Volume 3, Issue 2
2nd Quarter, 2008

The Rights of Avatars

Dr. William Sims Bainbridge

This article was adapted from a lecture given by William Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D. during the 3rd Annual Colloquium on the Law of Transbeman Persons, December 10, 2007, at the Florida Space Coast Office of Terasem Movement, Inc.

Dr. Bainbridge playfully discusses his research on the rights, rules, and obligations of avatars within several 3-dimensional, virtual environments (each operating on different social planes), and how they may relate to future biological or robotic avatars.

In future, computer generated avatars will be able to take on more and more of the characteristics of their owners, until some will be second selves capable of sustaining at least some of the person's values, thoughts and actions even after death. One way to think about the future social context for such avatars is to look at avatars today, with special attention to the technical and organizational constraints that currently limit their rights. As we begin to think through such issues, we will need to develop new terminology, and we certainly do not yet have a full or correct set of words with which to communicate about them. I have suggested that we call computer duplicates of people cyclones - cybernetic clones - in full awareness that the term has contradictory connotations. A clone is an exact copy, but a meteorological cyclone is a whirlwind that constantly changes its form. This paradox expresses my own guess about our future: We will find ways to live on after the deaths of our bodies, but in ways that entail self-transformation, multiple expressions, and creatively recrafting one's self.

Avatars, Characters, Identities

Personal creativity today can mean creatively revising your own personality. At times, I am Maxrohn, the level-70 priest of the Holy Light, member of the Alliance, who is also maxed out in both herbalism and alchemy. Figure 1 shows him inside Northridge Abbey. As you can see from the symbol of the rising dragon on his tabard, he is a member of the Winged Ascension guild in World of Warcraft. WoW is the most popular massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG), which has roughly 10,000,000 subscribers, 20 times that of the previous record, which suggests we may be at a watershed in a social as well as technological sense. Characters in WoW begin with an experience level of 1, and laboriously work their way up to 70, typically taking about 500 hours to do so, and level 70 avatars are proud of their achievement.

Figure 1: Maxrohn, a High-Level Avatar of the Author

To some extent, Maxrohn and I are the same person, but we also have our differences. He is a little more pessimistic than I, although both of us are rather old and worn out. He is able to cast a protective spell around himself, kill monsters with a magic wand, and resurrect deceased members of his team without help from any deity. I lack all those abilities. He lacks my abilities in social science and computer programming. His name actually derives from my uncle, Max Rohn, an Episcopal Priest who died a number of years ago, and who had some of the qualities of an adventurer. So, to some small degree, he reflects my uncle as well as myself.

Some writers about avatars assume that users consider them to be very direct representatives of themselves in a virtual world, but my observation suggests the widest possible range of connections between the biological person and the electronic person, only occasionally fulfilling the definition of second self. [1] For example in years of watching my two daughters play Nintendo games, I never saw them conceptualize themselves as fat Italian plumbers with blue pants and black moustaches. No, Mario was their friend, toy, pet, or puppet, not their selves.

Many people have multiple avatars, and at the moment I happen to have 24. Of these, 21 are World of Warcraft characters, distributed across two user accounts and six Internet servers, and one each in Second Life, There, and Entropia. I have so many World of Warcraft characters, because I am just finishing a book based on 2,000 hours of participant observation in WoW, and a great variety of characters allowed me to investigate every so-called race, class, profession, faction, zone, and type of realm, In varying degrees, the characters took on different personalities, as well. Figure 2 shows Alberich the Dwarf hunter and Stephie the Gnome warlock, killing wild beasts together across the snows of Dun Morogh. My wife Marcia originally created Stephie, naming her after a younger sister, and I named Alberich after a character from Richard Wagner's Ring operas, so each of them takes on characteristics from other people, as well as some from me.

Figure 2: Alberich and Stephie, Avatars of the Author

Perhaps my most fully developed WoW character is Catullus, level 70 Blood Elf priest, shown in Figure 3. I named him after the ancient Roman poet, Catullus, whose works I read in the original Latin half a century ago. My image of Catullus was shaped not only by his own writings, but also by my Latin teacher, Charles P. Twichell, and by the cantata, Catulli Carmina by the German composer Carl Orff, which portrays Catullus as a disillusioned romantic. I think of Blood Elves very much in terms of ancient Rome, a society very proud of its technology and organization, but corrupt on many levels, simultaneously intellectually brilliant and intensely hedonistic. In other ways, Catullus is a younger version of Maxrohn and myself, more vigorous, more aggressive, and very quick witted. Yes, he is a reflection of myself, but also of these other influences as channeled through my perception of them.

Figure 3: Catullus, another High-Level Avatar of the Author

A final example from World of Warcraft is my Night Elf priestess, Lunette, shown in Figure 4. Many players, and some social scientists, assume that creating an avatar belonging to the opposite gender is tremendously significant, almost certainly expressing gender ambivalence if not full-blown gender reassignment wishes. [2] Anything may be true in particular examples, but these assumptions are false much of the time. My daughters were not male when they played Mario, and I am not female when I play Lunette. She is female, and I have that in mind when working with her, but that is only one part of her identity. Other parts are probably more important in marking differences between us.

Lunette is a devout believer in the moon goddess, Elune, whereas I am not religious at all. As it happens, one of my own first cousins, Donate Pahnke, is an actual believer in the lunar goddess, whom she calls Selene, thereby verifying that Lunette's beliefs are credible to sophisticated human beings - even if I myself do not believe in them. [3] Lunette's personality overlaps mine in some respects, but both Maxrohn and Catullus are closer to me. She's a little crabbier than I am. She is not as even-tempered, a little bit solemn, and - so I imagine - a little bit more obsessed with order and clarity.

Figure 4: Lunette of the Night Elves, Avatar of the Author

My first experience in Second Life, a non-game online virtual world, was not through an avatar, but as myself, shown in Figure 5. I gave a keynote speech at the annual meetings of the World Transhumanist Association in Helsinki, Finland, a conference that was supplemented with a meeting space in Second Life. Avatars of people who could not attend in person could gather and discuss Transhumanism, while watching a video of me and a separate projection of my PowerPoint presentation inside the virtual world. Is that guy me? Anyone giving a lecture takes on a special role, using different words, tones of voice, and gestures, than in ordinary life. Given the venue, and the criticisms Transhumanists have suffered from conservatives, I ask myself, "Am I really a Transhumanist?" As my conference talk suggested, I am actually more radical than most Transhumanists, rather than less, believing that compromise between religion and science is impossible, and scientists need to sharpen their swords.

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1. Sherry Turkle, The Second Self: Computers and the Human Spirit (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1984); Edward Castronova, Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).

2. Tom Boellstorff, Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

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