Saturday, September 22, 2007

The skin's the thing...

In real life and Second Life I've struggled hard to square my identity with my Asian heritage.

In real life, I should by rights look Asian. All of the other half-Asian kids that I know tend to have more Asian features than White (or Black, in the case of my cousin Peter), but instead, a distant genetic strain of Danish tilted my skin over into European. This means that I simply look white with dark coloring, cursed with curly hair and freckles. The most Asian thing about me is probably my build.

In Second Life, it's possible to find Asian "skins" (appearances) and shapes. However, it's very difficult to find anything authentic! Japanese sims (islands) tend to sell mostly European-looking skins, for cultural reasons of their own. The truly Asian looking skins are from Western shops that cater to the exotic East. I'm not kidding, the best places in Second Life to get Asian skins are from shops that sell Geisha or Samurai apparel.

So, in the effort to explore my Asian heritage in a way that I can't in real life, I bought a Geisha skin. It's okay. The lipstick is a little dark, and it doesn't really look Thai (or Japanese, from what I can tell).

However, with new straight black hair for my avatar, I'm coming closer and closer to a kind of pan-Asian ideal.

I've been treated as someone white my whole life; with an Asian skin, will people treat me differently? Will I affiliate more with Asian avatars? Will I be able to enact a different cultural identity because I look different?

More good questions.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Dogs on horses

What if you aren't a person on the inside, but a dog instead? (Or okay, bipedal dog with thumbs.) Second Life lets you explore non-human parts of your identity too, modifying your avatar into any kind of beast that anyone's ever dreamed of being.

Some avatars are completely animal, some (like this one) a mix. Then there are the different fantasy races that have existed through time, like elves and dwarves. This isn't rare -- every MMORPG has the ability to choose species -- but only in SL can you lead a fairly normal online "life" dressed as a little Victorian Corgi.

What does this say about how appearance shapes our identity? Obviously people treat you differently if you're dressed as a small dog. You might get comments like, "Oh, how cute," or "Nice doggy." In the context of SL, you'd be treated just as seriously.

However, I still don't think of the dog-avatar as my "normal" self. I've definitely got an online "me", and putting on the dog is like wearing a dog-suit. Some people identify more closely with the dog than the human, and this is where interesting issues lie. If, in humanity's future, we could modify ourselves to be like beasts, apparently some people would spring for it.

Sometimes I think of SL as a prophetic land, showing what would happen if decadence and commerce weren't constrained by technology. People as dogs? Sure.

On a lighter note, bipedal Corgies can ride horses!