Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Some Thoughts on Child Avatars: I. Safe Space

Written 13 July, 2009

Some Thoughts on Child Avatars

I. Safe Space

Whimsy is ABSOLUTELY SAFE SPACE for furries, tinies, dragons, vampires, mechanical avatars, and human avatars of all shapes, sizes, genders, sexual orientations, perceived avatar age, and lifestyle. If you are harassed, please contact sim management immediately.

       --- From the Whimsy Covenant

Avatars in Second Life come in almost infinite varieties. Whimsy is safe space for all of them: elves, furries, vampires, tinies, dragons, robots, mermaids… and child avatars. When child avies visit I treat them with the same respect I would show anyone else.

The weekend of the Fourth was a test for this we-welcome-all policy. During our fireworks show/rez-day-celebration-for-Sweetie, we had several child avatar visitors. A couple of people were bothered by this, and one excused herself, saying in IM she couldn’t be in the presence of child avies lest she be pegged as a pedophile. I told her I understood her decision and hoped she would come back to visit later.

A lone child avatar came to see our fireworks show. She IMed me afterward, asking if she could come to the dance platform where a bunch of us had retired. When I said “Yes, of course,” her gratitude was palpable. Later, she asked if she could bring over some friends and I said yes again. Her friends were child avies also, and she and they were perfectly well-behaved. I think they had a good time.

So, Whimsy has lived up to its covenant.

That said, I’m seriously bothered by child avatars.

It has always bothered me that seeming children are controlled by adults. I know that sweet-faced four-year-old is a balding fortysomething alcoholic named Freddy and that two-year-old is a tattooed Alabama divorcee named Mabel. But when I told Sweetie last night I would be writing this blog, she hit the nail on the head.

What bothers her about child avatars, she said, is this: adults are playing innocents.

Sweetie was right. A child avatar is qualitatively different from a twentysomething hotty played by a 60-year-old or a fierce dragon played by an agoraphobic clerk or an anthropomorphized rabbit played by a 19-year-old. It’s an experienced adult portraying our most vulnerable and dependent, a naïf, a child.

Despite the Linden ban, I’m certain a great deal of age play is still going on in private spaces. I can’t help but think this private illicit sex spills over into public, most notably in appearance: I see altogether too many “children” sexualized with adult skins and makeups.

I ran into the avatar pictured above at a public sandbox. She was just creepy. Because of the way she looks and the way her AO causes her to lick the lollypop she holds, I absolutely consider her a walking sexual display. If this Jon Benet Ramsey wannabe were to show up on Whimsy I would ask her to change her appearance or leave— or, more likely, ban her on sight—not because she’s a child, but because she is a sexualized child.

Such sexualized child avatars make it different for the other type of child avies: the ones who do their best to look and act like real children.

But I question the underlying motives of even those folks.

I’d always supposed people who ch0ose to portray children in a nonsexual manner were reliving an unhappy or unsatisfactory childhood—but lately I’ve become convinced many such folks are simply retreating from the pressures of adulthood. They infantilize themselves to escape—what? Job? Family responsibility? Sexual feelings? Their adult bodies?

It bothers me that they’re not portraying children as they really are. Rather, they are walking stereotypes of children—children who are more vulnerable, more innocent than any real child could possibly be. They not only infantilize themselves by wearing the virtual bodies of children; they further infantilize the child they portray in their profiles, and in their chat:

I’s is five yeaws owd and I wuvs my mommy and daddy and all my fwiends at Ms. Sunshine’s Learning Academy. I wuvs to pway on the swings at the pwaygwound and go to the zoo with my pawents. I wuvs my bunny Fwuffy.

Real children absolutely do not talk or think like this. The avatars in Second Life who engage in such baby talk are subverting children in ways other than merely portraying them— they are robbing children of their intellect and language abilities. I cringe when I hear them talking.

So yeah, child avies bother me. But Whimsy will continue to be safe space for everyone.


Peter Stindberg said...

As you know I have children myself, so I somehow know how kids behave. And while I basically think one of the beauties of SL is that everybody can be what and who they want to be, it is in fact the gross stereotype of children those child avis portray. Most child avatars I have seen look like 7/8 year old kids, however they BEHAVE like 3 year old kids. And more often than not mentally challenged 3 year olds.

My younger son is 7, and his mental capabilities and his conversation skills and his scope of interests by FAR exceed those of the run-of-the-mill child avi.

Of coure there are exceptions, most notably child-community vocalists Marian McCann and Adz Childs who - if in character - actually perform rather convincingly. And Adz has his second persona "Big Adz" under which he runs the site and gives thoughtful input on Linden policies.

