I met Veronica Sidwell, the avatar, in a white gazebo next to the Alamo. During our conversation, which spanned from American history to hormone therapy, the sim gazed off in the direction of the ruins of Texas's most popular tourist site. Here, in the virtual world of Second Life, Linden Lab's 3D online universe, we were alone.
Veronica wore a conservative burgundy cardigan. Her hair was gathered into two dark, feathery buns on top of her head. Despite her slumping posture, Veronica confided in me that, after her time in Second Life's tranquil digital landscape, she had never felt more comfortable in her own skin.
Originally, Veronica was merely an avatar. Now, Veronica Sidwell is a 37 year-old transwoman working as a picture framer in Atlanta, Georgia. Veronica, who would not disclose the name she lived most of her life under, changed her legal name to match her Second Life avatar. It was a gesture of respect to the sim who lent her the confidence to transition IRL from male to female. Veronica's experience as a female-bodied avatar in a virtual world, she told me, convinced her that she would live a fuller, happier life in womanly form.
In role-playing contexts, internet users are often emboldened to change face, adopting qualities and identities unlike their own. In 1995, professor of American Culture Lisa Nakamura first applied the term "identity tourism" to the digital world. Nakamura wrote that in the "consensual hallucination defined as cyberspace," participants had an unprecedented control over their self-representation. "Identity tourism," to her, referred to mini identity vacations people took on digital role-playing platforms.
But for Veronica and many like her, "tourism" is too flippant a term to describe how powerfully we are affected by our digital selves, how much of them we carry with us after walking away from our keyboards.
As our digital incarnations, avatars are more than an arrangement of pixels on our laptops. We can dress them in our clothes. We can feed them our favorite foods and put our words into their mouths. But instead of acting as perfect mirrors of our IRL selves, avatars can leap out of the glass to be and do things we can't in our everyday lives. For some people, it's thrusting a double-edged ax into the belly of a dragon. For others, it's possessing an opposite-gendered body. An alternate identity.
The cumulative days Veronica spent as a female-bodied avatar gave her the ability to explore her female identity in ways unavailable to her IRL. The confidence and sense of self she gained in her second life translated to her first. She's never felt more herself.*****
Veronica had always known she was trans. But she never thought she could "pass" as female. Her sharp facial features, she worried, would provoke laughter and derision when adorned with makeup. "For a lot of transgender people," she told me over voice chat in Second Life, "going out in public can be a really daunting thing. You're risking being laughed at and, in extreme cases, attacked."
Second Life was a "safe space" for her; a friendly, anonymous reality where she could wear a dress and show her face—small with delicate features—in Second Life's coffee shops, clubs and stores. All Veronica needed to do to feel herself was toggle a few customization bars.
Her in-game life allowed unprecedented opportunities for her to experiment with her second skin. With trepidation, Veronica joined a few in-game transgender groups, where the avatars of trans individuals would meet in each other's Second Life houses to socialize. She started DJing punk music in virtual clubs. In a seedy virtual hotel, she met lovers with whom she would experiment sexually.
"When I logged on," she said, "I didn't have to worry about 'passing' as female. I could be myself. It encouraged me to realize that it's something I wanted to live in my real life and not just in my second life."
A few months after making her avatar, Veronica began looking at YouTube videos about hormone injections. She realized that she felt at home in her female skin, and after some more research, finally felt emboldened to move forward with her transition. In 2012, Veronica flew to Thailand for sexual reassignment surgery. Today, she is four and a half years into hormone therapy. She changed her name to Veronica Sidwell, her avatar's tag, since she had always loved the name.
In 1995, two years before Origin Systems released the first commercial graphical MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game), Ultima Online, Nakamura predicted how liberating—and how oppressive—fictional identities can be.
