Thursday, September 22, 2011

Place and Identity in the Digital Arena (Virtual World and Digital Literature)

"Place is experienced space (Malpas, 1999; Tuan & Mercure, 2004). It is what happens when geographic space takes on meaning of any sort—as an object of memory, desire,or fear. Place can be produced through happenstance (the space of a first kiss), through narrative (the space of childhood that is persistently articulated with story), through familiarity (the space one lives each day),or through representation (the space of art or advertising). This identification with place is an important method of organizing personal experience and social actions." - Using Virtual Worlds to Foster Civic Engagement, Eric Gordon and Gene Koo p206

Place is more than just a name. Place gives identity and meaning to space. Places are marked out and organized according to class, gender, history, power, politics, knowledge, nationality, memory, desire, narrative, and conflict. It is relatively easy to think of a place that has special or specific meaning and then question why it is different from another, perhaps very similar place.

In digital media place takes on a new level of significance in narrative. Place often determines identity in digitally media narratives. Consider the most famous computer games, where location directs action.

World of Warcraft relies on places to order the flow of play. Raids are conducted over boundaries between places. Places take on specific characteristics to enhance play and contextualize characters and action.

It is different in Counter-Strike. Distances, heights and fields of view are that much more meaningful here. Meaningful largely through the functionality of my weapons, to be sure. Still, a variety of tactical behaviours is possible. The spatial structures can be appropriated in different ways. But again, the look of the buildings is largely irrelevant. I learn the valuable properties of places via multiple repeated attempts.

Façade

A "one act interactive drama" where "A couple, Grace and Trip, hosts the player in their apartment for cocktails and proceeds to have a relationship breakdown. Using full typed sentences the player can coach them through their troubles or drive them to be more distant from each other." Facade as a narrative work relies on the representation of place and identity (specifically gender and class) to present a story. In Façade place and gender are combined in the bar and the lounge areas of the three-dimensional apartment that makes up the work. The bar is associated with the male character Trip, and the lounge is given female characteristics though an alignment with Grace. Each character retreats or is drawn into their respective areas in the conflicts of the narrative, often calling for the guest/reader to join them. The objects that are located in the respective areas also function to prompt the reader in responding to the narrative according to associations between gender and place. A painting or a piece of furniture prompts dialogue from the characters to address the reader according to gendered themes in narrative. With the structures provided by the characters and their respective places in the narrative, the reader is restricted to a set number of responses according to gender. In this way the characters and the places they occupy establish the directions for narrative development in Façade.

The relationship between Trip and Grace is composed of stereotypical gender roles and the portrayal of their professional versus private lives. Trip and Grace’s marriage is defined in narrative according to Trip as the stronger and more powerful partner while Grace struggles against being submissive. This, in turn, translates into one character having greater agency where Trip dominates compared to Grace. Many of these conflicts are played out in the narrative in relation to the places depicted in the work. For example, during the evening, he chooses the wine and fixes the drinks. In negotiating the bar and serving the drinks, Grace asks the guest, “Jim, how about something simple, like a nice glass of chardonnay?” only to receive the reply from Trip, “Yeah, no, we need to open this wine! Our friend is here, we're going to enjoy ourselves, that's all there is to it! GRACE: (frustrated sigh)” (Façade). Grace, as representing a narrative direction, is denied agency, in that she is unable to choose her own drink, and once again fails to find her own voice in the dialogue with Trip. As a result the reader is left with the narrative direction initiated by Trip as the only way forward for the story.

The bar area is identified with Trip as part of the gendered structure of the places in Façade. Trip occupies and controls the bar, and he refers to it numerous times with statements that assert a sense of competitive and aggressive pride,

TRIP Oh, yeah, uh, I'm gonna fix us some drinks in a sec! TRIP Ah, you need to help me break in my expensive new set of cocktail making accessories. JIM: cocktails? I love cocktails TRIP: Yeah, hang on, ooh, I'm going to make you one of my fabulous drinks in just a minute, heh! (Façade)

The bar is a masculinized place in Façade by virtue of Trip’s dominance of it, as it is only there that he can display his power and status,

TRIP. Y -- yeah, uh, we need drinks! JIM: large drinks TRIP: This is great... -- (interrupted) TRIP: W -- well, uh, I'm going to open an exquisite Bordeaux! TRIP: Best of the best, you can't buy this in stores. Very, very special - GRACE: God Trip, you are such a wine snob. Just like my dad. (Façade)

The comparison between Trip and Grace’s wealthy father is part of the masculine and authoritative narrative qualities assigned to the bar. Readings are set up according to the power and status implied by the exclusive wine offered by Trip. The alcohol is presented in contrast to the tastes of Grace, who is parodied and humiliated in the contexts of the bar. This humiliation is demonstrated in exchanges such as, “TRIP: Why don't I make us one of my new drink inventions, TRIP: I call it Grace's Inner Soul. TRIP: It's a mixture of chardonnay, bitters and lots of ice” (Façade). Grace is contrasted to the social prestige associated with the bar in relation to Trip.

