A Tale of Two Avatars.
I've made no secret of the fact that my avatar, Az Afterthought, was made especially for my Second Life research. His predecessor, Aaron, was born some eight months earlier when a friend managed to convince me to sign up. Since creating Az however, Aaron has barely been used at all - I still login as him to deal with land issues and buy Lindens - but other than that Az is pretty much a replacement main, rather than an alt. But why change avatars? A virtual life is so malleable, why should I create a completely new person when I could just change my current one?
Born in March of this year, my first avatar Aaron, is a goth. He wears black, looks kind of heavy metal, and is.. well... a neko. He represents the culmination of my laissez-fair attitude towards Second Life - my 'go with the flow' approach that ended up with me hanging out with griefers, trying to sell virtual hotdogs at a sandbox with my closest Second Life friend, and getting into all kinds of trouble that I will never admit to. I basically took the approach that, whatever Second Life had to offer, it was worth experiencing. Az on the other hand is far removed from Aaron. Barely a month old, he's the down-to-earth, sensible, type - he wears glasses and sports a beard, and dresses himself in attire not too different from my own. He's pretty much my virtual clone, just with a few of the creases ironed out.
I'd like to say that the difference between Az and Aaron is that one represents who I am, and the other represents who I'd like to be. Indeed, that was my gut reaction as I started writing this post. But then it occurred to me that maybe that's true only in terms of aesthetics, in reality there's many aspects of who I am in both, just as there are things in each that I aspire to be. The difference for me represents the part of my personality that they most saliently exemplify , in one-case my laid-back and fun aspects, in the other the more sensible and thoughtful qualities. Yet in both, these qualities exist to a far greater extreme than they do in my real life. The answer as to why this might be I think relies heavily on how an avatar develops.
Avatars don't exist in a social vacuum. They are surrounded by other people. You do something towards them, for example helping them with something, then you are helpful - you have become a helpful person. Once you assign that label to yourself, the whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing kicks in, and you take on more and more of the traits of a helpful avatar. You seek experiences that justify and reinforce this label, and you find a social role for yourself that fits this.
When I first took on the guise of Aaron, I started from the point of view of someone who wanted to try everything. I was up for anything - if someone suggested driving a car around a mall, I was up for it - if someone suggested a bat fight, I was there. With each act of unrestrained fun, for lack of a better phrase, Aaron became more fun loving, more sociable, and more laid-back - that was how people saw him, and that's the person he came to be. So it wasn't surprising that it would eventually lead him down the path of nekodom - perhaps the most laissez-faire of all the social groups in Second Life. Once donned with cat ears and a tails, he sent out the message even more, spreading it to people before they even had chance to talk to him - 'I am Aaron, I'm here to enjoy virtual life and not take it too seriously'. He offered to others a signal which invited a particular type of response from a particular type of person - and each time that was achieved his personality became reinforced. From a simple, fun-seeking, ethic - life as Aaron self evolved a complex set of principles and thought patterns that defined not only Aaron the avatar, but also my real life self when I controlled him. Yet once established, that person was hard to break from - my contacts would IM me with continuous, sub-conscious reminders of my virtual identity - the way I dressed him or the things I wrote in his profile would remind me further still - yet my research however demanded a new approach, a new way of thinking and a new focus that was almost counter to the way life as Aaron had been. And so Az was born. An avatar designed from the get-go to be a different person, to have different friends, to appeal to a different social group, and to lead an altogether different Second Life.