Animal avatars are some of the most
popular at the Palace. Some people come as their pets. Because animals
symbolize certain traits or attributes in myth as well as popular
culture (e.g., strength, loyalty, grace, independence, cunning,
transcendence), the animal chosen for an avatar probably bears psychological
significance to the person - perhaps representing some real aspect
of his or her identity, or some characteristic admired by the person.
Thinking in the tradition of the Native American, we might even
regard an animal avatar as being an individuals "totem" - i.e.,
a symbol of one's essential nature or potential.
When Bumgardner designed the Palace,
he specifically choose a "cartoony" atmosphere. For example, the
balloons that pop out from one's head when speaking is a carry over
from the world of comic strips. Bumgardner felt that people would
readily identify with this atmosphere and find it intuitively easy
to use. The cartoony ambience also fosters a playful regression
among users. Bumgardner wanted people to feel like they were "getting
away with something" - which surely is a familiar theme in comic
strip plots. As a result, it's no surprise that cartoon props proliferate
at the Palace. While younger users (adolescents) may be more inclined
to don cartoon costumes, older members frequently use them as well.
The psychological significance of the cartoon character probably
affects the choice made by the user. People select characters with
whom they identify or admire. Some cartoon characters have very
specific cultural significance and may even represent archetypal
personality types (e.g., Bugs Bunny as the confident trickster;
Aladdin's genie as the powerful but benevolent friend). Rather than
relying on childhood cartoon figures, some adults wear cartoon avs
of a more sophisticated style - some of these classified as "anime."
The psychological tone of these avs tend to be more seductive, whimsical,
Celebrity avatars tend to follow trends
in popular culture. And like items in popular culture, they may
quickly become epidemic and then disappear. There may be a variety
of motives behind the use of these avs. People may use them to express
personality traits or social issues that are associated with the
celebrity's image (sensuality, intelligence, power, corruption,
rebellion, etc.). The user may identify with, desire, or be poking
fun at these attributes. They may hope to bolster their self-esteem
and identity by establishing their connection to the celebrity.
They may simply wish to display a knowledge of current events in
pop culture. Celebrity avs also advertise one's specific interests
in entertainment in order to find like-minded users: "Hey, I like
Seinfeld! Anyone else out there like Seinfeld?"
Everyone has a dark or "evil" side
to his or her personality. The definition of "evil" varies from
person to person, although usually it has something to do with malicious,
aggressive fantasies and/or feelings of guilt. Note how many Halloween
costumes fit this category. As a form of sublimation, evil costumes
allow people to safely - and even creatively - express their dark
side. While some members may wear an evil av as their facade for
the evening (which may reflect their mood at the time), others may
"flash" it as a momentary cue to others. Mess with wizards, for
example, and they may flash their evil av as a warning that they're
getting annoyed and may pin, gag, or kill you. On one occasion,
I witnessed a male come on to an attractive female member wearing
a real face prop. When her attempts to brush him off failed, she
flashed a nefarious looking skull at him. He quickly backed off.
Some people may use evil or aggressive avatars as a way (consciously
or unconsciously) to alienate or "put off" other people. This might
indicate their anxiety about intimacy and being vulnerable.
Most users do not use pictures of themselves
as their primary avatars. People prefer the partial anonymity of
expressing only limited aspects of their personality through imaginative
props. Or they simply enjoy the creative fun of experimenting with
new identities through their avs. In more rare cases, members find
the use of real face avs to be an uncomfortable, dissociative experience.
"I have a picture of myself in the prop file but I really don't
like to use it any longer than it takes for me to show it to a new
friend," said River, a wizard. "It is a little disturbing to sit
here at home and see myself speaking in cartoon balloons in a non-reality.
When users do present pictures of their
real faces, it may be a gesture of honesty and/or intimacy - a sign
of friendship, or even romance. Showing one's real face av can be
a very poignant experience. Several members have described to me
encounters when an intimate conversation culminated in their companion
showing a picture of themselves. "That moment will stay with me
for a long time to come," one member stated, "The value I placed
on that particular moment was, friendship, trust, a sense of oneness."
This same member described how there seems to be a pattern when
an entire group feels compelled to use their real faces - what he
called "face nite." For that period of time, the intimacy and friendship
level reaches a point where people wish to step out of their masks
and out of their anonymity. They want be as "real" as possible.
Some members develop an entire set
of real face avatars. Cleo, for example, designed each different
one to convey a specific interpersonal message, such as "Hi!", "I'm
sleeping" (a.k.a. BRB), and "Gimme Kiss."
These avatars become strongly associated
with a specific member - almost as if it is that person's trademark.
In some cases the avatar may be highly unusual or creative. Sometimes
it is quite simple. Yet its association to the particular user is
so strong that others experience it uniquely as that person. While
trading props is a common practice, the owner of an idiosyncratic
av rarely gives it away. It would be like giving one's identity
to someone else to use. Conscientious members also don't "steal"
(i.e., screen capture) an idiosyncratic av and use it as their own.
They respect its integrity. If someone does steal and attempts to
wear an idio av, they must be willing to put up with criticism by
the friends of the owner.
These avatars are designed by the member
to be placed into specific positions within the Palace rooms. The
avatar may be created for a certain type of environment (e.g., a
sky or water avatar), or may be designed specifically for a single
room or even a very specific spot within a room (e.g., a favorite
chair). These avatars illustrate how the graphics of the Palace
rooms are NOT simply "background" that have little impact on behavior.
Some members are exquisitely sensitive to the graphical environment.
Creating props to match and interact with the features of the room
is a highly creative activity. Such avatars also are a sign of status.
By displaying them, the member is demonstrating a sophisticated
awareness of the Palace environment as well as technical know-how
in prop editing.
Power avatars are symbols of... well...
power. Many, if not all, people have conscious or unconscious fantasies
of omnipotence. Who wouldn't want strength and invulnerability?
These types of avs seem to be most common among male adolescent
users. In some cases the power theme is benign. Sometimes not, which
may be a variation of the "evil" avatar. Because competition invariably
accompanies displays of power, members seem to vie with each other
in creating the most "awesome" power av. This competition is probably
more common among the adolescent users. Members who persistantly
display power avs may be troubled by underlying feelings of helplessness
Frontal nudity, including uncovered
breasts, are not permitted at the Palace. Offenders first are warned
by wizards, prop-gagged (forced into the standard smiley), and,
if necessary, disconnected from the server. Adapting to these house
rules, some users create avatars of partially naked or scantily
clothed figures. Mischievious members sometimes push the envelope
by wearing avs that test the limits and ambiguities of the rules.
Supreme court justices have had a hard time defining what is pornographic,
so the task has been no easier for the officials who run the EC
sites. Even though the rules have become very specific about what
body parts can and cannot be visible in an av, borderline cases
always pop up (see The Bad Boys of
Female seductive avatars tend to be
more common than male - although these female avs sometimes are
"manned" by male users (see "Male
Gender-Switching in Cyberspace") . In fact, the general impression
among members is that males are more likely to prop up as females,
especially seductive females, than women dressing up as males.
