Book Review: My Avatar, My Self


Firstly, it’s fair to warn you that I’m breaking one of my own reviewing rules here. I generally never write a review of something that I haven’t purchased. That’s a rule that I’m not in the habit of breaking, but it’s worth noting that I’m making an exception here today.

If you want the short version, you should go and buy Waggoner’s book if you have a serious interest in identity, identification, the interaction of people with diegetic and liminal spaces, and/or the core philosophies of human involvement, interactions and identity in virtual spaces and gameplay.

For those of you that are still here, Waggoner has put together a book that doubles as something of a thesis. Littered with references and notes, My Avatar, My Self is a dense and thoughtful read both on the nature of ourselves as well as on the nature of our virtual interactions and extensions.

I say dense, because virtually every paragraph gave me pause for consideration, sparking numerous, lengthy discussions, and causing my editor to wait and wait and wait, and wait some more for me to actually get back to him.

That’s the very definition of thought-provoking, right there. There’s a lot of meat within these covers.

Waggoner discusses the models of modernist identity theorists (who, alas, still aren’t really sure what Identity actually is), as well as contrasting that with the models of post-modern identity theorists (who also still aren’t sure what Identity).

Identity and the nature and definition of it is far from a done-deal, but practical interaction with avatars sheds a whole lot more light on things, and seems to support the post-modern theories rather better.

Debates between modern and postmodern identity theories continue. However, most theorists regardless of their camp seem to agree that communication media impact human identity construction. Even modern identity theorists such as Giddens recognize the importance of these external stimuli: “Mediated experience has long influenced both self-identity and the basic organization of social relations.” This statement is echoed by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin almost a decade later: “[People] employ media as vehicles for defining personal identity”

Throughout, Waggoner focuses on single-user role-playing games primarily (Fallout 2/3, Morrowind, Oblivion), but this is no weakness in his approach. In doing so, Waggoner manages to test and demonstrate his points without considerable, intrusive or distracting noise or complications, as he monitors the interactions and reactions of four diverse subjects as they approach various games.

Throughout, Waggoner examines the motivations, identification, and responses of his four subjects, occasionally highlighting responses that a subject is seemingly unaware of, or unwilling to admit.

If you’re not afraid of some deep ideas about identity, expression, avatars, narrative, genres and spaces, nor of the language required to express these compactly, Waggoner’s My Avatar, My Self should find a place on your reading list.

And now, if you’ll pardon me, I’m going to go back and read it again.

(You can purchase this book from TMJ’s online bookstore, Amazon or direct from the publisher).

The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – a book review

This book review appeared yesterday over on Metaverse Health, but given the book’s Australian author and it’s broad examination of online behaviour, I thought it was worth re-posting it here.

Johnson – The Multiplicities of Internet 2a1

Nicola Johnson from the University of Wollongong in Australia, recently released a book titled The Multiplicities of Internet Addiction – The Misrecognition of Leisure and Learning. It’s an engaging read, not least for the very objective look it takes at the concepts of internet addiction and framing the issue within the realities of a net-connected society that has changed immensely in the past twenty years or so.

Bourdieu’s Theory of Practice is the frame for the qualitative study of eight New Zealander teenagers and the illumination it provided on the perception of technology use amongst those who’ve know no different (digital insiders), those who haven’t (digital newcomers) and those who are plain not interested (digital outsiders). Additionally, there’s some fascinating discussion on how expertise is being developed by digital insiders and how this expertise is at best partially gained from the traditional educational institutions in place at present.

It’s the elaboration of the experiences of these eight teens that allow Johnson to weave in a great deal of the substantive research that’s occurred into the nature of addiction in regard to online activity. There’s no assertion of internet addiction as non-entity, just a much smaller subset of use than usually claimed. As contributing writer Feldspar Epstein has written previously in relation to heavy use of virtual worlds by people with disabilities:

Can you imagine telling someone with no legs to forsake their wheelchair? How about someone with a pain disorder? Are you going to tell people with crippling mental disorders that they are not allowed to take drugs to normalize and enable them? Are you going to tell deaf people they can’t use Teletype in place of the telephone?

Each of these technological advances were radical in their time; some of them were seen as being destructive, to society or to the individual. It’s hard to imagine any of these people being denied their enabling technologies in today’s first world society (one hopes). I hope to live in a future where my enabling computer habits are accepted.

Johnson’s assertions based on a thorough exploration of the literature, reveal a similar conclusion: internet addiction does exist, but when the preconceptions of digital newcomers and digital outsiders are removed from the equation, the prevalence of internet addiction seems pretty limited indeed. As Johnson concludes:

Digital outsiders (and some digital newcomers) find it unfathomable to understand the preoccupation that digital insiders have with their online lives. Because it is not what they did in times gone by, they find it difficult to understand the value, worth and social capital received by avid users in what appears to be an unhealthy obsession. As I have argued, these practices are not only misrecognized as obessions or addictions, but they are misunderstood.

