The concept that residents of Second Life should “out themselves” to non-residents has been bouncing around my brain lately. Why do some of us hide our SL participation? Is there any correlation with other activities that people often conceal? Why do I purposely avoid the topic with some people?
This summer I have a parade of visiting relatives who know nothing about virtual worlds. My immediate impulse is to stay away from SL during those visits, but I’m starting to think that’s wrongheaded. After all, SL is a place where I socialize, play, and explore, but it’s also one of the places where I work.
There are numerous forum threads and blogs that discuss why people hide or feel ashamed of video gaming hobbies, particularly fantasy MMORPGs, and I think the instinct to conceal SL use is connected. Forgive my use of the word “hobby” to encompass what is much more for a lot of people. Amalgamating, I see these as common themes:
- Social stigma; fear of being stereotyped as a physically unappealing, socially inept, immature person who plays to the exclusion of other activities, the “loser in his mom’s basement” image.
- Self-judgment and shame that time spent online is not spent on activities that are seen as more productive.
- Concern that others will think online time is spent entirely on kinky virtual sex (particularly for virtual worlds)
- Internalized disparaging remarks from loved ones (I found a number of comments about wives/husbands/girlfriends/boyfriends/mothers/fathers criticizing someone’s gaming, and that leading to it becoming a secret hobby).
- Believing that others simply won’t understand what makes the game/world enjoyable.
Video gaming and spending time in virtual worlds are not the only hobbies that people admit to hiding. Collecting things that can be seen as objects for children (comic books, toys, dolls, figurines) is mentioned often, but I also found people who hid things like breeding exotic insects, playing table games, and cosplay. Some people doing these things find appreciation and admiration among those with similar inclinations, yet still feel uncomfortable divulging them publicly.
There are hobbies that people can engage in passionately and publicly, spending enormous amounts of time and money, that are not stigmatized like “geekier” pastimes. Going into a virtual world and taking part in a community is somehow less socially acceptable than wearing a shirt with a millionaire athlete’s name on it, spending thousands of dollars on tickets, and even decorating an entire room of a house in the colors and paraphernalia of a team on which one does not play. I don’t agree with it, but as part of that society, I feel it.
For me, I am “out” to friends and colleagues about the fact that I game and spend time in virtual worlds. Heck, I’ve done research and talks about those spaces and this blog is linked into my professional credentials. Kay is what friends call me in the offline world as well as online. If my visiting relatives ever asked about the topic of my presentation when I went to academic conferences, we would have had a discussion long ago. They apparently weren’t that interested, which makes me disinclined to force the issue. They wouldn’t really understand and I can imagine the criticism that would ensue, spoken or not. However, if I feel like going into SL while they’re texting or playing phone games, I will. If that leads to a conversation, nifty.