Digital Knockout

The evolution of the avatar and ‘online society’

She’s some embodiment of bits and bytes, heh? I just finished tweaking my lovely new avatar for the wonderfully bewitching massively multiplayer online game called Second Life. After opening a free account, I downloaded the software for this virtual world — and I use that term rather loosely — a couple of days ago, and so far I have been amazed, and at times even somewhat transfixed by the experience, from a strictly consumeristic standpoint, that is.

From a technical standpoint, the chief reason for this is likely because Second Life offers a largely unprecedented level of interaction and information intensity as far as desktop interfaces are concerned in the medium of massively multi-user programs.

To put it simply: there is a ton of potential for users to connect on a very personal level with their avatars, to the point where their alter egos or personality extensions can take on lives of their own while engaging in the extravagant and expansive digital terrain of this 3D environment.

Just really briefly on the possible merits and pitfalls of this high-tech world of imagination: since it is so very absorbing, participation in Second Life can spiral into a monumental waste of time for the misguided, undisciplined and plain old stupid among us. On the other hand, if indulged in wisely, it’s a wonderful way to engage in fantasy and do some personal exploration. And it’s also exciting to consider what the possibilities will be for programs such as these in another decade or two and the kinds of benefits they can yield for savvy users.

Avatars in Second Life can switch positions, glance
around at their environment and even change facial
expressions and make gestures when prompted.

At any rate, after poking around Second Life for a few days, here a few basic features of this “online society,” as it is referred to by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, the company that created this entertainment program:

  • As far as mobility is concerned, you get to fly, in addition to moving around on foot. Avatars’ movements are controlled chiefly via the arrow keys and the mouse.
  • Second Life is ultimately presided over by Gov. Linden, and that’s about all I know at this point about the way the “society” is managed.
  • The entire experience seems to be centered around acquiring and creating material possessions, as well as socializing with other avatars and just generally hanging around and looking good.
  • Participation in SL is said to be rising rapidly. “Growing 10% a month since its debut in June 2003, Second Life membership surged 34% in July, to 40,000,” states an Aug. 21, 2005 article in USA TODAY, citing online game statistics from “It’s still comparatively small now, but I see endless potential,” Linden Lab chief Philip Rosedale was quoted as saying in the story.
  • You have pretty broad range in terms of tailoring your avatar’s appearance. I mean, every digital being is fundamentally beautiful in Second Life, but users can fine tune an array of physical attributes in order to render highly customized characteristics. In fact, the possibilities are so varied that it’s almost exhausting making your way through all of the choices. For example, the user has the ability to adjust skin characteristics, hair, eyes and bodily shape. And each of those has subcategories. The subset for bodily shape, for instance, allows users to fashion attributes such as head, ears, nose, mouth, chin, torso and legs. Then there is the list of choices for clothing.
  • The format of Second Life allows synchronous communication, meaning it’s like an elaborate chat room wherein you could type comments, send IMs, view others’ profiles and make a variety of gestures, among other features at your disposal. One of the chief distinctions, of course, is that Second Life avatars seem almost human, in a strictly surreal sense. Their bodies even expand and contract to emulate breathing, and their eyes blink just like their real-life counterparts.
  • Avatars do not exhibit emergent artificial intelligence — not as far as I can tell at this point, anyway. But there are other rather charming and somewhat realistic AI aspects to the game. For instance, even without receiving commands from users, avatars display human-like movement, such as glancing around their environment or switching positions while sitting down, creating the illusion that it’s all spontaneous. At times, this can be a little uncanny. At least I thought so when I was taking some snapshots of my avatar, who treated the camera to a few brief smiles, which convincingly conveyed genuine bashfulness.

She’s a virtual knockout. No?

– Noche Kandora

Read my follow-up post.

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