Brave New World of Avatars

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Avatars have been around for years, but I just made one for the first time, in Wii. I selected an oval face, medium brown eyes, straight dark hair, and a tall and lean female body. I put glasses, just like mine, on her face. I named her “Jane.”

Although many gamers make an avatar that’s a fantasy version of their selves, I wanted one that represents my identity, or who I know myself to be. I couldn’t find among all the design options, however, the one accessory that is as constant to me as the shape of my nose: an insulin pump.

There are no assistance devices in Wii. No wheelchairs. No prosthetic limbs. No crutches. Every avatar walks upright on two legs. A game like Wii Fit would be impossible to play, in its current version, by hobbled players.

In the new James Cameron movie, Avatar, Jake Sully, an ex-Marine in a wheelchair, has an avatar, too. His was made by a scientist. Unlike my Mii, his alternate has a physical presence in another physical world, and Jake, while in a self-induced sleep that relocates his consciousness to his avatar, experiences life through that body.

Jake’s alternate body does what his earthly one can’t do. In the scene where Jake tries out his new and blue avatar, he runs past the lab assistants who try to restrain him and out into Pandora’s farmlands. His bare blue feet pound the earth, and, from under them, grains of soil shoot gleefully. When the alternate Jake finally stands still, his toes keep moving and squiggling into dirt.

Those feet do all the talking; we the audience know that through his avatar Jake is feeling the animal joy of the body in motion. This the human Jake never seems to feel. While social critics like Annalee Newitz see Avatar as an expression of “old white guilt” and racism, I see the film more as a (perhaps unintentional) expression of ableism, or a preference for those who appear able-bodied. The human and dour Jake mourns his body and what it prevents him from doing. As avatar, he is reborn: no injuries, no lack of physical power. When he gets the chance, he chooses life as an avatar and lets his human self die away. That scene is played tenderly, yet the transition from mere man to blue giant is framed by the plot as a triumph.

The film’s values about able-body supremacy are not startling, and this may be why no prominent critic or blogger is commenting on them: Avatar reflects our culture’s fantasies of being other, and fitter, than we are.

We so desire the experience of being fitter, cuter, and younger, that we often treat our own bodies with disdain or even punishment. (When was the last time you heard someone say, “I love my body. There is nothing about it I would change”?) And when we get the chance online, we create that fantasy self and choose large breasts over small, a full head of hair over none, a commanding stance over a meek one. We clothe our avatars scantily to show off ripped musculature and gorgeous tattoos. We make our white selves black or black selves white. We sling weapons over shoulders and ditch  bifocals. We lose the cane, knee brace, and hearing aid.

What if the avatar universe underwent an expansion and made room for different physical attributes and abilities? What if I, in the online game world, could create a digital self that was less fantasy and more reality? I might clip an insulin pump to my avatar’s tights and locate a white circle of adhesive tape on her abdomen. A friend with a cane might give one to her avatar. Others could equip theirs with prosthetics, wheelchairs, or surgical scars.

I don’t see this new online world as being a sick and crippled place; I see it being different. In my childhood neighborhood, there was a girl named Karen who had been born without a foot and wore a nude-colored fiberglass one, like a boot, that came up to her knee. (This was in 1973 or so.) When we played kickball in the street and it was her turn, Karen took off her artificial foot to protect it and then whomped the red heavy ball with her stump. To run the bases as the outfielders chased her homerun ball, she’d yank on her fake foot and then take off. Those of us waiting a turn to kick would watch and secretly envy Karen’s power. We looked down at our own identically-sneakered feet and imagined others in their place.

The human body altered by injury, illness, and absence may be as intriguing to people who are well as it is to people who live daily with the effects of injury, illness, and absence.  In this new virtual world I have proposed, after a few disabled pioneers make avatars in their own earthly image, an intrepid able person might start experimenting online with, for example, immobile legs, a wheelchair, and life with both.
This, I realize, brings my frustration with the online avatar world full circle. If “normal” and able people alter their virtual bodies to represent injury and illness, would there be any symmetry between the physical and virtual human worlds?

Unlikely. Variation and not symmetry would be the chief feature of this expanded virtual world. People like to play, and they like to mix things up. A single avatar might combine the attributes of different genders, body types, and dis/abilities, as the line between the physical real and digital fantasy blurs. Far from being monsters, these mixed bags of body parts and devices might give unforeseen powers to their avatars, in the same way that being in a wheelchair leads some athletes to develop immense upper body strength or that having diabetes makes me a vigilant monitor of minute signals and data. Limitations increase desire, which is a powerful motivator of behaviors and change.

Limitations, too, whether deliberately or involuntarily taken on, open people’s awareness to mortal frailty and the majesty there is in living with it. At the end of the novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, the imposing and romantic Rochester is made “blind and a cripple” in a massive fire that destroyed his manor, Thornfield. When Jane returns to him after a year-long estrangement and sees the scar on his forehead and “mere stump” where his hand once was, she says to Rochester that, contrary to his concern that his wounds are repellent, she “is in danger of loving you too well for all this.” He confesses that his injuries have forced him to give up vain pride in his strength. Although he welcomes her “ministry,” their two bodies become shelter for each other: she sits on his knee as they talk in the woods, and later he uses her shoulder as “prop and guide” as they head home.
I would not wish blindness or loss of limb or chronic illness on anyone as a real-life lesson in vulnerability. There are other ways to put one’s self in another person’s shoes or wheelchair, and these include film, literature, personal accounts, and honest conversation. The virtual world — if enlarged by all the attributes that comprise variation in the human form — might also offer us a partial entrance.

Comments (7)

  1. mimivac at

    Jane, I think the representation of disabilities in gaming is an interesting topic. Our culture views disabled persons as less abled in every way, rather than as people with particular strengths and weaknesses like all of us. I posed this question to my husband, an avid online gamer, and he couldn’t recall of any games that allow for disabled characters. He is posing this question to members of his online gaming forum — asking whether they have ever created a character with a disability and if they would consider playing such a character. The popular game “The Sims” seems like an ideal place where characters with wheelchairs, insulin pumps, or mastectomy scars could be represented. Thanks for the thought-provoking entry.

  2. mimivac, please let us know what your husband discovers via his online gaming forum! I would love to know. Comment again here, or find me online and write to me at my gmail address.

  3. Kristina at

    It’s too bad that the virtual world seems to have reinforced so many of our conventional notions about beauty and ability instead of allowing for and even encouraging more diversity. This is a take on Avatar I haven’t read before, and I really like your analysis!

  4. emily at

    it is too bad you do not watch Lost, because you could include a few Lost characters in this essay!

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