Focusing on the text-based role-playing game LambdaMOO, a virtual online community, Nakamura tore into white gamers who chose to write stereotyped Asian qualities into their player descriptions. Bearing swords, samurai clothes and other "Oriental" stereotypes (or, worse, a loosened kimono), these role-players explored the "exotic" without facing the racism Asians confront every day in the physical world. Nakamura bemoaned how virtual reality had become a place where abusive stereotypes were reinforced, rather than a venue for positive identity exploration—a place where individuals could detach themselves from the social pressures of the real world.
Today, Nakamura's vision has been downloaded in the minds of millions of gamers. MMORPGs and virtual worlds like Second Life allow users unparalleled access to millions of identities to tour, some of which, I'm told, are the ones they bear for the rest of their lives.
Nick Yee, a digital worlds psychologist who borrows heavily from Nakamura, is the last person to be surprised that we carry our avatar-selves into our real lives, and vice versa. He spent 10 years researching how thin the barrier actually is between our IRL selves and our virtual bodies.
Over five years, Yee surveyed 35,000 MMORPG players on their in-world experiences. It turns out that over a quarter of MMORPG players view their avatars as idealized versions of themselves. Likewise, almost half of these gamers believe their avatars are extensions of themselves. An average of 20 hours a week spent in avatar form, Yee maintains, can blur the line between your IRL self and your digital self.
In 2007, Yee coined the term "The Proteus Effect." Proteus, its namesake, was a Greek god who could transform his appearance, liquidly altering his self-representation. For Yee, the term refers to how humans alter their self-representation through avatars: Just as people pour themselves into their digital reincarnations, their digital reincarnations in turn impact their daily lives.
To support the idea that IRL behavior can be impacted by avatars, Yee conducted a study for which he hooked up participants to head-mounted display goggles and immersed them in a virtual world. Using CVEs (collaborative virtual environments), Yee tracked the movements and gazes of participants IRL and rendered them in a virtual landscape through avatars. Some avatars were beautiful, with high cheekbones and clear eyes and skin. Others' faces were stretched, low-resolution and snub-nosed.
Confidence, it seems, can be osmotic, transferring from the digital to the flesh and bone.
Yee found that participants inhabiting more attractive avatars would stand nearer to other virtual avatars and divulge more personal information—signs of confidence. In a related study, Yee gave participants a tall avatar. Since tallness is widely considered an indicator for competence, when given a bargaining task, larger avatars would negotiate more aggressively. Just like that, Yee proved that the appearance of our avatar affects how we utilize it.
But Yee took it a step further. He was curious how long a participant's high self-esteem would linger after they unplugged from the CVE. After taking off participants' virtual reality goggles, Yee asked them to fill out an "unrelated" study on online dating. They were asked to pick two faces of individuals on the site they were most interested in meeting. The participants who had borne more attractive avatars picked more attractive partners, demonstrating their raised opinion of themselves inspired by their avatar.
Confidence, it seems, can be osmotic, transferring from the digital to the flesh and bone.
Laura Kate Dale, a writer in England, penned a moving essay for the Guardian last year about how World of Warcraft facilitated her gender transition from male to female. She had been questioning her gender identity before she found WoW, but never had a safe space to explore her uncertainties.
When puberty hit, Dale knew something didn't feel right. Her new, prominent Adam's apple and facial hair disgusted her. At first this thwarted her desire to socialize, and soon, turned her into a full-blown agoraphobe. She knew she was attracted to women, and despite her gender-queer qualities, she also knew that the term "gay" didn't seem to fit.
Dale's WoW character, a female paladin, was an idealized version of how she wanted to see herself. During the summer of 2006, Dale immersed herself in WoW, and in her new, digital female body. She spoke differently to strangers, she said, with buoyancy and confidence. The longer she played, the less comfortable she became with her IRL appearance and the more in-tune she felt with her avatar. Experimenting with her gender in a virtual safe space, she said, helped her realize that transitioning was something she wanted.
"One of the big problems I faced in terms of gender identity is that, when you mention to people that you're struggling with gender identity, people take it quickly as something you're committing to. All the negative consequences that come with coming out as transgender happen quickly," she told me. "When you say you're unsure and you want to experiment with gender presentation, a lot of balls start rolling quickly. It's so daunting."