This book’s research base means it’s more likely to be consumed and digested by those who are doing research or study in the area themselves. Which is a shame, as the discussion deserves wider recognition and debate. Work like this balances out some of the excesses on the mainstream media side of the equation. It’s only a lack of dissemination of this perspective that will ensure the sensationalism camp prevails for some time to come.

You can purchase this book from our online bookstore, Amazon direct or direct from the publisher.

Students vs Second Life

Average Gen Xer? Maybe not?

When I started thinking about education in Second Life, and the reactions of students of university/college age to it, I rather naturally turned to think of my own experiences, and of ideas and prejudices I held as a student of approximately the same age. It took me a little time, and the reading of an article by Joe Essid and Lee Carleton, to realize that that particular approach was never going to work. Today’s students are, for the most part, not of my generation (Generation X), which typically includes folks born between 1964 and 1982. Instead, they tend to be those folks born between 1982 and 2002 or thereabouts – the Millennial Generation.

Why make this distinction? Each generation has a tendency to differ greatly from the generation directly preceding it (which is precisely why these otherwise seemingly arbitrary groupings are made). Ideas, political notions, morals and ethics all have a tendency to change, as the younger generation both learns from and rebels against the previous one. As Generation X rebelled against the strictures placed upon the Baby Boomers, so the Millennial Generation rebels in its quiet, refined manner against the excesses of Generation X.

In Second Life, the gap between Generation X and the Millennial Generation comes sharply into focus, in the two ways that I will discuss further:

1. Second Life is primarily filled with Generation X’ers, unintentionally creating a socially unwelcoming environment for Millennials;

2. Generation X’ers know how to play in the freeform manner that Second Life requires, whereas Millennials typically do not display that skill.

First, the social and political atmosphere of Second Life. Statistically, more people from Generation X participate in Second Life than from any other generation. The ramifications of this are two-fold. It’s harder for Millennials to make contact with other Millennials in this scene, since they constitute a minority of the population. Millennials no doubt feel somewhat uncomfortable interacting socially with folk outside their own generation, whether it be because they sense the cultural disconnect between themselves and older folk or for some other reason. Second Life is chock full Generation X’ers, and they have filled it with their own fashion sense, outlooks, learning styles, and politics – what an intimidating world to enter for the Millennials. Generations X’ers are the Millennials’ parents, and also those strangers their parents warned them about. Add to that the fact that the Millennials are much more likely to have many friends with whom they communicate face to face and then organize those friends and their own lives using technological gadgets and the Internet, rather than meeting people over the Internet. Second Life is simply an unfriendly place for you to go, even if you are not a typical, timid Millennial.

Second, Second Life is an environment in which you need to be able to set goals and tasks for yourself in order to get anything out of it – it is a non-directed playground in which to let the imagination run free. The Millennial Generation has not learned to play this way. They are not used to “making their own fun.” Throughout their schooling they have been given regimented tasks, with pre-determined goals; time outside school is often dominated by a flurry of parentally- determined activities. They are more likely to play games that are directed than to come up with their own games – a Millennial is more likely to play Guitar Hero than to spend time noodling about with a guitar.

The Millennial Generation has an overwhelming sense of ‘busyness’ that pervades their lives, so that not only is learning in a directed fashion a habitual thing for them, it’s also a way of doing things more quickly. Targeted exercises speed up the process of transmitting and garnering information. Additionally, students are looking to do close to the minimum of coursework required to pass, in order to spend more time socially with friends, a priority in this generation.

The educator who uses Second Life as a learning tool will be teaching an additional subject – how to play in a freeform way. The concept and practice of freeform or open-ended play was easier for Generation X, in a way – we were rebelling against another world entirely. Difference and imagination was embraced. It was like a little Renaissance. Even though our schooling focused somewhat on directed study, by university age we had hopefully been weaned off it – by the system. The Millennial Generation, however, needs now to be taught to play this way. They need to be drawn out of their risk-averse shells gently – they need to be led, not pushed. They are not bold.

Second Life is a place where the adventurous prosper and creativity is king – and being able to play in an open-ended way is a necessary skill. Educators need to accommodate their students by creating a somewhat directed environment for them to learn in, and then wean them off it and release them into the open.

For further information on this topic, check out “A Playful Pedagogy for Second Life“, Dr Joe Essid and Lee Carleton, 2008, to be published later this year.

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