Sunday, October 3, 2010

Social Stratification and Virtual Worlds

A beggar on the Brazilian Island in Second Life. He approaches other avatars asking for one Linden Dollar. He dresses as the beggars and street kids in Rio de Janeiro do.

Virtual worlds operate according to two levels of meaning, simulation and representation:

1. Simulation
Is the imitation of some real thing, state of affairs, or process. The act of simulating something generally entails representing certain key characteristics or behaviors of a selected physical or abstract system.

Virtual Guantanamo
A simulation of the United States military detention center in Cuba within the virtual online world of Second Life.

2. Representation
To represent is "to bring to mind by description," also "to symbolize, to be the embodiment of;" from O.Fr. representer (12c.), from L. repraesentare, from re-, intensive prefix, + praesentare "to present," lit. "to place before".

A representation is a type of recording in which the sensory information about a physical object is described in a medium. The degree to which an artistic representation resembles the object it represents is a function of resolution and does not bear on the denotation of the word. For example, both the Mona Lisa and a child's crayon drawing of Lisa del Giocondo would be considered representational, and any preference for one over the other would need to be understood as a matter of aesthetics.

Representation describes the signs that stand in for and take the place of something else. It is through representation people know and understand the world and reality through the act of naming it. Signs are manipulated in order to make sense of the world.

Macbeth in Second Life - Final Edit: A Virtual Study
A machinima, built, acted, animated and recorded in Second Life by Digital Communications and Media students at NYU McGhee. A Fall 07 class project of "Machinima - filmmaking in Second Life" developed and taught by Mechthild Schmidt. The film Macbeth in Second Life involves representation, including multiple references to the play Macbeth by William Shakespeare.

Story telling and most other activity in virtual worlds relies on some form of narrative. Representation is at the center of narrative, whereby something stands for something else.

For many philosophers, both ancient and modern, man is regarded as the "representational animal" or homo symbolicum, the creature whose distinct character is the creation and the manipulation of signs – things that "stand for" or "take the place of" something else.

Representation has been associated with aesthetics (art) and semiotics (signs). Mitchell says "representation is an extremely elastic notion, which extends all the way from a stone representing a man to a novel representing the day in the life of several Dubliners".

"Signatures of all things I am here to read, seaspawn and seawrack, the nearing tide, that rusty boot. Snotgreen, bluesilver, rust: coloured signs. Limits of the diaphane." James Joyce, Ulysses
The term representation carries a range of meanings and interpretations. In literary theory representation is commonly defined in three ways.

1. To look like or resemble
2. To stand in for something or someone
3. To present a second time to re-present

In virtual worlds the role of participation has been added to simulation and representation as part of the signifying elements. It is possible in virtual worlds to enact financial transactions, to attend religious rituals, to engage in sexual acts, to build and create things, and of course to communicate with other people. In the movements between simulation, representation and participation, a very large number of cultural and social references are made. Included in these references are aspects of social stratification, or class.

In relation to virtual worlds Class is relevant first in terms of who has access. One quarter of the world's population cannot get electricity, so an online virtual world is the stuff of science fiction for many. Even those that do have electricity often have very limited access to the net:

Internet Traffic Flows 2005. You will notice the channels for the Net run from East to West not from North to South. Access to the Internet is a matter of Class on a global scale.

Age is a particularly important factor in the virtual worlds. Most of the users of virtual worlds are today under 15 years of age.

It is estimated that there are over one billion registered accounts in virtual worlds today.

What is much more interesting from the perspectives of representation, simulation and participation is what these users are doing in virtual worlds. Each virtual world is a microcosm of social and cultural meaning. Like a shopping mall or a night club, a virtual world is where people perform and participate in social rituals and engage in communication. Identity is negotiated in virtual worlds. This includes class and gender identities.

An Australian filmmaker produced a video asking MMORPG (Massive MultiPlayer Online Role-Playing Games) users to discuss their gender-bending behavior in the online world. His video received 993 responses (far more than most of the related surveys conducted up to that point) relaying users’ personal experiences in gender-switching. The responses were incredibly varied, but many males admitted to playing females, and often offered one of two similar motivations:

“Well as for me, I like playing as a girl because looking at the back side of a woman for 12 or more hours is nicer then looking at a dude for that long.”

“I chose to make my character female because they seem to have some more perks. Free stuff and being treated more kindly.”

Some admitted to playing female avatars with a twinge of self-consciousness. Others clarified that "While I do sometimes play female toons, I'm up front about player gender." These respondents seemed to acknowledge, on some level, a moral complexity within the act of gender-switching. Perhaps this moral complexity arises from the reality that many users feel strong emotional attachments within virtual communities. As Julian Dibbell writes in his article “A Rape in Cyberspace,” "...What happens inside a MUD-made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true." Gamers and Second Life users know this fact better than anyone.
Social and economic Class take on global dimension in virtual worlds. If we take Second Life for example the majority of signifiers in the virtual world present an elite vision of society. Avatars dress in designer labels, houses are large, cars are all expensive models.

The Villa Piazza was designed by Style Jackson to be an Italian Palace, of the kind seen off the Amalfi Coast or on the island of Capri. From June, 1007 through May, 2008 it served as the key building for Eddi Haskell's Eddiland estate which spanned over 2 1/2 sims. The music is Resphigi's Pines of Rome. Faith Maxwell sculptures can be seen in the outside sculpture garden.

The home of rap star 50 Cent as featured on MTV Cribs

The representation of class is not so stratified in Second Life. Poverty, like old age, disease and ugliness, is not a general feature of a social world such as Second Life. In game virtual worlds such as World of Warcraft or Runescape social class is programmed into the game. The statement by a Runescape resident on income and money in the virtual world is one example of this;
i have massive drop partys where i drop like 120k of rune and stuff just for fun of makin people happy. ive never had more than even 400k i only got 378k before and still drop 100k on some drops.its not fun when people lvl 23 that cant lvl for beans say i have a phat so i own u noob.
im like wtf?u own me? im lvl 71 noob!ur lvl 23! and then they go to bank and put it on talkin about AHAHAHA im rich and ur a poor noob…
then ur all like ‘huh?’ ‘im the noob??? are u sure????’and they go showing off sayin ‘i could own every1 in this room’

In each of these examples a single class culture based on capital accumulation and commodification is being referenced. The extent to which this culture is predominant in virtual worlds is illustrated by the virtual world for children, Club Penguin and how it rewards participation.

"Always wanted to be rich on Club Penguin? This page has club penguin cheats and tutorials to help you become rich on Club Penguin, so that you can buy those clothes, or decorate your igloo the way you want to. Press Control + F on your keyboard to find the game you need. Comment this page if you know any other club penguin coin cheats."

How to get rich on Club Penguin in minutes!

The culture that is referenced in each of these examples taken from virtual worlds is one centered on what sociologist Raewyn Connell describes in Southern Theory: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science as the global north or the metropole:

"The enormous spectrum of human history that the sociologists took as their domain was organised by a central idea: difference between the civilisation of the metropole and other cultures whose main feature was their primitiveness. I will call this the idea of global difference. Presented in many different forms, this contrast pervades the sociology of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries."

Southern Theory: The global dynamics of knowledge in social science by Raewyn Connell

Virtual worlds are a form of knowledge production. As representative, simulative and participatory media, virtual worlds inform people about the world and create images of it. When we consider that the majority of virtual world users are under 20 years of age, we are yet to see the results of this on the large scale formation of culture and society.

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