Members usually wear seductive avs
to draw attention to themselves. This works very well. Male users,
especially guests, quickly flock to a sexy female form. The owner
may be interested in harmless flirting, or (less frequently) be
advertising his or her availability for cybersex. I heard one story
about someone's office friend who, when frustrated on the job, says
"I need a Palace break" He then signs onto the Palace dressed as
a sexy female and lures guys into bedrooms. Being sexy not only
gets you attention. It also gives you power and control over others.
Some people wearing seductive avs wish
to be admired as an attractive, sexy individual, without necessarily
being interested in flirting or cybersex. "I have some very sexy
stuff given to me by friends (all men!)," said one female member.
"What do they say about me? Not quite sure, except that I would
love to be younger and more beautiful and some of my avatars are
The competition in creating and displaying
props is especially visible for seductive avatars. "It's interesting
how some of the women at the Palace are getting into more and more
elaborate sexy props. Almost as if it's a contest," noted one member.
"But then, some of the guys too are into 'comparing' props!" For
men, the competition usually involves power props, rather than seductive
ones. As one member stated, "the stag with the biggest rack thing,
A seductive, sexy, or simply "attractive"
avatar can have a powerful impact on other members. One member described
how his prop of a cartoon animal didn't seem to be getting him much
attention from females. Most of them wouldn't talk to him. Curious
about whether he could alter this situation, he searched the net
and found a picture of Brad Pitt which he turned into a prop. The
result?... Lots of attention. If he happened to be wearing his cartoon
prop and found that he was being ignored by a woman, he would move
to another room, switch to Brad Pitt, and then return. Or he would
switch to Pitt right in front of her. Nine times out of ten, he
said, the woman would strike up a conversation with him even if
he hadn't said a word. He even established a relationship with someone
who eventually wanted to meet him face-to-face. "The pic got her
attention," he concluded, "but in the end it was me that won her
over." The curious thing about this phenomenon is that members KNOW
that people are not their avatars. Just because a prop is pretty
to look at doesn't mean that the user is. Nevertheless, that seductive
av has tremendous drawing power. Perhaps some people enjoy the illusion
of interacting with (and hopefully winning over) an attractive person.
Perhaps, as many critics of contemporary culture claim, some people
can't resist the temptation of superficial appearances, despite
knowing better. Or perhaps some people are just curious, "Who *IS*
that person using that sexy av?"
Other members may display seductive
avs simply to be admired for their skill in knowing how to create
a seductive av. Because the Palace often feels like an ongoing party
where people are going to flirt, playfully compete, vie for attention,
and strut their stuff, it is almost a prerequisite that every experienced
member owns a seductive av of some type. "Getting away with something"
is an intrinsic component of the Palace culture, as Bumgardner intended.
Having at least one seductive av is a cultural must.
Of course, there are exceptions to
every rule. As one member said, "I don't really think that sexy
type props are for me, just wouldn't be a true representation of
what I'm about."
Whenever we social scientists go about
categorizing things, we always end up with a miscellaneous or "other"
category. There is such a wide variety of avatars that it's impossible
to neatly classify them all. The same is true of personality styles
(which is the origin of the prop). Here let me briefly mention just
a few other types of avatars.
Odd/shocking avatars are unusual, strange,
and sometimes downright bizarre pictures - perhaps revealing people
who like to surprise, goof on, or even startle and outrage others.
Truly bizarre pictures might make you wonder about the person's
grasp of social appropriateness, or even their mental health.
Such very unusual avs are most popular among adolescents - for
whom extreme behavior is a way to express independence and individuality,
and to test the limits.
Abstract avatars may be used by people
who enjoy enjoy symmetry, are good (non-verbal) conceptual thinkers,
and/or are inclined towards visual artistic endeavors.
Billboard avatars are announcements of
some sort - political, philosophical, personal. They are used
by those who have something to say and are not reluctant to display
their thoughts in a commercialized type format.
Lifestyle avatars, which are quite common
and varied, depict some significant aspect of a person's life
- usually something to do with occupation, hobby, or personal
habit. It may be a way to attract like-minded individuals.
Matching avatars are designed to accompany
each other and indicate the connection or bonding between the
pair of members. Considerable imaginative and technical skills
may go into creating such avatars.
Clan avatars - are worn by members of the
same social group, some might even say "gang." These avs tend
to be similar in basic design with slight variations to differentiate
each one from the others. As such, each user announces his/her
allegiance to the clan by adopting its collective visual appearance,
while also maintaining some measure of individuality. It reminds
me of the songs in some bird species. The species identifies itself
and its members by a basic template that serves as the collective
song. Yet each individual bird adds a small unique variation to
that template in order to signify its individuality. Clan avs
are found almost exclusively among adolescents for whom belonging
to a peer group - and conforming to its standards - is a developmental
Animated avatars contain motion, such as
an eye tearing, a bird flying, or a flag waving. By visually diplaying
"behavior" they can express a wide and subtle range of psychological
meaning. Tapping a finger, blinking one's eyes, banging one's
head against the wall - there are infinite expressive possibilties.
The motion usually is cyclical and repetitious, which - depending
on the type of avatar - may convey a feeling of persistance, determination,
mindlessness, or rhythmic peacefulness.
Bigger is Not Better
The default size for an avatar is about
40x40 pixels. That's about as big as your average computer icon.
When members create their first avatar, it's usually this size.
They're pretty happy with their accomplishment, until they realize
that other people have much BIGGER props. It takes a bit more know-how
to master the technique of building large avs. Some members quickly
get into a competitive feeling about whose is biggest - although
the contest quickly ends at about 130x130 pixels, which is the technical
Are there significant psychological
differences in who uses big and small props? People who like power
avs tend to like big avs, especially big power avs. People may rely
on prop size to gain attention and admiration. I've heard some members
state that younger users, especially male adolescents, like large
props, while women tend to wear smaller props in general than men.
These hypotheses certainly are amenable to quantitative research.
The general consensus among Palatians
is that "bigger is not better." Big avs sometimes are considered
impolite. They take up a lot of precious space in a crowded room.
They're a bit ostentatious. What matters more than size is the quality
and style of your avatar. What matters is how you apply it to express
yourself. "It's not the size of the prop, but how you use it."
Bumgardner designed the Palace not
as a game with imposed plots and rules, but as a open social environment
in which users would "make of it what they will." As a result, the
culture is changing and evolving according to the psychological
needs of the population. Because members have most control over
their props, these elements are probably incisive visual signs of
the transitory ebb and flow, and overall developmental path, of
In my e-mail interviews with
Bumgardner, he compared the history of props to biological evolution:
"This last week I read "Naturalist"
a memoir by the biologist Edward O. Wilson, and a fine piece of
writing. My intent was to read something completely unrelated
to the Palace, to take my mind off it, but I found Wilson's descriptions
of island ecologies particularly relevant, as it turned out. In
some ways one can compare Props to Plumage. More interesting,
attractive (or I might even say "powerful") props tend to propagate,
while less interesting, ugly ones don't. Some props have had incredible
staying power - were created a long time ago and are still around,
while others have had relatively short cycles. In addition there
has been a marked evolution in the quality and size of props.
