Ways of (Virtual) Seeing: Applying a Bergerian Lens in a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE)





self-representation, visual depiction, power relations, multi-user virtual environments, Second Life

How to Cite

Procter, L. (2017). Ways of (Virtual) Seeing: Applying a Bergerian Lens in a Multi-User Virtual Environment (MUVE). M/C Journal, 20(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.1275
Vol. 20 No. 4 (2017): depict
Published 2017-08-16


How we represent, portray, illustrate or render have long been important processes for understanding socio-political communication events. As Berger's work demonstrates, these phenomena have a long and well-established part to play in social presence. The visual effectively circulates and perpetuates messages that maintain systems of power and oppression (Gallagher). While distribution methods for these messages have changed, Berger notes, the inherent messages themselves have not. What has changed is the complexity of individuals' visual experiences in an age where visuality and cyberspace are intimately bound up with each other and where the visual becomes a place for meaning creation and contestation (Mirzoeff 6). "Modern life," Mirzoeff notes, "takes place onscreen" and "[human] experience is now more visual and visualized than ever before […]. In the era of the visual screen, your viewpoint is crucial" (1).

In Ways of Seeing, Berger offers a starting point from which to understand the crucial importance of viewpoint and seeing. He also provides insights into the power images have and into their ability to reflect social dynamics. As Gallagher argues, our image consumption has become automatic and increasingly tied to how relationships between identity and contemporary social climates are formed. During my discussion, I use the word "image" to refer to all that we see, whether that is static or moving because both types of image are present in MUVEs, often simultaneously. As the expanding impact of digital technologies accompanies an iconic turn where the image's logic increasingly influences our meaning-making (Bayne), it becomes increasingly complicated to analyse the dynamics and consequences of image-saturation for individuals' everyday lived experiences. Enmeshed digital and internet cultural practices contribute to "the new urgency of the visual" (Mirzoeff 6).

I draw primarily on Berger's Ways of Seeing because I believe it to be the work through which he is better known beyond the discipline of Art History/Art Criticism. I have been relatively selective in the ideas chosen due to my desire to focus primarily on how ways of seeing in Second Life can be understood from a perspective based on Berger's ideas. Not all the ideas he presents in Ways of Seeing, or elsewhere, are relevant to my discussion. Whereas Berger concentrates his ideas on works of art, however, I apply those ideas to what occurs within the frame of a computer screen opening onto the specific context of Second Life.

I shall take Second Life (SL) as a MUVE example and examine ways in which operational dynamics there represent wider social changes in how we "see" and what that might mean for the user. I have chosen SL because it is, in many ways, another version of real life, but one rendered in pixels and contained within a computer screen. This is certainly the view offered by SL's development company, Linden Lab. An early guide to SL officially supported by Linden Lab refers to SL as "representative of the world as we know it. It has been conceived by and is being created by humans, and people tend to do things in a certain way. It doesn’t matter whether the world they're in is virtual or 'real'" (Rymaszewski et al. ix). The views advanced by Rymaszewski et al are important because they echo Linden Lab's marketing focus for SL which has, in turn, influenced residents' perceptions due to the text's operation as a guidebook for SL.  Grosz echoes this sentiment in an academic context when she describes cyberspace as a "'parallel' universe to our own" (75). Examining these contexts provides insights into images and the social dynamics of seeing, especially as its importance has increased with the Internet's ubiquitous place in contemporary social life.

I begin by describing SL's relevant operational elements and discuss the avatar's importance as the user's representative inworld. Taking each of Berger's text chapters in Ways of Seeing, I discuss the ideas to be applied to SL and how Berger's ideas might be challenged or reinforced in the SL context. In arranging the sections of this discussion, I have followed Berger's order of argument in Ways of Seeing, starting with what I think of as his dynamics of seeing—that is, the importance of seeing, notions of perspective, gendered seeing, and the links between possessing and ways of seeing. From there I explore the role of SL status and the links between appearance and what Berger calls publicity, glamour and celebrity. Thus, although my discussion's main focus is on SL seeing in general and gendered seeing in particular, it is impossible to ignore similarities between aspects of the SL avatar image and the oil painting genre Berger analyses, many of which relate to the common role of appearance and status in both.

