The once thing that SL allows us to do with ease is completely change our appearance – that’s not to say we can’t change the way we appear in the real world, there are many ways in which we can alter the way we look, from the simple expedient of changing clothes and trying a new hairstyle to the more extreme and lasting types of changes, like surgery and a wide array of ‘body modifications’. However, the great thing about SL, is that it’s like Photoshop in one significant regard – it gives us the luxury of non-destructive editing… in other words, no matter how drastic the change, we can always revert back to the original. It’s not always so easy to do that in RL, as many who’ve undergone dodgy surgery or have tried to eradicate a rogue tattoo will attest to.
In effect, our avatars are a hi-tech equivalent of the good old-fashioned dressing-up doll – indeed there are a great many people in SL who speak about their avatars in precisely this way, although equally there are many to whom this way of thinking just doesn’t appeal.
Although, I’m guessing that most of us have, at one time or another, customised our avatars to the nth degree, departing into sometimes the weirdest and wildest of territories, on the whole I’ve found that we tend to fit into two broad categories: Those who frequently change form, shape and appearance (and I’d possibly include those with significantly differing retinues of alts in this group too); and those who rarely, if ever, venture far from their regular look.
Exchanging old photos with friends recently demonstrated to me just how many of my circle fall into that second group – most of my friends are instantly recognisable, even in images from the early days of SL and the changes in their avatar even from as far back as 2006 are pretty minimal. Most will have upgraded skin and hair and perhaps tweaked the odd slider or two but, other than that, the intervening years have shown a remarkable consistency in appearance. This is something I can readily relate to… the only significant change I’ve made since my very first attempt at customising my avatar is to reduce my height to a modest 5’9″ from its original statuesque proportions and tweak my hands so that they look at least vaguely human. That’s it – I have a bunch of Linden created skins, all based on the same template but with subtly different accents, (subtle accents – that’s not a term you often use when referring to the Lab!), which have pretty much been used constantly every since I discovered them, my hair changes more frequently than most people change their socks, but other than that, very little has altered over the years. Of course, there will be the odd occasions when I throw caution to the wind and assume a completely different, and usually pretty freakish, identity just for the fun of it, or to make the effort at fancy dress parties, but I tend to express myself through what I wear, rather than how my avatar is represented.
I find that those who fall into this cadre often strongly associate their avatar with a single personality – frequently based upon their own RL identity, or alternatively, may endow their avatar with its own, wholly contrived personality, particularly if their avatar is of non-human stock. Perhaps one of the most striking examples of virtual anthropomorphism in an avatar I’ve seen was a Scottish gentleman who consistently typed using a Scottish ‘accent’ – not just for effect, not just to make a point, but all the time – how he managed it, I’ll never know, but the effect was quite startling.
Non-human avatars aside, it’s frequently the case that people falling into this group will try – sometimes going to great lengths – to replicate their RL selves inworld, or alternatively, an idealised or stylised version of what they’d choose to be if they had the choice. Indeed, I have several friends whom I’d readily recognise if I bumped into them in RL, simply through knowing their avatars.
Then there are those for whom the SL body is just a canvass upon which they can paint an ever-changing and evolving picture. Often roleplayers or fans of fantasy, appearance to this group is equally important, but as a means of expression and engagement, rather than a natural extension of a human psyche. One day they may be a dragon, the next an Amazon princess, the next a merman or a hydra… here it isn’t so much a case of ‘this is who I am’, it’s more akin to ‘this is what I can be’.
Let’s return to our first group – the mini-me brigade – because thanks to the way in which SL and avatars in particular are developing, this group now face an unexpected dilemma. With the advent of mesh avatars and body parts, it’s only natural that many will fancy upgrading to a slicker, less ‘functional’ look – however the gene pool for mesh is strictly limited and those who do take the plunge will face the sobering thought that they’ll have to sacrifice some – possibly many – of the things that make them unique and different. With the best will in the world, if you elect to adopt a mesh body, particularly a mesh head, you are going to look very similar – if not identical – to a great many others around you. Much of that immediacy and character will be lost and the unique and quirky things that make your avatar fundamentally ‘you’ (or ‘him/her’) will simply no longer exist.
It’ll be bad enough not having your friends recognise you… Imagine how you’ll feel if you don’t even recognise yourself on screen!
Have you seen her dressed in blue
See the sky in front of you
And her face is like a sail
Speck of white so fair and pale
Have you seen the lady fairer
The Rolling Stones – She’s A Rainbow