Avatars in a World Without Nature, or I Like My First Life Just Fine

If I were an avatar

Is having an avatar a waste of time?   Mac McClelland, writing for Orion magazine, suspected that it was.  But she joined up with Second Life anyway (SL, for short), just to make sure.  I hesitate even to write about SL for fear of sending recruits.  But for the three of you out there who don’t already know, Second Life is a cross between a self-directed reality show and an out of body experience.  By going “in world,” players can  project themselves onto the avatar of their dreams, even a raccoon with big, human boobs; live in a pirate ship; own waterfront property; teleport from one popular spot to another; attend real lectures with thousands of avatar friends; and become skilled enough at the controls that they can even blush and have sex.   After a fashion.

The avatar who gives McClelland a tour of SL is so enthusiastic about its virtues that she sounds like she’s hawking time shares in Cabo.  She argues that a virtual world peopled with avatars is so much more satisfying than a chat room, because it creates as “sense of presence” and “brings people together.”

So let me get this right: You switch on the electrons, log in and launch the program, create a representation of some alternate self, and thus regain the presence you’ve lost in a chat room?

It makes sense that people want to feel more present.  We spend way too much damn time online.   The night McClelland first went in world as “Girl Next Door” with the name Isis Askenaze (great name, btw), 47,758 other users were already there.  If by “there” you mean sitting at their computers manipulating simulacra of themselves inside a world built by computer code.   Here’s a thought: how about inviting your neighbors over for dinner, instead?

Humans love to play make believe, and SL could be a wonderful game, to be sure, and wonderfully addictive.  So I know that if I were ever  to opt for my own Second Life, I’d get sucked right down the rabbit hole.

And that worries me.  McClelland worries, too.   As she puts it, time spent as an avatar is time not spent with actual people.  When the timeshare saleswoman looks ahead to a rosy future, she promises “we’ll all have our avatars running around out there.”  To this, McClelland rightly responds that this “could preclude our bodies running around out here.”

Frankly, I wish she had pushed this point further.  Because it’s not just the whole, complex life of the body and interaction with other actual people that we are missing when we act as puppeteers of an imaginary life.  It’s our lives in the natural world.

At a time of rapid climate disruption; of disappearing species, poisoned water and soil; of millions of gallons of crude still gushing into and strangling the life out of the Gulf, few things—if any–matter more than the embodied nature of the world and of ourselves in it.  In the virtual world, we don’t feel the sun on our skin, or hear the rain, or smell the trees, or pet the dog or smell its breath, or see a hummingbird’s red throat flash in the garden, or interact with any of the other species that make up our actual home.  That complex, wide-alive reality and the things that threaten it may seem to disappear while we’re playing in the virtual world; but it’s still there, demanding our attention.  And instead of listening, we’re off pretending to be someone else communing with other pretending people, in a world devoid of nature.

Maybe just now we need less make-believe and more block parties, more community gardens, more political organizing, more working to bring down emissions, more strategizing about how to do our part together.  Maybe now is the time when we all need to be building the local communities we can rely on and share with.  Actual people we can join with to save what’s left of the actual world we depend on for our own animal survival.


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9 Responses to “Avatars in a World Without Nature, or I Like My First Life Just Fine”

  1. sarahristine Says:


  2. Maria Says:

    Yes! I haven’t tried Second Life and I don’t want to, but my personal pet peeve is with the farm game on facebook: rather than use a computer to pretend to feed chickens and grow corn (or whatever the game involves), why don’t people learn how to grow their own food for real? I can understand the fun of some aspects of virtual reality, but I cannot comprehend the appeal of a computer game about pretend gardening, not when real gardening results in real roses that can be cut and placed in a real vase, and real tomatoes that have to be checked for real caterpillars (which are really cute), and the scent of the real mint lingers on my fingers long after I pruned it.

    And what is more — I do not want to understand it. I do not want to become that invested in virtual reality. I have played the SIMS often enough to know that it is addictive to live a pretend life, and often enough to know that it leaves me feeling empty and disconnected when I notice that I haven’t moved from my seat or even seen a real person in hours.

    And if parts of the real world out there are getting destroyed as rapidly as they are, I would much rather have spent those hours watching that natural world before it’s gone.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Hi Maria, I haven’t played any virtual world games, but from my experience on Facebook and Twitter (both of which have benefits for me), I also end up feeling not only isolated from the actual world, but fragmented in my thinking. Clicking, clicking, surfing, flitting from site to site makes it awfully hard to do serious, sustained thinking. I’m committed now to staying off the internet completely until I’ve done my writing for the day, and then limiting my time once I’m there. I find I’m more able to think and to read with greater concentration.

      Watching the natural world and enjoying it are exactly what doesn’t happen in virtual reality; I would invite us all to do more than look at it, though. Join up for the action part of saving the earth~there are organizations everywhere that could use helping hands.


  3. Randy Souther Says:

    “time spent as an avatar is time not spent with actual people”

    This is always the complaint, isn’t it? Though the complainants never apply the argument to printed books, to which the argument would be even more apt. As a literature person myself, I am very aware of how we frequently rhapsodize over books, and the” places” they take us, the “people” we meet through them. For non-literature people it must sound pretty ridiculous and time-wasting.

