I have been teaching and researching in the virtual world of Second Life, where I am known as Anya Ixchel.
Following my previous post about the dark skinned avatar, Celebrity Trollop, Second Style fashion magazine editor, modelled one of her favourite dark skins for me, and pointed me to these divine Raspberry and Cow Skins, which just goes to show that I haven’t been getting out much in SL! A gorgeous array of multiple toned skins representing a range of ethnicities. Isn’t Celebrity just fabulous - I love her “I am woman see me roar” poses!
I bought several packs because the skins are just so beautiful. I wore the “Rachel” skin for hours and felt very Dreamgirls-like, but right now I just can’t take off the “Susan” skin, because she looks like she comes from a Botticelli painting!
I am wondering, when the body is purely art, what we can make of a culture in which body modification allows us to freely become another gender, another race, another species. “Real life” physical body modification practices such as asians having their eyelids modified to resemble non-Asian eyes are considered controversial at best. When I walked around with a dark skin I thought I looked beautiful, but I also considered the fact that there is a sense of “taboo” about appropriating another person’s race for the sake of art, or experimentation, or comedy. Remember when Ted Danson (dating Whoopie Goldberg at the time) wore a “blackened” face to a party and was slammed by the media for it?
Are there no taboos in Second Life?
It seems to me that in a world where we can be anything, if I wear an Asian skin, an Indian skin, or a Mediterranean skin, its just me saying “your look is beautiful to me”. I can’t imagine anybody would seriously equate manipulating skin colour of the avatar with any form of racial discrimination. Or would they?
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.
Skyping at 2:45am for me, we begin to map out our workshop for this conference. Here’s the overview for the conference program…
Embodiment in Virtual Environments: Exploring Literacies, Identity, Research, and Community
Charles Kinzer, mathematics, science, and technology, Teachers College, Columbia University
Angela Thomas, University of Sydney
An increasing number of scholars, researchers, game/educational designers, and reporters in the popular press are writing about the economic, educational, and personal aspects of a virtual life online. Communities form and disband, individuals join or are excluded, and people can take very personally the virtual environments that they present, either intentionally or unintentionally, to others. With crossover from the “real” to the virtual (and the opposite) being an area of research and providing the underpinning for transfer of learning across real and virtual boundaries, educational opportunities and issues related to literacy, broadly defined, are being foregrounded.
Participants in this workshop will enter a virtual world, tour environments within that world, meet people and consider issues pertaining to research in such environments. The workshop format allows discussion and consideration of possibilities as well as presentation of some current activities. Thus, in keeping with the workshop format, the session will range from a presentation and consideration of issues related to virtual environments to hands-on tours and examination of applications in Second Life. We will meet others in-world, see how education might be facilitated, and consider embodiment and reality with spaces that exist electronically and perceptually.
See Rebecca, that’s how I manage to be involved in several projects at once, planning meetings at 2:45 am Who else here thinks I am crazy?
I am so thrilled to be in communication with Barry Joseph of Global Kids, and to be learning more about the work that is being done with teens in Second Life. Their site, Holy Meatballs, is truly inspirational, full of texts, images and machinima that the kids have created. UNICEF’s voices of youth project featuring these kids is explained here, and is the subject of the video above. My friend and colleague Danielle Mirliss first raised my awareness of Global kids in her Slatenight article, Henry Jenkins has been to visit the kids there (with the support of the NMC), and I’ve been excitedly following along, looking forward to becoming much more involved myself. So stay tuned
Although I only had a very tiny bit of funding last year to start me up in Second Life it didn’t last long, and I spent a small fortune on land, tier, and classroom costs from my own pocket. Although I applied for funding to continue, I was unfortunately unseccessful (honestly…. it was deemed that paying for land in SL was “an inappropriate use of funds”, but let’s not get into how upset I was when I was told that). So I had to sell up and return to being homeless.
However thanks to the amazing kindness of my friend Dell, I am now squatting on his gorgeous sim in my cute yacht (thanks to the clever craftswomanship of Sabrina Doolittle, of Linden Lifestyles fame). Here we are chilling out on the deck and pretending that we are still on vacation:
I also tossed in my academic “serious” image for a while with this cute pink hair (appropriately called “Party Girl” from a design house called “Naughty Designs”). So… I might be entrenched in unit outlines, meetings, more meetings, “retreat” days, lecture preparation and admin by day, but by night I’ve turned into a wild woman!
OK, maybe wild woman isn’t really me … actually its an interesting phenomenon to have my personal and professional lives blend so much in Second Life. I made an alt (which means an “alternate” account with a different name- I called my alt Sofie) in an attempt to keep personal and professional lives seperate, but then I realised that almost all my friends in Second Life were professional colleagues in some form or another, and I didn’t feel right not being Anya for very long!