The bar area functions as support for Trip, which confines the reader to a single male perspective. A picture of the Italian countryside, from a holiday that Trip references as a “second honeymoon” (Façade) is beside the bar, and he draws attention,

TRIP: Oh, Jim, I thought you might like this photo I just put up from our recent trip to Italy. JIM: thanks GRACE: Uhh, it's a beautiful picture of the Italian countryside, of course he'll like it! (Grace sips her Grace's drink.) TRIP: Grace, I know you don't like it, but our friend might. GRACE: By the way, anybody, join me on the couch if you like. (Façade)

If the guest joins Grace on the couch the narrative themes connected to her and prompted by the objects, decorations and art that surround are moved into the centre of dialogue. A move to the lounge by the guest/reader shifts the progression of narrative away from the perspectives of Trip and towards those of Grace. If Trip is not at the bar and instead moves closer to the couch and Grace, the overall narrative moves to center more on the concerns of Grace and eventually on both characters. The two places in the apartment, the lounge and the bar are actually extensions of the characters Grace and Trip as far as narrative is concerned.

From these place-based narrative exchanges identity converges for each of the characters. The reader/guest establishes perspective regarding the characters and the 'best' ways to address them as identities considering the contexts of dialogue.

"There is no self that is prior to the convergence or who maintains 'integrity' prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field. There is only the taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ’taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there”. - Judith Butler (1990 145)

This is a still image of my avatar in Second Life. It has no biological sex, no genitals or DNA that identifies it according to a scientific standard as male. However, it is consistently referred to by myself and others as 'he' or 'him' and the things it owns as 'his'. Visually, this avatar presents as male and the above image illustrates this 'maleness' in a contemporary style. The business suit, hair style and physical features indicate to me a form of 'soft masculinity', with influence from some of the androgynous gender tropes from popular culture. Lack of facial hair, long eye lashes, large eyes, longish hair style, slight build that lacks developed muscle definition, and thin hips add to the androgyny of the avatar. The image of the avatar is not suffused with sexual imagery and the erotic zones of the body are not emphasized in gender specific ways. The lips are one area of the body that can carry erotic connotation in particular cultures (both male and female) and these are somewhat emphasized with the avatar. The soft masculinity of the avatar can be related to a larger masculine culture in East Asia, where male bodies are represented without excessive muscles or hair and attention is paid to cosmetics and appearance preparation. This video is an example of such a soft masculinity:

South Korean idol boy band, Dong Bang Shin Ki singing Under My Skin in 2008, (Notice the avatar-like flying of some of the characters) Further analysis of this video and "mu-kuk-jok 'soft masculinity'" is HERE
"Feminist geographers often consider the body as a place, a “location or site . . . of the individual”(McDowell,1999). Judith Butler (1990) developed the influential concept of“performativity,”regarding gender identities as a performance in the “stylized repetition ofacts.”To Butler,being a woman is not a natural fact but “a cultural performance [in which] ‘naturalness’ [is] constituted through discursively constrained performative acts that produce the body through and within the categories of sex”(cited in McDowell, 1999,p.54)." Bardzell and Odom The Slave's Body as a Place p252

Apart from the visual appearance of the avatar in regards to gender and sexuality there is also the concept of performing gender. My avatar performs as a predominantly heterosexual identity in Second Life. While stereotyping plays a large role in the performance of heterosexuality masculinity, the attributes of my own avatar that indicates a predominately hetero-orientation can be the same that indicate androgyny; lack of overt sexualized physical attributes, a gender-neutral physical stance and movements, and the absence of queer, bi or gay (HTB) symbols in reference to what is considered the so-called 'default sexuality' (i.e. heteronormativity).

