Observer Fantasy vs Particapatory Fantasy; The role of perspective in how we shape our avatars and characters in SL and other online games.

Note: This was originally written a whole heck of a long time ago and left in my drafts for a silly long time. So, what I was trying to say when I started it and where I have now taken it likely differ a bit. I’ve tried to make the writing consistent but it may show that change in point…

“That’s a nice avatar you’ve got there; be a shame if something were to happen to it”

Is that an attack against you or a roleplay challenge? 🙂

There’s a conflict in perspective here that I feel is often close to the root of a lot of the drama in Second Life; where it is not as well ‘blocked off’ or resolved as it is in more modern Virtual Worlds like Minecraft, Final Fantasy XIV, and so on…

 

I’m sorry for starting this on a silly note but that phrase was just stuck in my head and actually reminds me of how I first started to think of this issue in tabletop roleplaying long before I found MMOs like Second Life or World of Warcraft.

Have you ever looked at your avatar and thought “well (s)he looks nice” or some other third person observation? Or have you ever looked at thought “well, I look nice”?

Presuming for a second that your avatar actually did look nice to you… which of those two would be the most likely way for that thought to pop into your head?

In other words… are you observing your avatar or becoming your avatar?

 

Even in roleplaying environments, there are people who see a statement against their avatar/character as a personal attack.

In the context of roleplay that’s seen as a failure. And this is one way in which SL is NOT a game… In SL it’s normal for people to take encounters their avatar has as personal.

In gaming, people do take success or failure personally… but as an extension of how well they played the game… It’s just a little different. If you make friends in an ‘MMO’ with someone, you’re making friends with the other player… It’s very common in SL to never cross the barrier of the avatar and yet for the relationship to be felt as real – and this is in many ways because the avatar is seen as a self-extension.

Somehow the stronger barrier between avatar and real-life-user creates an inverse bond between ‘avatar experience’ and ‘personal experience’. That we often know the ‘person behind the character’ in an MMO makes the characters and what happens to them almost disposable, that we don’t know the ‘real person’ behind the avatar in an MMO like SL makes the avatar’s experience feel more personal.

 

Even if one has a character in an MMO that they highly value… it’s rare to see it as a part of oneself. It’s a character, not an avatar.

In online games, MMOs and the like, there is a popular refrain usually against males that play female characters, and sometimes though less often against females that play male characters. It goes something like “you just play that character to look at some T&A on your screen all day long”.

I think it’s actually more often stated by the men playing their character as a ‘defense’ against the possibly much worse accusation that they might actually identify with a female persona (yeah… LGBT folks, especially the ‘T’ folks, I suspect would get rather peeved anytime it gets revealed that this is why some bloke claims he’s not a “freak”, he’s just a “perv enjoying some T&A”… because really, the entire claim is a slap in their faces – but that’s a whole different topic from the one I’m going after today).

 

I’ve been seeing it phrased like that since the first time I saw an online platform allow players to play a female character (Oh boy… there’s a whole ‘nother rant about how video games used to be male characters only because that was ‘normal’. Remember when Tomb Raider came out; half the scandal was that she was too sexy with her grand total polygon count of 3… but the other half was just the mere fact that she was female).

Let’s cycle this back to avatar choices – that go way beyond gender, and really into every last aspect of your avatar, your character, and so on – in any platform where you assume some ‘representation’ that is not actually you on a screen like Facebook or facetime, etc.

I think examining this can also get to the heart of a lot of other conflicts we see in the social dynamics of online platforms. Even to why some people really dislike or embrace something like Facebook with it’s ‘the flesh and bones birth certificate only version of you’ thing.

When you see your avatar on your screen… again, is that you, or a character you are exploring? Does she have her existence and person, or is she just you recreated in cartoon pixels?

I strongly suspect that a LOT of those blokes in MMOs who are just ‘playing a blood elf to look at some ass’ actually are experiencing that character as a reflection of some aspect of their inner self, and just pretending to be there to be a ‘perv’ because well… apparently Harvey Weinstein is somehow still less freaky than Boy George… It’s 2020 and we still have to deal with that… (there’s a similar issue with women running the gauntlet between slut and tomboy/butch – except neither is “safe turf”).

 

I can’t really say either perspective (character as character or avatar as you) is wrong or right, and I also think most of us exist on a spectrum here that can also vary per ‘avatar’ / character.

