How morbid… we don’t like to talk about it, but (spoiler alert) we’re all gonna die, and on the journey, we’re going to look older than today, with every step we take towards our inevitable end. The fact that ageing and death isn’t optional, doesn’t make many of us fear it any less.
Hands down, ageing beats the alternative, which is ceasing to exist! Oh, but wait! In Second Life, we don’t have to age! It’s the zenith of escapism – our very own digital fountain of everlasting youth. Hmm, what if we did?
In this (rather long) essay on the topic of avatar ageing, I aim to explore the consequences of this hypothetical possibility, some of which I hope might surprise; or least, entertain you. The TLDR of the matter is: avatar ageing may not be as bad as we might at first imagine, and might even have benefits that have positive impacts on our real life health and happiness.
In Second Life, whilst we can change our avatar’s appearance to reflect our ages (to a degree), experience tells me that we tend not to do so. Demographic data in virtual worlds is scarce, but Cambridge-based Kzero Research, a company that conducts research in virtual worlds identified that over 1/3rd of Second Life residents are 35 or older. As a point of comparison, the median age in America is between 35 to 40, and is 40+ in Europe.
For clarity’s sake, in this essay I’m limiting my scope to avatar appearance, a topic that fascinates me, in how it might show ageing, not chronological age by which we measure the days since an avatar was first registered in Second Life. Further, I fully appreciate that ageing for many is not only chronological, but also a perception embedded in one’s psychological outlook, which might influence how one prefers to portray oneself in a virtual world.
Many might wonder why on earth I’d ever suggest such a hideously unnerving prospect. The very thought of enabling a feature like avatar ageing into virtual worlds is enough to make many of my friends recoil in abject horror and disgust. Am I bonkers? Isn’t this supposed to be a fantasy world where we can be, have, and do whatever we want? For some, it is, and that’s great; however, many residents choose to portray themselves with more verisimilitude. How dare I even tempt the fates by even suggesting it!
Whilst I accept that some people may want to portray themselves as different in many ways, I don’t agree that everyone does, or wants to. Personally agree with it or not, the research supports a variety of views on avatar fidelity.
Let’s start in the obvious place: Why do we readily accept appearing younger in a virtual world than we might otherwise be in real life?
Why would you choose to appear younger than your age?
The avatars I see and interact with on a day-to-day basis don’t show what Kzer claims is on the other side of the screen. I think most would agree that considerably fewer than a third of Second Life residents seem 35 years or older. Why? This may sound like an obvious question to many, but it’s worth examining. I suggest we most of us tend to look younger than our real life ages due to three factors: deliberate choice, a lack of options, or denial as a means to an end.
Firstly, I’d argue that we strive to appear younger than we actually are because our culture reinforces that youth is more valuable than older age at nearly every turn. When it comes to sexual attraction, natural selection has compelled the adaptation our brains over 250,000 years to make us really good at identifying healthy and practical reproductive partners. We associate mating viability with women that show signs of childbearing readiness, and men that show signs of the necessary resources to provide for and protect our offspring. When these biologically embedded preferences clash with modern culture, we naturally get ageism. Ageism, the prejudicial attitude towards others based on their age is one of our most common biases. Consequently, many among us suffer from mild to moderate forms of gerascophobia – an abnormal or persistent fear of growing old. Still, we are more than sexually driven beings whose only aim is to perpetuate our species, and we have shown we can have romantic and amicable relationships with people of all different ages, throughout our lives.
Studies claim that we tend to perceive older adults more negatively than we perceive younger adults regardless of our age or gender (granted, there may be cultural differences at play here, because much of the research we cite in the industrialised West is derived from samples of 18-22 year-old college students in our own – inherently biased – culture). Research also shows that despite the claim that many of us consider ageing a positive experience, we tend not to think of ourselves as “old” despite our biological age, tending to feel younger than we are, and would generally prefer to be younger than we are.
We naturally bring this adaptive bias into virtual space. I’ve heard residents say they wouldn’t approach someone in Second Life on the basis of their apparent age alone. What is interesting to me about this is that whilst ageism seems acceptable in our culture, once we swap the age factor with gender or race, it’s easy to see how this is just another form of prejudice (i.e. imagine that above sentence to read: “I’ve heard some say they wouldn’t approach someone in Second Life on the basis of their apparent race alone.”) For many of us, age seems to fit into a class of acceptable prejudices – like prejudices towards height and body shape; because we have been socialised to know that race and gender are no-go zones (at least most of us have).
