Avatars and Cultural Creole

Can video games change the way we think about culture?  Yes!  In the previous posts I’ve explored how the interaction and embodied perception that both designers and players use outlines an area of research for neuroanthropology.  And I’ve dropped plenty of hints that gaming can help us re-think culture.  Today I’ll continue to develop those ideas some more. 

Let’s start with a rather conventional statement on “culture” in relation to this new world of Internet, gaming, and all the rest.  Arturo Escobar, professor of anthropology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (and better, a Colombian!), has a chapter, “Welcome to Cyberia: Notes on the Anthropology of Cyberculture,” which appears in the book The Cybercultures Reader.   

“As a new domain of anthropological practice, the study of cyberculture is particularly concerned with the cultural constructions and reconstructions on which the new technologies are based and which they, conversely, contribute to shaping. The point of departure of this inquiry is the belief that any technology represents a cultural invention, in the sense that technologies bring forth a world; they emerge out of particular cultural conditions and in turn help to create new social and cultural situations. Anthropologists might be particularly well prepared to understand these processes if they are receptive to the idea that science and technology are a crucial arena for the creation of culture in today’s world (56).”

 Escobar suggests four overarching lines of inquiry: (1) the discourses and practices generated around/by computers and biotechnology, (2) how to effectively study these practices through ethnography, (3) what larger modern practices shape the current understanding and modes of relating to technology, and (4) the political economy of cyberculture.  These four describe fairly standard practice in cultural anthropology.  First, a particular micro area is understood through practices (say, Bourdieu) or interpretations (say, Geertz), with a dash of linguistic anthro thrown in (say, Duranti).  In this micro-conceptualization, theory is generally conceived at a remove from the actual experiences and behaviors of people around computers and biotechnology.  The experiences and behaviors are mere data, the object of ethnographic method, and then explained by micro-macro dynamics.  Most of the causal force is saved for the macro level, which comprises the complex relations between modernity and power (say, Foucault). 

There is a needed place in anthropology, and the study of cyberculture, for this type of analysis.  Otherwise, we will get swept away by the people and companies driving change through technological development, the capitalist model, and marketing.  Critique is important.  But it is startling how this approach overlooks something that video gaming reveals every time someone ends up playing hours of Counter-Strike or Halo 3 online or, to a lesser degree, clicks on this blog. 

Video gaming seriously contradicts the “all around us” metaphor of culture, one that began by studying small-scale societies at an extreme remove from the everyday life of Europe and the United States in the early 1900s.  In Escobar’s view, there are practices around computers, nested in the larger practices of modernity, nested in larger-still capitalist and scientific ideologies and power relations.  But, as I explored in my previous posts on video gaming, this approach does not explain what the designers themselves, those representatives of ideology and power, seem to know—people come with a built-in ability to generate culture. 

How are we to explain the generation of something like “culture” when interactions are limited to a video screen?  Here, precisely, there is no way for the “culture” to be all around people—it happens through a particular, and quite peculiar, interface.  Yet millions of people invest hours and hours into these other lives.  Cybercultures, in the sense of these online interactions, are precisely not all around us, but nonetheless they serve to organize people’s lives in many of the same ways as anthropological studies of small cultures reveal.  How is such a thing even possible?! 

That is a difficult question, and one that could reveal much about what a theory of “culture” as culture would look like in anthropology.  It could reinvigorate our core concept in anthropology, and enrich the way we do ethnography, precisely at the time when many other fields are rapidly incorporating (and changing) the concepts and methods of anthropology. 

Let me put the question more basically.  How do people create culture? 

Tom Boellstorff is one of a few anthropologists seriously studying online worlds, with a forthcoming book Coming of Age in Second Life.  (Second Life is a virtual world where people can build lives just like they do in the real-world, except they have avatars—online personas—that can fly!)  He also has a 2006 article, “A Ludicrous Discipline? Ethnography and Game Studies,” in the inaugural issue of the scholarly journal Games and Culture.  This piece is similar to Escobar’s in its emphasis on the interpretative and political economic strands in cultural anthropology, with a call for the continued recognition of the “massive domain of economics, power, and history.”  He also notes that “in certain circumstances games can act as contexts for cultures.”  He thus is against an overly symbolic view of reading and interpreting culture like a text.  If reading it like a text is a limited view, and games can act as contexts for culture, here’s what I would like to know: Do gamers write the text and context all at once? 

Gamers include both developers and players.  For example, developers increasingly rely on players to beta-test, to weed out the bugs and to provide insight to improve the gaming experience.  And increasingly, games rely on the players to help provide the content and meaning and even the overall construction of certain games.  Developers plan for what people do.  And in Second Life, people do avatars—their alter-egos that live in a world with direct parallels to our own. 

Just like the study of creoles has provided insight, and contentious debate, in linguistic anthropology, so too the creation of on-line cultures might do the same.  And it can happen at many levels, from kids’ online worlds like Webkinz and Club Penguin, to the online playing that has become such a crucial part of console video games, to the online worlds represented by games like World of Warcraft or the harder-to-classify Second Life. 