What I’ve started noticing is that people can tell what mood I am in by the colour of hair I am wearing. I teach visual literacy, and I do art as a hobby, so I know the power of colour as an interpersonal meaning making resource. But I didn’t realise just HOW powerful it was, and how it affected my interactions with others. I have three colours I seem to regularly use: blonde, dark brown, and pink. Blonde is when I am feeling happy and energetic. Dark brown is when I am feeling serious, and pink is when I am feeling a little silly. Although I consciously choose what I wear for the social purpose of my activities (academic, personal etc…) I wasn’t consciously aware of choosing according to mood. My friends all knew before I did!!
Australia’s Madison magazine (which doesn’t have a website) published the article below about Second Life in their January edition. The author was Alexandra Carlton, and I am reproducing it here with permission from the Deputy Editor, Lizzie Renkert.
I especially wanted to reproduce it not because of any startling revelations it has about Second Life (after all, the author of the article states she only spent 3 evening sessions in the world), but because it makes a link to one of the best magazines from inside Second Life, Second Style. I really like the fact that the author took the time to speak to Celebrity Trollop, the editor of Second Style, to better understand SL fashion. There’s repeated criticism about journalists and reporters who come into Second Life, spend a few hours there, and then make outlandish, unfounded, or very shallow comments about what it is and what it has to offer. Anyway, here is the article, with Philip Rosendale and Second Style featured on the final page. Click to get to the enlarged versions.
Larry Johnson (aka Larry Pixel), the dynamic CEO of the New Media Consortium, has announced the further developments of NMC’s projects in Second Life. Yesterday he launched a new site, the NMC Virtual Worlds site:
and announced the expansion of the NMC virtual campus to a massive 29 sims:
Already boasting some gorgeous new builds including a machinima school and a space observatory, the sims are also beautifully landscaped to simulate oceans, mountains, lakes and rivers to provide a relaxing ambience for teaching and research in Second Life.
From what I can tell, Larry and the NMC are the largest non-profit organisation in Second Life and kindly provide the campus facilities for use to many educational organisations and individual educators like myself (I will be using the facilities to give a conference talk next month since I cannot personally attend the US conference).
NMC was behind the Impact of Digital Media Symposium last October, where I spoke about “The Avatar as Communication” as part of the Slatenight events presented in the Symposium. They continue to be the leading force in SL education and now have a huge staff of artists, builders, designers and educators working together to push the boundaries of all of the affordances of the virtual world for its creative and educational potential.
As somebody who has been quite evangelical in my comments about Second Life, it comes as a shock to read around the blogosphere and find that other people are just not that into it. Serious gamer research blogs like Terra Nova seem to be fairly dismissive of it, and serious social software research blogs like Many2Many seem to consider it all either hyped up or a world of horrors (citing the seedy sex scene as offputting). But it seems to me that none of these people “get it”. Because Second Life, despite some of its less savoury aspects, really has the best of both worlds - it is a fantastic gaming platform and it is also a fantastic social software platform.
First of all, Second Life has a rich role-playing scene - OK so not all of the role-playing is G rated, but the role-playing I have seen is wonderful. I am so surprised that the “serious” gamers don’t get into this more, because for anybody researching new narrative forms, Second Life provides the best of what’s new and the users themselves are the ones constructing the contexts, storylines, characters and quests. Now I don’t want to open up the debate about narrative vs ludology by seeming to favour narrative, and perhaps WoW is much stronger in its ludic qualities, but the beauty of Second Life is that the users themselves have developed their own MM (well maybe 40 or 50 isn’t massive but still..) ORPG. I’ve been following some of the posts about WoW from other researchers, and I see that WoW has fairly structured, in-built quests, and a limited array of avatars and characters, particularly with respect to female characters. In Second Life the range of possibilities for characters and avatars is restricted only to the player’s imagination. Some of the role-playing has in built quests and ludic elements like combat, rewards, levels and so on, and so again, each role-playing context is different and has different elements according to what the group of role-players want and develop together. This means that Second Life is a wonderful gaming platform for people who have imagination and who want to co-construct complex and diverse narratives and games with others.
Secondly, I am just outright shocked at the lack of interest from some of the people writing about social software. I have been a resident in Second Life now for over a year, and during this time I have:
- met an incredible group of talented educators, writers, media experts, animation experts, engineers, film makers and artists
- taught my class on New Literacies inside the world, which is being featured on a forthcoming television report in Australia
- spoken at a syposium on the “Impact of Digital Media” in connection with the NMC and the MacArthur foundation
- given a keynote at a Linguistics conference about machinima
- been invited to speak at two conferences in 2007 about digital culture / virtual worlds
- worked in collaboration with a number of educators, artists and digital culture commentator on a magazine about the arts and culture in SL
- included references to Second Life in my forthcoming book about literacies and identities in virtual worlds
- not to mention the new friends I have made who have taught me, inspired me, and helped to further shape my thinking about digital culture
Second Life, for me, *is* the ultimate in social software.