I have many alts in SL. Whereas some people adopt different looks and set them up in outfit folders:

This is my furry look, this is my hot-girl look, this is my dude look, this is my ‘fuck me’ look, this is my ‘fuck you’ look, this is my ‘fuck off’ look… etc… I spin out alts…

So Pussycat is always a neko, and if some place doesn’t want nekos around but I really insist on going there, I log off and log back in to an alt. People that get to know me on a ‘hang out together’ level (and oddly, it’s been a few years since I had anyone on this list) have to deal with a cast of alts.
– so that pretty squarely reads like a statement that binds me to the concept of ‘Observer Fantasy’.


Observer Fantasy: your avatar is someone else, that you ‘roleplay as’ or otherwise observe externally. She is not you. You are basically perving her existence. Your avatar is ‘her’, ‘him’, ‘them’ – that person. Not ‘I’ or ‘me’.

But it’s not that simple because I also very deeply explore aspects of myself through my avatars. And I feel deeply about them and about how they interact with and are treated by others.

I’m not deeply on the Participatory Fantasy end. But I think I have observed it… enough… to be able to define it.

Participatory Fantasy: your avatar is you. She is a recreation of you in the online medium. It is your voice that speaks through her, and what she does is directly you. You are ‘living a part of your life’ online, using her as the means through which to connect to the medium. She is ‘I’ or ‘me’ and not her.

Watch sometimes how people will refer to the process of configuring something about the avatar…

“I just can’t find the right outfit, I don’t look good in this outfit.”

“I just can’t find the right outfit, my avatar looks all wrong in this outfit.”

  • Are you getting dressed in SL, or are you dressing a virtual doll?

 

That said… I think most people who are ‘Observer Fantasy’ will in an example like the above refer to the avatar in the first person… because the outfit frustration is their frustration… and it’s not natural to switch POV mid-sentence…

That’s where it starts seeming like we’re mostly ‘on the spectrum’ here, and not at the ends of it. Sometimes you ARE your avatar, sometimes you’re observing your avatar.

  • When I run off and put my avatar through pixel-XXX; I’m in observer mode. Intentionally so – it’s a big part of why I avoid SL ‘relationships’ and just go for ‘strangers’. This is ‘roleplay’ or ‘game time’, and it’s not me. Basically it’s ‘porn I can direct’ to have the actors perform my turn-ons and not those of some random bloke in Southern California…
  • When I am exploring philosophical positions and crafting my avatar to reflect some philosophy or political stance; I am in participation mode. My avatar is just a tool through which I examine how I feel about something. When I was early in SL and came across Rasta; this was very much where I spent most of my SL time – seeing the avatar as a self-extension.

Two extremely opposite perspectives. These days I tend to put a bright wall between who I will engage with for each, to avoid drama.

 

In many ways this is a different angle on the old debate about ‘is SL a game or not’. I’ve long held the position that it’s both… and I suspect that seriously aggravates mostly people who are very far on the ‘Participatory Fantasy side of the spectrum (especially those with narrow, older-generation conceptions of the word ‘game’ – we could look at a whole series of articles on the concept of ‘gamification’ in technology to see how the definition of ‘game’ is now a moving target).

 

So just some food for thought.

Do you ‘observe’ or ‘play’ SL, or are you ‘experiencing’ or ‘living in’ SL?

Or, I suspect, is it some combination of these putting you on a line somewhere between those extremes?

 

And how do you handle things when you find yourself dealing with a person or situation that is on a radically different end of that spectrum from you?

 

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Laetizia Coronet
    Jul 20, 2020 @ 08:57:46

    ‘Tish’ and I couldn’t be more different physically, and yes, she is an avatar in a game, and not some sort of virtual extension of me. And yet at the same time I find it hard to roleplay anyone other than myself. And so she is me and I am her, albeit a version of me that’s less shy and a lot more decisive.

    Reply

  2. Spiffy Voxel
    Jul 21, 2020 @ 02:13:04

    This blog post has really gotten me thinking about where I am on the Observer-Participatory spectrum. So much so that I’m going to need to write a blog post of my own about it. 🙂

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Observer Fantasy vs Particapatory Fantasy; The role of perspective in how we shape our avatars and characters in SL and other online games. | Pussycat Catnap’s thoughts – thomas mcgreevy

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