    I am not particularly interested in SL, but I think it is dangerous–yes, dangerous–to denigrate people’s experience of “alternate realities”–whether they be books, computerized simulations, “mental illness,” or whatever you may choose to classify as “different” or “damaged” compared to your favorite way of experiencing the world.

    In-person interaction is wonderful, but if you think that the person you are chatting with face to face isn’t an “avatar,” from day to day, hour to hour, person to person, altering their personality and their appearance; if you think you know “who they are” just because they are physically standing in front of you, I would argue that’s a neat fantasy in itself.

    Don’t assume someone’s experience is less meaningful than yours simply because it sometimes takes place in a crudely simulated electronic environment, or because it’s only ink on paper, or because their thought process or behavior is incomprehensible to you. We are each of us alone in our selves, and seek out meaning and connection in a thousand different ways.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      Thanks for this comment. I’d like to clarify a couple of things by way of response. I certainly don’t believe in some “essential” self which is wholly available to others in face-to-face interactions.

      My concern is more with how our participation in a virtual world removes us from awareness of the physicality of others and the world around us. In a time of profound environmental crisis, this is my preoccupation. I appreciate your thoughts.

    • Tracy Seeley Says:

      I would add, too, Randy, that my call for all of us to help create the communities that will sustain us relies on an inclusive vision, not a denigrating one; but it also depends on actual people engaged in personal interaction. That’s not the same as the virtual interaction we have with imagined characters, whether those are in books or in digital virtual worlds. As the author of the Orion article observes, there’s a difference between “talking on the phone to your girlfriend [and] having her in your arms.” Her argument, which I agree with, is that the more time we spend in virtual engagement, the less time we spend in actual communities–and that there’s a social cost to that.

      • Randy Souther Says:

        Tracy I hope my post did not come off as denigrating–that certainly wasn’t my intention. And my use of “you” wasn’t meant to be you personally. Hmm … if we’d had this conversation face to face I probably wouldn’t have had to say that 🙂

        I absolutely laud your goals, make no mistake. I guess it bothers me to have SL picked on as if wasting time there (if that is what one does), is any different than wasting time playing video games, watching tv, playing records, or hanging out at the drive-in. It’s not an issue unique to the “virtual” world. Thoreau struggled with this before most of these things were invented: simplify! Focus on what’s essential.

        So I agree with your ultimate goals. And the primacy of face-to-face interaction is to me a given. That this conversation, which is making me think about what is essential in my life, wouldn’t have happened without this particular “virtual” forum, is important to note. In this case, thinking is not the same as acting, but it’s a necessary precursor. And whether the thinking or acting begins in a “virtual” garden or in a “real” garden, seems to me irrelevant. The Internet is no less a tool than is a shovel.

        If SL excites someone, let’s encourage them to use it in essential ways, and then be astounded at what we didn’t know was possible.

      • Tracy Seeley Says:

        Hi Randy, There are certainly plenty of different ways to waste time (I’m master of many of them), and lots of them keep us from being in community with others. I think what’s unique to games like Second LIfe is the dimension of “presence”–the projection of self into virtual interaction with other projected selves. As a game, I get its appeal; but it’s definitely not the same as personal interaction, as you point out. When the SL promoter quoted in the essay offers it as an antidote to the lack of presence in chatrooms, it seems to me a really clear sign of people’s *need *to feel present with others, and wanting them present to us.

        Games like SL, which create the illusion of presence, may be an improvement on the chatroom experience, but they still don’t answer that deep need humans seem to have to *really *be present with others. I’ve had several people tell me in the wake of this blog post that they’ve never felt so isolated as when they’ve been engaged with SIMS or SL for long periods of time. So my real issue with SL or any form of virtual “interaction” isn’t about wasting time, per se. It’s about the forms of interaction we’re not really having while we’re pretending to have them.

        Do plenty of other things keep us disengaged? You bet. I’m picking on SL here because the ORION article prompted me to think about it; but believe me, I’m happy to pick on just about anything else we plug in in order to isolate ourselves from others. Incidentally, I don’t count hanging out down at the drive-in in my list of grievances. That seems entirely communal and actual. Even Thoreau might enjoy it.


  4. Tracy Seeley Says:

    Hi Herb,
    I don’t know I, AVATAR, but am intrigued. I’ve been finding FB a little challenging lately, precisely for the reasons you mention: so many different audiences it’s a little hard to figure out how and what to post, or not. I’m not sure this is an occasion for self-censorship except insofar as we always alter the message to address a particular audience. Each of us is multi-faceted, each relationship engages different levels of acquaintance and intimacy–so there’s a rhetorical puzzle of the first order in posting FB updates. Perhaps it’s leading us, as you suggest, to create a sort of unified FB-self, an averaging out of all those facets and relationships. Someone recently likened FB to a noisy cocktail party where nothing of substance ever gets said–so he was checking out entirely. I can see that, but I’m not ready to leave the party quite yet.

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