A typical scene in Harry's bar this evening is quite different
from a typical scene two months ago. You see more large elaborate
props, and more sexy props. There was a big influx of sexy lingerie-clad
female props at the Valentine's
party and interestingly those have continued. Where competitive
principles come in is that the overall quality of the props has
been rising with time, as people keep up with the Joneses, and
teach other how to make better looking props."
Surely, there is a "survival of the fittest" among props. Those
with real staying power are those that best capture universal human
themes - such as sex, aggression, power, and spirituality. Other
long-lasting props are those specifically adapted to the Palace
environment (e.g., "be right back" and "I survived the lag" signs),
and those that are icons of contemporary culture (e.g., cans of
Spam, Winnie the Poo, the Three Stooges). Carrying the biological
analogy even further, Bumgardner suggested that the categories may
be more specific than outlined previously in this article. For example
- cartoon animals, cars, Japanese anime women. Those which are not
"fit" eventually disappear into extinction. Those that ARE fit survive,
develop, become more refined. The overall trend towards more variety
and subtlety in props (not unlike biological evolution) points to
a basic human need that Palace successfully satisfies - the need
to pursue variety, to push the envelop, to advance.
This diversity is boosted by the need
for personal expression of an individual's identity. The most fit
types of props survive, but people also want and need to be unique
- at least this is true of American culture. As Sammy Davis might
have said, "I gotta be me." People prefer not to wear the exact
avs that other people are wearing. The results are avatars that
do not fall into the usual categories or species types and an almost
infinite variety of subtle differences within the categories. This
doesn't necessarily mean that avs become more complex or elaborate
over time. While this trend does tend to enhance individuality and
uniqueness, avatar complexity can get unwieldy, inefficient, overly
ostentatious. A push towards elegant simplicity counterbalances
the quest for complexity, resulting in developmental ebbs and flows
of avatar intricacy.
A clear exception to this basic rule
about avatar individuality are the clan props. Members sacrifice
the quest for a totally unique visual appearance in order to belong
to the group. Clan props are most likely to develop among adolescents.
They also will tend to evolve in a large, changing population where
some users will attempt to gain status, influence, and identity
by joining an established group, rather than by forging ahead on
Taking It Personal
Like masks of any kind, avatars hide
and reveal at the same time. Behind it, people can conceal some
personal things about themselves, but the av also selectively amplifies
other aspects of their personalities. It may reveal something about
the member that otherwise is not immediately obvious - maybe not
even obvious if you met that person in real life. Maybe not even
obvious to the owners themselves. What users express in their props
is not always a conscious choice. Sometimes it's unconscious. People
may simply say that they are wearing a particular av because "I
like it." When asked, they're not sure what it says about them.
But other people may know.
On a few occasions at the Palace I
suggested to the group that we play a "prop
game." The game goes like this. One at a time, people take turns
standing before the group and trying on a few of their favorite
avatars. Free associating to the image, the rest of us toss out
ideas about how the prop looks, its psychological connotations,
its possible symbolisms. The question then becomes - does this say
something about the owner? More often than not, it does. The avatar
is like a Rorschach inkblot, or the Draw-a-House/Person/Tree Test,
or any work of art. It is selected from personal imagination. Consciously
or unconsciously, people condense a multitude of meaning into it.
They project their personality into it - who they are, who they
wish to be, what they fear, what moves them. In the prop game, by
free-associating, the other members help unpack all the feelings
and meanings condensed into the avatar. It's very much like interpreting
dreams. Of course, the other members may be projecting their "own
stuff" into the ideas that they toss out about a fellow Palatian's
avatars. But that's OK. In fact, it says something about how they
are perceiving and reacting towards their fellow Palatian. It's
what psychoanalysts call "transference."
People seem drawn to the prop game,
probably for the same reasons that they are attracted to Palace
as the haven of avatars. The Palace can be an entertaining, self-exploratory
arena for expressing one's ideas, feelings, and creativity. It encourages
people to experiment with new identities - all in a highly visual
fashion. Casually, and intuitively, people are playing the "prop
game" all the time as they socialize at the Palace. They display
their different avatars and people give them feedback about it.
In the best of circumstances, one learns something about oneself
as well as others. It feels like "playing," and indeed it is. Playing
is just another way to explore identity.
There is a serious side to playing.
You don't steal someone else's toys. One sure sign of how attached
members get to their avatars is their reaction when someone tries
to "steal" one - especially if it's an idiosyncratic avatar, one
that you put a lot of work into, or your "primary" or "home" avatar
that you spend most of your time wearing. Your identity is tightly
packed into these precious nuggets. That's how people recognize
you as unique. When someone takes it with a screen capture and then
wears it (which only takes a few minutes), they are stealing a piece
of your identity, stealing your individuality.
One evening when I entered Harry's
Bar, the social center of the Main Mansion site, I immediately was
warned by a friend, "Watch out! Nightmare is stealing props." I
quickly noticed that all of the people I knew were wearing the generic
smiley faces rather than their favorite avatars. Except Nightmare.
He wore River's idiosyncratic avatar, which, for a second, disoriented
me, then made me angry. I switched off my own primary avatar, the
gray owl, and automatically defaulted to the generic smiley. But
it was too late. Nightmare had already captured my owl and put it
on. I added my annoyance to those of others in the room. We told
Nightmare this was unacceptable behavior, that people took their
avs seriously, that what he was doing amounted to stealing. Our
concern didn't seem to have too much of an impact on him. Adding
insult to injury, he duplicated my owl and spread copies of it all
around the room. With the "clean" command, I erased all the loose
owl props, but later on I found others in the Armory. I indeed felt
that something important had been snatched cavalierly from me -
that my visual territory, my IDENTITY had been violated.
Not all people who take others' props
are attempting to aggressively attack, manipulate, or steal someone
else's sense of self. Sometimes it's just a naive mistake. If you
explain to the person how it's a faux pas, they usually will take
your av off with an apology. Or a friend may take and put on your
prop as a goof (maybe they indeed admire or want something from
you), which usually is accepted by all in the spirit of fun.
One member told me the story of a friend
who tried to change her "image" (prop) after her primary avatar
had been copied. She could barely bring herself to do it. After
a week or so of trying different themes and styles, she gave up.
Eventually, she tried again and did create some new (idiosyncratic)
props that built on her original theme.
Members who become prop design experts
are especially sensitive to the themes of personal expression in
their artwork. They like to cultivate their own personal style of
avatars. This style makes them one of a kind. It also provides some
continuity to their identity and recognition by others, even though
they may be switching avatars. It is their "style" that is recognized
by others. For one specialist, it may be fantasy anime figures.