The SL Context

Created by Linden Lab, SL is self-described as the most mature example of a new generation of immersive virtual worlds. It went live in June 2003 (Rymaszewski et al. 6). Residents (as SL users describe themselves) do not typically think of SL as a game, since there is no win scenario or any specific objective. SL appeals to a very broad demographic, men and women users are roughly equal numerically and the average age is thirty-two (Linden). SL has between 37,000 and 45,000 residents regularly online at any one time (Shepherd).

SL markets itself as a world of imaginative possibilities, hinging upon the "Your world. Your imagination." slogan (secondlife.com), offering residents building tools that allow easy creation of items and objects. All but the basic SL environment is built by its residents. SL is an active participation genre as opposed to passive media such as static web pages or television viewing, meaning that residents are immersed in an environment through which they move, which remains even if the user logs out their avatar, and which operates in real time.

A Second Life: The Avatar's Importance

The first task after creating a new SL account is to build or choose an avatar, a 3-D alternate, digital persona. The avatar is the key to MUVE experience(s). Avatars are technological artefacts, providing communicators a body in virtual spaces, making people, places and things concrete, tangible and present through the affordance of embodiment. As the user’s bodily representative within the MUVE, an avatar allows both a greater sense of control and a more effective engagement with experiences as they unfold in real time (DeFreitas and Veletsianos).

An SL avatar manifests the RL person in a virtual setting. To people you encounter in SL, your avatar is who you are—"your avatar choices reflect your personality and mentality" (Rymaszewski et al. 12). Broadly speaking, each avatar comprises a skin (providing flesh colour, tone and highlights), a shape (the body), and an outfit (everything worn on the body) plus any attachments on the body. Your outfit includes your skin, genitals and some secondary sex characteristics like body hair as well as clothes, hair, eyes and any objects you might wish to hold such as swords or purses. All new residents (called variously newbs or noobs) must make three choices in their first seconds of creating an SL avatar: choose a name, a gender, and select an avatar from the starter options Linden Lab provides. Currently there are three types of avatar: new (five male and five female), classic (eight male and eight female, shown in Fig. 1), and fantasy (four male and four female).

Having chosen their initial look, new residents begin to explore the limitless possibilities for appearance customization. There is no requirement to copy anything about your offline existence, and many residents have more than one appearance and switch between them regularly. The lack of any requirement for avatar and user to be similar disconnects online and offline bodily referents. This facilitates a fluidity of identity which is common in MUVEs. The SL avatar therefore allows users to be strategic in self-presentation(s) by separating aspects of their identities, and by choosing which aspects to present, and to whom. From anecdotal and personal experience in SL there is clearly considerable potential for false identity, marking SL as a place for identity play and experimentation. Many residents create multiple accounts (called alts) which operate alongside their primary accounts for either legitimate or nefarious purposes. Residents may place RL pictures on their profile that are not themselves, or indulge in numerous obfuscations of reality. I now turn to what these operational dynamics mean for how avatars and users see in SL. 

The Importance of Seeing

Berger writes that seeing comes before words—both developmentally and in the sense that seeing establishes our place in the world before we attempt to verbalise our understanding of that place (7-8). For Berger, our knowledge and beliefs affect how we see things and, that because we only see what we look at, to look is an act of choice (8). Our awareness of being seen follows closely upon seeing for the "eye of the other" combines with "our own eyes to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world. […] The reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental that that of spoken dialogue" (9).

SL operates within a visual paradox. On one hand because what you see in SL so often does not match the offline individual, SL undercuts the Western insistence or importance of visual veracity by suspending disbelief. In SL, suspending disbelief means that many residents accept identities presented to them at face value. Intellectually they may know, or guess, that the avatar with whom they are conversing is nothing like the user controlling it. Practically, however, they often react as if the two were indeed the same.

