IVP - Strangely Dim - My Other Life Is an Avatar

November 13, 2006

My Other Life Is an Avatar

My friend Jonathan sent me an e-mail that coincidentally touches on a conversation some of us have been having at InterVarsity Press. It centers on www.secondlife.com, a web phenomenon that involves navigating a virtual world by means of an avatar which you create. You can buy "materials," "property" and even "special qualities" for your virtual self on sites such as e-Bay. For example, you can purchase a house, a music player and even super-speed for your virtual self. Beyond the obvious question this phenomenon raises--which superpower would you buy first?--the discussion can go in all sorts of ways. Check out where Jonathan and I took it, then join the conversation. We're both mere tourists in the land of secondlife, so we would certainly be helped by some more informed perspectives.

JONATHAN: I think people are drawn to these virtual communities at least in part because they can escape their real life and create the life they think will provide fulfillment. I am not saying I could pull this off on my own, but . . . what about building a virtual church? I am not talking about a building; I am talking about a functioning church where people can worship or hear teaching. Does God call avatars (the real person behind him/her) who are hiding behind their false self to risk exploring the God who sees who they really are?

DAVE: I've seen little forays into virtual church before, and I highly favor them, but as you might imagine there are some limitations. First off, although many people simply recreate themselves in their avatars, many people take advantage of the tech to recreate themselves, so a virtual church would face the heightened challenge of false selves congregating. Not that brick and mortar church communities don't have to deal with hypocricy and secret lives, but secondlife almost presupposes it.

JONATHAN: I agree that a "False Self" poses challenges to an authentic life. I wonder how much different the church is, though, with trying to pretend to be something they are not. Also, if people are running or hiding from their true self in the real world, after living that lie for so long don't they at some level want to stop? To be found?

DAVE: I wonder if there's a way of doing "short term missions" in secondlife as a kind of faith laboratory.

JONATHAN: Corporations are currently investigating how they can use virtual worlds to hold training sessions and meetings, and allow employees from around the world to work together on solving a problem. I am by no means an expert, or even an experienced user of virtual worlds. I do wonder though: is there value if someone could receive, say, evangelism training? What about a small group of disciples "entering the world" to spread the gospel? A place of healing where the hidden can be found in supportive groups? If you applied your learning in an online context, would people give you the time of day? Would trainees become more comfortable in their abilities to share the gospel or answer hard questions? Would their experience be transferable to the real world, or would they become yet another false self?

DAVE: In fact, that might be the angle for an online church: "Be Yourself for a While." It provides confessional space for the false avatar and maybe a link to the real world for people who have gotten too addicted to the controlled environment of a virtual world.

JONATHAN: Corporations spend billions of dollars on value transfer--getting their employees to buy into the corporate values, or creating advertising which causes consumers to see, believe and then take the next step. If you attract the avatar, the greater difficulty may be taking them from a virtual church to an actual church.

DAVE: As far as teaching goes, it might be interesting to explore the analogy of an avatar for the propitiation of Christ or the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

That's as far as Jonathan and I have gotten. Please do join in: what do you think about virtual Christianity? What appeals to you personally about having a virtual presence in a "second life"? What kinds of relationships would you seek out there? What kind of personal support would you need in order to remain true to yourself? What accountability would you need in order to remain true to God?

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at November 13, 2006 2:31 PM Bookmark and Share

Comments

There are quite a few companies already trying to figure out how to market to avatars. One of the questions is similar to what you've posed: Are avatars "false" selves who behave differently from real-life selves, or are avatars "true" selves who behave similarly to real-life selves? Could it be a bit of both? Aren't our real-life selves often false anyway?

Comment by: Sally at November 17, 2006 5:24 PM

I love the idea of worship in an alternate environment. I've been dreaming of a collaborative ongoing scripture exploration in second life. Imagine a virtual space dedicated to explore a few verses of scripture. Visitors would be encouraged to help explore the Word by adding their own created objects, art, illustrations, music, writing and comments. It would be a great chance to worship in a community separated by culture, time and space.

Comment by: Paul at November 18, 2006 2:39 PM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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