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Opinion: The Digital Skin

Lessah’s tweet question about gender for her current release of DDO Cocktail Hour got me thinking about “flipping my skin” – a term she borrowed from me.  I can’t take all the credit on that, I first heard the phrase from my computer science professor in a class called “State of Play: Digital Culture and Virtual Worlds.” This course is focused on virtual worlds and tries to answer the question:  “How do virtual worlds reshape society and create a culture by bringing the internet to the forefront of people’s lives?”

This week’s Yak cast also mentioned a documentary film called Second Skin, which delves into the lives of three individual gamers and how their lives have been transformed by the virtual worlds that they live in; which is a film I watched myself last year. (I highly recommend it!)

Having ten years of my own online social experiences in MMOs, it’s quite obvious that my digital skin or avatar is my online body to facilitate basic social interaction.  How does one account for subtle forms of communication such as vocal tones, facial expressions, or even the combination of the two? Users make-due within the norms of the digital environment. In DDO, we have a set of standard emotes, and avatar positions signal intimacy and friendship despite the fact that avatars can collide and clip through each other.  Unfortunately, the DDO skins lack expressiveness with facial gestures to display emotions, even though today’s technology is fully capable of it.  A good example of this kind of technology is in Second Life, (and sometimes in Star Wars Galaxies or EverQuest2) were avatars could smile, frown, scowl, and even show fear.

People will use their digital skins to seek out their own identity within the virtual world. This definition of self will eventually bleed out into the real world. Avatars can foster different associations and forms of self.  In DDO, we all have the opportunity to create multiple characters that reside on the same server. I identify with three particular characters which represent different aspects of me. I have a cleric, a fighter, and a sorcerer. The cleric embodies my desires to help and aid others, and support those who need help. My fighter is my aggressive and competitive nature. My sorcerer is very strategic and represents the thinker side of me.  Though these characters were divided, I found myself bringing their basic natures into my real life in the form of interactions with others. I know this may sound odd, but somehow you not only project yourself into your digital body, but that you are actually made most real, most true through the avatar. I have formed friendships through DDO and we keep in touch outside of the game.  Though some of them have left DDO, we still are in contact.  Even after taking a break for a year off for my degree, I still kept my friendships that I formed in DDO.

Kurzun It’s easy to flip your skin in DDO.  I have 20 character slots on a single server, that’s a lot of gender and race combinations!  At some point, I valued my friendships enough to create a character using my real name.  I wanted everyone to know who I really am inside the game. I wanted to tell everyone, “Hey! I’m a real person. I like this game and everyone in it so much, that I’m comfortable enough to let everyone know who I really am.”  This was the first time I did that kind gesture in a game.  I believe that the general population considers it a “faux pas” to give your real name, but it’s worth it if it means keeping good friends outside of the game.

This doesn’t mean I’m above identity tourism; I still enjoy playing different races and of opposite gender of my own corporeal being.  I like flipping my skin!  I have fun testing the boundaries of stereotypes and other social limitations within the virtual world.  In early days of MMORPGs and as a female gamer, I found myself not trying to test or break the stereotype boundaries of a social environment in a virtual world, but to avoid them and circumvent them. I could find respect and admiration for my skills from others by selecting a male avatar. It was only in a male body that I could play and enjoy the game, free from gender based social restrictions. Only after I got married, did I feel it was okay to take on a female avatar.

Virtual bodies are important tools for forming real identities and real relationships. Digital skins give people a way of exploring identity in new and unrestrained ways.  Trying out different avatars is also just good old-fashioned fun! So flip your skin, and experiment with yourself!



And just because I think it’s a fun book and its kinda related:

Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms by Ethan Gilsdorf –