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Ethnography in the Virtual World, the Virtual Body and “Being Different”

by Riannon Clarke


On Wednesday, Greg Grieve, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, encouraged those interested in virtual-world ethnography to “Be Different.” He outlined a theoretical framework for his several-year research in Second Life that provides an explanation for the possibility of immersion in virtual worlds, a crucial aspect of participant-observation ethnography. Network analysis or simply “lurking” on communities in the online world are decidedly unworkable ways to arrive at the “thick description” most ethnographers still strive to provide in their discussion of cultures. Instead of static websites, one must interact with, and become immersed in a virtual social space.  If one abides by the requirements of theorists such as Tom Boellstorff, a certain sensorial realism must be present in the virtual space for the subject to become engaged, while Alex Golub emphasizes the performance of shared projects, such as World of Warcraft raids, as critical to fostering deep immersion. Grieve added a new dimension to the discussion by, almost ironically, ushering in a discussion of the body.  But is this so ironic? Rather than arriving at a definitive place, Greg’s discussion led us to consider some of the productive differences that a discourse of body, as opposed to simply terminology such as “identity,” provides in the analysis of Second Life immersion.

The virtual body can be examined as a lived body, although it is not necessarily the “meat” of corporeality. One can observe some of the extension of the lived body in (virtual?) instances besides Second Life (SL). For example, one’s scent and those things which carry one’s scent can prove to be powerful areas for possible violation, to the extent that the boundaries of one’s body are called into question. Is a photograph a virtual body, an extension of one’s corporality, when it is used in certain ways? On the part of SL participants, there is a level of care for the virtual body, in the form of an avatar, that breaks down the sharp distinction of Real Life (RL) and SL. Grieve had noticed in previous research with students, that when they were asked to create “different” avatars, intentionally genderless, deformed, or at the limits of what was ordinarily constructed by players, the students would more frequently refer to the avatar as an “it” or an other, where previously they more comfortably enlisted “me” or “I.” I, too, confirmed this tendency in my language when I constructed a mutated, gender-bending, but still vaguely humanoid avatar.

Examining gender can be a powerful framework for illuminating some of the bodily aspects of immersion in virtual situations. When creating an avatar on Second Life, one is restricted by some of the same gender regulations that occur in Real Life. Other MUDS offer up to 10 gender options from which to begin avatar creation, while SL still holds to two “basic” starting points. In his long time spent on SL, Grieve has found that there is a tendency for SL to mirror not only behavioral, but also the bodily {tendencies}  of west-coast American, white, hetero-normativity. Female hair, Flexi hair, is an overwhelmingly popular modification for SL avatars, reinforcing a RL gender tendency. Those with female avatars can download exaggerated “sexy walking,” while “shopping for gender” for both (of the two recognized) genders reveals a majority of options familiar to RL. Working closely with Buddhist activities on SL, Grieve found that at a certain temple where the kesa robes were offered for free, the attire was by default fitted for male avatars. The practice of SL marriage, among other phenomena, shows the paradigm of serial monogamy being replicated in the virtual world.

Of course SL users are at an advantage compared to those restricted by RL bodily norms. Though there is a definite foundation of  the above-mentioned norms off of which all of the “differences” play, the possibilities available to one constructing a virtual body are much enhanced. If the body is “the chief technology to create the self,” by making one’s avatar very small (“Tinies”) or by creating avatar that is half-human, half-beast, for example, the virtual body becomes a novel new beginning for selves. The practices, behaviors, and thought processes that emerge when a user becomes immersed in such a virtual body are new combinatory selves that are part RL, part SL. If there is an “identity” here, where does that identity call home? Is it the body in front of the screen, or the virtual body in which they become immersed? Since the identity comes out of both, one is tempted to invoke Donna Haraway’s cyborg to describe these new bodies. The cyborg has both biological and artificial values, breaking down the sharp distinction between body and the machine, and thusly disrupts orderly power structures. The SL body is a lived body, a body of practice, while also constructed of pixels. A biological entity controls this body’s every movement, and this body becomes part of a feedback loop to create that “user’s” greater sense of “being in the world.” Both machine and biology are at play to create a virtual cyborg body. And indeed, these novel SL bodies are disrupting orderly power structures, first and foremost those that are carried over from RL into the virtual world.