For another, who lives in Alaska, it may be themes revolving around
"cold." One prop expert, an artist who builds her own avatars from
scratch, commented on how she works within specific "parameters"
that will make her stand out. "I know with my art, if you don't
have 'gimmicks' you can go unnoticed or easily copied." She also
noticed similar tendencies in other members. "When someone stumbles
upon those self-induced parameters that get them noticed, they invariably
stick with that persona and build on it."
The word "avatar" means "incarnation"
or "manifestation." It is an appropriate choice to describe the
icons people use to visually represent the facets of their identity.
A more specific definition, from Hindu mythology, is the incarnation
of a god. Perhaps, unconsciously, people take their avs seriously
because it indeed feels like a divine product. To place oneself
into a form created from one's own imagination is the essence of
creativity. It's God-like.
Avatar Collections (That's Me
leads to a version of this section WITH accompanying graphics)
We all have different sides to our
identity. Social psychologists would call them our "social roles"
that surface in the variety of situations and relationships that
make up our lives. Psychoanalysts would describe them as the constellation
of "introjects," "internalizations," and "identifications" that
comprises our intrapsychic world. On a daily basis, we juggle and
shift between several rather distinct selves, sometimes without
being fully aware that we are doing it. How, when, and why these
different facets of our identity manifest themselves is the story
of our lives.
In the multimedia communities of cyberspace,
you can tell a lot about people by examining their collection of
avatars and how they use them. Each avatar reflects a distinct aspect
of the individual's personality and lifestyle - whether it is a
mood, an interest pattern, a social role, one's attitudes and values,
or a wished-for state of being. During my research on the Palace,
I've often thought about how fascinating it would be to examine
a member's whole collection, or at least his or her favorite avatars
(since some members have hundreds!).
Doing such an analysis would be a very
personal affair, so I have hesitated to ask anyone to participate
in such a study. However, some readers of this article - like Legnek and
Nacey - volunteered
to contribute a sample of their avs, along with an explanation of
what those avs mean to them. Other readers are welcome to do the
same. Here are some of the avs in my own collection:
Gray owl - "AsKi" is my primary
or "home" avatar. I spend the large majority of my time wearing
this icon. I specifically chose this picture for several reasons.
It is non-threatening. I did not hide the fact that I was doing
research on the Palace in addition to socializing there, so I
wanted to appear as benign as possible. The fact that it is a
small prop adds to its innocuous quality, as well as makes it
very portable and easy to fit into even a crowded room. An owl
also is observant, non-intrusive, and "wise" - characteristics
that I hoped would positively flavor people's reactions to me
(and that I'd like to claim as my qualities). Also, the gender
of the figure is unclear. My intention here was to allow other
members initially to perceive AsKi as male or female according
to their own projections (although I always revealed my gender
when asked). Curiously, as I moved about the rooms of the Palace,
I noticed myself looking for comfortable perches for my owl. Often
I found myself sitting above and on the outside of a circle of
people socializing - perhaps on a chair near the door, or on a
picture frame on the wall. Was I acting like a bit of an outsider
- observant, quiet, benign... maybe a bit distant? I would be
lying if I said these qualities did not apply to me in "real"
life. Many times I would have to catch myself falling back into
this detached "observer" (lurker) mode. I didn't JUST want to
do research. I wanted to get down, socialize, and have fun too.
The Earth - This is next in
line as my most frequently used avatar. It's a positional prop.
Several of the rooms at the main Palace site (the Mansion) are
actually outdoor scenes (a beach, the Moor, the front yard of
the Palace, etc.). In these locales I place myself into the sky.
I was inspired to create this avatar when I first visited Nrutas
- an outer space scene where computer geeks (I use the term affectionately)
like to hang out. The first time I sat silently in the Nrutas
sky, a new member arrived and said to a fellow Palatian, "I don't
remember that Earth being there in the background gif? Is that
new?" Perhaps this says something about my personality. Perhaps
I like to blend in. I *am* ecology minded, like to wear Earth
tone clothes, am interested in spirituality, love outer space
fiction (a Star Trek fan, of course), and, as a kid, very much
wanted to become an astronaut. All of this, and probably more,
is condensed into that image. This avatar reminds me of the final
scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the "Star Child" returns
James Taylor - This picture
of James Taylor dancing with his guitar is from his "New Moon
Shine" album. When I'm in my partying "let's get down" mood I'll
dance this figure across the carpet in Harry's Bar. Even quiet
people like to let their exhibitionist side out once in a while.
This also is a good example of a "Wannbe Prop." I play guitar
and piano, but am average at it. If I magically could inherit
anyone's musical abilities, it would be JT. I think everyone has
a Wannabe Prop of some kind in their collection. A humanistic
psychologist might say that it is an icon showing their path towards
self-actualization. Using this prop also drove home for me the
fact that avatars are powerful signposts for signaling to and
attracting like-minded people. If not for this prop, I probably
would not have connected to several other Palatians who also are
Freud wearing a propeller beanie
- As a psychologist, I've always been interested in psychoanalytic
theory (though I warn my students not to take any one theory too
seriously... hence the beanie). I sometimes jokingly put on this
avatar when people ask me questions about psychology, or if someone
in the room, not knowing I'm a psychologist, says something to
the group like "Maybe we should ask a shrink about that!" I enjoy
psychology, and sometimes I enjoy making fun of it. On a few occasions
I switched to this prop when obnoxious guests were harassing people
in the room. As "Freud," I tried to find out why they were being
so insulting in the hopes of either talking them down, or, if
necessary, encouraging them to leave. Sometimes it worked, sometimes
Dressed to the Nines - This
silhouette figure of a man dressed in a formal suit is a "flirting
avatar." I've used it (on rare occasions, I might add) to approach
women who seemed in the mood to flirt. It's my attempt to assume
the persona of a sophisticated, debonair man-about-town. Another
wannabe avatar? It also came in handy for those nights when everyone
in the room was in the mood to dress formally.
Hercules taming Cerberus -
Let there be no mistake. This is a power prop. What could be more
powerful than Hercules wrestling down the multi-headed dog who
guards the gates of hell? Yet another wannabe prop? Power avatars,
not surprisingly, tend to be big, and this is by far my largest.
Some people are very impressed by it, others are put off by its
size and aggressive quality. So I tend not to display it too often
for fear of intruding on other people's personal space or offending
their tastes. Technically, this was the most difficult prop I
created. I had to dissect the original image into nine separate
squares and then reassemble them in the Palace prop editor. As
such, it was my competitive attempt to demonstrate that I knew
how to make big props.
Other positional avs - I love
to create avs that I can place into specific spots in specific
rooms. I selected the leopard's face, the wolf howling by the
moon, and the lightning bolt because they have a black background
and therefore blend perfectly into dark doorways. I enjoy interacting
with the Palace environment. Perhaps this symbolically indicates
how I like to "fit in." Sometimes, when I'm feeling left out of
a conversation in the room, I'll play with this props in the background.
It usually draws attention to me and brings me back into the conversation.
