A new life – a new identity?

Following a long and fascinating thread on the SL Educators maillist and after having written the first post on the About Arwenna page, I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the nature of the relationships that people have with their Second Life avatars. I realise that ‘avatars’ are used in other online spaces too and they don’t always mean quite the same thing – often being primarily a cartoon like character that can be used to identify your postings or similar.  Second Life avatars are significantly more sophisticated and I suspect that people’s relationships with them are generally different.

In the course of the SLED thread I posted the following, partly to confirm to myself my understanding of what an avatar is and why the choice of that word is so apposite.

“There are a number of words that could have been chosen, character, personna, representation etc etc….but ‘avatar’ has a very specific, if not always understood, meaning which I think fits perfectly with Second Life. In classical Hinduism avatars have a very special place. ‘Avatara’ is the Sanskrit word used to specify a manifestation of the god Vishnu – Krishna is one of those manifestations and in the classical lists there are 9 others. Vishnu chose to appear on earth in one of his avatars or manifestations in order to play a particular role and usually to solve a particular problem or teach particular lessons. His avatars were not representations of him but manifestations of those parts of him that were relevant to the situation. In the hierarchy of Hindu gods, Vishnu is the preserver, (Brahma is the creator and Siva the destroyer) but not all Vishnu’s avatars are sweetness and light! Some are destructive, particularly Kalki the world destroyer at the end of each age, perhaps because Vishnu’s role is not to ‘preserve’ goodness but to preserve the balance between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, in order that the world and its inhabitants can progress by riding the waves on the edge of chaos. ”

I spent a couple of years many years ago, teasing out the meaning and purpose of avatara to classical Hinduism as part of a Masters thesis and the above is a summary of some of the conclusions I reached. So why is this important?

Well I went on to say

“I have always thought of my avatars (I have 3) as manifestations of myself. They are all essentially me, but different characteristics and reactions and behaviours will be more prominent in different ones as the situation requires. One exists in SL mainly to teach and mentor RL students but happily combines that with learning about SL by being an active resident through owning land, selling creations through her shops and generally playing a role in the wider SL community – just as I do in RL. This avatar may take various forms including a mermaid on occasion but is usually predictably human! Another avatar is a drow, a dark elf, who enjoys experimenting with role playing and who would find it pretty difficult to stand in front of students and role play being a kind and patient teacher! Some of my SL friends know both of my avatars but most don’t (and that can be fun too! seeing how the same person reacts quite differently to 2 different manifestations of me!) ” The third avatar I prefer to keep private.

So for me, my avatars are very definitely aspects of me. Arwenna is the teacher, the builder and generally attempts to be a productive, helpful and active member of her community. She very rarely loses her temper (and then quietly!), she ignores griefers, she helps others out where she can, she has a pretty well developed sense of humour and loves to dance and party. Just like me in real life, she is not very interested in large houses, flash vehicles or conventional fashion but she tries to be both professional and kind in her dealings with others. She is generally relaxed and confident and happy – in others words me in a good mood!

K atipo, on the other hand, the drow or darkelf is very reserved, has a slight chip on her shoulder and enjoys being a little intimidating. My alter-ego perhaps? Certainly not something I am going to dwell on right now – but maybe as she gets around more in the world I will find it easier to identify her true nature!

Steven Warburton at Kings College, London has written far more knowledgably than me on the issues of avatars and personal identity. His blog is on my blogroll and an excellent discussion can be found here. With his encouragement I am going to try to chart Arwenna’s developing personality by describing the series of photos that I have of her. Watch this space!

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