Suspension of disbelief operates in another way also. Besides symbolising the visual representation of the user, the avatar is also a vehicle for presence or psychological immersion, which is a significant environmental factor in MUVEs (Dalgarno and Lee). Presence describes the effect people experience when interacting with a computer mediated or generated environment. It is the illusion that a mediated experience is unmediated (Lombard & Ditton). Presence involves a sense of being 'there' in the environment. Enhanced personal presence results when the environment and those in it 'know' you are there as you converse with other beings, are conversed with in turn, or interact with the environment through movement or object manipulation. Presence means that individuals think of themselves as situated and immersed in an external space, which then operates as a sociocultural web connecting objects, people, and their interactions (Mantovani and Riva). In such environments, social interaction is open-ended rather than a precursor to overt goal oriented action, transactions may occur via a tangible economic structure (Warburton), and boundaries are persistently blurred between corporeality and transcendence, the real and the virtual, where and nowhere, and single and multiple selves (Jones).

The other aspect of the paradox is that, despite visual veracity being undercut in SL, vision and hearing dominate sensory perception there. Sound may be available either by music or ambient sounds such as wind or wave sound played in the "sims" or land parcels in-world. Residents may also choose to communicate using what is referred to as "voice," a mechanism by which they talk via headset to residents in-world. All other SL communication forms, however, involve text on the screen inworld or messages sent to offline e-mail addresses. Sight therefore remains the primary sensory perception for SL users, despite the importance of visual veracity being undercut in the ways previously discussed.


For Berger, European art after the Renaissance "centres everything on the eye of the beholder" (16). Appearances, perceived as reality, travel towards the eye, making it the "centre of the visible world. Everything converges on to the eye as to the vanishing point of infinity" (16). In this convention, the spectator has the visible world arranged for him as if he were God and the visible world the universe (16). God is not expected to engage in reciprocity, and nor is any visual reciprocity expected from the spectator. The spectator in this convention is posed as the eye-of-God or as a unique centre of the world. Berger sees an inherent contradiction in this perspective, however, because unlike God, the spectator can only be in one place at a time and it was not until the invention of the camera that this contradiction became apparent. The camera emphasizes momentary appearances and the dependence of seeing upon a where and a when (18). If what one sees depends upon temporal and spatial position, then the centrality of one's seeing changes. Berger notes that this change was particularly apparent with the movie camera. Cameras multiply and fragment images' meaning into many meanings (19). The meaning of any image depends upon from where, and when, one views it. For Berger, then, static and moving images are experienced differently. SL images can be both static and moving, emphasizing the importance of temporal and spatial positioning. Further, the spatial disconnect between seeing as a user watching your avatar experiencing the world, and seeing through the avatar's eyes in one of the default viewing options adds further complications, as I shall now explain.

Offline the seeing individual remains at some steps removed from the observed image—even when surrounded by images in our everyday lives. Usually what we observe does not look back at us. The looker exercises the controlling gaze. This would also partially apply to online participants in text-based contexts, where the user retains the controlling gaze. The new Web 2.0 platforms and MUVEs, however, further immerse the user in the visual environment where often sight is the only sense available and where the avatar-as-user's-proxy is viewed the way another individual is viewed in offline contexts. What relevance for seeing and viewpoint in SL might we derive from this idea of an image's meaning being dependent upon where and when one views it?

By default, users see their own avatar from behind and slightly above, and SL is experienced from this perspective because it is the only one that allows the avatar to move. By manipulating camera controls inworld an optional 360-degree view (including front view) is possible—until the avatar moves. This front view becomes the default when avatars are in "edit appearance" mode (see Fig. 2).

All these avatar perspectives differ markedly from what is familiar in an offline context. Offline we are not easily able to see the totality of our exterior and even less easily our back view. Yet in SL this is the default view and we experience the environment over the back of the avatar's head.

For Berger, seeing establishes our place in the surrounding world and, although we can later explain this place with words, we remain in an unsettled relationship between what we see and what we know. Whenever we enter SL, we literally see before we can do anything else as the world appears before our avatar is fully logged in. Once logged in, the multiple ways we see both our avatar and surrounding environments further unsettles the relationship between seeing and knowing. For example, as the login screen forms, the user sees an image of what was on the screen as the user last logged out. As login progresses users do not always know where they will appear inworld. Quite literally, in this case, the gap is wide between what is seen and what is known.