I presented my avatar to some students recently as "fairly standard in regards to gender" and it was only while thinking about it further today that I understood what this can mean. The opening quote, "There is only the taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ’taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there” from Judith Butler is very much about the components of gender performance. When we work in virtual worlds we operate under the same rules to which Butler refers. What is available is what people can use to identify socially with gender and sexuality. Agency emerges from this range of possibilities according to what is tolerated, permitted and encouraged in the "conflicted cultural field"..

The avatar above references symbols of soft-masculine power in the suit, formal qualities (expensive clothes, neck tie) and attention to appearance. These factors ally power with economic wealth in the formation of identity. These qualities are surprisingly similar to many of the images from the video of the South Korean pop band. The role of my avatar in my job influences the references and values I represent within it. I have attempted to build connections between agency and power in my avatar by referencing formal qualities in male contexts. The technological aspects of my job can be related to the East Asian cultural reference where a stereotype of a technical mediated identity is common. I also think about Science Fiction novels, especially those by William Gibson, and the ways they portray East Asia as a digital society where gender-ambiguous figures move freely in information spaces.

Background Commentary

In performing the above reading I considered the following:

- Performativity: We have talked about gender being created performatively by our everyday practices. In this sense the practice of creating avatars is part of the process of creating gender. So how do the avatars (re)produce gender stereotypes? How do they exceed them?

- Representations of gender and sexuality: as both representing what is not present (the avatar representing 'me' in SL, the avatar's gender representing cultural notions/norms of gender such as the heteronormative), and as actually creating/being what is thus represented (and never just 'mirroring' the student, or cultural notions/norms). So, what do the avatars create when it comes to gender/sexuality? What do they think of the potential political power behind this kinds of representations? Do you think about the looks of the avatar's as being feminist in any sense? If so - how?

- The Butler quote: "There is only the taking up of the tools where they lie, where the very ’taking up’ is enabled by the tool lying there”. This is somewhat difficult to grasp, but virtual worlds are good examples in order to illustrate it, since "the tools" (for performed gender for example) are on the one hand per-determined by the architecture of the computer program, and on the other hand, as is the case with Second Life the tools for the manipulation of gender imagery and performance are many.

- Agency: The above also relates to agency, and having a choice (although always conditioned by the "convergence or who maintains 'integrity' prior to its entrance into this conflicted cultural field").

- Gender is said to be the prime thing in people's identifications and in identifications of others. So what choices are made in relation to identify and identification in the construction of the avatar? Initially it is necessary to decide whether the avatar is male or female (which is of course an interesting thing in itself). Why does one choose the avatar's gender as the same as my own? Why does one choose an oppositional gender? In relation to becoming a subject occurring in relation to subjecting oneself to different norms (for example gender norms). In a virtual environment simulations of gender performance can be experimented with. My avatar is not specifically incomprehensible and this is a result of reference to standard contemporary gender norms .

For further references to avatars, agency and the representation and performance of Self see HERE.

"Donna Leishman’s “Red Ridinghood” is an interactive story and a prime example of electronic literature. The viewer has to click on certain objects within the scene in order to make the story progress resulting in interaction. While at one point the viewer is offered two choices to click, both routes end up leading to the same ending. This type of story can be mistakenly labeled as a ‘game’ meaning that the viewer actually has the ability to change the outcome of the story line. Yet “Red Ridinghood” does not actually offer the reader to choose the ending of the story, it simply allows them to become an essential part of the story. Thus the literary aspect is kept in tact, the viewer is allowed a sense of control over the story, but is ultimately not able to change the plot in any way. This element of interactivity with the story is makes “Red Riding Hood” an example of how an interactive story can still be literature and not art or even an online game. The narrative cannot be completed without an outside force, in this case the reader clicking through the passages. The narrative itself is also something that can only be produced on an electronic level. It is made up of pictures and sounds rather then words. While Little Red Riding Hood is a common story, the illustrations put a new twist on it, making it a new urbanized fairy tale that doesn’t adhere exactly to the original plot line."

Place plays a significant role in the establishment of Red as a characte both in terms of the depicted body and the locations it occupies:

"Red and Wolf are two deeply intertwined characters acting out in this story. Red's perspective is one of compromised authenticity; so much of the background storyline is acted out through her dreams (or written in her diary) that it is hard to know how her evident inner turmoil has skewed the Wolf's character. Leishman excels in bringing to life the complex inner workings of a young woman, particularly through the view of Red's bedroom. Who is Red? What are her mental fabrications and what is fact? These are questions that the author begs us to raise with this scene." - A Peak into the Bedroom

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