Notwithstanding its less savoury aspects. OK, so let me be balanced about this and point them out:
- the seedy sex scene is very offputing for people involved in education like me. I was very concerned and embarrassed about exposing my students to this, but probably overcompensated by sherparding them all carefully through the orientation stage and out of that horrible welcome area as fast as possible. The welcome area in Second Life is just TERRIBLE - its such a shock for new people to be confronted with, i wish it wasn’t there. Even in the orientation area before arriving at the welcome area I had one student griefed, with somebody pushing them off a mountain and screaming obscenities at them. So I can understand if people get that far and think it won’t be worth it. And in the welcome area, newbies are seen as targets for ridicule, sexual propositions, and more griefing. Even when getting my students over to my little plot of land I was worried about the neighbours, and put up barriers so none of them could wander in. Some of my colleagues are fortunate enough to have their own islands for teaching on, and if I am lucky maybe my faculty will give me funding for an island in the future too, but this last semester I only had a small plot, surrounded by all sorts of weird, wonderful, and not so wonderful neghbours (and more about my teaching semester in SL can be read here).
- there is a lot of hype and parabola about how many users are in SL, the platform is buggy, seeming favouritism towards some groups of people over others, there’s an American-centric attitude that pervades everything which is really irritating (not that I don’t love all my American friends, but really….), there are a lot of women who make me cry with frustration because of how they prostitute themselves for Lindens, and there do seem to be some groups of people who are using SL for what I would consider pathological purposes (and I don’t want to even mention what these are on my blog). Issues of race, gender, and socio-economic status are sadly numerous and negative in nature.
Will Second Life remain my platform of choice? Maybe not, but until something better comes along, I will concentrate on all of the amazing and positive affordances it offers for my teaching, research interests and social networking. I don’t really have the time or energy to focus on the negative aspects - I bypass them so that I can just do my work and socialising as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Thanks entirely to the amazing Dell Wilberg, Slatenight hosted a fabulous (!!!) Christmas party in Second Life last night. Dell rented a private Wintery snow covered Christmas themed sim for the party, and we hired the amazing musician Mel Cheeky (who truly does have the voice of an angel) and DJ Cybster Curtis (who mixed a lot of jazz music - Diana Krall, Norah Jones etc… - just for my pleasure! Thanks Cybster!) to entertain us throughout the evening. The party was held on an ice rink but the sim also had cabins, a nativity scene, an ice palace, a giant water slide, snowboarding, sleigh rides and several cosy fires to snuggle around.
Metaverse commentator and provocateur Prokofy (newly renamed Pro-VOKY by Mel Cheeky) Neva not only came along and partied with us but wrote some lovely comments about it on the Second Life Herald, which was a most unexpected pleasure to stumble on this morning as I was doing my daily blog reading.
Many of the Slatenight writers and artists attended (thank you Lythe, Kain, Coelacanth, Zingg, Fiend, Captain, and Tulipe for attending!), and other guests and friends, including NMC’s Larry Pixel who has invited me to speak at the 2007 NMC conference at Indiana University, which I am veeeerrrrrrry excited about. He also told me of some exciting new developments at the NMC which will be announced officially in the new year and which made my jaw drop, literally! (Stay tuned to the NMC Campus Observer for news).
I also managed to catch up with one of my students, Julie, who just finished her Masters degree work with me this year, and is planning on commencing her PhD work in 2007, so we had a quick discussion about the PhD process and supervision and so on whilst dancing away under the snow!
Unfortunately every time I tried taking photos I crashed, but other people managed to take some wonderful shots and we’ll be posting them over at Slatenight next week in our special December pictorial issue.
I haven’t been spending much time in SL lately because I have been madly finishing up a number of writing projects and commitments so it was especially fun to just turn up at a party and play host without having to do any of the organising (did I say thank you already to Dell for organising this?!). Thanks to everybody who made the evening such fun, it was my first Christmas party of the year and really was a most memorable occasion.
Thanks to Kelli, I just read this article about Anshe Chung from the Sydney Morning Herald. Well, the mainstream media are all getting excited about the press release, but Prokofy Neva’s detailed analysis of how Anshe accumulated her wealth is so much more fascinating. Of course. In the topics that are of most interest to me, I never read mainstream media any more, I read insider blogs, and insider newspapers / magazines. In fact, had Kelli not emailed me, I would never have seen this article at all, because I tend not to read print based news at all any more. I do my daily blog rounds every morning and that’s about it. I think I must be the sort of reader that only bothers to read on a “need-to-know” basis - blatantly filtering out / carefully feeding in… I wonder what I am missing out on by doing this?