Returning to point of view, however, and Berger's idea that we only see what we look at, each of the SL view options is both more partial and more varied than is possible offline. Although unassisted offline views of our body—i.e. without using some form of mirror—are also limited, the limits in each context are different. Like the default avatar view, our offline viewing field is partial, as is our view of our body. The SL optional view and the offline view-in-the-mirror are more similar but the former offers a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view, whereas the latter is far less complete.

Such comparisons would be of only passing interests were it not for SL's resulting disruptions to the surveyor/surveyed nexus. For Berger, we are aware of being seen soon after we see. The other's eye combines with our own to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world. For the SL user, there is no lag in awareness. Simultaneously seeing and being seen, the immediacy of this reciprocity elides the separation of viewer and image. Offline, human sight centres the individual in similar ways to how Berger construes the owner-spectator—"the looker is himself the situation" (16). In SL, however, the altered user perspectives decentre and objectify the viewer—one sees one's avatar-self as an object of one's view rather than its convergent point. Yet the user can only experience SL through the avatar. The user is no longer the situation but is placed in the situation. Although the user continues to view with the eye of the beholder, experiencing SL through the eyes of the situated avatar destabilises perspective by eroding the authority of the eye-of-god-spectator. The spectator is no longer comfortably or securely placed as the main protagonist. Practically, SL users may deploy different viewing options for different purposes. But, more abstractly, those different views affect the user's sense of presence, thereby influencing the user's in-world experience vis-à-vis their offline habituations. Here we can consider the interplay between the offline "who" and the online "what".

Gendered Seeing

Berger's views about gender and seeing is encapsulated in these two phrases: "the social presence of a woman is different in kind from that of a man" (45); and "men act and women appear (47, original emphasis). For Berger, the gendered differences referred to in the first phrase create those referred to in the second. Man's presence depends upon the promise of power which may be "moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual" (45), and which is exercised over others. Woman's presence, on the other hand, expresses an attitude to herself and what can or cannot be done to her. Man's presence is projected onto others, whereas a woman's emanates from inside herself and is then attached to herself, her surroundings, clothes, or tastes. Further, a woman must watch herself and her own image of herself, making a "self being split into two […] the surveyor and the surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman" (46). Men also habitually survey women before treating them. These interactions ensure that a woman must survey "everything she is and everything she does, because how she appears to others" determines her treatment (46). A woman's "sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another" (46). To gain some control over this process, Berger argues, women must "contain and interiorize" it (46). The surveyor part of herself must ensure that the surveyed part appears as she would like it to be treated. "Men look at women," Berger writes, "[w]omen watch themselves being looked at." Because this dynamic determines not only male-female relations but also women's relation to themselves, the "surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight" (47)

Based on this argument, Berger examines the gendered dynamics in artwork where women, particularly nude women, are displayed as being available to a viewer normatively thought of as male. In such paintings, the "principal protagonist" (the male viewer) is rarely if ever, painted. Although he is outside the frame, everything is addressed to him, all must appear to be the result of his presence, and be displayed for his spectatorship (54-55). Even paintings which contain other male figures do not significantly challenge this dynamic since it is not to them that the female figure directs her attention but rather to "her one true love—the spectator-owner" who is, in fact, the sexual protagonist (56). This "unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture," Berger concludes, "that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity" (63). Although these attitudes are now expressed in more widespread media, "the essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed […] because the 'ideal' spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of women is designed to flatter him" (64).

Gendered seeing in SL complicates Berger's analysis in several ways. Berger argues that women's split subjective position (both the surveyor and the surveyed) determines their social position vis-á-vis men. But it also determines SL user/Avatar-self relations. Women are accustomed to containing and interiorizing the process whereby their appearance determines their treatment by men (and other women). Thus, avatar self-surveillance continues their offline practice(s). Although contemporary social media practices have generated increased expectations of social surveillance and expectations, men have remained less affected than women. In SL, however, the self-surveillance involved in avatar modification and operation, the emphasis on appearance, and expectations of treatment based on that appearance may be new ground for male users. Berger notes that the "surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus, she turns herself into an object—and most particularly an object of vision: a sight" (47). Male SL users viewing their avatar-self also enter into this split subjectivity. In SL, they too must become accustomed to containing and interiorizing the appearance/treatment nexus as they become the surveyed. Where there is a match between online and offline gender the dynamics of gendered seeing remain more or less as Berger describes them except for this blurring of surveyor and surveyed in the male example.

