Second Lives, Virtual Identities and Fragging


Matthew Board


This presentation seeks to explore virtual identity in relationship to physical identity in fine art practice. Virtual Identity is the consciousness of a human being that operates in virtual realms such as Second Life, video games, websites, MySpace and Blogs through some sort of digital means such as an avatar. Video games play a large role in fostering a virtual identity for the general audience or participants. Online games such as Everquest and The World of Warcraft allows game players the choice of choosing a specific type of character to control. Players begin with a character at level one and subsequently nurture that character to power, riches and prestige. While inside the games, players make decisions about the path of that character and live the character’s life. Through a character’s timeline players also develop alliances and find rivals and enemies. Games such as these define the basic notion of a virtual identity.

The virtual identity is informed by the personality of a person, but is not completely bound by it. Since the potential dangers of the real world are not as prevalent in the virtual realm, the factors that weigh in the quantitative and qualitative analyses of decision making can allow the player to form a virtual identity based on the shift of physical versus virtual consequences. Generally, one quality of the Internet and virtual worlds is that any person with a computer has the opportunity to forge any type of identity in these virtual realms. Though, most worlds that the user chooses to enter have their own set of ethics that gamers are expected to follow. Some are clear policies and some are unspoken codes. The rules and codes are enforced according to a hierarchy of gamers. For example, in the game Battlefield 2, each server is managed by an Administrator, who acts as the overseer of the game. The administrator is usually the person that pays for the server space, and who usually starts a clan. An abbreviated text tag that is placed in front of the gamer’s user name identifies members of the clan. The clan members help the admin to maintain a kind of artificial civility in the game. Inside of most games, there is always the threat of hackers and cheaters disrupting the experience of others players in the game. Usually, hacking is done with small programs that are called "bots," which allow a player to see through walls, target players around corners and other exploits that give them abilities that non-hacking players do not possess. Though countermeasures for dealing with the hacks are also commonly used, still better hacks are always being made to subvert such countermeasures. Video games are no longer simple or mundane forms of entertainment but are complex environments with elaborate social and virtual-political hierarchies. This can also be seen in the peaceful, non-mission based virtual realm of Second Life.

Second Front. Photo: courtesy of the artist

Second life is similar to the aforementioned video games in that each player creates a unique character to explore the virtual realm. Likewise, there is also a social and political infrastructure in place to help maintain a level of civility in the virtual realm. In this realm you will find artists such as the performance group Second Front.

Because of this extension of human activity, it is possible for artists to develop sophisticated work with the assistance of collaborators who operate near or far from one another.


Douglas Davis, in The Work of Art In the Age of Digital Reproduction, makes a compelling argument for work in the digital realm—

"The fictions of "master" and "copy" are now so entwined with each other that it is impossible to say where one ends and the other begins. In one sense Walter Benjamin’s proclamation of the doom of originality, authored early in this century, is finally confirmed by these events. In another sense, the aura, supple and elastic, has stretched far beyond Benjamin’s prophecy into the rich realm of reproduction itself. Here in this realm, often mislabeled "virtual" (it is actually realer than reality of RR), both reality and traditional truth (symbolized by the unadorned photographic "fact") are being enhanced, not betrayed."1

Because of the emergence of performance groups and exhibition venues in Second Life, it seems that artists are discovering a verisimilar extension of consciousness in what Davis describes as the Real Reality.

Another event that shows how intertwined the virtual and real are is the act of terrorism that occurred on Second Life.

"Sick of watching his beloved Second Life go down the proverbial toilet, long time player Marshal Cahill decided to take matters into his own hands. Cahill decided to set off "nukes" near two in-game corporate stores, American Apparel and Reebok in a bid to gain attention from Second Life creators, Linden Labs. Cahill, the self-proclaimed political officer of the newly formed Second Life Liberation Army, wants Linden Labs to give his army an opportunity to control their environment through voting."2


This act of virtual terrorism was, in fact a harmless particle animation that caused no real damage to the game itself.