Second Life’s page proudly portrays its motto, “Second Life is a 3D online digital world imagined and created by its residents.”  The Google link I clicked had this line to highlight the specifics of the interaction: “users can socialize, connect and create using voice and text chat.”  Put differently, Second Life combines SimCity with Facebook, plus you can actually make a living by working in SecondLife, for example, selling real estate or creating mini-programs for others to use.  The one to help users simulate sex is, not surprisingly, quite popular.  Once again, that begs the question, Why? 

Boellstorff’s research on Second Life provides us some clues—you can hear him discuss it in this Chronicle for Higher Education podcast.  He highlights people’s ability to transform the physicality of themselves—to not be disabled, to be another gender in other people’s eyes, to present a stylized image.  As he describes one person telling him, you get to know others from “the inside out,” the real person irrespective of age, sex, race, or any other of the judgmental categories we use in our everyday, embodied lives.  That ability, coupled with the speed and depth of relationships and the fun of creating and constructing on-line, appears to drive much of the “hook.” 

To sum up my argument, on-line cultures seriously question anthropologists because gamers create “culture” based on interaction with people through a video screen.  This view points to culture as something other than the physical setting and bounded domains often associated with original views of culture.  It also points to culture as something other than ideas, schemas, or symbols—the “what the native needs to know” view.  People do not get involved in on-line play or in creating an avatar because of an overarching system of symbols; developers recognize a more immediate suite of factors that drive involvement (see my first post on Video Games and Interaction).  Finally, this view highlights culture as something different from political economy, power and ideology.  These three are important, and play an important part in the making and maintenance of online cultures.  But these are not what drive the “shared” aspect of online or virtual experience.  There is no “class” or “gender” that is dictating who people are as they begin to share in the online experience—something that many people in Second Life find liberating. 

So, what is “culture”?  The answer to that depends on answering a different question first: “How is culture?”  In my first post on video games I focused on the user/game interface, with the “fun factor,” immersion, and story. In the second post, building on the technical side (gameplay, physical interactions), I discussed that people come with some built-in cultural biology, for example, cultural perception.  Like vision, which needs light and neurological learning and edges and good retinas and multiple streams of processing to work, so too “culture.”  We see through light.  We are cultural through culture, but just as with vision, the brain/body interface matters in how we are cultural.  Mirror neurons and motor learning; dopamine signaling and the limbic system/prefrontal cortices; the hippocampus, associational cortices, and cultural memory—these are some of the “technical” issues that are involved in the experiences and behaviors that bring people together. 

But the larger point here is the parallel with creoles created by second-generation kids.  We just do it.  Certainly in doing “culture” we draw on the ways we’ve already been enculturated, as the commentary on the WoW video clip show.  Nonetheless, the central point is that we spontaneously recreate our own enculturation in new places.  And we, or at least the developers, recognize that we need it—the cultural backstory—to have the necessary depth, that level of engagement, with a particular online world. 

Moving to the third post, I addressed the importance of “buy in” and studying how cultural traditions, particularly in on-line worlds, help achieve this effect, for it appears central to why millions of people come back again and again to help create and sustain a shared on-line culture.  This approach looks at what makes a “successful” culture or not—a way to study culture as a thing, rather than using it as a cause.  That represents a major difference with our traditional theoretical use of culture, say, Geertz system of symbols.  As anthropologists, we return culture to being an object of study.  And to understand that object, you need to understand interactions and brains and social relations—but they don’t constitute the thing-in-itself. 

[Quick side note: What would globalization studies or the anthropology of religion look like if they examined how differing religions or global practices actually achieve their spread?  How do fanatic religious leaders or multinational corporations get people to buy in?  Why do other equally interested companies not achieve that same “buy-in”?  Perhaps this sort of study could give us novel insights, insights that could make a concrete difference in people’s lives, along with our continued critical laments…] 

In the third post I also mentioned structuring processes, from the micro to the macro, and these represent the clearest links to the modern practices (say, science & technology) and the massive domains of economics, power, and history.  But these do not determine the buy-in themselves (though they can certainly shape it), nor do they determine the aspects of interface or the cultural or embodied biology. 

Neuroanthropology is concerned with elaborating these more proximate factors in ways that should provide anthropology with a reinvigorated concept of culture based on how we think “culture” works and a clearer view of the differential processes through which economics, history and power shape our everyday lives.

5 thoughts on “Avatars and Cultural Creole

  1. Update: Kids’ Sites like Club Penguin Are More Popular Than Second Life. The following article describes the changing landscape in the “part online role-playing game and part social scene” of online interactive sites. Club Penguin, second in popularity behind WebKinz (I believe), gets seven times the traffic of Second Life. By 2011, it is estimated that 20 million children will be members of virtual worlds, up from 8.2 million today.
    Here’s the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/business/31virtual.html?hp

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