John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

- A Second Life in Virtual Reality -

second life avatars

In some of the virtual worlds of cyberspace, you create a visual representation of yourself called an "avatar." Your avatar might reflect how you actually look, or it can be something quite imaginary. You use it to travel through the virtual reality, interacting with other avatars, forming relationships, experimenting with your identity, and finding adventures. As the name of one of the most popular virtual worlds suggests, you can develop an entirely new "second life" in this alternative reality.

Creating this image brought me back to the beginnings of my fascination with visual communication in cyberspace. In the mid-1990's I joined and began writing about the Palace, which was one of the first online avatar communities. Although Second Life is a supercharged version of Palace, I decided not to spend much time there, in part because the software learning curve was steep. Even mastering how to walk my avatar in a straight line, without looking like a zig-zagging newbie, was difficult. The social psychological dynamics of the community also were not much different than what I had studied more than a decade earlier at the Palace. It was a "been there/done that" sort of feeling. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my brief stay there, especially constructing my avatar. In fact, one of the last things I did in Second Life was work on this image.

How much is your avatar YOU?

Anyone who has created an avatar knows that it's not a simple endeavor, especially if you're trying to design one that looks like you actually do, or is truly unique or sophisticated. When I first created mine in Second Life, I decided to replicate, as best as I could, my actual appearance, rather than building some fantastically impressive or idealized persona. As is often the case for me online, I opted for the real me rather than an imaginary me. Once my avatar was completed, I transported it to an isolated location, clicked the button for putting it in the appearance-editing mode (which seemed thematically and symbolically appropriate for this image), and took a screen capture of it, or should I say "me." I then (in reality) dressed myself in similar clothes, took a shot of myself in the same pose as my avatar, and using Photoshop inserted myself into the screen capture. Being a newbie in Second Life, I didn't know how to rid myself of the cap which the avatar program automatically popped onto my head. In reality I don't own such a cap, nor do I have any belt with that kind of buckle. But again thanks to Photoshop, that image-making program no less amazing than Second Life, I simply borrowed those items from my avatar.

Of course, some interesting philosophical questions then emerged. Which one is me and which one is the avatar, or are they both avatars? Is the one on the right a copy of the one on the left, or vice versa? Will the "real me" please stand up! As the lines, steps, staircase, and diagonals suggest, there are many ways to go with one's identity in cyberspace. When it comes right down to it, that's the fundamental issue of identity for everyone in virtual realities.


Would you like to read or participate in a discussion about this image in flickr?

Here are some other articles in Photographic Psychology that are related to this photo and essay:

Shooting Clones
Avatars and Icons
Online Photosharing Communities


infinite reality blascovich bailenson

Infinite Reality: The Hidden Blueprint of Our Virtual Lives - Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson

"How achievable are the virtual experiences seen in The Matrix, Tron, and James Cameron’s Avatar? Do our brains know where “reality” ends and “virtual” begins? In Infinite Reality, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson, two pioneering experts in the field of virtual reality, reveal how the human brain behaves in virtual environments and examine where radical new developments in digital technology will lead us in five, fifty, and five hundred years." (available on Amazon)

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche