Virtually Feminine - Part 1 - Mistaken identity
I wrote this story about personal growth through interaction in a Virtual World largely in response to Dorothy Colleen’s challenge to write something about a 40+ transition. I’m not sure it will get that far, but the characters are the right age at least.
I set it in Second Life, as that’s an environment I am familiar with. I was going to go through afterwards and edit all the references to some generic VR World but I think it gives it a more realistic feel by using the names and jargon from a ‘real’’virtual world that some of you may be familiar with. Of course, I don’t own Second Life ™ , it’s a registered trademark belonging to Linden Lab. I’m not associated with them in any way and the views and people described only bear a passing resemblance to anyone real or virtual.’ All copyrights and trademarks belong to their respective owners and I’m not trying to sell anything. Please don’t sue me, as I don’t have any money. Oh, and if you’re reading this Fee and you recognise yourself, I’m sorry.
Creating the Avatar
OK, I’m not sure how to start this. I guess it begins when I first logged on to Second Life. OK, that’s half the audience gone, right? But this isn’t some techy geeky nerd boy story…. OK, it kind of is, I’m telling this all wrong. Why don’t you let me tell it and make your own mind up? Maybe you can ask me any questions you have along the way.
I guess some later bits of this story will be sort of self-writing, I think I still have the conversations recorded somewhere. That’s one of the great strengths, and weaknesses, of any form of social network messaging these days. But when you are setting up the avatar the first time it’s not that straight forward, nothing is being recorded and you can’t easily go back and retrace your steps, so this account is based on my recollections, flawed as they may be.
So, it suddenly strikes me that some of you might be saying ‘What is Second Life anyway?’. There’s been a lot of stories in the press over the years, most of it in a vaguely mocking tone. Calling it ‘Saddville’ or other abusive terms and poking fun at all the 40-something virgins having cyber-sex online with each other.
That’s not really what it’s about. It’s a virtual 3-dimensional world, that looks like a first person shoot-em-up game. But everyone you meet is not a computer generated target but a 3D Avatar controlled by a real person. It’s a kind of glorified chat room with 3D people instead of little symbols. What are the rules of the game? There are no rules – it’s a bit like real life that way. How do you know you’ve won? The same way you do in real life.
If there was someone winning in real life, it wasn’t me. My wife had left me. My job meant I had to travel for 3 hours a day but it paid too well to give up. I couldn’t move closer to my work because then I would never get to see my kids. But it meant I had no social life. I was a dreadful insomniac so I watched a lot of tv and spent my days in a zombie-like daze due to lack of sleep. I needed a way to switch off or something so I thought I’d give Second Life a try.
I logged on to the website and downloaded the software. When I tried to log on it took me through a startup process where I had to choose; male or female, white or black, this guy or that guy until I ended up with a boring white slightly preppy looking mid-twenties looking guy on the screen. Then it asked me for a name. I had to choose from a list of Surnames, so I went with Weatherwax from the Terry Pratchett books. Someone had warned me not to give away anything, even your gender in the name you chose so I typed in ‘Jez’ – that could be short for Jeremy, Jezebel, or any number of other names.
There was a tutorial where the system took you through various actions step-by-step; from walking, through talking, to flying and teleporting. By the time you finished you had a breastplate of armour, a new outfit, a flaming torch and you could do a hula dance while talking to a parrot and hovering in mid-air and bouncing a beach ball
At the end of the trail there was a block that said ‘Click on me to continue’. I clicked on the block and there was a whooshing sound and my screen faded to black.
Then a new area was shown with loads of other Avatars around you. Only… there was some kind of problem, all the avatars, including mine, looked like grey stunted dwarf women. I mentioned this to one of the other avatars standing around who had a ‘Mentor’ tag on. She told me that we had all ‘been Ruthed’. Apparently the default avatar shape in Second Life is called “Ruth”, every other avatar is a modified version of the Ruth shape, including the male avatars. There was some technical reason for this, something about mapping the pixels for clothing and skins to a generic map. I had no understanding of the explanation so I just shrugged and got on with chatting to some of my fellow ‘Newbies’. There was one avatar called ‘Fee Avro’ who was really interesting. I can’t really explain why, I didn’t save that conversation (I didn’t know how to at the time) but she was funny. More than that she was genuinely witty, coming out with sharp acidic comments about every aspect of Second Life and Real Life. We chatted for about 30 minutes when suddenly she said that she had to go for a Real Life appointment of some sort. We agreed to login again later that night and ‘meet up’ in the virtual world. As Fee left, she offered to ‘Friend’ me, so that we would see whenever each other logged on.