When we compare different people's
avatar collections, some general patterns emerge. Many people have
persona that are seductive, powerful, formal/sophisticated, silly/playful,
and artistic/poetic. These may represent universal or archetypal
sectors of personality. Most people cherish at least one original
("old") avatar because it represents their birth identity in the
Palace community. It's like an old, reliable friend. Almost everyone
has a primary, all-purpose av that they use most of the time. It's
the familiar home base, the image they feel most identified with
and most comfortable wearing. Often it's one of those original,
birth avatars. But sometimes it's a relatively new one. Active members
are always creating new avs. One's collection is a balance of new
and old persona, which reflects the balance between experimenting
with new identities and holding onto the familiar, stable aspects
of self. The size and variations in one's collection probably reflects
the extent to which the person explores and experiments with personal
identity. Many people have a secret avatar that they use when they
don't want others to know who they are, as well as an avatar they
wear when they're with friends - an appearance that readily identifies
them to their friends, often that birth or primary avatar. Curiously,
many people have an av which they really like, but aren't sure why
they like it. It is a conscious reminder of an unconscious aspect
Visual Social Grease
By this point it should be obvious
that props make interacting easier and more efficient by providing
a visual means to express oneself. They are very useful communication
tools. On the simplest level, they act as conversation pieces. If
you can think of nothing else to say, express an interest in someone's
prop. Talking about props is one of the most common topics of discussion
at the Palace. It greases the social interaction, especially with
people whom you are meeting for the first time. It's like discussing
the weather - except people are more personally invested in their
props than they are in whether it's rainy or sunny.
On a more complex level, changes in
avatars convey changes in mood and intention, without the person
necessarily having to speak (type). Many members have told me that
what they are wearing affects how they behave, as well as influences
how others will react to them. Wear a female seductive prop, or
even just a pleasant looking female prop, and you will draw attention,
whether you want it or not. If you're annoyed with someone and want
to drive them away, put on that skull prop. One member said, "When
I use my animated props" (props that show motion) "you can be sure
I'm in a jovial mood." Another commented, "The ability to adjust
a prop in any situation to meet the needs of the individual at that
particular moment makes the Palace unique as compared to the rest
of the cyber chat sites."
In some cases the prop is used in a
very specific situation to convey a very specific meaning. One member
described how he uses a prop of a man with his hand in the air as
a "high-five" to greet one of his friends. "I also have a white
dog with a stick and a bandera on the end that I use to signify
my exit... packing it in for the nite, if you will. Some of the
regulars note the avatar's presence and immediately say goodnight
to me." The icon, he concluded, sometimes works much faster than
What follows is a log excerpt illustrating
some typical cyberspace flirting behavior - in this case facilitated
and amplified by prop play. The key participants are SweetyPie,
whose well-dressed female avatar is positioned in the sky at the
Palace front gates, and AsKi (hey!... I'm allowed. It's participant-observation
SweetyPie: I look like a bride, I
need a groom
Misty: dont look here hahaha
AsKi: (changes to avatar of a formally-dressed man and joins SweetyPie
in the sky) Will you marry me, SweetyPie!
SweetyPie: yes dear yes
Misty: Wow...SP...a proposal online 5 mins..
SweetyPie: my groom!
Misty: thats power
AsKi: (changes to prop of the earth) A match made in heaven!
Misty: I will sing at the wedding
SweetyPie: He is now the world to me (changes to star-shaped prop)
AsKi: and you my shining star!
SweetyPie: A BRAND NEW WORLD!!!!! (plays "kiss" sound)
AsKi: (changes to a lips prop - plays "kiss" sound)
SweetyPie: now he is all lips (plays "kiss" sound)
SweetyPie: oh my groom
AsKi: SweetyPie, we can't go on meeting like this, people will
SweetyPie: ahhh yes well what can we do, love is in the air
AsKi: (changes to flying bird prop) you are the wind beneath my
SweetyPie: awwww so cute
AsKi: ah, shucks
Entire social events may revolve around
specific themes that are highly amenable to avatar displays. Members
may specifically create props for planned celebrations, as in a
St. Patty's Day party or the historical Valentines Day
party. Some special theme gatherings, like a Hawaiian get-together
seem to pop up almost spontaneously, as if it was spontaneous theater.
Showing off, trading, and talking about props is a big part of the
festivity. At the Valentine's Party special visual events were planned,
such as the Dating Game,
the Props Contest
and Showoff, and the rather mystical meeting at Nrutas , where
Bumgardner displayed some his visual magic with iptscrae scripts.
The wizard "flash light" induction ceremonies
proved to be a fascinating blend of tradition and humor, thanks
to graphical touches. All of these events were quite captivating,
to a large extent because they were so visual. When the creator
of another Palace site once asked me how he could draw people to
his server, a few solutions seemed very obvious - prop contests,
theme parties, and special visual events. These kinds of events
now are springing up at Palace sites all over the internet.
Aberrant Av Behavior
With the new visual dimension of cyberspace
socializing comes new ways for people to be aberrant. Like all aberrant
behavior, "deviant" behavior at the Palace ranges from mild to severe
(see "The Bad Boys of
Cyberspace" for a detailed discussion of deviant behavior and
how wizards cope with it).
Mischievous Pranks - As Bumgardner
intended, people do try to "get away with something" by playing
jokes on their fellow users. Usually the naive guests are the victims.
Sometimes it's just a good-natured prank. Sometimes it has an edge
of hostility. Using the brush for painting on the background room
image, some users adorn the walls with graffiti, obscene drawings
or words. Other mischievous members smear black over an entire room,
or they fill the entire room with props, leaving newbies totally
confused as to where they are or what's happening. Freud would want
to label them "anal expulsive personalities." By "spoofing" someone
with the "msay" command, you can throw your voice to make the cartoon
text balloon pop out of someone else's head. Or you can make the
words hang in mid-air with no body attached. A member, rather inappropriately,
kept putting the words "I'm gay!" into the mouth of another user
as he was trying to carry on a conversation with me. Using msay
like this may indicate the person's inability to contain some thought
or feeling, while also being unable to own up to that thought or
feeling for fear of how others will react.
Sometimes, it's hard even for sympathetic
people to resist the antics and game-playing. One night, although
trying to remain a neutral observer, I eventually found myself as
an accomplice to another member in a prank where we set up an unmanned
female prop in the spa pool. We used "msay" to talk THROUGH the
prop while also talking TO it as if it were another user. Essentially,
it was a virtual ventriloquist act. "Honey" (the prop) was rather
seductive towards the guests, and the guests all thought it was
a "real" person. It was quite funny, although perhaps a bit mean
to the poor naive guests who were unaware of the msay command.
Flooding - Users who make rapid,
multiple changes of their avatars - especially large avatars - may
flood the server, resulting in lag that makes it difficult for people
to talk. Usually the person is not aware that he is causing a problem.
