Bonds and bondage

I recently finished a paper on how what we wear in an online space is part of how we bond with others around us, and so virtual clothes are on my mind. Also, because I recently had a steampunk costume birthday party, and everyone looked super cool.

I’ve talked before here about how designing myself in WoW was a bit of an obsessive process while I thought  about how I would fit into the (then unknown) community I was about to join. In Second Life, that process is far more complex because the appearance options are so incredibly vast. It took me months to settle on a shape and skin and preferred outfit for welcoming folks to our little Adamourne on Wells mystery quest.

Why? I’ll tell you.

When I entered SL last year, I did so as a researcher, seeking tools and context to build what I knew was going to be a rather distinctive and closed little world where we would build a game. There was no specific reason this game had to be like any other games in SL (and indeed, it ended up quite different than anything I’ve seen there). But our island – and we ourselves – had to be part of SL, had to communicate through the visuals of avatar appearance and island design that we “get” SL.

That was a big fat lie.

Hundreds of hours went into building and programming our island and quest, including the identification of the “right” clothes and such for researchers. But even though I got pretty good at shopping and scripting exploding objects, I still knew very little about what SL is for its residents.

Sure, I wandered around, read the blogs (and books), talked to some people, clicked some things. But it wasn’t until we started running quest sessions with Real Residents that I finally began to understand what we had created in context.

Kind participants showed me around some other sims (islands), people talked to me about themselves and their lives in SL a little, and reading SL profiles helped a lot. Little by little I was able to place what we had created into SL more broadly, and as a result, we changed a few things here and there. I’ve written before that I upgraded my skin and shape; we also adjusted some of the mechanisms we used, like note cards and hover text, to give people information in more commonly understood ways.

In some ways, I finally became a resident of SL myself, and suddenly saw many things differently.

Among other things, bondage.

SL has thriving communities of many kinds, from fighting cybermen to medieval knights and damsels – also BDSM. Now, I’ve been to BDSM clubs in my wild youth, so I am not totally ignorant of such communities, but I confess I know little. Quite a number of our participants, though, talked comfortably and freely about their participation in those groups in SL. And, even when they wore the collar or explained their role as submissive or dominant or switcher, the people around them hardly seemed to blink a digital eye.

At the next offline party you go to, try mentioning to some strangers that you’re into BDSM. Show them your collar. Watch social adjustments ensue. Offline, BDSM is on the fringe,  at the margins. It is, in many circles, met with shock and probably some distress. But in Second Life…. not so much.

In SL, BDSM isn’t so much fringe as specialized, and clothes/appearance/chat are part of how people communicate their bonds (so to speak) with that community or identity. And, refreshingly, such signals didn’t seem to shock or distress anyone. The more conservatively dressed folks didn’t react at all to the BSDM folks, for example. Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in SL aren’t quite so scandalous as out there in meat-space, it seems.

Belladonna

Belladonna in her steampunk outfit.

So there I am, with my carefully considered new skin and shape and snazzy outfit. And over time, I began to realise that in SL I wasn’t just finding a cool new outfit and hairstyle for me to like, I was (often unknowingly) communicating something about my linkages – or lack thereof – to a complex set of other communities and identities. For example, being steampunk is more than a personal aesthetic, it is a message to other steampunky types that I share something with them. People from New Babbage or Caledon might see me on the (SL) streets and give me a wave as a fellow steampunk.

It’s not a one-to-one thing, here. I could change into a furry or a cyberpunk or a fairy in the blink of that digital eye, and so you never know if someone is dressed for a special occasion (and thus communicating something “unlike” themselves that day) or if they’re in their usual duds. Dressing steampunk for a steampunk event like our quest probably said more about how I fit into that particular space at that particular time than anything else. But even so, like our furry participants who wore steampunk clothes on top of their furry forms, layers of meaning are possible and common.

Knowing what my look was saying to the people around me about who I was, where I spent my time, and what I liked to do took me far longer than I had realised it would.  Only by learning the social nuances of SL (and still, only some of them) could I begin to get a sense of how others might see me, and, perhaps, adjust accordingly to how I wanted them to see me.

Am I a resident of SL now? My dear friend Ezzy would say I’ve jumped ship because it’s been far too long since I’ve spent more than 5 minutes in world. (Sorry Ezzy!! I miss you!) And in some ways, by focusing most of my attention on a single sim (built by us) doesn’t really give me official “resident” status. But I’m learning. I’m beginning to get it.

Now here’s the question. Does this translate to WoW? And if so, how? Things that make you go, “hmmm.”

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One response to “Bonds and bondage

  1. Pingback: Transmogrify Yourself | WoW and Other Musings

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