Second, I would suggest that the under supply of middle-aged avatar skins might prevent us from appearing an age between 35 and 65 – even if we wanted to. Whilst limited, my personal experience in creating characters for immersive theatre in Second Life is that it’s a real challenge to create middle-aged avatars. When I chose my look for older Eve, my choice was limited to either my own look, or an avatar that looks considerably older than Eve might have looked soon after having her twins.
In a similar way to how fashion in Second Life caters towards the more obvious extremes of taste (with very little available in the ‘middle-of-the-road’), most skins I found reflected either a person one might consider a young adult under 30 years of age or elderly adult over 65 years of age, with very little to choose from between the two extremes. In part, because of this under supply, the perceived age of my avatar likely hasn’t changed in the past seven years.
Third, I believe that some of us simply deny how we look, and aim to mask our real age through any means necessary – and we bring this ‘holding-back the clock’ approach to Second Life – because it works to get what want. Anti-ageing in the real world is a booming business, estimated to be worth a whopping USD 191.7 billion by 2019. Given how ample research demonstrates how much we identify with our avatars, Second Life might in fact be one of the cheapest anti-ageing therapies going! And, look ma, no nasty side-effects or complications (well, at least not physical; apart from sitting on our butts when we could be out there exercising…).
The reasons why one might seek real life anti-ageing (including creams, aesthetic treatments like Botox / fillers or microderm abrasion, facial / body plastic surgery, and hair restoration to name the majors) are usually associated with enhancing confidence and self-esteem. Both men and women cite a lack of confidence and perceived decline in attractiveness associated with an ageing appearance, and seek to redress their appearance to appear as young as they might feel inside.
Why would you choose to look your real life age or older?
Despite these reasons, there are some residents who choose to portray themselves as older than the average resident one sees in Second Life. They might be older in real life, or simply want to appear older than they might look in real life. And why not? How is avatar ageing, or portraying oneself middle-aged in Second Life, any weirder than being a zombie or a fairy princess? Isn’t it curious that we see so many avatars and clothing available for residents playing children, but seeing a middle-aged avatar is so rare that their very presence is actually surprising.
What if avatar appearance not only matched our real life ages, and what if our avatars aged?
As part of my What if… in Second Life? question series, where I ponder alternate realities and their consequences, I’d like to talk about avatar ageing by considering the question: “What if our avatars aged in Second Life?”
Imagine Second Life had such a mechanism, where one could opt-in to experience avatar ageing. If say, upon or after registration, we could use a tool to change our avatar’s appearance to not only show our age at the moment of identification, but to also progressively age with us? Without getting mired in the technical entanglements of how such a tool may or may not work, let’s consider what might happen if it did.
As an analogy, let’s consider a virtual world experience in which ageing is the norm: The Sims is the world’s biggest-selling simulation series and is listed among the best-selling PC games of all time. While I appreciate The Sims is a very different experience to Second Life, there are some mechanics that one could imagine would work in both platforms.
For the record, I’ve not played any games in The Sims series, so I’d love it if readers who have experience with the game correct or support what I say next in the comments. The Sims has embedded ageing into the mechanics of the experience since its start. Now in its fourth incarnation, Sims 4 has six life stages for a Sim (a simulated person): baby, child, teen, young adult, adult and elder. Apparently, one can set the lifespan of Sims to be short, normal, or long, whether they are played or not. Further, one can disable the feature, which pauses ageing for one’s Sims, or NPCs (non-player characters) as one’s own Sims age. Disabling ageing notwithstanding, Sims also can die as a result of accidents, or by nature taking its course.
Like with the Sims, a system like this could be introduced as an option in Second Life, which one could opt-in to as an experiment in the consequences of ageing. Similarly, if one could control the pace of change, so that the passage of years might be reflected in months, and months reflected in days, we might find that the faster the pace, the more learning might take place.
A hypothetical Second Life ageing system
The system-thinkers among you might be wondering… if we had ageing, how would it work? And further, what other aspects of life might it be associated with? This is an intriguing line of inquiry – which I owe some ideas to my friend Huckleberry Hax who discussed it with me.
Ageing is a biological process that is subject to genetic and lifestyle factors. It also shows differently for different people. Supposing this was a possibility, how would such an ageing system show our age?
