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131 7 Avatar A Posthuman Perspective on Virtual Worlds Gray Graffam When paraplegic Jake Sully takes virtual form in the film Avatar, he enters the world of the Na’vi, where he assumes the fully functional physical form of an alien humanoid species and falls in love with the young, attractive, and highly spirited Ney’tiri. At the end of the film, struggling and dying, he succeeds in transferring his life essence into his avatar form and completes his transformation to a living being in an alien world. For those who have played Second Life or World of Warcraft, the film Avatar is a powerful allegory for life experience in an online virtual world (Graffam 2011). For some, the idea of being an avatar on a regular and continual basis is a powerful attraction for entering such online worlds. Taking the form of an avatar represents—however fleeting—a means of seemingly overcoming a number of inadequacies in real life. For some, it embraces love, passion, and an overwhelming sense of heartfelt emotion, filling a void of loneliness and longing. For others, it represents a wholeness of being, allowing a sense of movement, re-creation, and fulfillment and a release from pain and suffering and, at times, physical disability. Still for others, it represents a DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c07 132 Gray Graffam form of entertainment and social interaction, at times embracing the exotic and experimental and relieving a sense of loneliness and boredom. It can also be a means of staying in touch and maintaining real-life friendships and family relationships at a distance. In essence, taking the form of an avatar allows people to interact in new and novel ways that push the boundaries they encounter in real life and to derive a sense of enjoyment and fulfillment in ways that may be denied them in the real world. Of course, all of this begs the question of whether we, as a species, are quite ready to embrace the virtual. The growing body of posthuman research and theory suggests that perhaps we are not, at least not completely and not without serious consideration of how virtuality can alter our sense of family, sociality, and psychological well-being. But research also reveals that people are indeed experiencing the virtual more and more and that some are spending inordinate amounts of time in such worlds, so much in fact that a virtual world can form a primary means of communication and social interaction. The research foundation for my work comes from having spent more than 2,000 hours in Second Life and World of Warcraft over the past two years, plus a number of hours on Skype, Ventrilo, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo Messenger, and texting platforms of various sorts. I have interacted via computer , cell phone, and tablet, and I have been fully immersed (some might prefer to say addicted), interacting with hundreds of people and, in the case of World of Warcraft, also joining one of the oldest guilds in the game and attaining a level 85 ranking (currently the highest in the game). Can views on the posthuman help us to understand the cultures and people who “live” within such worlds? I believe so, in particular because such views allow us to frame our research in ways that acknowledge how fiction, illusion, and reality can blend together in ways that fashion computer-mediated experience and craft online performance. They provide a perspective on virtuality and materiality within which to reflect and interpret actions and behaviors in modern context. They allow us to address such topics as imagination , disembodiment and re-embodiment, courtship and romance, identity and social identity, gender and sexuality, sociality, materiality, performance, and performative mastery, among a great many others. Moreover, such views force us to look at the intricacies of human behavior and the dynamics of culture as they are shaped and heavily influenced by virtuality. As mentioned by Whitehead at the outset of this volume, such views force us continually to ask how the “human subject” is best viewed when it comes to online agency. By “posthuman,” I am referring to that growing body of literature and theory that deals with computer-mediated human interaction, where imagination and sensation extend beyond the reach of the human body. Along with others (see Whitehead 2009, this volume; Cool, this volume; Hayles 1999), I argue that the term serves as a useful concept for reflection on those aspects of humanity that concern us here, particularly in terms of...


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