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“They told me I could be anything in VR, so I became myself”

Back at the start of the millennium, the online world was just recovering from its first bubble. But amongst the various train wrecks of businesses grappling with the value of virtual, there were some cultural aspect that did flourish. Enter Second Life.

The bastard child of smiley fuelled chat rooms (emoji were not well known yet) and the dress-up rooms of video-game character creators, Second Life’s primary focus was to allow for a virtual world to be inhabited by its users. It was crazy, it was eclectic, it was mad. And it allowed for heavy customisation of your player character, your avatar.

Second Life amassed a rather seedy reputation over the following years, as people not only displayed fashion trends, but also got more in touch with their sexuality. As the saying goes “Online, nobody knows you’re a dog”. As a result Second Life’s more eccentric avatar designs drew the spotlight away from what was really on display here: high-end personalisation.

In hindsight, Second Life was a gigantic experiment in how people self-identified and it formed the basis of what social media would afterwards claim: the high school clique norm. But Second Life did not connect to one’s real life, meaning the stakes were off the table. Whereas Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn et al started to use customisation as a store window for the self, promoting one’s best aspects in an attempt to become your personal superhero, Second Life gave you a tabula rasa to start over. It was true to its name: “if you could be anything, if you could have a second shot at life, what would you become?”

Second Life’s avatars became highly personalised action figures and dolls, they represented everything their owners cared about and sometimes even more. And then Second Life dwindled in numbers as the lure of Facebook became too strong and people fell back in line. Slight deviations did pop up: PlayStation Home for instance. This virtual game world also allowed personalisation and communication between PlayStation 3 users. Even though the customisation options were limited, many players still found a way to express themselves, to the point that many felt sad and angry at the service’s closure.

It’s vitally important for the future of virtual reality to take a closer look at Second Life and its ilk and learn from them. As more people will start to use virtual reality and become accustomed to its controls and habits — especially when they start to overlap with real world equivalents — users will start to require a contextual self. This is what an avatar means to people.

Virtual reality may not just be a new mass medium; it might not just be another channel. It can redefine one’s identity and redefine human identity at a more fundamental level. Of course, this is exactly why Facebook wants a piece of the pie and outright bought Oculus. Facebook is, by any measure, the Internet’s identity vault of the West and it has gone to some lengths to ensure it is a truthful one linked to your real life persona. But what if virtual reality opens up the doors to a second, more honest persona? For a company like Facebook, this could potentially mean even more advertisement money, higher value media shares, and a better profile of the person in question. And that’s disregarding the inherent questions about privacy contained within, and their potential misuse.

More so than other forms avatar-use, VR has the potential to truly make avatars break through. You don’t just create an avatar, in VR you wear the avatar: you are the avatar. The eponymous James Cameron movie did not only inspire countless people because of 3D visuals and a retelling of the contact between civilised and primitive people, it also showed that by looking like someone else you could maybe change who you are and feel about yourself.

That, in a nutshell, is what will make avatars in virtual reality excessively huge.

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