The virtual actions of Cahill and his Second life liberation army relate to Hakim Bey’s comments on Poetic Terrorism, as actions that may be interpreted as terrorist in methodology. However, the out come of such poetic actions may result in a subversively beautiful experience.3 The Second Life Liberation army’s action against commercializing Second Life was not an actual threat. No code was damaged by the "nukes." The nukes were basically particle animations that were harmless except for the anti-corporate statement.

Though these works are compelling, there is an interesting counter to previously mentioned works. Synthetic Performances by Eva and Franco Mattes explores the ethos of the virtual and performance art.

"Eva once shot me in the hand with an airgun, I still have the scar. We didn't record it though, it was just for fun, more Jackass than Chris Burden. That's how we started thinking about this reenactment. We wanted to work on something at the edge between true and fake, synthetic and natural, real and virtual, direct and mediated.
Eva and me, we hate performance art, we never quite got the point. So, we wanted to understand what made it so un-interesting to us, and reenacting these performances was the best way to figure it out. We have always been very attracted by things we don't like: Nike, the Vatican or Hollywood crap movies."4

While it is possible to see the potential in virtual realms, Synthetic Performances calls into question the importance of virtual performance. If a person actually attended the Chris Burden performance Shoot, and then attended the synthetic performance in Second Life it seems that the actual performance would be stronger because Burden was actually wounded. The virtual wound of the virtual Chris Burden does not carry the same emotional or psychological significance because of its synthetic origin.


Eva and Franco Mattes "Synthetic Performances" - "Chris Burden's Shoot." Photo: courtesy of the artist


Though the significance is not commensurate, that does not mean that the virtual re-creation lacks an importance of its own. If we were to transfer the same comparison to an ethical scenario with heavy moral implications such as war, fascism or corporate greed, the virtual simulation or image can then play the role of expressing the actual. With these scenarios, it becomes clear that simulations in the virtual realm can maintain a level of importance even though it does not carry the same implications of actually being in a war, subjected to fascism, or being a victim of corporate greed.

Implications of the virtual and the actual seem to culminate in the act of hacking. Hackers, in general have an infamous identity in the virtual realm. In digital culture, "Hackers are people who attempt to penetrate security systems on remote computers. This is the new sense of the term, whereas the old sense of the term hacker simply referred to a person who was capable of creating hacks, or elegant, unusual, and unexpected uses of technology."5 Based on this definition, one sees how the old sense of the term is where creativity arises. Both old generation and new generation hackers have ethical codes that may or may not be followed. Here are the Hacker ethics for older generation hackers.6

Hands On Imperative: Access to computers and hardware should be complete and total. It is asserted to be a categorical imperative to remove any barriers between people and the use and understanding of any technology, no matter how large, complex, dangerous, labyrinthine, proprietary, or powerful.

"Information Wants to Be Free": "Information wants to be free" can be interpreted in three ways. Free might mean without restrictions (freedom of movement = no censorship), without control (freedom of change/evolution = no ownership or authorship, no intellectual property), or without monetary value (no cost.) Some hackers even take this to mean information is alive, free to act on its own agency, as viruses, genetic algorithms, as bots and other software programs do. Most hackers seem to advocate this principle in different senses of the word "free" at different times. In any case, when asked about the content of the Hacker Ethic, most people assert this as the key principle.

Mistrust Authority: Promote decentralization. This element of the ethic shows its strong anarchistic, individualistic, and libertarian nature. Hackers have always shown distrust toward large institutions, including but not limited to the State, corporations, and computer administrative bureaucracies like the IBM 'priesthood'. Tools like the PC are said to move power away from large organizations (who use mainframes) and put them in the hands of the 'little guy' user. Nowhere is this ethos stronger than among the anti-statist cypherpunks and extropians.

