Identity Tourism in Second Life

In the interview, “The Freeform Identity Bebop of Eboni Khan,” one of our class readings, a woman discusses her experiences as a member of the virtual world, Second Life. Second Life is exactly as its name implies. It is an online world where users create avatars that interact with other avatars. Users engage in an online life that is lived through their characters, but controlled by the users themselves. Essentially, the childhood game of playing ‘house’ is given an advanced digital interface. I believe that Second Life is an example of identity tourism, a term that Lisa Nakamura coined in her essay, “Cybertyping and the Work of Race in the Age of Digital Reproduction”. In addition, Second Life is also an example of the lack of positive black portrayals in online games.

Identity tourism refers to the act of adopting an online or video game identity that is alternative to the user’s real life identity, particularly in race or gender, and in a stereotypical manner. Second Life is, in itself, a form of identity tourism. It advertises the freedom to shop, go to work, connect with others, and even fall in love. As shown in its introductory video, it also outlines that it is place for you to be different, and for you to be yourself. However, all in all, it allows you to experiment with living another life that does not reflect your real life. It allows you to virtually become any race or gender.

This interview effectively calls into question whether identity tourism is manifested in a primarily negative or positive way within the context of Second Life. Eboni Khan asserted that she chose to play with a character that physically mirrored herself because this choice reinforced her confidence in her own skin. However, she acknowledged that many other users do not. She especially noted that often, black women such as herself, do not choose to create avatars with skin tones that match their own. As well, when users adopt black avatars they often place them in the roles of thugs, rather than in everyday respectable roles, such as a teacher. All of these instances of identity tourism demonstrate some of the problems with it. It illustrates the reoccurring issue of stereotyped portrayals of black men and women, and it looks at the discomfort people seem to have with playing characters of darker skin tones. However, it is the users who create the negative connotations of this game, for it is their responsibility to represent themselves through their avatars in conscious manners.


1 Comment

  1. “Second Life” makes a very interesting case study–like “The Sims,” it has no set of objectives, no final goal, no direct competitions. Is it even a game?
    But to address rcl12’s post more directly, Second Life makes a point out of allowing the users to determine what they want to bring into or leave out of the game (we’ll call it a game, for now). Eboni Khan chose to deliberately address her racial identity, and Linden Lab (the company that makes Second Life) gave her the tools to do so. And some wanted to avoid the issue, or go for simple stereotypes; it gave them the tools for that too. It’s a very laissez-faire (hands-off) approach to social game design. At the same time, technology is not neutral, and our applications of it are always culturally situated. Eboni Khan presents a very different case than always_black–rather than turn another player’s use of a racial epithet into a personal narrative of good and evil, she created a role as event hostess. Both shaped their actions based on their conception of the game.

    Sidenote: it’s interesting that the article immediately begins by trying to categorize Eboni Khan, or rather the she transcends categorization: she is presented as “a Black Republican Buddhist Fortune 1000 executive.”

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