But sometimes people do it on purpose. It may be a hostile attempt
to gain attention, or a jealous ploy to disrupt the socializing
in the room. Wizards will warn, pin, or, if necessary, kill for
Blocking - Members consider
it a social faux pas to place your avatar on top of or too close
to another person's prop. Unless the person is a friend who's in
the mood to be close, it's an invasion of personal space. "Please
get off me!" and You're sitting on me!" are two common complaints.
Again, some naive users do this without knowing it is inappropriate,
or the person may be lagging and unable to move. But some hostile
people deliberately accost others by blocking them. Wizards will
warn, pin, or, if necessary, kill for this offense.
Sleeping - Sleepers usually
are users who have walked away from their computer. They are completely
unresponsive when you talk to them. The social norm is to put up
a "BRB" (be right back) sign to indicate your unavailability. Sleepers
fail to do this. Although sleepers may be found in text-only chat
environments, the experience of them is a bit different in multimedia
chat. It feels much more eerie to SEE a person (avatar) in front
of you, yet the person fails to react.
Eavesdropping - By reducing
their avatars to a single pixel and their usernames to only one
character, members may try to become "invisible" and secretly listen
in on conversations. As a type of "lurker," they are acting on voyeuristic
tendencies to avoid intimacy and gain a sense of advantage and power
over others. I wonder if chronic eavesdroppers last very long at
the Palace. People enjoy so much the ability to express themselves
visually through their avatars that it seems self-defeating to avoid
this opportunity by hiding. Maybe that says something about eavesdropping.
It *is* self-defeating and, literally, self-negating.
Borderline Avs - There are very
specific rules about what avatars are acceptable and what ones are
not. Unacceptable avs fall into four general categories: overly
sexual; overly violent and aggressive; hate avatars (evidence of
prejudice concerning gender, homosexuality, religion, ethnicity,
and nationality); avatars that promote illegal activities (e.g.,
drug use). Looking for loopholes or pushing the envelope as far
as they can, acting out members sometimes test the limits of the
Flashing - Although nudity in
avatars is not permitted at the Palace, some people nevertheless
flash their naughty pictures. They may be goofing around with their
friends, advertising their availability for cybersex, attempting
to shock other people (like the typical exhibitionist), or defiantly
and perhaps masochistically begging to be killed by a wizard. In
private rooms, behind locked doors, people engaged in cybersex will
display pornographic props to one another. Because this is not public
behavior, it is not punished.
Prop Dropping - Not quite as
brave as the flasher, a prop-dropper will toss an obscene prop into
an empty room and then run, so as not to get caught. The exhibitionist
and rebellious psychology of the prop-dropper is probably similar
to the flasher, with the exception that they attempt to dissociate
themselves from their "dropping." In the mind of a Freudian, the
scatological implications of this behavior are very signficant.
Imposters - Stealing someone's
avatar and wearing it is a no-no. Stealing someone's avatar, wearing
it, and also using that person's name (or a variation of it) is
a real no-no. You are abducting their entire identity. As a momentary
joke to mimic your friends, this behavior is tolerated as fun. But
some people are more insidious. I've heard rumors about a few people,
in an act of revenge, snatching the identity of the person that
offended them. Behaving inappropriately under that identity, they
attempted to damage the person's reputation. Pretending to be a
wizard or a god can get you into real trouble.
Identity Disruption - One day
in Harry's Bar I was greeted by someone I didn't recognize. Something
about how he spoke made me uneasy. He acted as if he knew me, but
his abstract avatar and name were unfamiliar. After a few minutes,
he changed his prop to another abstract design. For some reason,
this made me more uncomfortable. "Do you know this guy?" I whispered
to another member. "It's Octagon," she said. "He's been changing
his name and props lately".... About a week later, I heard that
Octagon was hospitalized. He had been suicidal.
This incident taught me something important
about avatars. Unfortunate people suffering from disturbances in
their identity may act out their turmoil in the props they wear.
A virtual world where you can switch among alternate appearances
might attract people suffering from "dissociation" - the splits
in consciousness and identity as a result of trauma, as in the classic
multiple personality disorder.
There is a lesson here as well for
the average Palatian. Playing with your avatar and username as a
way to express yourself can be fun and creative. It's a fascinating,
synergistic combination. But change your prop and/or name too often
- especially if you are a relatively new member - and you run into
trouble. People won't recognize you. Your identity de-constructs.
In order to be treated like a solid individual, perhaps even to
FEEL like a solid individual, you must maintain some level of continuity
in either your avatars or username. Most people choose consistency
in their username, perhaps varying it slightly for different occasions
(e.g., HappyAsKi, McAski, Dr. AsKi). If they are going to experiment
with identity expression, they do it mostly with changes in avatars.
Despite this experimentation, almost everyone has a primary or home
avatar that everyone recognizes as the "real you." The primary avatar
provides the necessary continuity, the core self. It takes time
to establish it. Switch avatars too often as a new member and you
will probably slow down people's ability to recognize you. Once
your username and a few of your avs are firmly recognized, you have
more leeway to express other aspects of yourself through other avs,
without your identity becoming too diffused.
In fact, this may be the essence of
a "healthy" Palace life - knowing how to handle that delicate balancing
act of experimenting with who you are, while maintaining a stable
baseline of public and personal identity.... Is this any different
than "real" life?
It's Not Just Wallpaper
One afternoon at the Palace I happened
to run into someone who was designing his own multimedia environment.
He was visiting the Main Palace site to check it out, probably comparing
this graphical environment to his own conceptual plans. Considering
he was very interested in multimedia communities, I was a bit surprised
by his underestimation of avatars and the graphics of the background
rooms. "No-one has quite figured out what to do with an avatar to
identify themselves," he said later to me in e-mail, "and the backdrops
are largely that, wallpaper."
At this point in this paper, I surely
hope I've demonstrated the invalidity of his first point. As to
his second, it seems to me that the background graphics that make
up the Palace rooms are anything but "wallpaper" - a word which
implies that the graphics are basically inconsequential. In fact,
that's a bit of a devaluing attitude towards wallpaper as well.
Would wallpaper even exist if it did not significantly influence
people's attitudes, moods, perceptions, even how they behave?
I'm sure that wallpaper does have this
effect, as do the Palace rooms. For example, people are drawn to
Harry's Bar, which is the social center of Palace life at Main.
Why? The colors are warm, fuzzy, and inviting; there are chairs
for people to sit down; it is a bar which people associate with
get-togethers, partying and fun; there is a plush carpet in the
middle of the floor which acts as a stage or even a dance floor
for people to "get-down" and mix it up with one another. The psychological
effect of Harry's Bar is not unlike that of the Study or Chess Room
which also contain warm colors, luxurious chairs facing each other,
and a fire place. Cohesive subgroups of members have formed in these
rooms. Contrast these rooms with Grand Central where the mostly
black and white color scheme feels cold, the floor is a stark checker
tile, the sparse furniture is knocked over, and, quite bizarrely,
a locomotive is crashing through the window. Fewer people gather
there. Contrast these again with Nrutas, the outer space scene near
a planet that looks like Saturn. You would think it's not a very
hospitable place for humans. Yet people often do gather here, with
the discussion often focusing on tech talk. A perfect spot for Star
What are other popular rooms at Main?
