Home Gallery
Background Image

Virtual Quandry

by Monkey Zen


There are two computer generated humans on my screen. They are talking. I know because I can read their conversation. One is a nondescript male in nondescript clothes. He doesn’t move much except to turn in the direction of whatever he’s looking at. And right now he appears to be looking at the woman, or through her, into space (one of his many bad habits). She is attractive and somewhat more animated than he. Her gestures and movements are realistic. Her clothes are tailored. Nice hair too. Nice everything. I’m the nondescript one, he’s my avatar, Mr Brick-In-The-Wall. He moves for me when I play with the arrow keys on my keyboard.

We avatar owners live on opposite sides of the world but right now we are both standing in the same room. Talking. We could be conversing via an online forum, via social media or in a Google hangout, as many people do of course, rather than standing in a room in our simulated bodies, but this way of chatting is a lot more immersive—oddly, more human too because there are visual cues. We’re both experiencing the same environment and that informs our discussion. The environment on this occasion is an art gallery, Nuna, in 3rd Rock Grid. I am able, in my avatar body, to walk around this gallery, to sit on a seat in front of a Botticelli for a few minutes to take it in. I can wander over to a lift and go to the next floor, pad around absorbing displays of traditional Chinese art and Maori Te Moko tattoo. Or, if i want to get away from restrictive terrestrial rules, I can hover like a butterfly as I move around the gallery.

Speaking of butterflies… a famous Daoist parable goes like this:
"Once upon a time, I, Zhuangzi, dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of my happiness as a butterfly, unaware that I was Zhuangzi. Soon I awakened, and there I was, veritably myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly, dreaming I am a man...”

Zhuangzi was asking how we know, when we experience waking up from a sleep, that it is a waking up to “reality” as opposed to merely waking up into another level of dream?

This may not be the philosophical dilemma you take with you to bed every night, but questions of identity do arise when you spend a bit of time pushing an avatar around. These avatars have a nasty habit of developing their own personalities… similar to yours, but different too. It gets quite complex. This isn’t just a game—in fact this style of immersive VR isn’t a game at all. There is no goal, task or quest involved, as you would have in a proper game—you simply join a community of avatars and get on with your virtual existence. Some people even seem to prefer their virtual existence—perhaps their avatar has more control over the fates, or a better social life. Virtual reality provides a real-time, immersive social space for people with physical or mental disabilities that impair their first lives, who often find comfort and security interacting through anonymous avatars. 

Approaches vary wildly on how people prefer to be represented virtually. Some (like me) prefer as-close-to-real-life-as-possible given the available options. I once chose a monkey because it felt more like me than any of the human avatars available in that particular virtual reality. At the further extreme some people prefer to immerse in VR as mythical beings, but these are relatively rare and typically involve extra expense or (for those with the talent) a fair amount of design effort.

Most people choose or create something that represents an aspect of their identity which then grows into their avatar. A surprising number of men choose female avatars, whereas very few women appear to choose male avatars. For this reason alone, Carl Jung would have been delighted with virtual reality. In his theory of the collective unconscious, Jung believed the anima makes up the unconscious feminine qualities that a man possesses, and animus the masculine ones of a woman. We are accordingly the sum of our conscious and unconscious minds in tension. He believed that the anima and animus manifest themselves in dreams and influence a person's attitudes and interactions with the opposite sex. It follows that because men repress their sensitivity (their inner feminine aspect), anima is a stronger personification of their unconscious. In Jungian terms, perhaps a gender selection bias is entirely predictable, nature balancing itself within the human breast!

Gender swapping aside, an interesting thought experiment is to ask yourself how—given the power—you would have designed the “real” you differently to the one built from your genetic code. Would the designed you be smarter? Better looking? Healthier? Imagine we all have that power. Would we design ourselves as clones of each other according to modern aesthetic preferences: all of us intelligent and talented, tall with the same blemish-free skin and thick healthy hair, same movie star features and rippling physiques? A scan of typical avatars suggests many of us would. Diversity in virtual reality is more extreme but less common. Individuality is not something we really aspire to, it would seem—big ears and a crooked smile are vastly less popular than six-pack abdominals.

But, as noted above, some people invest heavily in their virtual life and the questions that arise about which you is the real you become more vivid for them. Putting it another way, which iteration of you conveys your essential nature more accurately and provides better self-actualisation? The one you accept with all its flaws and drive through your managed life in “reality”; or the one you create personally and drive in the unchartered space of virtual reality? Arguments can be made for either position. Identity, your identity, is the stake you play with when you enter an immersive virtual world. Some lose it in the transaction and become the butterfly they dreamed. Others simply gain a new butterfly.

Return to Essays