being true to life

Since academics have started to deal with “life online” there is the topos of “On the Internet nobody knows that you are a dog,” meaning that when interacting online it is supposedly perfectly easy to adopt identities completely different from your offline ones. If that would be true, Second Life (SL) would be populated with fantasy characters looking like everything, but not like the human beings controlling them. Interestingly enough there is a trend pointing into another direction. Quite a lot of people try to get their avatars looking similar to their physical self, to give them their own faces. Some people already have specialized in this and have made a business of it, like lilith Pendragon, who brought writer Cory Doctorow into SL by “just using the [avatar appearance] sliders and looking at his pic. Then I made all the clothes in Photoshop.” She has a stunning record of creating celebrity avatars, including musicians Shirley Manson and Snoop Dogg, and even Mexican paintress Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). But for the moment let us have a look at the non-professionals—it is worthwhile, I think …

Ivy Darrow

Attractive redhead Ivy Darrow went for lengths to make her avatar a lookalike of her ‘first life’—offline, that is—appearance … little wonder when you look like that in meatspace:

That is what I was going for. [Smiles] Although I made my avatar way better, of course. I guess it was just my first instinct when I was brand new, and then I never changed it. I don’t like it when people drastically change their looks—trying to keep it “real”, I suppose. […] I like being recognized in-game. I like having an “identity” that is consistent. I think it makes me seem more serious and less flightly […]

As every SL-user who tries to pull off that stunt, Ivy followed the same procedure as I did, while trying to create my 1960s Fantomas avatar—looking at the reference pictures, and then more or less freehandedly trying to model the head as similar as possible. Possessing 150 slider controls to alter aspects of the avatar, SL’s appearance editor is far more powerful than I thought at first glance. But then again it doesn’t allow the full control, a game modder is striving for, which at times drove me almost crazy. For instance, it is nearly impossible for me to create a perfectly straight nose. Changing the shape of one of the nose’s curves inevitably effects other parameters. I suspect that there is a set of parameter-connections built into the tool, which forces a kind of still-human look onto your custom creation, no matter if you are running havoc with them sliders. But that is mere speculation from my side. Some of the causes for the design of the ingame appearance interface for sure are grounded in the underlieing technology, the depths of which are not so easy to deal with, and not to be mastered quickly. You simply can not expect of a regular SL user to deal with assigning a skin’s vertices to the bones of a skeleton rig, for example. Every game modding team I have encountered had a specialist for this task, which truly is an art in itself.