The virtual ethnographer can examine where some of the tension is by intentionally entering into a community as a body that is very “different” from its norms. Reactions and interactions between the virtual community and the “different” body can reveal the ways that community makes meaning. Also, by creating a virtual body markedly different from one’s RL body, the user and virtual ethnographer both are going to engage themselves in new ways as the virtual body affects the ways that they behave. If, for example, one wants to understand the “Tinies” community in SL, one must become one, even if this creates dissonance between one’s RL identity and the SL body. Eventually, this extension of one’s body will affect one’s behavior in that environment, and immersion will occur, as those practices become one’s regular way of performing in that virtual body.

As an exercise, the Summer School participants were asked to create a “different” avatar, and then attempt to make friends in the SL world. This bodily difference could occur on one of two fronts, or possibly both: either one could construct a virtual body that we felt in no way represented our RL selves, or one could create an avatar that was quite different from anything encountered among the norms in SL. Often the latter was inclusive of the former, but in a few cases, the former could be a very normative body for SL avatars, and therefore cause little tension with other SL bodies, while making the user very aware of their presence in an unusual body, and therefore unusual set of practices and interactions. Many of us created ridiculous, monstrous bodies in which to attempt to meet new people. http://www.flickr.com/photos/53429689@N02/4936082640/

Some of us created avatars that were quite human, but in some way not representative of the SL preference for thin, fit, well-endowed, white avatars. Another of us attempted to become a standard SL fetish body, the “Furry,” and was promptly met with the difficulty of recreating a specific “stylized repetition of acts” that was totally unfamiliar to him. My avatar was not a part of any established SL body category, and although I was pleased with my creation as an artist, I was hesitant to present this body as my body.

The results were suggestive of the ability in SL to test boundaries with fewer adverse reactions than in RL. Nadine’s Shrek-like body was met with kindness and friendliness, as she received a compliment on her body (something along the lines of, “you’re the prettiest one of those [green monsters] that I’ve seen!”) as well as her accessories (purse), and had little trouble making friends. The harshest reaction, which is arguably a terrible existence in the long term, was that of no reaction at all. Sometimes one would be ignored in one’s attempts to converse or to interact, and would simply have to move on to a new environment. However, in such a short span of time, it is impossible to discount that this reaction was less about our different bodies, than because we all came across as obvious “newbies,” struggling with the movement of our virtual bodies and not knowing common modes of speech. In any ethnographic study, there is no substitute for time spent in the field. “Being different” is a very useful tool for gaining new perspective on living in a virtual body, but little workable results can be gathered without a longer period of immersion. And perhaps the best method for understanding SL communities is to become immersed in several bodies at different levels. One avatar can be a very engaged participant that does not attempt to create much friction in the community, while another may be an occasional visitor to the community that likes to irritate the boundaries of that group, but is capable of provoking useful responses (A non-believer that engages the group in heated debate; a believer that does not use the same language; a participant that refuses to use a normative body for that group, etc.) There will be, of course, different levels of immersion depending on how much and with what intensity you perform in certain bodies.

Regarding virtual bodies as such indicates an interest in the ways that a self is constructed and shaped by something material. The need for a sensory map that is equivalent to the RL body is done away with in favor of the concept of “lived body” so that the avatars of SL can be looked at the same way many theorists examine body today. In this case, much of the evidence of bodily practices in SL will be visual, but should not be regarded as static projections or abstractions of identity. Instead, ethnographic work, participation, can be a way to reveal to ways that these virtual bodies have an effect on RL bodies and identities, and vice versa. For many users, not only their identity, but that they consider as the “stuff” of themselves has extended into the pixilated world.


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