The Palace Gate, where users automatically are deposited when they
sign on, which makes it the perfect place to greet people as they
come in. The Spa, where
people meet to "bath". The Hallway upstairs, just outside the guest
rooms where people can talk in private and get intimate. A graphical
pathway or corridor where people tend to walk (and gather along
the way) extends from this popular hallway, down the stairs, through
the Armory, Game Room, and Red Room, and into the similarly popular
Harry's Bar. The Red Room often serves as a "waiting area" for people
to socialize as they are waiting to get into the bar, since the
room occupancy is limited. This graphical pathway, with Harry's
Bar and the Guest Rooms at opposite ends, were the original design
of the Palace, with the other rooms added on by links through pictures
or fixtures on the walls.
What have been the least populated
rooms? The Void, a psychedelic swirl of colors that insults the
eyes, looks like it's going to suck you up, and greets you with
the message "Abandon Hope all ye who enter here." And let's not
forget The Pit - a gloomy, fiery cavern that places horns on your
head and a cigarette in your mouth.... Not exactly inviting places,
except, perhaps, for trouble-makers who like the fact that the Pit's
graphical theme matches their psyche. Anti-social gangs have claimed
it as their home.
Even these unsavory locales are preferred
over nothing at all. On occasion, I've traveled to other Palace
sites where some of the rooms were under construction, leaving nothing
but a black box. When other people popped in and quickly realized
there was nothing there but empty nothing, they left in a hurry.
People find it boring, and perhaps even disorienting. Backdrops
of rooms and scenery give people a sense of place and space. It
creates a necessary visual grounding for their virtual experience.
Some people avoid the usual text-only chat rooms for similar reasons.
With only text scrolling down a window, they feel like they are
floating in a void with no visual or spatial frame of orientation.
At the Palace, users can place their
avatars anywhere within a room - on the floor, walls, ceiling. But
by no means do people move and position their avatars randomly.
Even though there are no physical laws to restrict their movement,
people behave as if there are. Responding to "gravity," such props
as walking figures and cars tend to stay on the floor, while icons
of flying or floating things remain up. Sometimes this is a purely
unconscious reflex on the part of the user. Sometimes people deliberately
play with the laws of physics and space - now obeying them, now
defying them. Sit in a chair, or hang upside down from the ceiling.
Whatever you like. It's part of the fun of Palace life. Rather than
being static wallpaper, the background graphics are a playground.
The positional props
are a good example of how people consciously enjoy interacting with
the visual features of a room. By providing tools for drawing on
the background gif and the ability to place props into the scenery
(flowers, bottles, artwork, etc.), the designers of Palace are encouraging
this play. "Dr. Xenu," a longstanding member of the Palace community,
offered some interesting observations on this phenomenon, which
he calls "set-dressing:"
There are now simple ways to automate
such set-dressing. I have a friend who habitually decorates one
or two particular rooms in the same way whenever we meet. There
was also someone, for a while, who was relentlessly posting a
pair of cherubs to the wall in the bedrooms of members' palace.
I would find the cherubs there at all hours, and eventually began
deleting them (though I liked them) to see when they would return
-- sometimes in as little as 15 minutes! I never did find the
Such behaviors allow people to personalize
the environment for themselves and friends, or perhaps feel some
sense of personal impact or "ownership" by leaving one's "mark"
on the territory.
There are a wide variety of other ways
that people intuitively respond to the spatial qualities of the
rooms, as if they were "real" spaces. People like to "walk" the
path from the Bar to the upstairs hallway - rather than using the
"goto" command to pop right into their destination - because it
feels like a real-world, architectural corridor. At the Spa, members
actually bath in the pool,
adding reflections of their avatars into the water to make the scene
more realistic (perhaps, according to Rorschach inkblot research,
a sign of an introspective personality). Some people frequently
place their avatar at the same specific spot in a room - a favorite
chair, or perch, or perhaps the corner of the screen - almost as
if that spot is their "territory." There seems to be an implicit
norm that the carpet in Harry's Bar is for old-timers who want to
be physically close as a group, while others gather at the periphery
of the room to converse in pairs or occasionally chime in with the
conversation on the carpet. Even the patterns of where people place
their avatars follow familiar principles in group dynamics theory.
Dyads, triads, isolates, alliances, leadership patterns, and fluctuations
in group cohesion are clearly visible. At meetings of the Palace User Group,
the visual format of the room - an auditorium with a stage and neatly
aligned rows of seats - helps create order and structure for the
Palace users are not limited to the
standard background graphics. The creators of Palace intentionally
designed it as a virtual world where users could express themselves
by shaping the environment. At the Member's Only Palace site, people
could create their own room using any background image of their
choice. Cooperative "set-dressing" in these rooms developed into
a complex art form. These custom rooms became the focal points of
friendship subgrouping and cliques. If you are ambitious, you can
create your own Palace site on your own server, which gives you
total control over the look of all the rooms. Each new space -whether
it is a single customized room or a whole new site - will reflect
the personality of its creator and will draw people of similar temperament.
In order to attract people to a site, attempts are made to make
the new environments as psychologically appealing to as many users
as possible. Finchy, an old-timer at the Palace, describes her site,
"In creating the Nest, we thought about
the fact that people love a spatial relationship they can "fit"
into. The rooms are designed with that thought in mind. Our goal
was to create a space where people felt "at home". The Goddess Theater
is considered exceptional by many, as the perspective is highly
unusual. But it works perfectly for groups of participants. Jbum
said `The Finch Nest gets the award for the Palace that is most
habitable, yet Finch-like.'"
From a social psychological perspective,
this flexibility in creating new graphical spaces is resulting in
the formation of separate communities and subgroups within the Palace
"universe." Issues of immigration, territory, recruitment, intergroup
cooperation and competition, loyalty and betrayal are all beginning
to surface in this universe.
Let's Get Physical
The visual and spatial qualities of
Palace lead to something that is not found in text-only environments
on the internet - something that has a subtle, yet profound impact
on socializing. Human interaction feels PHYSICAL. Users have at
their disposal not only words to communicate, but also non-verbal
behavior that can create almost tangible sensations. So far in this
paper, there have been numerous examples of this "physicality."
Blocking or crowding someone's avatar feels like a palpable invasion.
Maneuvering one's av back and forth in synchrony with another creates
the intimate sensation of "dancing." When someone is excited or
agitated, their av may fidget and bounce around the room. Someone
who parades back and forth while displaying fancy props looks and
feels like a strutting peacock. Animated avatars can mimic all sorts
of real and surrealistic movements. While users in IRC may imitate
such non-verbal behaviors with action command descriptions ("Sally
gives Bob a push"), the effect is not the same. Visually SEEING
the behavior has a much greater psychological impact.