Gender switching adds another dimension to the analysis. The potential for gender switching certainly "queers" gender practices in MUVEs (Procter). In one example, an offline individual accustomed to occupying the surveyor role operates an avatar who, in enacting gendered norms of femininity, occupies the role of the surveyed much more clearly than the male avatar might. Crucially, however, the male user's female avatar-self occupies a surveyed position not only to her operator but also to other residents in SL. The male user thereby occupies a position of doubly split object status through the female avatar-self. That the user must perform femininity in this voyeuristic way surely emphasises the normatively performed modes of the surveyed in much the way Butlerian drag underscores the normatively performed aspects of femininity itself (Butler).

Berger's work offers a further aspect complicated by gendered viewing options in SL. For Berger, the oil painting's protagonist is the absent spectator before the picture and is presumed to be male. Everything in the painting is addressed to him and must appear to result from his presence. Women are often present in the painting only to feed the spectator's appetite, not to have their own (Berger 54). The absent but powerful protagonist, the passive and objectified female figure(s) on the canvas focus the control and ownership of the scene outside the frame. On a superficial level, this is also true for SL. The user (or spectator-owner) is absent from the scene because the avatar is their inworld representative. The user controls the avatar's actions. The avatar exists to gratify the user's appetites for beauty, sociality, sexual expression, or connection. Whenever avatars interact inworld the users enjoy a voyeuristic spectacle that they participate in only at the outer limit of the action. Yet action takes place for them and only at their instigation.

The one-step-removed, user-as-spectator similarity between SL's gendered seeing dynamics and those Berger identifies is challenged by two further aspects. The first arises through the operation of presence and co-presence. Berger's owner-surveyor stands before the painting but the SL user-surveyor stands outside and also in the scene as the avatar-self. This occurs because avatars permit us to be aware of our self as embodied, of others' selves as embodied, and of others' awareness of our self as embodied, guiding our conduct according to the perceived identity and initial response of our audience. Further, the representation of the embodied other's existence maximises the experience of social presence through the concepts of intimacy and immediacy. Immediacy behaviours create and maintain intimacy, and enhance social presence. Experiences of psychological involvement; the concepts of saliency, immediacy and intimacy, making oneself known; and behavioural engagement generate behavioural interaction through which social presence is realised.

This sense of social presence means that the avatar experience becomes the user-surveyor's experience much more viscerally than Berger's oil painting will affect its surveyor. Despite the impossibility of users becoming their avatar, and despite a "cinematic-like segregation of user and character" differentiating between the two can be difficult because of identification with the avatar (White). Shultze and Leahy found that virtually every participant in their study recounted instances when their avatar represented them and where they perceived no distinction between themselves and their avatar.

The increased sense of connection between avatar-self and its user thus erodes the user's sense of objectivity in relation to the avatar-self, complicating the social process of 'looking', its embodied nature, and the links between looking and identity—offering a second challenge to Berger's surveyor-surveyed dynamics. Gilbert et al identify "reverse enhancement" whereby the physical (offline) self may experience physical, cognitive or socio-emotional benefit resulting from MUVE experience.

Through reverse enhancement, the male user of a female avatar could, for example, experience an offline emotional response to sexual harassment or objectification by other inworld residents. With the avatar operating as an extension of the offline self, identifying with the avatar draws the avatar's experiences into the offline self's psycho-social schema. Where those experiences are a mismatch with offline positioning, emotional and cognitive dissonance may result. The male user-surveyor may be exercising a controlling gaze offline, but his positioning as female avatar-self means that he becomes the passive bearer of other male gazes inworld. Berger's owner-spectator may remain aloof but the user-surveyor puts that detachment at risk.

