03.Your avatar and you
In many virtual worlds, there’s an emphasis on the physical appearance of the avatars. You can change your avatar’s hair style, colouring, clothing, size and body shape. You can choose an avatar that closely mirrors your real-life self, or you can choose to embellish or improve the look of the avatar or give yourself a completely different look.
More often than not, avatars ‘improve’ the physical features of the real-life users. Why not make yourself look like the supermodel or body builder you can never become in real life? But the emphasis on body perfection may influence people, especially children and teenagers, who are more susceptible to body image issues.
Kathy Cleland, a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, has conducted extensive research into virtual worlds. Kathy says that, despite the availability of creative tools, most avatars tend to be human and reinforce existing stereotypes.
“It’s surprising how much avatars reinforce the ‘hunks’ and ‘babes’ stereotypes from popular culture. Rather than be interesting examples of human or non-human … very often avatars take on idealised and glamorous identities.”
The reasons avatars become ‘improved’ examples of human beings could be explained in a variety of ways: people’s desire to be physically perfect, the novelty of seeing themselves differently, the ability to do it without expensive plastic surgery, the desire to attract an in-world partner or the power of media images of perfection. Unfortunately, as Kathy observes, “in virtual worlds, there’s a huge drive to be good looking”.
There seems to be no stopping the development of virtual worlds and some speculate that they may eventually absorb the internet to the point that we access much of the internet through a vivid, virtual world platform that brings websites, internet searches, shopping and communicating beyond static pages and text-based interactions.
And yet complex issues arise about settling disputes, the limit of legal jurisdictions, property and ownership rights and the degree of responsibility that the owners of the platform assume for what happens in-world.
And it’s more than likely that monetary transactions will be at the centre of many disputes. Some sites charge users to access all the features, while other sites are ‘free’ to use, but users must pay for extra items, such as clothing for their avatar. Already, there’s an economy that trades in real estate, artworks, clothing and even stock markets in some virtual worlds. The risk for rip-offs and fraud increases as users put real money into buying virtual items. There needs to be a secure payment mechanism and safeguards to protect against scams.
With increasing virtual freedoms and expressions comes complexity and responsibility. The EFA’s Nic Suzor speculates on the fine balance required. “These environments must be allowed the freedom to set their own rules and develop, but we are still under an obligation to ensure that participants are neither exploited nor unreasonably harmed.”