What is age in a virtual world?

11 Mar

Below is my contribution to Strawberry Singh’s “First & Recent Challenge”: two photos of my first Second Life avatar, wearing similar tops and standing in front of blooming trees in my (virtual) backyards on the SL mainland, separated by almost a decade. I’ve been in a few discussions about representing age in virtual worlds recently and this meme is a good starting point to write about it.

10 years in SL

The differences between photos of “real me” a decade ago and now are small. My hair is longer and my body size is the same, but the shape has shifted a bit. Facially? I’m in those middle years where the changes aren’t so dramatic. 35 to 45 isn’t as big a gap as 25 to 35. My photos could be a week apart or a decade apart; it isn’t easy to tell.

The changes in my avatar over the same period are gigantic. I don’t do image correction in post-production, so the photo above is what you’d see in-world.  My 2015 avatar isn’t perfect. There are odd angles, her hands are gigantic, and you can see a little of the annoying halo effect around her mesh hair. I could get more photorealism if I used a mesh body and mesh eyes; you’re not seeing the cutting edge of SL avatar appearance, but I’m satisfied.

What is age in a virtual world, anyway?

Is it appearing older the way we do in physical life? If we were dealing with some sort of verified namespace world, created to give us a second presence for our physical selves, that would make sense. It could be disconcerting to interact with my grandmother if she looked decades younger than reality. In a world where anything is possible, though, why be bound to the norms of physical reality? If unassisted flight is optional, laugh lines seem like they should be optional too.

It’s almost impossible to simulate subtle aging in SL at this time. You can be very young, young, somewhat young, or old. I don’t have the talent or knowledge to create skins that are middle aged, with a few fine lines around the eyes, visible only if you zoom in, and deepening creases around the mouth from laughs and smiles. There’s no option for hair styles with a 1:25 grey to brown ratio, or an eyebrow tattoo layer with one annoying white hair on the left side. I can add eye bags and change the hollows of my cheeks with sliders, but the results are unsatisfying. Before sized mesh clothing I could be more accurate with aging my body shape, but since most of Kay’s clothes are Small and my alts’ wardrobes are full of Medium items, the changes I can make to their proportions are limited.

So, I age my Kay avatar in other small ways. She has a skin that isn’t as translucent or dewy as other brands. When I want her to look closer to my age, I choose matte lip color instead of glossy. Her eyebrows are high and thin, she sometimes wears glasses, and when I stick to medium-length hair that looks “styled”, business clothing, and relatively sensible shoes, I’d say she looks like a well-preserved 40 year old. My alt above, though my oldest account, is intentionally more youthful in appearance.

Apparent avatar age can be a contentious subject when it comes to the distinction between 20s, teens, and tweens. You can choose to play any age you like in SL — there are baby avatars — but many areas with sexual content (or not) will ban avatars that appear to be teenagers or younger. Sometimes this distinction is based on height, as standard SL avatars are oddly tall. I spotted a club recently that only hired topless dancers who were 5’10” or taller in bare feet and I’ve seen many areas that banned avatars shorter than 5’7″. Other than that, in the absence of a clear “I’m 15!” statement in a profile, the decision of whether an avatar appears too young is at the discretion of the region owner. There are a lot of avatars that look like teens to me, so I’m glad I don’t need to draw that line.

Another way that avatar age matters in SL is the number that we can’t change: the age, in days since account creation, that is an unchangeable part of our in-world identities. If you view a list of all the avatars near you, their ages appear alongside their names. It is an item that can’t be hidden or edited in a profile. Many employers in SL won’t review applications from avatars under a certain age — 30 or 90 days, perhaps — but all of us make judgments about others based on that number.  Someone with a low age but a very polished avatar?  Must be an alt! (Not always.) Higher age but wearing a bright facelight and very outdated clothing? What is wrong with that person?? Age under 30 days and starting a conversation with me in a store? Uh-oh, better brace myself for begging, a scam, or a griefer. Avatar age can lend credibility, a sense that the person behind the keyboard understands how things work in SL, but it doesn’t necessarily correlate with technical skill or emotional intelligence.

Personally, I think that having a more nuanced variety of apparent ages in SL would be interesting. We already interact across that range: I’ve had friends in SL ranging from their early 20s to middle 60s. I’d like to see a daring skin or hair maker put out some gently aged options (point me to them if they already exist!). I’m not sure that there’s much of a market, though, especially for female avatars. The media tells us that at similar ages and being two remarkably attractive people, George Clooney is sexy but Julianne Moore “looks great for her age”.  Middle aged women talk about becoming invisible; I see this as a relief, but others grow anxious about the fading of their fertility-signalling characteristics and perceived sexual attractiveness. Consider the casts of The Real Housewives of Wherever. They exist in an age limbo of plastic surgery, hair extensions, fake lashes, and tanning spray — they’re the closest thing to SL avatars I see walking the planet on a daily basis.

Take a look at the images in the Second Life – Avatars group on Flickr (some avatar nudity). You’ll probably notice a few different general styles of avatar, but there aren’t many that I can point to and say, “I’m sure that avatar is intended to look over 35 years old.”  I don’t think that’s immoral or unethical or bad, but we don’t get an opportunity to appreciate the middle years of life for their own beauty. Would it change the world if we got more comfortable with avatars that were clearly not 20 years old but were still playful, mischievous, romantic, and sexy? Meh, probably not. But it would be interesting.

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Posted by on March 11, 2015 in Embodied Experience


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