No Bogus Criteria: Hackers should be judged by their hacking, not by "bogus criteria" such as race, age, sex, or position. Nowhere is this ethos more apparent than in the strong embrace by most hackers of the leveling power of the Internet, where anonymity makes it possible for all such 'variables' about a person to remain unknown, and where their ideas must be judged on their merits alone since such contextual factors are not available.

You can create truth and beauty on a computer: Hacking is equated with artistry and creativity. Furthermore, this element of the ethos raises it to the level of philosophy (as opposed to simple pragmatism), which (at least in some quarters) is about humanity's search for the good, the true, and the beautiful.

"Computers can change your life for the better": In some ways, this last statement really is simply a corollary of the previous one. Since most of humanity desires things that are good, true, and/or beautiful, the fact that a computer can create such things would seem to mean that axiomatically it can change peoples' lives for the better. However, this is merely a declarative statement, which like the previous one reflects a deep-felt love of technology. It does not state explicitly that computers should always change peoples' lives for the better, or the principle that would follow from that, which is that it is unethical to use them to make peoples' lives worse. Many hackers see the Internet as an immense positive force.

The act of hacking carries its own connotations of clandestine, technological wizardry. These connotations combined with making art through video games is evidence of an ongoing shift in the understanding of the virtual world, as the video game that was once only consumed, but is now something that may be explored and contextually shifted after changing its identity. Hacking video game code for the purpose of art occurs with older, 2D video games, such as Super Mario Brothers of the Nintendo Entertainment Systems. The artists from PaperRad collaborated with Cory Arcangel to make a Super Mario Movie in 2005 at Foxy Production. The work turns the video game into a much more surreal and distorted version of the original.

The new media network CMN, the Conglomco Media Network describes themselves as;

"A collective of computer artists, programmers, and cultural producers, working in the tradition of the hacker, members lend their expertise to collectively throw a wrench in the gears of the corporate machine. CMN is both expansive and expanding, with members strategically scattered throughout the US, UK, and the EU. CMN's tactical bent against the infiltration of public space by major corporations is the brandishing of a gratuitous display of technology in subversive actions, exploiting said technologies shortcomings while simultaneously putting these shortcomings on display for public critique. Conglomco adopts the media facade of a patriarchal corporation, satirizing a corporate/capitalist pastiche of homogenized culture, financially motivated politics, and monetary greed. Utilizing the expanding potentials for copying, appropriating, sampling, and synthesizing provided by the internet, CMN seeks to create projects that explore the possibilities of social commentary and creative activism in a networked and techno-savvy environment."7

An example of the Conglomco Media Network’s project is the Rhizome.org 2007 commission called zHarmony. It is described as follows:

"zHarmony is an addition to Rhizome.org that combines the Compatibility Matching System of online relationship services, like eHarmony, with Rhizome's existing database of artists to produce a unique artist profiling system that can automatically match artists with like-minded collaborators (or groups of collaborators) based on multiple points of compatibility."8

Conglomco’s work follows the ethics and identity of an elaborate hacker network. The collective does not attack infrastructure like databases and email servers, but attacks the mythos and strategies that have been invented by the respective corporation’s marketing and advertising campaigns. The work of Conglomco shows how virtual networks can allow many artists of different geographical regions can collaborate under one unified virtual identity.


Power Glove. Photo source: Wikipedia
Though the video game itself is rich ground for creativity, the way in which people interface with the games, online environments and software is also viable territory for creative exploration in the context of a virtual identity. The mouse and keyboard, the joystick and the Wacom Tablet affect the way users interact with virtual realms and act as a portal to the virtual realm. In 1989, Nintendo released the Power Glove designed by Grant Goddard. The power glove could be used as a traditional controller, but one could also use various hand movements to control the character in the game. Though the Power Glove was an ambitious step in video game interaction, its poor functionality aided in its obsolescence. After the release of the Power Glove, hackers found a way to make the Power glove operate like a mouse with a few complex modifications. Though complex to actually hack, the Power Glove mouse allows a user to have more intuitive control over interfacing with a computer.


