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What is age in a virtual world?

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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Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic

The title of this post is a quote from Arthur C. Clarke. I’m reminded of it frequently during a visit from my parents, who have an average age of 73. Despite the fact that I worked for Internet companies for more than a dozen years, they often view connected technology as some sort of sorcery. They are awed of it, with frequent anecdotes about other people that end with, “…and she looked it up on her phone thingy and there it was!” Yet they are also frightened. My father won’t touch the Internet and my mother stays on the periphery of recipes and coupon sites, though she’s getting better at researching travel. She’s had computers for a long time — I started giving her my slightly-outdated tech about 15 years ago and she bought her first laptop this year — but my husband and I expect to spend hours of any visit providing tech support.

HERO_PINGXI_Sheng-Fa_Lin

Yesterday they told me a long story about driving from store to store trying to find “those floating balloon-type things that you set fire to and then let go.” The story involved frustration, triumph as they found a few lanterns, then humor as they discovered a huge pile of them at the only store in their small town, which they hadn’t checked. If I were looking for the same thing, I would have searched for a likely name, probably “flying lanterns”, discovered millions of results and that the more common name is “sky lantern”. Then I would have searched for the best price and shipping for a lantern style I liked. Five minutes later, I would be done.

My way is faster, easier, and less expensive. However, it doesn’t give me the story — which will surely grow into an extended quest with future tellings — or the feeling of triumph at the end.  I don’t have the funny postscript. While I won’t equate shopping for lanterns with the Hero’s Journey, I wonder if we are losing something important as we gain convenience and efficiency.

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2014 in Culture, Usage Patterns

 

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Grandma’s new companion

When I read MIT anthropologist Sherry Turkle’s book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other last year, the sections on robotic companions weren’t my main focus but I found them fascinating. She wrote about observing interactions between older Japanese people in a nursing home and a robotic harp seal called Paro. You could think of Paro as a more cuddly, less demanding, more affectionate Furby — it is sensitive to light and dark and has tactile, position, temperature and sound sensors. It reacts in a realistic animal way, responding to its name and frequently used words, seeking to be petted, and avoiding harder blows.

Paro with senior citizens

 

Slate has an article today about a new study by an international team of researchers that looked at the effect of interacting with Paro in Australian patients with mid-to-late stage dementia. Bottom line: it helps. Those subjects experienced more pleasure and had less anxiety and an improved quality of life compared to a control group that had reading as an activity. The subject groups were small, but the results were significant.

I’ll admit that I looked up how much a Paro costs when I first read about it.  My 96 year old grandmother is independent and quite healthy and she lives alone.  She couldn’t handle the demands of caring for an animal at this time, but I’ve seen her interact with my dog and I suspect that a robotic companion pet would help diminish feelings of loneliness and make her smile.  Unfortunately, at $8k they’re fine therapeutic tools for institutions but about $7950 above my budget.

 

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Digital storage for the elderly

It’s a theme that turns up now and then in science fiction: uploading the elderly to preserve their memories and save resources in meatspace. The short film Life Begins at Rewirement by Trevin Matcek takes another look:

There are a lot of directions we could take in critiquing the film; we could spend hours on the concepts of self and consciousness alone. I won’t step outside the reality of the film, but will comment on one small thing. If I were told that I’d have to relive my memories over and over again, even if they were exquisitely happy ones, I’d rather they just pull the plug. To make a storage option like this compelling to the people entering it, it should be more Matrix-like, with the opportunity to keep learning and developing.  A virtual world. On the other hand, I’ve often said that funerals and graves are for the living, not the dead. If the point is to make a time capsule the grandkids can visit, while getting rid of the inconvenience of the elderly relative’s physical presence, that’s a completely different angle and memories would suffice.

 
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Posted by on June 4, 2013 in Embodied Experience, Video

 

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Generation Tech

As personal technology has become ubiquitous, generational stratification in the US is increasingly being defined by how one interacts with tech. My friends of all ages tend to be early adopters and my personal experience is skewed, so sometimes I need to look up from typing, put on my anthropologist hat (a spiffy pith helmet, of course) and look at a bigger cultural picture.

For reference, based loosely around birth year, the generational labels most often used are:

  • 2001-Present – New Silent Generation or Generation Z
  • 1980-2000 – Millennials or Generation Y
  • 1965-1979 – Generation X
  • 1946-1964 – Baby Boom (“Boomers”)
  • 1925-1945 – Silent Generation
  • 1900-1924 – G.I. Generation (G.I. and Silent are sometimes grouped into “Greatest Generation”)

Joel Stein recently made a video for Time in which he tried to “live like a Millennial” for the day [watch it here]. Stein is part of Generation X, slightly younger than I am, yet I squirmed in discomfort at his apparent cluelessness. It makes me wonder if he’s close to the norm or off on the low-tech tail. He still has a landline?

Penelope Trunk wrote a future-looking post in December entitled “How the next generation will surpass Generation Y” , followed up in March with “How to think like the next generation“. I think it’s a little early to be making some of the assertions she does, but her characterization of the relationships between Y and Z and technology seems spot on. Specifically:

Gen Y’s obsession with travel is rooted in their acute need to feel special and different and document it in a way their friends approve of. … Gen Y lives on Facebook and Instagram, and their reality is whatever is in the photo.

The Pew Institute reports that they’ll (Gen Z) choose their devices based on battery life. … Gen Z communicates largely through video. … They use YouTube like it’s Google.  …  This will be the age of verbal communication rather than written, and Gen Z will shine. … Generation Z needs no shelf space. Everything is digital.

I recently completed a college degree and spent three years surrounded by members of Gen Y. Though I care less about documenting my every move than they do, I attribute some of that to stage of life rather than comfort with technology; I was sharing selfies online when I was in my 20s, too. Classmates were most likely to contact me via text or an always-open chat window than email, and certainly never by voice call. I learned to appreciate Twitter as the best source for timely information: with a good hashtag, the real-time updates pour in long before they reach the television, radio, or news websites.

My Gen Y classmates were more comfortable with the concept of digital identity, though not really more experienced in virtual worlds than the few older people in my classes. Perhaps that’s because many virtual worlds and MMORPGs still require desktop computers with excellent graphic capabilities and speed for optimal performance and desktops are less common among the young. Laptops can handle the load, but not as well; my top-of-the-line gaming laptop was quickly outdated, expensive to update, and too heavy to carry around. Virtual worlds need to be portable — running well on smartphones and tablets — and adaptable to casual as well as immersive use if they don’t want to become “something old people do.”

Shared below: a slideshow on digital device usage broken down by demographics, based on data from the Pew Research Center.

 
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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Usage Patterns

 

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