To me, that’s just another way of saying we are storytellers – trying on characters and living out plots that have something to teach us. Some, if not most, of those roles are assigned, unconscious, or so deeply ingrained that they are accepted as fact. Gender is a perfect example. Until I took a Women’s Studies class in college, it never occurred to me to question the social, economic, sexual, and political issues inherent in being female. The notion that I could have a hand in defining and refining what it means to be a woman was both empowering and disconcerting.
Likewise, I was in for quite a shock when I took a job working for a major corporation in Japan. After two years I was pulled aside and told the company was letting me go. The reason? The qualities I’d worked so hard to cultivate back in my Women’s Studies courses (assertiveness, direct and honest communication, and the ability to state my opinions clearly) were perceived as rude and unprofessional by my Japanese colleagues. Or as my Japanese supervisor put it, “You have a bad personality for a woman.”
I had to laugh. The message was clear. Who I am is not defined by my race, nationality, gender, job description or even the role I am currently playing. There is an “I” that transcends and informs any role I adopt.
Now don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that all roles should be discarded or that some lessons shouldn’t take a lifetime. For example, I am still deeply engaged in the challenges of being the daughter of an aging parent. However, I do believe that the more we are aware of the roles and lessons we are trying to learn, the quicker we will get them and the more fulfilling our lives can become.
Which brings me to what is so exciting about trying on characters and living out stories as avatars in 3D virtual space. While it is certainly true that you are still your “self,” no matter what kind of avatar you choose, how others respond to you varies greatly based on the look and feel of that avatar. And of course how others perceive and react to you will help determine what kind of virtual life you lead. I’ve lost track, for example, of the number of men who have told me they thought it would be fun to don a female avatar, only to discover they hated how they were treated.
I like to say that my first avatar empowered me to be fully me. I chose everything about Jenaia – from her rather sweet beauty and love of poetry to her desire to help others – to reflect what I like most about my “self.” It was only when that self was betrayed that it occurred to me to “try on” another role.
The character I chose for my second avatar was meant to be my protector. With her bitingly blunt wit she was quick to discourage social games – something Jenaia tolerated because she didn’t like confrontation – and was more than willing to be rude to make a point. The name I chose for this new expression of “me” means little lioness, and I gave her wild, curly hair and sharp verbal claws to back it up.
The people this second avatar attracted were a completely different sort from those who call Jenaia friend, and the two avatars led distinctly different lives. Over time, however, I found that some of the lion’s forthright honesty found its way back to Jenaia, and that it wasn’t always necessary to keep my virtual claws sharpened to defend myself. The six months I spent as a lion also gave me time to heal – to reflect on my lessons and come back to Jenaia with a renewed sense of purpose and strength.
There are those, I know, who believe that being an avatar is a way to avoid or hide from “real” life. I would argue that all lives are “real,” whether they are lived in physical or virtual space. Each avatar’s life is improvisational theater – a chance to adopt a role, delve into, act out, and thoroughly come to terms with some aspect of being human. The fact that we can now share and co-create our stories in virtual space only makes the possibilities more intriguing.