World of Warcraft offered Dale the freedom to experiment without suffering the judgment of her peers. It was a consequence-free environment for her to present as female. "If I experimented presenting as female and it didn't feel right," she told me, "I could stop using that account and nothing would come of it."
In 2012, she started her transition. She has spent the last three years undergoing hormone therapy. Like Veronica, Dale's time within her digital female body influenced her desire to live as a woman outside of the virtual world.*****
Some question whether avatars, and not just virtual identities in general, are conduits for identity revelations. Avatars are often humanoid, begging us to transfer our selves into their pixelated forms. But according to digital anthropologist Tom Boellstorff, Facebook, Twitter, and even our Skype handles can be equally viable venues for identity exploration.
"We have many representations of ourselves online," Boellstorff told me. "Not all of them have arms and legs—for instance, a Facebook profile." In his estimation, who you are on Facebook—the sum total of everything you've posted—can be more detailed than an avatar body.
In 2008, Boellstorff wrote Coming of Age in Second Life, an anthropology of the digital world. At first blush, the book sounds like an ode to the avatar, an exploration into how we learn and grow with digital bodies. However, Boellstorff is disenchanted by the idea that our virtual selves need faces to reflect our identities and desires. He said that we don't need pixelated forms when we can have textual ones.
He acknowledges that customized avatars lend role-players the opportunity to explore life in another body. But he also thinks there's incredible power in anonymity.
Take Facebook, which until recently facilitated a virtual game startup called Cloud Party. But because Facebook is linked to your in-person friends, family and co-workers, Boellstorff said, it precluded identity experimentation.
"If you think you might be transgender, and you go into Cloud Party as such, someone might say, 'Hey, Tom, why are you wearing a dress?'" Because of the real-life ramifications of identity experimentation over Facebook, it wasn't a good venue for it. Worse, Facebook's "real name" policy, which has prevented drag queens from attaching their names to their social media accounts, doesn't lend itself to productive escapism.
Despite Boellstorff's unsensationalistic view of 3D virtual worlds and the avatars housed therein, he did admit that their immersive qualities can be powerful for users looking to expand their horizons.
In fact, he recently received a $280,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to research the experiences of disabled people in virtual worlds. He hopes to find out how the digital landscape changes their self-understanding by allowing them to walk, dance, and interact with others in ways otherwise unavailable to them. Boellstorff chose to conduct his study in a 3D virtual world because disabled people can appear as they wish, socialize comfortably, and perform tasks like gardening and construction that are analogue the everyday ones available to able-bodied people.
"We're on the threshold of interesting possibilities for how virtual worlds and virtual realities can have implications for how people think about their bodies and body identity," Boellstorff added.
Veronica and I were leaving the 3D simulation of the Alamo when I asked her why her avatar was so instrumental to her transition. "Second Life is special because you can form your own persona," she said. "You can shape your own life in the same way. I wasn't as powerless to do that as I thought."
Veronica said that the woman who introduced her to Second Life is mute, and the MMORPG allowed her to socialize and develop in ways she couldn't outside of the virtual world. Her disabled friend, in fact, helped Veronica customize her digital body, teaching her how to adapt her avatar's hair and physique to her vision of herself.
Today, Veronica walks confidently around Second Life in ways that she still struggles to outside of the digital world. A day doesn't go by when she's not hyper-sensitive about how people view her face and body. Touring Second Life's vivid reconstructions of London and its sand-swept destination beaches in her pixel-perfect female form has helped to merge the two Veronicas.
Second Life sustained Veronica during her transition. But today, she doesn't need to inhabit a digital female body to feel like her best self. "It was a very positive experience for me," she said, "but once my identity here crossed over in real life, I felt I didn't need it as much anymore"
"You do have the power to shape your own life," she added. "It's not just limited to the virtual world."
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.