After Fee left, I wandered around for a while and found a treasure trove of free skins, clothes, shapes – all kinds of things. I also found a chair where if you sat on it you would receive game tokens, called ‘Linden Dollars’ or ‘Lindens’ or ‘L$’ for short. 10L$ for sitting for 20 minutes. I had no idea what 10L$ would buy me in the game so I sat my avatar down for a while as I reviewed what Fee had said. As I read the comments it struck me that Fee had assumed that I was female. I guess we all looked female, as we had all been ‘Ruthed’, and neither my name or anything I said had been gender specific so it made sense. I’d had such laugh chatting and bitching with Fee. I knew if I turned up as a male avatar that would all change, I’d had problems before with mistaken identity in other games and chat rooms and I know it shouldn’t matter but it does make a difference. I thought to myself, what the hell – there’s nothing that says that Jez can’t be female. I wasn’t there for the cyber-sex, I didn’t really care what Fee saw in me as long as we could have a laugh together exploring this virtual world. So I went round the freebie island where you could kit out your new avatar for nothing and built a shape and outfit for my new female persona. Then I logged out and went to do some work around the house.
That evening I logged back in and found that Fee was already online. She told me that she had bought some Lindens for real money and then gone shopping and exploring. She asked me if I would like to come join her and see what she had bought. I agreed and asked her to give me a moment to sort out my inventory and get over to her location.
I checked my female avatar was all ready to go and I ‘teleported’ my avatar to where Fee was.
I was very surprised to see Fee looking very dapper in a blue suit and wearing a goatee beard.
“I thought you were a girl!” I blurted out in the chat window.
“Yeah, because of the Ruthing thing, I get it. Nope, just a bloke ☺” he replied. “Want to come see what I found?”
So Fee vanished and sent me an IM message a few seconds later; “Join me in Heavenly Gardens – OK”.
I clicked on OK and my avatar reappeared in a beautiful garden. There were bridges over streams, gazebos, walls, benches and shrubs. Fee started in the direction of what looked to be a hedge-maze.
“Follow me, there’s this maze I want to show you” he typed.
“What are all the pink and blue balls for everywhere?”
“They’re animations built into the furniture, I click on a blue ball and you click on a pink ball and we will sit down on the benches or leans against the gazebos with a specific pose that the garden owner chooses”
“Huh? What does that mean?”
Fee walked over to a bench, there was a ‘ding’ noise and suddenly his avatar was sat in a classic male pose, with the legs apart. “Click on the pink ball to sit next to me” he said.
I clicked on the pink ball and suddenly my avatar was sat next to Fee, all prim and proper with legs crossed at the knees.
“Oh, I get it.”
“Hit the ‘stand’ button and come follow me – let’s see if we can find the centre of the maze!”
Fee’s avatar suddenly was on its feet and walking towards the maze again.
I fiddled for a while to hit the ‘stand’ button and got my avatar up and walking again. By the time I had got to the entrance to the maze Fee had vanished inside. I tried to figure out where he had gone and I realised that I could change the viewpoint of my screen, like zooming a remote camera on a drone all over the place. I took the camera view up to get an aerial view of the maze and saw Fee heading off to the centre. I could see he was going to get stuck, from my viewpoint, so I headed off in the opposite direction and got to the centre a few seconds before he did.
As we both got to the centre our avatars bumped into each other face to face and bounced back.
I chuckled in RL and said to Fee "We look like a couple of bumper-cars!"
"LOL — more like demented Daleks!" he quipped.
"What shall we do now?"
"Do you like to dance?" he said. Before I could answer he said "wait here a second" and his avatar vanished with a whooshing noise. A second or two later I got the "Join me in Heavenly Gardens — OK". I clicked on the button and my avatar vanished and reappeared next to Fee in what looked like an idealised Gazebo. There was a blue ball and a pink ball next to us with the caption "Dance (M)" and "Dance (F)" over each respective ball.
