Imagine you never aged, could shed pounds of cellulite, or put on muscle mass at the touch of a button. Think about never having a bad-hair day, expressing an involuntary grimace, or getting caught staring. Think also about a world with no putrid smells but plenty of delightful ones, when it rains only when you are inside, and where global warming is actually just a myth. In this world, your great-grandfather is still around and can play catch with your six- year-old daughter. There is no dental drill or swine flu in this place. But there are consequences to people occupying idealized digital worlds.
This quandary is thematic in James Cameron’s film Avatar, which took in more money than any prior film in United States history. In it, Jake Sully, a paraplegic soldier confined to a wheelchair, dons a virtual body of a member of another species, the Na’vi, on a distant planet. With avatar arms and legs, as well as a tail, he runs through jungles and swings through trees. He even falls in love.
On one hand, Avatar depicts many wonderful aspects of virtual reality. In the natural world, physically disadvantaged people are denied many behaviors that most take for granted. In the virtual world, people can choose whether their avatars have fully functioning bodies, regardless of their physical condition. One of the most popular virtual worlds, Second Life, has a higher proportion of physically challenged users than the general population, allowing them to shed any stigmatization they experience in the physical world.
Paraplegics can not only walk and run again, but actually can fly through the air or teleport themselves thousands of (virtual) miles in an instant. On the other hand, Jake learns that wearing his Na’vi avatar has emotional consequences. He is a human being at the beginning of the movie, but as he spends more and more time wearing his giant blue alien avatar, he loses his humanity. By the end of the film, Jake’s psychological bond with his avatar is so strong that he abandons his ties to the human race. Avatar’s fiction is supported by science: dozens of psychological experiments have shown that people change after spending even small amounts of time wearing an avatar. A taller avatar increases people’s confidence, and this boost persists later in the physical world.
Similarly, a more attractive avatar makes people act warm and social, an older avatar raises people’s concern about saving money, and a physically fit avatar makes people exercise more. Outside of scientific laboratories, avatars can be a matter of life or death. On the positive side, an avatar can be immortal. Consider the case of Orville Redenbacher, who is still the spokesperson for the popcorn company, even though he passed away years back. Using video footage from commercials starring Mr. Redenbacher, advertisers were able to construct a digital model that looks just like him and can be animated to perform any action imaginable. So the popular spokesperson is now “acting” in new advertisements from beyond the grave. There are commercial services today that will “immortalize” anyone who would like their avatars created and stored.
On the negative side, avatars can be sources of trauma. Consider the horrific case of a thirteen-year-old girl who committed suicide when she found out the “boy” with whom she interacted online wasn’t who she thought he was. He was a fictional character created by others, who planned to hurt her feelings. She formed a strong attachment to the online persona. When she discovered he was fictional, she was devastated. In a less tragic but still disturbing event, in the early days of the Internet, there was a well-known rape case in cyberspace, in which one online user, via text, violated another in a virtual chat room. The victim, while physically unharmed, was traumatized. Avatars also have the distinction of being completely anonymous but inherently “trackable.”
One can wear an avatar of any gender, age, race, species, or shape, and via the avatar, it is possible to meet others in virtual spaces without them having a clue about one’s physical attributes and identity. On the other hand, any time people use the Internet, they leave a record behind (think “cookies” on Web browsers). Similarly, but in much greater detail, any time people enter a virtual space, they leave “digital footprints”—all the data the computer automatically collects: for example, speech, non-verbal behavior, and location. This footprint can be used (and, in fact, is being used) by military and other government agencies to detect identity.
In essence, while one can hide behind an avatar of a different name, the footprint still can give him away.