Review: Avatara

by Alphaville Herald on 04/12/04 at 1:41 pm


Avatara is perhaps the first documentary covering a 3D online environment that is shot entirely in character/in game. The choice of subject is a little known and in some ways “prehistoric” online platform called Digitalspace Traveler, which is a voice-based, 3D graphics environment with floating head avatars and some room to customize the meeting spaces. It is prehistoric in its technology, but forward thinking and surviving thanks to its allowing custom content and because of the robust social relationships forged there. The documentary itself is haunting, fascinating, and at times almost impossible to watch.


This DVD is produced by media artists Donato Mancini, Jeremy Turner, and Flick Harrison, all based in Vancouver, and has previously been reviewed in Intelligent Agent and Lancing Michigan’s City Pulse. Those reviews are somewhat helpful, but tend to come at the subject from the persepective of little knowledge of online graphical games/platforms, and they tend to be overly impressed by the technology in Traveler which is now so dated it sometimes seems the game engines must be from a Steampunk novel.


This documentary is, in the words of sports journalist Chris “mad dog” Russo, a tough watch. That doesn’t mean it’s bad qua documentary. This is clearly an important contribution to our understanding of virtual communities, and in particular immersive, 3D voice enabled environments, but OMG is it hard to watch. I had to watch it in chunks because I could only tolerate so much at a sitting, and it also had the effect of making want me to mutli-task (I would let the voice go in the background while I took care of email for example).


Now don’t get me all wrong. The video captures from Digitalspace Traveler are positively haunting — disembodied heads floating in “rooms” that the avatar owners have constructed. The content of what the players say feeds into the whole disembodied head theme as well — a game full of little Cartesians opining on what’s really real (their relations in game space) and on that less compelling realm of res extensa (that’s Descartes’ name for things in meat space). I found myself wondering whether the documentary was edited to highlight this part of the discourse or whether it really was that dominant of a backround theme in Traveler. The only way to find out would be to spend quality time there and I couldn’t bring myself to do that.


I wonder what the interview subjects thought about the production. They come off looking pretty pathetic at times, and at other times they come off looking like their real lives were badly broken. Some of this is based on what they say, some more is based on the rooms that they construct in their spaces, and some of this is based on what you pick up from hearing their voices. It made me wonder how I would read people on TSO or Second Life if voice were always on. Crimey, how would *I* read if interviewed via a floating head avatar. Would this advocate of externalism about mental content sound like a disembodied Cartesian spirit as well? If so, then is this way of interviewing the subjects misleading? I don’t know; I’m asking!


It’s really hard for an outsider to Traveler to know whether this is a valuable contribution to our understanding of that space. It is good in that in goes into some detail on the interpersonal conflicts that emerge in the space (aka drama) — but readers of the Herald know that we think the drama is in the details, so I came away wanting more. Probably the single greatest contribution of the documentary is that it pioneers what we should have a lot more of — documentarties based on life inside MMORPGs. As our lives progressively move into these online environments the need for such endeavors becomes ever more important.


Readers might wonder why these guys started with such an obscure virtual community, given the rich social histories that one could find inside games like TSO and Second Life. One of the producers told me that the obstacle to doing this in SL was financial — they just didn’t have the requisit computer equipment. Hopefully that will change. I’d love to see these guys produce a documentary on life in Second Life.


One Response to “Review: Avatara”

  1. Torley Torgeson

    Dec 6th, 2004

    In some ways this doc with Avatara gives me flashbacks of Beyond the Mind’s Eye, a computer-animation extravaganza from the mid-80s, er, 90s. :) Crude as it may seem now, it’s a testament to the progress of productive people (or so I hope).

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