Identity, Consumption and Experience Embellishment

Possessing and Seeing

Berger argues that the new materials and techniques of oil painting allowed a way of seeing that was linked to newly developing "attitudes towards property and exchange". New attitudes to property and exchange found their visual expression in the oil painting as they could not in any other visual art form. It reduced everything to the equality of objects" (87). Berger establishes links between the oil painting, the buying power of money, and individual wealth (87-90). "Oil painting," he argues, "did to appearances what capital did to social relations. Commodification, materiality and exchange in oil painting "conveyed a vision of total exteriority" (87).

The subjects of oil painting were often intended to confirm the owner's wealth, status, and social position. Even paintings that depicted historical or mythological events were, in Berger's view, meant to embellish experiences the owner already possessed. "Before these canvasses the spectator-owner hoped to see the classic face of his own passion or grief or generosity. The idealized appearances he found in the painting were an aid, a support, to his own view of himself. In those appearances, he found the guise of his own (or his wife's or his daughter's) nobility"(101). In this way, the painting could function as "a garment held out for the spectator-owner to put his arms into and wear" (102).

Publicity, Glamour, Celebrity

For Berger, publicity offers individuals the potential for self-transformation into the object of others' envy, and it is this state of being envied which constitutes glamour. Working upon a natural human appetite for pleasure, publicity offers a substitute rather than the real object of pleasure (131-32). According to the legends of publicity, those who lack the power to spend money become literally faceless. Those who have the power become lovable" (143). This view retains credibility because "the truthfulness of publicity is judged not by the real fulfilment of its promises, but by the relevance of its fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer. Its essential application is not to reality but to day-dreams" (146). The day-dream operates in the space between what the individual is and what s/he would like to be. "Publicity does not manufacture the dream. All that it does is to propose to each one of us that we are not yet enviable—yet could be" (149). Publicity, Berger argues, is the lifeblood of this culture. Without publicity capitalism could not survive, for it is capitalism's dream (154).

One further set of ideas from Berger deserves mention at this point because it helps us to understand how an individual might experience the virtual as more realistic than might be assumed. In "Field," Berger uses the experience of a physical field as an analogy for the field of consciousness. When we experience an event, Berger writes, our thoughts and questions forever return to ourselves "to search there for an explanation of … life and its purpose" ("Field" 192). Events we experience draw attention to the fields within which they occur, but acquire special significance because of our own awareness (Hughes). Our conscious interpretation of our surroundings is critical to how we understand experiences there. Berger's ideas here are especially helpful, I believe, when considering how we understand what we see and experience in MUVEs. Our consciousness makes our link to the avatar so that even though the inworld event happens to the avatar, in many ways it also happens to us as the user.

Berger's ideas about paintings as "garment" and publicity as day-dream, and his notions of glamour and the experience of the field, are evident in how status operates in SL.

The user-surveyor's detachment is eroded by the strong links established between user and avatar identity. Capital has commodified all aspects of everyday life, inexorably linking a spectacular consumer society to the rise of culture dominated by the image (Mirzoeff 27) and by imaged identity, whether online or off it. Berger's vision of exteriority has become widespread beyond the oil painting genre. Links between identity and consumption have recently intensified and migrated to various Internet contexts. Belk poses a connection between our possessions and our selves. Updating his work to a digital context, he notes the remarkable "degree to which virtual self construction online transfers into nonvirtual self construction offline" (Belk 478). The tools provided by Internet platforms continue, as least visually, to perpetuate social status and enforce economic hierarchies and very little has changed in terms of aspirations and ambitions surrounding wealth and luxury since the Fifteenth Century (Gallagher). Wealth's visuality remains, and is intensified.

The successful everyday presentation of SL avatar self depends upon the user-surveyor having the necessary financial or operative skill sets to modify and move their avatar in normatively attractive ways. Appearance makes the avatar. Most new SL residents spend considerable time and often real money losing the newbie or default avatar look. Like Berger's wealthy art patrons, many SL residents invest time and money to present their best, most elegant selves inworld. The visual language of objects is deployed to indicate identity and to inflate one's avatar-self-image, commodifying identity.

