Thursday, March 12, 2009

Get a (Second) Life! Part II: Identity as Escapism

It seems strange to articulate, but we use identity as an escapist tool. That is to say we use virtual identities as a tool to escape our real lives. But how is this possible? How can we escape ourselves by…being ourselves?

By now we’re all familiar with the idea of
multiple identities. Is it so difficult to believe, then, that we can use one identity to escape the constraints of another?

Second Life provides an excellent example of how Internet users can adopt identities as a form of escapism or fun in order to take a break from the daily grind. Let’s take a look at an example.

The irascible
Dwight Schrute (Rainn Wilson) on NBC’s The Office is one of those characters you’d imagine is firmly grounded in physical reality. His obsession with beets and his refusal to show any kind of imagination in most circumstances cements his portrayal as a staid—albeit quirky—character.

A seeming contradiction is in his enjoyment of Second Life. He describes it like this:
Second Life is not a game. It’s a multi-user virtual environment. It doesn’t have points or scores. It doesn’t have winners or losers. […] I signed up for Second Life about a year ago. Back then my life was so great that I literally wanted a second one. In my second life, I was also a paper salesman, and I was also named Dwight. Absolutely everything was the same. Except I could fly.
As we can see, his lack of imagination extends to the virtual world, but having a Second Life avatar implies some degree of creativity. His ability to fly in Second Life is one example of this. Another example is in his ability to find amusement without competition.

His colleage,
Jim Halpert (John Krasinski), is another story. While he denies any enjoyment in Second Life at all, he obviously spent a lot of time on his avatar and gave it hobbies and employment that he would like to have in an ideal world. In Second Life, his imagination has fewer constraints, and he can explore (in a limited way) what it’s like to be the person he always wanted to be.

Let's take a look:

In a way, both remove themselves from reality by mediating their identities. While Dwight’s virtual identity is very similar to his real-life one, that doesn’t make it any less escapist. He can still escape consequences of certain actions, physical constraints such as the need for food and shelter, and to some extent the emotional complications inherent in physical interactions. Jim more obviously escapes his dead-end job by projecting his desires onto his virtual avatar.

In true Office fashion, Dwight invents a virtual environment within the virtual environment, which he calls "Second Second Life." Presumably for those people who want to be even further removed from reality.

It would be funny if it weren’t so damn true.

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