IBM and Universal Avatars

Today, the BBC news, technology section, released an article entitled Universal avatars bestride worlds" It seems that IBM and Linden Lab are working on a way to allow avatars created in one virtual word to travel to another virtual world.

Quote:
It is going to happen anyway," said Colin Parris, IBM vice president of digital convergence in a statement. "If you think you are walled and secure, somebody will create something that's open and then people will drain themselves away as fast as possible," he told the Reuters news agency.

I’d have to say that although I don’t care for Mr. Parris’ drain analogy, I do believe he’s correct in that it’s necessary for both game design and academic communities to continually challenge assumptions about the way virtual worlds are created. However, it’s important not to forget some of the interesting work Psychology and Sociology has done in the study of how we create virtual identities.

Recently, I’ve been guiding my class through discussions from our readings in Sherry Turkle’s, Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. In the section, Aspects of the Self, Turkle gives examples of people who create multiple virtual identities online to exercise the varied parts of their psyche that may not get the opportunity to exhibit themselves in the material world. The construction of multiple identities is therapeutic in that it allows us, though it may not be entirely conscious, to sit with a part of ourselves that we may not pay attention to in our “real lives.” These varied digital selves gave some of the people Turkle worked with a chance to engage with others in ways they felt they weren’t allowed to do otherwise. Take for instance this line from the article.

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While the character's appearance may change depending on where it is taken, its basic characteristics, such as looks and underlying personal data, would be retained.

Without considering the ways that game narratives and situation may hinder moving an avatar from one virtual world to another, such an idea seems to rely on the idea of a singular identity which any examination of how people represent themselves in virtual worlds would find hard to support. I could see their proposal being accepted more widely in games that keep track of stats of some sort, but how would that alter game dynamics? When most games are trying to level the playing field between casual and hardcore gamers, something like this may make that nearly impossible to do.

And so, though I can see difficulties in their assumptions, I have to say, more power to them, because those of us that believe in the potential of virtual spaces need this kind of border crossing. Even if their attempt isn’t successful, we may find in it fertile ground for discussion and new ways of thinking about the ways we inhabit virtual spaces.

Allow me to introduce ...

... Toby McCall, a grad student in Rhetoric and Composition at Florida State, and our newest Gameology contributor.

Welcome, Toby!

I totally agree with you,

I totally agree with you, Toby, in your skepticism about whether people would find single avatars appealing, given multiple avatars' abilities to let us act out different parts of ourselves. (Of course, universal avatars wouldn't prevent folks from creating more than one.) As a gamer, I find the idea of universal MMOG avatars pretty much impossible, though kind of hilarious: the idea of my WoW night elf hunter bumbling around in Tabula Rasa or The Agency cracks me up.

This reminds me of discussions about universal profiles in social networking sites - the idea that a person could create just one profile for themselves and port it between Myspace, Facebook, etc. (There's a group that's behind this, but I can't remember their name.)

Here's a question:

[Although the article you quoted, Toby, mentions games alongside virtual worlds, there's no indication that gamespaces are what the project has in mind. Given disparate and proprietary game mechanics, as hinted by Chris...have you ever tried to "port" a D&D2 character (not to mention all the equipment, spells, and other accoutrements) to, say, Cyberpunk 2020? shudder]

Sticking to "virtual worlds" per se, though, my question is this: do these efforts perhaps portend the unification of the online identity? One of the things that was implicit in early SF visions of a visualized netspace is a singular identity. That is, although a user could design and perhaps alter or even disguise their avatar, they only every had/used one; at some level "you" were a singularity to the network no matter when or where you logged / jacked in. (See stories like "Burning Chrome," Neuromancer, or -- especially -- Snow Crash for examples.)

The article used the term "digital double" to describe the Second Life-type avatar. Such a term itself carries implications about an already-unified identity (not that we necessarily expect an average journalist to be up on the issues we're discussing here). However, such a thing might be really useful for, say, online shopping in virtual worlds; a single identity can also carry your actual identity and monetary information. But I can see a day (though I don't know how it would come about) where these developments erase the possibilities of anonymity and multiple personas that we currently enjoy online.

Or am I just a paranoid, post-9/11, New-Economy American?