But I agree with you, the majority of child avis I met is a horrible caricature of children.

Cheyenne Palisades said...

Thanks, Peter. Nice comment.

I'd not heard of Adz Childs, but I have read Marianne's posts in the Metaverse Messenger-- and it turns out I know here on Earth! My Second post on child avies mentions here.

I should add that I really like Kitto Flora, too, who made Whimsy's great steam train. You gotta love a kid who can script!

Loki Eliot said...

I think some are missing the fact that Child avatars are adults exploring this oppertunity to free their innerchild and play. It's a new concept and i dont think anyone who is new to it knows how exactly best to start.
For some they just want to play, for others they just feel childish and are relaxed with a childlike persona.

There are lots of different types of people who become child avatars with many different reasons to do so. This leads to a whole range of different types of child avatar.

Some child avatars look the way they do just because they can only find skins and clothes from adult avatar stores, some are just poor artists when it comes to dressing.

You'll get people who become child avatars thinking that they need to take on a role of how they percieve a child should be, and others have learnt that you just need to be yourself.

My point is that a lot of people who are Newbs to being Kid avatars are still learning and don't know how best to act when being a child avatar. It takes time and help from other child avatars. It's not easy, but its fun and rewarding.

Serenity Westland said...

I agree. I have a child avi that I use when I want to slide back into that state of being 8 or 9, and all I did was play, watch TV, dance to music in my room, and plan the rest of my life. However I don't ever speak like a lisping 3 year old. I remember I had a pretty solid vocabulary at that age, and I find that I'm better accepted at sims if the most "Dialect" I create is common childish contractions, like Unca instead of Uncle...

Arwyn Quandry said...

While I think the sexualized child avies are terrible, in one way you could actually say that it is realistic to some of the modern children. The "ProstiTots" phenomenon has swept First Life, fueled by Bratz dolls and miniskirts for real six year olds. It's terrible, and in some ways abusive when parents fuel it, but many real life little girls are not what adults think of kids as being any more - they're sexualized humans, wearing belly shirts and thongs and glitter makeup, aiming to be, in their own terms, "sexy". Elementary school girls are going on diets and associate being thin with being "hot". In some ways, it might be better to have the stupid child avies in SL who "twalk wike dis" over the sexualized children of the real world.

Cheyenne Palisades said...

Loki, the three-year-old talk is ubiquitous; it seems more a cultural standard for child avies than newness or incompetence. In the same way, many child avies, including some who have been around for years, aren't just using adult skins and makeups; they're just being tawdry. Well, in an adult it would be tawdry; in a child avi... well...

This doesn't mean I don't believe folks play child avis for legitimate reasons, or that it takes time and patience and a bit of a learning curve to do so effectively.

Cheyenne Palisades said...

Arwyn, I think sexualizing children on Earth is far worse than portraying a child in Second Life. That's why I mentioned JonBenet Ramsey.

I worked for several years as a child protective services worker, and I know exploitation when I see it. Many of the mothers (it's almost always mothers) of these pimped-up children are living vicariously through their children-- not like normal parents do, but in an extreme and damaging way. Little girls and boys should be allowed to be little girls and boys and not forced into miniature, prematurely sexualized adults.

Anonymous said...

All those opposed to child avatars in SL should try being one sometime. The bias out there might open your eyes.

First of all - it has NOTHING to do with a "bad childhood" or "reliving childhood." Please, spare strangers your ten cent psychoanalysis.

I find it humorous in the extreme that people who spend time in a virtual world to escape would cast aspersions at other people who are doing exactly that. Who cares what form it takes, as long as it isn't anything reflective of real life illegalities. In other words, if it really IS innocent behavior, why do you have such a problem with it?

The upside to being a child avatar in Second Life is that as you travel around, you can take note of things that might make people laugh. You can see the virtual world through a child's eyes. Some adults are not out of touch with their 'inner child' and it isn't creepy to just go around carefree.

No one expects a child avatar to have a job in SL. No one (okay, let's not speak of it, but it has to be rare since I've never run across it) hits on a child avatar. There is in other words, NO PRESSURE.

Some people escape real life pressure by playing a dragon, soldier, slaver, Gorean, etc., etc. in Second Life. What's the difference? If it's not hurting anyone and it improves someone's stress level who cares?

I will end by saying that if I see a picture of a child avatar I am certainly not thinking "pedophilia" or "breasts." I think such statements say a lot about the one making those statements, rather than the person playing a child avatar in a wholesome way.