A key component of this physical awareness
involves the dynamics of personal space, not unlike face-to-face
relationships. Users instinctively feel that the area on and immediately
around their avatar is THEIR personal zone. Step on it without invitation,
and they quickly ask, then demand you to get off. Persist, and some
people will holler for a wizard to discipline you. If members don't
interpret your behavior as an invasion, they will experience it
as an intimate advance. Simply to move towards and stand next to
someone is seen as an act of friendship, or more. Snuggling
and climbing onto someone's icon ("piggybacking") may convey warm,
sexual, or romantic feelings. They can very subtlety create emotional
bonds. If someone's snuggling goes on for too long, or is not what
you want at all, you may feel restricted, suffocated, and hesitant
to move away for fear of hurting feelings. Right or wrong, other
people may think that you two are an "item." The emotional depth
of these non-verbal behaviors can be quite amazing. As in face-to-face
interactions, they may provide glimpses into underlying feelings
and attitudes that are not being expressed verbally.
After one member read this article,
she told me about one of her incidents with snuggling which she
did not experience as indicating any intimate relationship between
her and the other person. Instead, it simply felt like playful fun
- a kind of "playing to the room" or "public theater." She did add,
though, that snuggling probably won't occur unless there is some
measure of friendship between the participants. It's also interesting
that she clearly remembered this particular incident - which suggests
that it did have an impact on her. Being able to get close visually
("physically") in cyberspace does indeed have a significant psychological
effect on people.
Some avatars are designed specifically
to snuggle, piggyback, or somehow interact with other avatars. One
member, for example, has a pair of upside legs that he inserts down
the cleavages of unsuspecting women, giving the illusion of the
rest of his body being inside their dresses. This typically is a
harmless prank played only on people he knows will enjoy the joke.
The correct response, one female member informed me, is "oooh, that
Evidence of the physicality of the
Palace can be very subtle. Once in a while you will enter a room
where two other users are sitting, motionless. Perhaps their avatars
are next to each other, perhaps not. You speak, they give a minimal
reply, or don't reply at all. It's very hard to shake the feeling
that these people are telepathically linked to each other, especially
if they are sitting side by side. They may indeed be using the private
messaging feature called "whispering." It's very hard to shake the
funny feeling that they are somehow PHYSICALLY connected as a pair,
as if they are sitting together on a couch - and that you are NOT
part of that dyad. Two is company, three's a crowd. Confronted with
this uncomfortable dilemma, most people leave the room very quickly.
Even the simple act of giving someone
a prop can be very meaningful development in a relationship. On
a symbolic level, it is a sign of generosity and friendship (unless
you don't want it, which makes the gift feel like an intrusion or
a manipulation). On a more basic kinesthetic level, the act of "giving"
someone a prop physically joins you to that person. It feels important
because it feels like a tactile connection. Props as objects also
allow you to physically DO something with someone. HoBob and Amber,
for example, joined together in creating a garden
out of flower icons . If you get tired of playing with props, you
can always go for a walk together through the Mansion - what some
members call "cruising the Palace." These kinds of non-verbal, collaborative
activities can solidify a relationship, much like "doing something"
with friends in the real world. It's not just talk, it's a shared
Inside Your Av, or Out
Some multimedia worlds are 3D. Usually
the view also is first person, so you live "inside" your avatar,
looking out into the world much as you do in real life, without
seeing your own avatar (body). You have to move through the graphical
space in order to see other avatars and objects that may be hidden
from view. 3D advocates like the feeling of "immersion" that such
worlds create. You feel like you are really there, in the environment.
Some advocates claim that this 3D living creates heightened emotional
reactions because it mimics the sensory experience of the real world.
Things come towards you, or withdraw. You don't know what's around
the next corner. There is an element not only of realism, but even
The problem with a 3D graphical experience
is that it requires a lot of computing power and speed that cannot
(yet) be handled too well by internet band width. The result may
be a slow, jerky experience that feels disjointed, unreal, and that
jars the brain. Even under ideal conditions, some people don't feel
comfortable with the "head in a box" or "tunnel vision" view of
3D, first-person worlds. Lacking peripheral vision, some people
feel closed in, claustrophobic.
The Palace is a 2D, third person experience.
You look down onto the scene that includes your avatar and everyone
else's avatar. Some people like this transcendent and somewhat paradoxical
experience of being above but also in the scene. You get to see
yourself, the way other people do. You move yourself about in the
environment and then sit back to see what happens. Your perspective
of the scene and what people are saying may seem more "objective."
You may feel more free. There may even be a magical, mystical sensation
to witnessing oneself within the world. Many mystical traditions
emphasize the transcendent awareness that is the "observing self."
The 2D worlds may address an archetypic need for such transcendence.
This observing awareness is paradoxical. It simultaneously exists
within the world and transcends it - a paradox that is manifested
in the 2D virtual setting. Some Palace members take delight in the
objective/subjective fluidity of being in the scene and above it,
at the same time. The avatar appears as an independent entity that
actually is a manifestation of your personality and will. Separate
but connected. It can be like an artistic creation, a self portrait.
It's an "out there" expression of what's inside. "It's me, it's
not me.... it's both."
It's possible that when first person,
3D worlds becomes more sophisticated with the advance of technology,
people will prefer them. On the other hand, some people may always
favor third person, 2D environments. These differences in preference
may reflect differences in cognitive and personality style.
What Lies Ahead
The wonderful, and sometimes frustrating,
thing about computer technology is that it never stands still. Where
are multimedia environments like the Palace headed? What advances
in the world of avatar-populated environments wait for us around
the bend? 3D, morphing, audio/video/tactile/olfactory-enhanced avatars?
Are contemporary multimedia worlds the earliest forerunners of the
Star Trek holodecks?
Gimmicks and flashy features may add some novelty
to the experience. But the most successful advances will stick to
basic rules that has made Palace unique and popular. Give users
the opportunity to express themselves as they wish - to explore
and experiment with their interpersonal identity. Give them the
ability to participate in the creation of their environment. Offer
a world that can stimulate sensations of space, action, and physicality.
It doesn't have to be a world that exactly imitates the "real" world.
In fact, it probably would be better if it didn't. Offer a world
that is an experientially robust alternative. Fantasy can be more
entertaining, educational, and, paradoxically, more "true" or "real"
than the real world.
The following links lead to the subpages of this article that
contain graphics. The text on these pages is identical or very similar
to the text in the article on this page:
Standard Palace Smileys and Props (jpg, 28K)
Real Fave Avatars
Avatars (gif, 22k)
of a Personal Avatar Collection (approx. 120k)
The 1996 Valentine's
Day Party (jpg, 76k)
The Hula Party
The Dating Game
The Avatar "Showoff"
Visual "Magic" with Prop Scripts (jpg, 63k)
The "Flash Light"
Wizard Induction Ceremony (gif, 64k)
A Typical Gathering
in the Chess Room (jpg, 22k)
Bathing in the
Spa Pool (jpg, 25k)
Meetings of the
Palace User Group (jpg images, 90k)
The Garden: An
Example of Collaborative Activity in Using Props (jpg, 49k)