Monday, April 4, 2011

Is This Real Life?

The full, immersive experience that a virtual world like Second Life offers requires a level of dedication and engagement that most people are not willing to, or capable of offering. For those that do, however, the robust opportunities and community driven aspects that Dr. Levinson describes as a part of Second Life can quickly change one's perception of reality. When someone has used the so called "second life" to make a quarter of a million dollars and has real estate assets valued at $1 million, one must ask--much like David did after his trip to the dentist--"is this real life?"

Reading about Dr. Levinson's experience with Second Life and how he set up a shop and read parts of his book to an audience is pretty amazing. It really is like an entirely new, second life. The range of possible actions make for a deeply engaged experience, and having someone walk up to your shop, talking about a book, and then giving them an address to mail the book to be autographed is an example of how the second life is merged with the "RL." Even though there are times where real life and the second life merge, you can still create an entirely virtual life that becomes even more real. Making connections with people in a virtual space reminds me of massively multiplayer games like World of Warcraft--people get so involved that they take on a whole new persona, have a different group of friends, and form bonds strong enough to hold in-game funerals. I suspect that, upon hearing about a virtual world like Second Life, most people think of it as "weird," which can explain why the number of registered users is so low when compared to Facebook or Twitter.

Creating an avatar or a virtual character that represents your real life likeness is something that is not unfamiliar to console gamers today. The difference, however, is that the use of an avatar in most console video games is a quicker process that doesn't provide a second life as much as it provides an alter ego. Users can choose to make avatars that are a real life reflection of character, and at the same time, there are plenty of people who create avatars that do not reflect their real life character in any way. The creation of avatars for celebrity or cartoon characters is very popular. Virtual spaces on consoles which use avatars do not offer even close to the number of tools needed to create a second life, and instead are used as a tool to create a greater sense of immersion by making it possible to get "you" in the game.

With the release of the Wii back in 2006, Nintendo gave players the ability to create an avatar known as a "Mii" via the Mii Channel. Your Mii represents your personal character in games, and can interact with people from around the world through the Everybody Votes Channel and Check Mii Out Channel. The newly released Nintendo 3DS comes equipped with updated Mii software, and boasts a new feature called Street Pass, which places greater emphasis on real-life interactivity than ever before. Crossover between real-life and the virtual character is of heightened importance because in-person encounters will initiate the exchange of Mii characters, personal statistics, and gaming information, ultimately leading to a wider network of people to play against--or together with--online. As of last year, there were over 100 million Miis created in Japan and America alone.

Microsoft's Xbox 360 followed suit in late 2008 with their own version of avatars, which also reflect your looks in-game, as well as on the dashboard. Avatars on Xbox 360 are used to less of an extent as on Wii, but have been implemented into games more of late because of the release of Kinect. Sony has a different approach on their PlayStation 3 console. Instead of an avatar system that is used in-game or to serve other menu driven functions, they released their own virtual world in late 2008 as free downloadable software known as PlayStation Home. Home is much closer to Second Life than anything else on consoles, but it is more limited. It offers the chance for people to talk and play games, but it has also been seen as a commercial space full of advertisements and micro transactions. Sony recently said that there are 19 million unique registered PlayStation Home users, but did not give the average number of daily users.

For all of the people who use the Internet, as of September 2008, only 15 million use Second Life. Creating a virtual character or avatar is not a strange concept to people, and is common practice among gamers. It is now second nature for gamers to create a character to use within games. Video games draw a much clearer line between the real life character and the created avatar. There is a strong sense of involvement, but users still remain a step removed from living the virtual life of a character. The world of Second Life puts the user within a virtual reality and creates the opportunity for a new life. Perhaps the number of people with a video game avatar vs the number of people on Second Life indicate that people are much more comfortable taking on the role of a virtual character within a game, where the boundaries of real life and virtual life are separated, but less inclined to enter themselves into a world that challenges their perception of reality.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this reflection on comparative avatarology!