Monday, April 09, 2007

Being and Playing

Everyone's been guilty of exaggerating, misrepresenting or outright lying when it comes to description. I have known very few people who in their humility choose to underplay their assets. Most tend to overplay certain attributes, emphasize others, and completely fail to mention still others. If you've ever looked through Toronto real estate listings you might be left with the impression that everything west of Dufferin St. is "within steps of High Park". That is of course a true statement for any property. The question is how many steps: one hundred or one million?

It's hard to maintain such a fiction since the person will eventually walk through the house and realize the number of sole-wearing steps required to walk to High Park. The hope is that in seeing the house they will find other aspects to fall in love with and decide to buy anyway. Online dating services are similarly structured. You might lie a little about your height, weight or age just to get in the door hoping that they'll be unable to resist your ample other charms once they meet you in "real life". But is a digital layer even required for this approach? Consider how people behave when meeting someone in a bar. What kind of creativity have you seen on display?

But what if your created persona is never meant to transfer back to the real world? Services like Second Life allow people to create avatars completely from scratch. You can give them appearances, skills, possessions that may or may not have anything to do with your own first life attributes. No one needs ever to discover these shortcomings nor find them to be relevant. Digital technology makes it much easier to maintain such a fictional persona but is not necessarily required. You can create your own fictional persona in meat-space without ever having to turn on a computer. You can pretend you're an experimental electronic musician from Europe, complete with an unidentifiable mid-continent accent (as I once did at a university party) or you can go much deeper and create a character named Borat and then document his exploits on film, as Sacha Baron Cohen did.

Borat is the world famous Kazakhi journalist created by Cohen. It is an avatar that Cohen wears and plays within our first life world, albeit a stylized version of our world (cinematic space). It is interesting that a first life person named Mahir Cagri has mused about suing Cohen for ripping off his persona which was briefly famous in 1999. People familiar with both characters have noted the striking similarities. The truly interesting thing about it is that Cagri's persona is not a deliberate conscious creation like Cohen's is. The character that came to be know as that "I Kiss You guy" is not a put-on; it is Cagri himself. It will be difficult to litigate someone for ripping off such a persona because it will be said that this persona was not a creation at all and therefore not protected by creative copyrights.

Cagri is in the odd position that his case would be stronger if he wasn't being himself but merely playing himself. There is something amiss here. I can argue that we are the creators and puppet-masters of several avatars or personae that we control all the time. It may be the bat-winged hunchback vampire that you play in Second Life, or the hardworking cubicle-dweller that you play at work or the good citizen that you play on the neighbourhood committee, but these can all be seen to be avatars created by you to control within different environments. We have always had these powers and there is a fine line, if any, between being and playing.

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