Unfurling the expanded Self: How Aspirational Identification + Avatars Can = Hyper-Real You

        Have you ever heard a recording of yourself and thought “oh my god who is that?, there is no way that’s me; my voice is way deeper.” I always cringe when I hear my recorded voice, a pale echo of myself; a lighter, higher doppelganger voice which lacks all the base tones I hear reverberating in my head. This disagreement of the internally recognized self with the socially realized self is a point of conflict for many people and a key motivation to pursue a “higher fidelity” version of oneself in virtual reality (VR).


In real life (RL) it is not always possible to bring our internal conceptions of who we are into agreement with how people perceive us. Whether it is a disparity between the gender role we identify with or wish to explore vs. our socially recognized one, or simply a disagreement between how intelligent or witty we feel we are vs. how we are assessed based on your conversational skills, self-image in RL can be difficult to mediate. In this respect VR allows the mindful construction of digital representations of self which agree with our self-perceptions. As Boellstorff illustrates in her book “Coming of Age in Second Life”, the intentionality which is possible in designing an Avatar can lead to visible signs of aspirational identification. Boellstorff notes that the dynamic that people have control over their personal appearance in second life allows the keen observer to deduce a great deal of information about the person controlling an avatar. In RL you can work out, dress up, and stand strait but to a large extent what you’re born with is what you got; If you’re a 5’11’’ish brown-haired lightweight such as myself there is just no reasonable way to aspire yourself into being a 6’3’’ blond Conan the barbarian clone, let alone an southeast Asian woman or something more exotic like a tiger.


Because of this, RL appearance is often a poor indicator of peoples’ desires, self-perception, and proclivities. This is not true of VR; in second life you can be anything you like, and because everyone knows this, how you choose to look offers a window into your desires, tastes, and aspiration. This can, of course, take the form of people creating avatars which are inconsistent with their self-perceptions (i.e a heterosexual-identifying male creating a female avatar).

Boellstorff comments, within the second life community avatars that are stereotypically beautiful are often perceived as being false representations of their owners and an outward expression of vanity or insecurity. So does the possibility to align your avatar’s physical appearance to your self-perception present to people a truer self that is not obscured by the trappings or RL? It depends of course on how you define “true” but I would strongly argue that, if not purposefully used to misrepresent who we perceive ourselves to be, avatars do in fact allow us to unfurl a hyper-real version of ourselves unhampered by RL limitations. Assuming your avatar accurately reflects your self-perception, whether it is more beautiful or engaging in VR than you are in RL is irrelevant; the individual you are in VR is the person people interact with in that world. If I am an intelligent human being and a quick typist, but have a speech impediment which negatively impacts peoples’ perception of my intelligence in RL, is the fact that I am witty, talkative, and engaging in VR but shy in RL mean my talkative intelligent VR-self is a lie? The desire to inescapably tie your RL body to your VR avatar is unfounded; if your VR-self behaves consistently within that realm then I would argue that it is a true you, in fact perhaps a truer you.

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One Response to Unfurling the expanded Self: How Aspirational Identification + Avatars Can = Hyper-Real You

  1. cstabile says:

    Very interesting. So where Turkle finds RL the basis for authenticity, you argue the opposite. This is cogito ergo sum with a vengeance and smartly put. What I find so interesting about this is the challenge to the visual and I’m going to go into the realm of the highly speculative at this point. For most of history, human cultures have privileged the immediately visual — we have constructed a whole range of desires on what we see which, as you point out, can be very limiting. In a way, then, maybe what we’re seeing is a huge experiment, in which interaction, communication, and desire are unhinged from the realm of the immediate and the visual, giving people to represent themselves in ways they believe to be more true to their selves.

    Hmm. I think those who buy into notions of authenticity grounded in the “real” would argue that they’re lying.

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