A few weeks ago, I loaded up Second Life. It was the first time I’d touched the game in about a year. I halfheartedly installed all the updates.
If you’ve ever tinkered with Second Life, this probably comes as no surprise: the service manages to hemorrhage almost all of its potential new customers, quickly. In fact, most new users are alienated by the whole experience within their first hour, thanks to an unnavigable interface loaded with super-cryptic nomenclature.
Perhaps the most unwelcoming aspect of the initial user experience is your avatar’s own appearance. It is textureless, low-tech, doll-like, and it brands you as a Linden newbie (until very recently, the default avatars were just terrible). And although the character creation tools are actually great, they take time to learn. I remember it seemed every attempt at designing a realistic body resulted in a bubble-ass. And at any length, the default hair is a she-male’s pompadour.
How could I have known during my very first hour of play that I was able to purchase not just clothes and toys, but also hair and skin and eyeglasses? The average new user has no idea how mutable his appearance really is—and by extension, how mutable his sense of identity is.
The only time I’d messed around in Second Life had been with Sharkey. Sharkey’s avatar looked stunningly like Sharkey. The salient difference between real-life Sharkey and second-life Sharkey was, second-life Sharkey surfed the skies on a hoverboard shaped like an NES controller. He also owned a functional TARDIS.
We met online with the intent to tour the worlds and to cause strangers grief. My own avatar—her girth, her hair, her lame clothes—embarrassed me. “You must really hate yourself,” Sharkey had said. (I was pleased to see that this TIME Magazine writer had a similar experience.)
Now I was loading Second Life anew, because I was lonely and bored. I found a free pair of rollerskates. Their maker had programmed the skates with a nifty animation script; when wearing them, my avatar rolled across the terrain in this really lovely, fluid way.
I decided to revise my avatar. I made her rather short, a little paunchy from the front, but with good legs. After some trial-and-error, I understood how to edit clothing and apply textures to them. Voila: cropped pinstripe pants. Then I bought my avatar some new hair. I purchased the hair from a young woman who makes and sells hair inside of Second Life. I felt guilty because the hair is prettier than my real-world hair, but then again the default hair was so much uglier than my real-world hair, so which is more a lie? Once I’d found glasses, my avatar finally bore a stronger resemblance to my own real-world appearance.
So then I gave her a flight cap and goggles and a utility belt. Now she looked like a steampunk pirate.
I didn’t admit it to myself right away, but there it was: I was hooked. As I watched her rollerskate across the screen, I realized I felt strangely soft and sentimental about my onscreen avatar. She was cute and adventurey. A few days later, I announced to friends that I was going to dress as my own Second Life avatar for Halloween. What’s more, I’d already assembled the costume.
In spite of his openly mocking me, a real-life friend (well, a few friends, in fact, but I’m only talking about this one) agreed to create a free Second Life account and join in on my fun. I looked up virtual places to visit, and I dragged his avatar to live events with streaming video.
He was skeptical—Second Life is outside of his comfort zone, and mine—but he was also vain. Every once in a while I could see him slip into the in-game appearance editor. He eventually admitted to me that he was embarrassed by his avatar’s appearance. He’d tried to adjust all the settings, he said, but nothing looked right.
“You just need new hair,” I told him. Then I managed to convince him to spend a couple bucks on new hair.
It wasn’t long before he’d figured out how to make clothing for himself. He purchased facial hair and, slowly but steadily, his avatar came to really resemble his real-life appearance. It was uncanny and interesting.
So I dredged up all my courage and said to him:
“I have kind of a weird question.
“As your avatar grows to resemble your self—or, I don’t know, you might think it’s maybe your idealized self, but the truth is, it really isn’t—do you find yourself, uh, getting the hots for your avatar, a little?”
He admitted, unbelievably, that it was indeed so.
I asked because I had just been reading an incredible article titled “The Avatar Who Loved Himself.” It has continued to hold my attention for well over a week now. Here are some bits from it:
Then things began to get a bit more strange. Because shortly after that, CyFishy Traveler fell in love with himself.
He ran a hack that let him launch two instances of Second Life, and logged into one as CyFishy, and the other, as Beginning.
Their romance continued in Instant Message. “I would talk to myself, tell myself the things that I secretly wished a lover would say to me, assure myself that I am beautiful and loved.
I don’t want to give it away, but the story gets a little bit stranger. It is about the mutability of gender and identity. It is about the weird, overwhelming love-feelings people get when painstakingly crafting and cultivating alter-egos.
For over a week, I have been considering how mushy my own avatar creation has made me feel. Is the story of CyFishy outrageous and improbable? Maybe not. Is it as melancholy and desolate as it initially seems? I don’t think so. After all, who loves you more than you? If identity fluctuates depending on context, how many people are you?