Some of us might have used online calculators that assess our ‘health age’ – they ask us fill in a form with our gender, body measurements, cholesterol and glucose levels, lifestyle habits like frequency and intensity of our exercise, our eating, smoking and drinking habits, our general sense of mental well-being, in addition to our chronological age. These factors are then entered into an equation that reveals one’s ‘health age’ that may be higher or lower than your chronological age.
Combined with a little relevant family longevity history, a similar tool could be used to adapt a skin and shape that would reflect our ‘health age’ based on real life photographs adapted to physical norms reflective of our ‘health age’. So there is our genetic factor taken care of. Further, a system like this might have a HUD that reflects our health indicators as they change based on the lifestyle choices we make.
What lifestyle choices could we make that might influence the system? Well, such a system could have an associated marketplace store where we could buy food of varying nutritional quality for our avatars to consume by simply wearing and detaching food items, similar to what you might see in the image of Dutchie’s bistro table above. We already have an abundance of food items in Second Life, what if they applied nutritional metadata to these items that then could interact with my health and lifestyle system HUD?
Avatar nutrition would be vital, but physical activity might also play a part. Fortunately, we have a plethora of animations available to us inworld, from traditional exercise like walking and running, to yoga (see below), to dancing, and even sex. What if the frequency and intensity of our movement in Second Life could also affect a health and lifestyle system that applied the impact of physical activity on our overall health score? What if we got points, and our bodies intelligently adapted to the inworld lifestyle choices we made, thereby gamifying our experience even further? It’s been done before; Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV rewards you for physical activity by giving your avatar increased stamina, if you train them in racing events and such.
Since health is a continuum the ranges from good health to poor health, if we chose to make unhealthy choices, or neglect ourselves entirely, we might also see the consequences of our decisions manifested in our avatar bodies. Unhealthy avatars might put on excess weight, or even be prone to system-enabled disease. Similarly, it might become more and more challenging to keep our avatars healthy as they age, as we fight escalating levels of health challenges introduced by our advancing years. As our avatars aged, their abilities might even subtly decline, requiring us either to introduce more health preserving measures, or experience the effects of ageing. If we could increase the pace of change to x12, we might have the opportunity to witness our avatars develop over 12 years in the span of one. Now wouldn’t that be interesting?
Froukje, if you’re reading this? How about we get together with a brilliant coder and attach a health and lifestyle system to your goods! We might even be able to acquire points for sweeping the floor of our homes or folding laundry!
Some might consider this kind of activity excruciatingly boring. Why would you bother exercising your avatar when you can’t even be bothered to exercise in real life? Well, what if my health and lifestyle system was combined with a gaming system? Even more compelling, what if you could share and compare your health and lifestyle progress against other residents who were also participating? Now we have what game designer and author Jane McGonigal identifies as the four traits that define a game: a goal, rules, a feedback system and voluntary participation, in her book Reality is Broken (which I urge you to read because it’s excellent). Here’s a TED Talk where Jane lays out a brief introduction to her thesis that reveals how we “can harness the power of games to solve real-world problems and boost global happiness”.
What might be some advantages of ageing?
Assuming a system like this could be implemented, we’d definitely see more variety in our avatars. Most of us would argue that variability is something we value in avatar representation, which has been used time and time again to argue against the recent availability and adoption of mesh heads and bodies. Wouldn’t it add to the richness of our experiences if we were surrounded by the infinite variety that age-influenced appearance affords? While I’ve never participated, family role-play might make a bit more sense?
We might notice too, that we are interacting with people of different ages, which might help overcome some of our existing and erroneous prejudices. Many tout how we enjoy the opportunity to interact with people that are geographically and culturally diverse in virtual worlds; people with whom we might otherwise rarely interact. Just as ethnicity or gender complements how we experience a person, wouldn’t it be helpful to also to get a picture of the approximate age of a person you are interacting with too? Might it not help lower a few barriers that we might have otherwise erected in the physical world, which may then predispose us to be more open to interact with those younger or older than us in real life as well?
There are positive attributes associated with various ages (some real and some imagined), and our appearances might telegraph these attributes, in our favour. Granted, our appearances might telegraph the negative attributes as well. When it comes to physicality, sometimes we become more attractive as we age! Conventional wisdom would argue that men experience this more than women, but I believe that many women become more physically attractive, in different ways, as they ease their way into adulthood. For example, women tend to lose facial fat as they cruise into their 30s, making them appear thinner, which further defines the facial features many of us consider attractive. Men’s wrinkles and grey hair tends to lend them an air of gravitas that many of us tend to respect and admire.
