A recent article in the New York Times supplement published weekly with the Observer newspaper (No Budget, No Boundaries: It’s the Real You, Sunday 8th November 2009) discusses the consumer habits of people populating virtual worlds such as Second Life and There.com. The article discloses how during the recession people have continued spending real money on virtual luxury consumer goods such as designer clothes, shoes, and champagne through their avatars, or on-line personas. In fact, as spending in the real world has declined spending in these virtual worlds has increased, with more people looking to simulated universes to satisfy their consumer desires. This online behaviour raises a number of interesting questions, not least of which is: Why are people willing to spend real money on items that have no existence beyond their digital domain? Chief executive of There.com, Mike Wilson, is quoted as saying: “Everything fits; things don’t wear out. The virtual world represents a different value proposition.” (The virtual world is better than the real world?) Couple this with a quote from Mandy Cocke who, when discussing her avatar Vixie Rayna’s online shopping habits, says: “Vixie’s style is a better representation of my true self.”
What does Ms. Cocke mean by ‘true’ self? She seems to be suggesting that one’s sense of self is distinct and separate from the self one projects into the real world, the self seen by others; that one’s true self is not encumbered by economics, or health, or even physical reality. But when one looks at the avatars which populate these virtual realms one sees nothing but tall, muscular men, leggy and curvaceous women, all dressed in designer clothes and draped in expensive looking jewellery, all beautiful and young. The more one looks the more one recognises this world of ‘true’ selves as the world of fakery that is the world of celebrity. Anyone can be a chat show host, or a fashion designer, or a nightclub dj in the ‘true’ world. Everyone is successful and rich. If it is the case that virtual worlds are a better representation of our true selves then our true selves must be greedy and superficial egoists who are suffering from a serious bout of rampant self-denial. Unfortunately, if I was feeling cynical, I might well agree.
Of course, the obvious repost is that the people who populate these virtual worlds do not reflect humanity as a whole. After all, what is the point of a virtual charity, or a virtual literature? (Interestingly, there are virtual artists selling virtual artworks for real money in these worlds, but that’s another essay.) And this is true. But it does suggest that those who are drawn to the fakery of digital universes are those same people drawn to the construct that is Hollywood, as well as the obvious fact that they exist mainly in the affluent nations of the world, are all on some level unhappy with their ‘real’ selves and their ‘real’ lives, and rather than changing these they would rather hide away living blindly in a fake world fooling only themselves. (Oh my god, don’t you see, it’s just like the Matrix!)