"Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators", Robbie Cooper

Rob Cawston
15 May 2007

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"Alter Ego: Avatars and their Creators"

Robbie Cooper

Chris Boot | June 2007 | ISBN 1905712022 | £17.95

Robbie Cooper's Alter Ego project represents a wide spectrum of the online gaming community, from casual players to obsessive gamers, from creators of worlds to virtual entrepreneurs.

There are now an estimated 10 million online gamers across the globe. Each one has an online identity, a personally created character representing them in their virtual world. Known as "avatars" - from the Sanskrit word for the visual forms adopted by Hindu gods - they vary greatly in shape and size, sometimes replicating real-world appearance, sometimes deliberately subverting it or pushing the boundaries of imagination.

As our gave moves from the photos of the real-life person to their created avatar and back again we look for connections between the two but also recognise the distance that divides them. There can never be a clear separation of identity: does an avatar serve as a representation of the real-life person or does a player inhabit a character, performing a created role in their virtual world?

Alter Ego serves to breakdown the stereotypes of virtual gaming and explore its many contradictions. The online world offers participants new freedoms - a chance to act away from the constraints of the real world. Avatars can walk, talk and shop but they can also fly, kill, and be re-born.

The ability to communicate more freely is often cited in the book as one of the main attraction of virtual environments. On the one hand participants feel more able to express themselves away from the immediate judgement of personal appearance and status. On the other, are they talking to other people or just their online persona? Do people act differently online and offline?


Harisu "When I am acting I have to concentrate on my role. In the game I just try to be myself. If anything, my avatar has to concentrate on being me." © Robbie Cooper / Chris Boot

Jason Rowe - Rurouni Kenshin "The computer screen is my window to the world. Online it doesn't matter what you look like." © Robbie Cooper / Chris Boot

Philip Rosedale - Philip Linden "As thinking beings, we can imagine a world much better than the real one. Second Life lets us actually build that imagined place." © Robbie Cooper / Chris Boot

I have attended many book launches but never a virtual launch in a virtual world. After designing my Second Life "avatar" - with a pumped up body, flaming red hair and the rather wonderful name Pumplesmoo Dunderdale - I flew over to the launch of AlterEgo.

In a virtual exhibition hall surrounded by photos from the project I met Rabbie Cooper and Cybernaut Bixby, known in the real world as Robbie Cooper and Tracy Spaight, the author and co-author of the book.


Rob Cawston: It's great to meet you in Second Life at the launch of "Alter ego". Is this your first online launch and are you pleased with how it has gone?

Tracy Spaight: Since Alter Ego is about virtual worlds and their inhabitants, we thought it appropriate to have a launch party in Second Life. We were pleased with the turnout, though some non-gamers had trouble finding their way to the exhibit hall.

Rob Cawston: I spent about an hour adjusting the appearance of my Avatar and someone gave me some flying red hair (although I was too shy to wear it for long). How did you choose your look for the event?

Tracy Spaight: Cybernaut Bixby has been my Alter Ego in Second Life for the past two years. Usually he wears a "game over" t-shirt, but I felt the occasion required something a bit more formal. I opted for "hacker chic" - black pants, black shirt, and trenchcoat. This turned out to be a good choice, since Robbie showed up as a Squiddy from the Matrix.

Rob Cawston: The book places pictures of people next to their virtual world characters or "avatars". Some avatars are replicas of their creators, others bear no relation whatsoever to real-life appearance changing height, gender, even species! How do people relate to avatars? Are they just a virtual representation, a fictional character, or a separate entity - a second self with their own identity?

Robbie Cooper: I think people use avatars in different ways. We noticed in Asia players were much more focused on creating an avatar that they liked looking at, rather than thinking about what other people were seeing inside the game world. So a lot of guys played girls for that reason. Another player in Korea played a little girl character because he was selling items and it helped in bargaining. He modified his behaviour in the game to try and maintain the illusion that he was really a little girl. Other people really throw themselves into the role play element, or consider their avatar to be an extension of their real world selves.

Very often the role play story that players gave their characters seemed to echo something about the person. So one player who created a vampire character had actually spent years acting out the same fantasy in goth clubs. One of the people he'd associated with during those years took it to the level of sleeping in a coffin! Others found the role play element in the game world so compelling that it made the humdrum reality of their normal lives seem dead by comparison. One of those referred to the real world as the "BBW" - the big boring world. To cut a long story short, it takes all sorts to make a world, and it takes all sorts to make a virtual world too.

The Alter Ego book launch in Second Life

Rob Cawston: There seems to be a broad cross section of society in the book - is this a fair representation of the online community?

Robbie Cooper: This is journalism, not academic research. So we didn't look at the statistics and say "ok, we need one of those, two of those etc". Also, we included people who wanted to participate. That automatically excludes everyone who didn't. But I'm happy with the mix. From the ones that were available to us, we represented as rich a mix as we could.

Rob Cawston: The book details a range of motivations for participating in online worlds. Would you say the online experience offers a departure from reality, a form of escapism and play or are they another extension of the real world?

Robbie Cooper: They are part of the real world, just like TV and movies and books and music and language. But the effect varies wildly depending on how they're being used.

Rob Cawston: In the book an online gamer with severe physical disabilities explains the freedom he gains through virtual gaming (plus, we can all fly in SL!). On the other hand another man explains his obsession with the online world which has led to a disconnection from real-world interaction, and health problems. Is there a danger that worlds such as Second Life end up limiting possibility and opportunity rather than opening up them up?

Tracy Spaight: Virtual Worlds, like any technology, can be liberating or limiting. On the one hand, virtual worlds allow people to exercise their mind and their creativity, they bring people together who might otherwise never meet, and they allow forms of association not possible in the real world. People make friends and fall in love through virtual worlds. They allow people with disabilities to run, jump, and fly. For some players, however, virtual worlds can become all consuming, leading them to neglect their real world obligations and friendships.

Robbie Cooper: Of course it's possible for someone to be limited by a virtual world. People have died from playing them too much, which has got to be the ultimate limitation. One of the wildest statements in the book, to me, comes from Philip Rosedale, the creator of Second Life. He is so confident of the power of virtual worlds that he foresees a time when they replace a lot of the activities we do in the real world. He says "imagine New York as a big museum". No thanks! Another very intelligent person told me about this space station built in the game Eve Online. It was created by the players, functioned as a business and served a purpose in the game. She was so impressed with this that she said "if we can do this in the virtual world, why do we need to do it in the real one?"

Rob Cawston: Anshe Chuung famously makes a million dollars a year buying and selling virtual real estate in Second Life. Other world's are subject to real money trading (RMT). How much has the market and ideas of competition compromised the freedom and self-expression of virtual worlds?

Tracy Spaight: The question boils down to whether players should be able to buy and sell their virtual assets in secondary markets. Does such activity "break the metaphor" of the game, by opening the door to real world commerce - and no doubt bringing in real world laws and regulations in its wake? Should game publishers embrace or fight this activity? Many players oppose it but a sizeable number embrace RMT, as evidenced by the sheer volume of economic activity. Some players have more time to play, whereas others have more money than time. For them it makes more sense to spend $10 to get that Vorpal sword than to spend 30 hours questing for it. However companies may feel about it, RMT transactions seem to be an ineradicable part of the MMO landscape.

Freedom and self-expression do not necessarily stand in opposition to the market. In Second Life, for example, RMT is an integral part of the world design. The game is free to play: players opt into the economy if they choose to do so. Players can buy and sell Linden dollars, virtual property, or virtual objects they create. Many players see this as empowering: if they possess the artistic skills and programming expertise, then they can make a real world living exercising their creativity and imagination making things that others will enjoy. I think we'll see more and more virtual world consultants, real estate developers, artists, and creators in the years ahead.

Rob Cawston: Does a set of shared and mutually agreed rules develop in terms of acceptable social behaviour? (for example, I was given a wristband allowing me to hug and kiss people but soon realised I got the same reaction as in the real world if I hugged a stranger!).

Tracy Spaight: Every online community develops their own sense of what is acceptable. What is ok in an adult themed virtual world like Red Light Center is wildly inappropriate in a virtual world like Toon Town. Some rules are hard-coded into the programmed reality of the game simulation. In some worlds, for example, players cannot kill other players. In others, that's the whole point of the game. Most online games have a EULA that specifies what is or isn't appropriate. Other rules are socially negotiated by the players themselves.

Rob Cawston: The online experience is evolving very quickly. What do you think is the future for Second Life and virtual realities? How far away are we from a metaverse - a parallel virtual world mirroring the real world where we shop, interact, work and play?

Robbie Cooper: They're evolving quite rapidly in a lot of different directions- they are already being used for virtual sex, education (including military and medical training), product testing and prototyping, behavioural studies, even for the rehearsal of criminal acts - any activity, in other words, requiring a safe environment for experimentation. The virtual businesses that service these activities will grow alongside them. Some people believe that eventually the internet will be 3D - the metaverse will be the place where we shop, meet business colleagues and live a large portion of our lives. I guess if the interface becomes dramatically less complex, and the complexity of the sensory experience grows with time, it could happen.

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