If we looked more like our real life ages, we might attract people who are more similar to our age. Of course, we might not all want this, but many of us might. Many of us are familiar with the age compatibility equation – 1/2 (your age) + 7 (according to this rule, it would not be creepy for a 30-year-old to date a 22-year-old, but an 18-year-old would be off-limits). The data supports that women “prefer mates with resources and … like partners who are more established, both of which are more likely in older partners. Men, in contrast, are hypothesised to be most attracted to women in their reproductive prime, which tends to be when they are younger.” Our appearance can be a signal that telegraphs our experiences, our knowledge, and our wisdom. Like it or not, it’s hard to argue against long-standing evolutionary preferences, and looking our age would certainly make it easier to decide if appearances actually matched those preferences.
If you were older and looked your age, people might take you more seriously when you speak. While not everyone feels this way, I certainly attribute the trait of ‘wisdom’ to those who are older than me, which helps me open my mind to them and learn. Maybe that’s positive ageism, I don’t know, but I tend to see my assumptions validated the more older people I meet. Conversely, many people don’t take younger people as seriously as they might somebody older, so the opposite prejudice might also occur, as it does in the real world.
What about the downsides of ageing?
Advanced age tends to be accompanied with physical decline. It would follow, that if we aged in Second Life, there’d be things we could do to delay its signs (apart from hacks and cheats) and this is where things could get interesting. If our avatars experienced this, we might be more compelled to get out there into the real world and exercise more, without the security blanket of the picture of perfect health provided by our avatars. There is research to suggest that physical activity inworld has a bleed effect on real world physical engagement – especially if one’s avatar is more reflective of oneself. Robin Heyden cites some research conducted by Bailenson and Yee, of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHL):
One of the researchers in Bailenson’s lab has conducted health behavior studies with an avatar, altered to resemble the subject, exercising and getting thinner as a result of their exersie (sic). In their experiments, the subjects would themselves exercise, in real life, on average, ten times longer than those watching an avatar who does not look like them or someone who didn’t watch an avatar at all and, instead, were told to visualize themselves, in their mind, exercising.
In a sense, these findings suggest the downside of physical decline in Second Life may actually be a stimulant towards healthy activity in real life, which would only be more effective the closer our avatars looked to ourselves.
Like The Sims, and as I explained above, we might even consider adding eating and exercise to our digital lifestyles. If we noticed the effects of ageing inworld, we might be compelled into making inworld lifestyle changes to keep our youthful figures, leading to all sorts of benefits in the real world. And to further complement our inworld exercise, the omnidirectional treadmills might arrive just in time.
As in the real world, new industries might arise. We might find virtual anti-ageing products and services that might help us counter the signs of inworld ageing ranging from avatar gyms to digital plastic surgery. If avatars showed the signs of decline as we did, we might even be spared the spontaneous vanishing of our friends as a result of their untimely deaths, providing us with some warning of their impending demise. As one of my chat participants said, might we one day become accustomed to attending avatar funerals as we are in attending avatar weddings?
Beyond aesthetics, avatar ageing may allow us to model comprehensive healthcare systems. What if role-playing in a health care setting wasn’t just role-playing, but had implications that affected our well-being inworld? Imagine the applications that we might invent if we could test medical procedures and pharmaceutical interactions in the digital world, without the considerable risks and glacial delays that might affect our real bodies in real life clinical trials.
Another downside of appearing one’s age might be that older residents could no longer trade on their youthful looks in Second Life as they might do now. If we aged as we do in real life, we might be similarly challenged to be more emotionally and mentally engaging to attract friends and lovers, beyond simply relying on what society considers physically attractive. Again though, there could be an upside in this regard, because we’d have more practice in dealing with change in Second Life. In this way, Second Life might act as a more valid laboratory where we can experiment socially much faster than in the real world. Personally, I’ve had friends that are in their early twenties, and friends in their mid 60s in both real life and Second Life. In Second Life, it would not have made any difference to me if they looked more their age. I believe that most of us in Second Life get past appearances fairly quickly, at least with those with whom we have more meaningful relationships. Many of us, however, don’t translate these learnings into the real world. Having these relationships in Second Life with avatars that looked their real age might influence us to open our minds to differently aged people in real life as well.
