Monday, April 16, 2007

UCC and the politics of representation

If avatars, on average, are human likeness of an ideal version of the user–the Barbies and Kens of avi perfection–then we run into a few things.

The world we imagine has very strong 1:1 correlation with the world at large. The initial idea is that the same rules of attraction, high lights, chesty, leggy, etc. apply in-world as out. To hear Tor Myhren of Leo Burnett refer to avatar Pontiac Motorati chicks as “hot” is a little disconcerting. We have the same kind of unreal crush on Veronica and Betty of Archie or Storm from the X-men…but these are effectively adolescent crushes and bounded by fantasy. The commercial from the 1990s that put a 3D Lara Croft with a game players dad makes very clear the stakes of interactivity. Somehow somewhere there is an opportunity to smash that virtual potato.

One media producer at the Virtual Worlds Conference commented that Virtual Laguna Beach is populated by “anorexics with boob jobs drinking Coke.” Because it is the users themselves who have created the image, then the image must be “right.” The feminist critique of objectification disappears. The other feminist tenant, which is a deeply American one, is that of choice. The users choose, and in choosing they are right, by the action alone. That their choices might be affected by media does not necessarily undermine the status of choosing.

Here’s a thing: the best videos on Youtube are original and often self-deprecating. They are the opposite of supermodel super gloss. Neither production value and nor theme try to emulate mass media professional production. Yet, the avatars people design are often simulating a generic hotness. They look like many of the women of L.A.—same surgeons, same colorists. (When I say “women” here it applies to both genders in regard to generic representation.)

I’m not sure I’m offended by the babe-factor. I think it’s the generic build that is boring. These are expensive Barbies but not so intriguing. Maybe they’re all guys ;-).