I'm a tipi, I'm a wigwam

Hi all,

Yeah, I got the idea that this was really aimed more at alternate reality games rather than MMO's like WoW, etc, but that's what I was hinting at when I mentioned the hindrance of game narratives. Not that I'm against great stories in our games, on the contrary I think the community is really calling out for challenging, complex story lines, i.e. BioShock, I just wonder how a technology like what they're suggesting might change the way we tell stories in games. Even though I don't totally agree with their premises, I think that's an interesting question.

BC, I really dig where you're going with the Sci-Fi novel reference. That would be really interesting to explore further. Regarding your comment about erasing possibilities of anonymity, check out this article at 1up.com (http://www.1up.com/do/newsStory?cId=3163197). It seems that a Chinese based MMORPG provider is already trying to do just that.

Unified online identities

Google actually makes me feel quite eerily unified online. If I am signed in to my gmail account, I find that the Internet recognizes me as Amanda when I use a search engine, go shopping in places that support Google Checkout, and even on certain blogs now. I think it's very creepy.

But then many people consider anonymous online identities creepy. I remember arguing in a queer theory class last year that fear of the anonymous online identity is ultimately fear of the virtual closet - like the anxieties about the closeted homosexual, anxieties about online acquaintances ultimate lie in the suspicion that they are sexual predators. There is no way to verify "real" sex or age of the person behind the avatar or screenname, and this makes people uneasy. The article that Toby just posted is a perfect example of this: King of the World does not want people crossdressing online.

If you follow the other link in that article about the disbanded ERP WoW guild, you'll see that they have similar trouble with sexual content on their servers. Blizzard also has no good way to stop the activity, because the guild appears to be reforming itself over and over.

A lot of people would argue that a unified online identity is really the only way to keep us safe from all the perverts out there, since it would hold people accountable for their activities online. This could very well be the case.

Universal virtual identities

For many games, a universal avatar would be a negative, but for many other applications it could be a positive, as some of the other comments note. To me, the more important part is that a universal avatar would need to be based on an established standard (like XML or KML) and then the virtual worlds where the avatar could go would also need to have and use an established standard. There are too many academic game projects that fail because of a lack of planning/funding in relation to changing technology and the standards would allow for better planning and for far more projects to be fully developed.

Having virtual world standards would also allow for better interoperability--imagine taking historical files that had been added to Google Earth and easily moving them into a virtual wild west and railroads style game based, or moving game files into Google Earth. Virtual worlds need to be more portable for some of the more interesting things to happen and this is one major step in the right direction.

This is a related article,

This is a related article, looking at virtual world economics, on standardizing virtual worlds.

Free GPS ankle bracelets for every avatar!

That's a really great article Laurie. The part about V-tracker made me cringe though. It made me think of virtual world surveillance. Maybe these standardized virtual worlds will have cameras on every corner. I guess it's ok to be a warlock or a furry as long as they can track exactly where you are, where you've been and what kind of shampoo you'll probably buy.

IBM and Universal Avatars

I agree that the freedom to explore varied virtual identities through the context of numerous avatars can be both therapeutic and telling. Through playing/performing with different (virtual) bodies, it seems we experience different contexts, whose juxtaposition poses unique questions about who “we” are. For instance, I know that when I play female avatars in MMORPGs, I feel like my ideas are glossed over by other players more often than with my male avatars.

In this same line of comparison, I imagine that putting an avatar in an entirely different world/context could offer drastically different possibilities for inquiry. I do however share the worry that if our virtual worlds become muddied, (i.e. WoW characters in Second Life) then their integrity may be in put in Jeopardy. Sure I like PBNJs but not when I mix them with salmon!

IBM and Universal Avatars

I agree that the freedom to explore varied virtual identities through the context of numerous avatars can be both therapeutic and telling. Through playing/performing with different (virtual) bodies, it seems we experience different contexts, whose juxtaposition poses unique questions about who “we” are. For instance, I know that when I play female avatars in MMORPGs, I feel like my ideas are glossed over by other players more often than with my male avatars.

In this same line of comparison, I imagine that putting an avatar in an entirely different world/context could offer drastically different possibilities for inquiry. I do however share the worry that if our virtual worlds become muddied, (i.e. WoW characters in Second Life) then their integrity may be in put in Jeopardy. Sure I like PBNJs but not when I mix them with salmon!

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