One might argue that ageing in Second Life reduces the opportunity to enjoy one’s youth for things that youth is designed for. I’d argue that the hastened awareness that our time on this earth is indeed short might bring forth an urgency that compels us to make the most of today. If we had avatar ageing that was set to mirror a faster reality, then we might come to value the limited time we have, and live more fully in the moment – making the best of our Second lives, much like repeated iterations of experiments of being.
Few regular Second Life residents would disagree with my assertion that we spend much, much, much more time looking at our idealised avatar selves than we spend looking at ourselves in a mirror. What might this be doing to our perception of self as our avatars look less and less than we do in real life? I have seen research that even a few inches added to the height of our avatars improves our level of confidence in the real world:
When people add extra inches to their self-image by making their avatars taller than they really are, the people can become more confident and aggressive in real-world negotiations. And when people make their avatars more attractive online, they tend to share personal information with strangers more readily, the researchers reported in the journal Human Communication Research.
What if we used our Second Life experiences to see real cause and effect change that can have lasting consequences on our physical and mental well-being?
Would you opt in to avatar ageing?
I think our view towards ageing, our different life stages, might tell us a lot about our attitudes and values. Again, from personal experience, I love my past (and even sometimes glorify it to myself and others). I also love my present, happy and content with my current life stage. Importantly, I am excited about my future. I don’t fear growing old, I look at it as a natural process that has its pros and cons, as much as any other life stage. Last night at the Basilique Chat Salon we had – like we always do, an engaging discussion, about this particular topic.
I was, to say the least, surprised that my question “What if our avatars aged in Second Life?” was met with widespread rejection to the idea. More than one person said that it would make Second Life less enjoyable, and that it might even influence a massive drop in user engagement. Some said it sounded like a means of control that they would reject to protect their freedom of expression. Others said that because people have come to know them by how they represent themselves (which includes implied age), that a shift to their real life age would be jarring for their friends.
I respect these views and deeply personal responses to this question. Further, I admit that my question might have been better worded to imply that this feature might be optional or even temporary, and that it might have some real world benefits. It’s fair to also add, however, that when I posed the follow-up question: “Would you leave Second Life, and everything it offers for you, simply because you had to accept avatar ageing?”, no one responded with an unqualified “yes”.
The reason, I suspect, that we wouldn’t leave Second Life if avatar ageing was imposed upon us, is because our brains just don’t notice the ageing process on a day-to-day level. If we wouldn’t use ageing as an excuse to opt out of the real world, why would we use it as a reason to opt out of the virtual world? Speeding up the ageing process would be optional, and likely only chosen to experience the cause and effect learning I earlier described.
One obviously older avatar that attended our discussion suggested that we all spend a week as older avatars, and then see how our perceptions might change. I thought it was a brilliant idea! I plan to organise a day where our group spends time as older avatars, supplied with missions to interact with others around the grid and report back to the group, just to see what happens.
Personally, I’m not for nor against my hypothetical suggestion of avatar ageing – even though I think it’d be very interesting to try! So, why do I bother asking the question? Why do I bother spending two hours discussing it with friends, and then why do I bother writing a 5000 word blog post exploring the answers?
First, I think that asking these kinds of questions – or thought experiments – compels us to think differently. Questions like these, seriously considered, compel us to test our assumptions and show to even ourselves what we might really think about greater themes that we are likely not to naturally ponder on a day-to-day basis. I’m by nature an autodidact; I believe many in Second Life have to be to survive this very challenging world. I spend a lot of time teaching myself things, and that often begins with asking myself “What if…” I just love flexing my brain into various pretzel shapes just to see what comes out. Maybe that has an impact on how I see concepts like ageing, and many other things.
What do you think?
Whilst many of us understandably see virtual worlds as an escape from reality, it’s compelling to consider the things we take for granted. It makes me wonder, given what I expect to be a widespread rejection of the idea of avatar ageing, would we want to freeze the appearance of ageing in the real world? Maybe, but that only makes me wonder about what the implications of that would be!
Virtual worlds like Second Life may enable us to conveniently drink from the fountain of youth, but I wonder how our brains might respond not next year, but decades in the future as the use of virtual reality becomes more and more widespread.
I hope this essay has provided you at least with some insight into the possibilities that avatar ageing may not be as bad as we might at first imagine, and might even have benefits that have positive impacts on our real life health and happiness.