Virtual life is attractive because it liberates people from the offline constraints imposed upon them. Social and cultural capital attached to an attractive avatar can be purchased in SL for a fraction of the offline equivalent. Significantly, the SL currency—the Linden Dollar— has a United States Dollar exchange rate. Currently, 260 Linden Dollars equals one United States Dollar. To buy a good quality "skin" to improve the default avatar will cost less than the price of an offline cup of coffee (see Fig. 3). Compared to the art patron of the Fifteenth Century, the illusion of wealth as it is measured in SL is cheaply purchased.


Both Berger's owner-surveyor and the SL user-surveyor function as virtual counterparts in the encounter within which our own identity is formed. Lacan proposed that identity remains irrevocably split because of the impossibility of resolving differences between the real and the mirror (virtual) body. The avatar-self with whom we do, and yet do not, identify is the virtual heir to the "visual desirability of what can be bought" (Berger, 90).

S/he is heir to this in another way also. Exteriority's vital importance is magnified in the dominating visuality of SL. What is seen is so often all there is. The oil painting owner can exhibit his object/painting in a house filled with other objects evoking wealth and status. His objects belong to him. They reflect upon him, but are not him. The SL user's avatar-self is both the object and the user-surveyor inworld. Virtual objects now "generate the same perceptual effects as 'real' objects" (Grosz 78). More than the oil painting, then, the avatar-self is viewed as a form of self-representation, whether that be a literal mapping of self onto avatar, a concealment of one's offline self within the avatar, or a depiction of an idealised self (Jensen, Taylor, De Castell & Dilouya 2015).

In relation to the search for nobility in appearances and the embellishment of experience already possessed, Berger argues that the purpose of the mythological genre of oil painting was to embellish experience already possessed by the owner and reflect something back to him. The SL avatar operates in a remarkably similar way. Whether we think of the avatar as an extended self, a concealing mask for the offline self, or a pixelated idealized self, it too is like a garment waiting for the spectator-owner [user] to wear. In the experiential field of SL events acquire the special significance of happening to us via the avatar. Our avatar reflects upon us.

The focus for Linden Lab's marketing is clearly on daydreams and fantasy—"Have an adventure, Become a creator. Earn money. Find friends". For Berger, publicity remains credible because its truthfulness is judged by "the relevance of its fantasies to those of the spectator-buyer. Its essential application is not to reality but to day-dreams" (146). It is this day-dream/fantasy element that opens the way for the avatar-self as wish fulfiller with whom passion, grief, or generosity may be experienced. Playing on the offline self's potential with her or his images or social life, SL promises better, and for free. The possibility of attractiveness, popularity and sociality is seductive. For the avatar-self, the real is irrelevant. It is the avatar's image of perfection as judged inworld that residents respond to. One of the most common SL adages is that SL and RL never mix—"what happens in SL stays in SL". 


As Western culture becomes more image saturated and image consumption automatic, visuality increasingly dominates the association between identity and sociality: we are what we are seen to be. I have taken aspects of John Berger's seminal analysis as a comparison point to examine how those dynamics play out in predominantly visual MUVE environments like SL. Like Berger's oil painting, SL disseminates messages about the self that have remained unchanged for centuries. Reliance on commodified identity, appearance and experience remain very similar between Berger's spectator-owner and the SL user-surveyor. I have argued, however, that SL challenges Berger's analysis when we consider the gender-switching user-surveyor and the operation of presence. A male user operating a female avatar cannot fully maintain the objectivity enjoyed by the male spectator-owner Berger identifies. The operation of presence—and especially social presence—further erodes that objective distance. SL draws us into the virtual more fully than does the oil painting, however, strengthening the bonds between online and offline identity and highlighting the fragmented nature of contemporary identity.


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Author Biography

Lesley Procter, University of Otago

Lesley Procter is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Sociology, Gender and Social Work at the University of Otago where she teaches introductory courses in Sociology and courses on the self in society. Her primary research interest is in the construction of identity in virtual online environments.