"Stand on your ball" Fee told me as he clicked on the blue ball and struck a dance pose with his arms extended. I clicked on the pink ball and selected "Dance" from the pie menu where normally it would say "Stand" and before I knew it Fee and Jez were waltzing around the screen together. It was cute, to see the two avatars dance demurely round the screen. Music played in the background and Fee and I chatted. I couldn't tell you what we talked about; kids, relationships, jobs. Early on in the conversation I tried to raise the subject of who I really was. I said to Fee that my avatar didn't look anything like me in RL and I was going to go on and explain the confusion but Fee shushed me and said he didn't care, for tonight he was just happy to play on SL and he didn't care who I was or what I looked like. It seemed harmless enough, so I just went along with it. I was careful with pronouns and personal details so as not to break the moment with the realisation that I was a man.
“ I know somewhere where there are a lot more different dances” said Fee. A moment later he vanished with a whooshing sound. I got a message “Join me in Heavenly Clouds”. I accepted the invitation and found myself in a misty area facing Fee. Through the clouds I was standing on I could see glimpses of the ground below. “I think it's supposed to be a nightclub in Heaven” he said. “Follow me” as he turned to stride across cloudscape to a pair of balls, one pink and one blue.
They each had a label "DanceR" over them. I clicked on the ball and before I knew it our avatars were dancing. It was a slow and sensual dance, I know now that it was a rumba, but I couldn't tell a rumba from twist in those days. Fee and I chatted about all life's little annoyances work, ex-partners, money, loneliness... We had so much in common it was spooky, I couldn't remember ever talking to someone like this and having them be genuinely interested in how I felt about things. I felt vulnerable and appreciated, two things I would have thought were poles apart.
Every now and then our avatars would get out of sequence, my character would be dipping as Fee was straightening up. Fee would growl, or at least, he would type "grrrrr" about Second Life's shortcomings and we would move on to another dance. We had romantic waltzes and sizzling Latin dances, none of which I knew the first thing about in real life ( or RL as Fee called it) but it was fun watching our avatars cavort as we typed our chat to each other. The dance floor had filled with dozens of other avatars. The male avatars were all fairly dull, but the female avatars were dressed like dazzling birds of paradise, beautiful makeup, hair and jewellery and dresses that flowed as they moved. I looked at my own avatar and felt strangely inadequate.
Then something happened that changed my view of the world forever. I don't think you can understand this unless you too have had this kind of epiphany. It was such a little thing, but it resonates through the core of my being to this day. There was a dance that Fee wanted to try, but two other avatars beat us to it as we stopped our previous dance and we were left just standing around aimlessly. Fee said "Let's sit this one out!" and headed over to a small bench or loveseat on the side of the dance floor. The seat had a pink and blue ball labelled "sit", so we sat.
The pose that we ended up in turned out to be very sweet, with Fee's avatar massaging Jez's feet. After all that dancing in high heels it seemed like the most natural thing to do. The thing that shook me was that I found I could practically feel Fee's strong fingers digging into my tired muscles and I shivered at the pleasure the sensation gave me. I told Fee how good it felt. I know it was all in my imagination, but it was like a form of self-hypnosis.
My mind was in a whirl, it had been so long since anyone other than my kids had touched me that even this phantom touch was spooky good. I had been starved of adult contact, except for at work, for so long. The fact that it was a man, rather than a woman didn't bother me as much as I thought it should. What did it matter? We would never meet in real life (let's pray he never finds out who I really am, he would hate me so much). I rationalised it to myself that this was just part of the game, like the role-playing in Dungeons and Dragons except, instead of getting bonus experience points for playing a half-elf magic user I would get seduction lessons from an alternative viewpoint, courtesy of Fee. What could be wrong with that?
I accused Fee there and then of trying to seduce me, I could tell he was smirking as he typed back simply "Is it working?"
Truth to tell, it kinda was, not that I could admit that to him, or even to myself, so I just ignored his question and changed the subject - I asked him if he’d like to try a different dance I’d spotted on the other side of the sim.
We danced a few more dances, chatted a bit more small talk and arranged to meet again the next evening.
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