Following the notions of hacker culture and DIY ethics, JennyLC Chowdhury has made an Intimate Game controller. She writes:

"The project began as an exercise for networked objects. I made a pong controller that was made from a bra. The mapping for the controller was simple - touching the left breast made the pong paddle go left and the right breast made the paddle go right. I then found out about a phenomenon called gamer widowhood where men essentially abandoned their wives to play video games night and day. I wanted to create a type of video game play that would center around a couple's intimacy and where two people would touch each other in order to play the game."9
Intimate Controllers by JennyLC Chowdhury. Photo: Courtesy of the artist.


Both the Power Glove mouse and the intimate game controller are examples of how the physical and the virtual have become more enmeshed. The evolution of game interaction enhances the functionality and directness of the virtual realms and makes our connection to these realms more immersive. The less a player has to think about interacting, the more freedom a player has to explore the realm. Beyond this, the interface is being upgraded. New technological advances have made it possible to interact with video games using the mind. "Emotiv Systems, an electronic-game company from San Francisco, wants people to play with the power of the mind. Video-game makers will be able to buy Emotiv's electro-encephalograph (EEG) caps and software developer's tool kits so that they can build games that use the electrical signals from a player's brain to control the on-screen action.


Emotiv’s electro-encephalograph cap
Emotiv's system has three different applications. One is designed to sense facial expressions such as winks, grimaces, and smiles and transfer them, in real time, to an avatar. This could be useful in virtual-world games, such as Second Life, in which it takes a fair amount of training to learn how to express emotions and actions through a keyboard. Another application detects two emotional states, such as excitement and calm. Emotiv's chief product officer, Randy Breen, says that these unconscious cues could be used to modify a game's soundtrack or to affect the way that virtual characters interact with a player. The third set of software can detect a handful of conscious intentions that can be used to push, pull, rotate, and lift objects in a virtual world."10


One last type of virtual identity that is used for digital creative practice and corporate practice is the online identity.

An artist that uses an online identity is Walid Raad, the founder or the Atlas Group archives. "The Atlas Group is a project established in 1999 to research and document the contemporary history of Lebanon. One of his aims with this project is to locate, preserve, study and produce audio, visual, literary and other artifacts that shed light on the contemporary history of Lebanon. In this endeavor, we produced and found several documents including notebooks, films, videotapes, photographs and other objects. Moreover, we organized these works into an archive, The Atlas Group Archive. The project’s public forms include mixed media installations, single channel screenings, visual and literary essays, and lectures/performances. The work of the Atlas Group Archives fall into three categories:

Type A for files that contain documents that we produced and that we attribute to named imaginary individuals or organizations.

Type FD for files that contain documents that we produced and that we attribute to anonymous individuals or organizations.

Type AGP for files that contain documents that we produced and that we attribute to The Atlas Group."11

As the categories reveal, the archive is largely of produced and not recovered documentation. However, the works in the archive deal directly with issues that face Lebanon today. By invoking a virtual identity, Raad achieves his intention. Like The Yes Men, Raad exploit the Internet and the notion of Identity to make work that carries strong social, political and ethical implications.

The use of the virtual identity, whether through Second Life, the persona of the hacker or an online identity gives the digital artist the freedom to explore creative strategies that would otherwise be much more difficult to realize. The virtual identity also frees the artist from what hackers call "bogus criteria" allowing the art to be the most important factor. The interfaces that digital artists create and use bring us closer and comment on technology and our ability to connect with our own virtual identities. The virtual identity has become an enmeshed extension of not only how digital artists make art, but how digital artists extend their identities to produce their work.


This article is a paper that was presented at the College Art Association Annual Conference in 2008.


Matthew Board has a B.F.A. with a concentration in painting from Northern Kentucky University. In 2006, Matthew received his M.F.A. with concentrations in Electronic Art and Painting from The University of Cincinnati College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Computer Graphics at Springfield College in Springfield, Massachusetts.











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