I am co-editing a book with my friend Bala Musa on ethics of the social media, and one of the essays to be included in the book caught my attention when its title came across my desk the other day:
Racing the Vampire: Exploring Race & Identity in Second Life .
The essay is being written by Franklin Nii Amankwa Yartey, of Bowling Green State University.
Now, I know the good folks in Ohio and – from what I’ve seen – they all grew up on this planet. So I figured there must be a rationale understanding of this title.
And, of course, there is.
The references are to two popular interests that young people have these days:
- Virtual online fantasy sites like SecondLife.com.
For those of you who have not inhabited Earth the past three or four years, you may have missed out on the “Twilight” phenomenon, which originated from the printed page of books by Stephenie Meyer but which morphed into the movie series (three so far) starring heartthrobs Robert Pattison, Taylor Lautner, and Kristen Stewart.
(Swoons are appropriate now for teen and even early 20-something readers).
The movie series picks up on the popularity of the TV series, “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” and takes things a step further down the darker path.
The second reference of SecondLife.com is a site we have discussed before – maybe a year or so ago – in this blog. Second Life is a free 3D virtual world where users can socialize, connect and create using free voice and text chat.
Second Life is one of many “role-playing sites” or RPG’s that have arisen over the past few years.
For those over 50, it is the old TV series, Fantasy Island, transported to the 21st Century interactive Web. You not only watch other people pursuing their dream; you can do it yourself. Sort of. As long as you’re willing to do it in the virtual online world.
As Mitch Wagner, of Information Week notes:
“Second Life roleplaying is popular. It’s kind of a mix between World of Warcraft, improv comedy, and live theater. Users create characters and then improvise scenes involving those characters.
“Popular roleplay communities include Roma, based on ancient Rome; the The Road to Deadwood, based on the historical cowboy town of Deadwood, South Dakota; the Independent State of Caledon, based on Victorian Britain with a Jules Verne flair; and the vampires-and-monsters-themed City of Lost Angels.”
The last of these sites suggest there are “destinations” on Second Life involving vampires. In fact, there are a lot of them. To name just three:
- Genesis Order Horde. “Home of the Genesis Order vampire horde, a friendly, safe haven that welcomes all. It’s role-play friendly, with several active social-oriented venues including Club Se>en, a shopping area, a pier and member of several support organizations oriented toward new residents.”
- Vampyr Empire. “Transylvania, one of Second Life’s longest running communities, features a thriving, tight knit family who can offer support for new people coming into this lifestyle. You’ll find towering castles, dark corners and high-class Gothic-style shopping in this popular area.”
- Vamporium. “As soon as you land in Vamporium, you’ll feel a cold wind upon the back of your neck. There’s a whole region and shop of horrors to explore, including dark corners, haunted castles, Hell Maze, crypts and all manner of gruesome creatures. A truly dark adventure awaits!”
An old fascination
A lot of folks wonder why young people are finding vampires so fascinating today. Some parents are shuddering at the thought of their kids going any more goth than – well – they did, not too many years ago and of being sucked into the vampire world.
But then again, haven’t vamps always been fascinating to us, young and old? Today’s parents probably devoured large tubs of popcorn over 1994’s Interview with a Vampire (with Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt in the capes), and their parents and grandparents got to know Bela Lugosi and Lon Chaney as earlier-day bat-men. And of course, there was always the TV sitcom, The Munsters.
Back to that essay
If you haven’t forgotten the initial spark that opened this stroll down Nightmare Lane, it was the question of the essay’s title, Racing the Vampire: Exploring Race and Identity in Second Life. It is one of many essays that takes communication studies into new areas.
In this case, with the advent a few years ago of these popular, virtual fantasy sites like Second Life, a lot of communication researchers and psychologists have been wondering what might happen to the individual identity of a young person who winds up spending so much time living an online life as someone else.
Like, oh, a vampire.
What’s important here?
Is race important when you’re a vampire? Is gender? Can some of the problems swirling around those descriptors be eliminated by simply living your life in fantasy land? If so, what kinds of personal identity problems are young users facing? Are sites such as Second Life causing any re-entry problems for the young cybernauts navigating them?
With the popularity of these RPG sites, others have arisen to transport users into faraway places and very strange territories. A few of them are:
- Swords and Potions
- Ministry of War
- Kaliedoscope Dating Sim
- Always Remember Me
- Fatal Hearts
- Crush the Castle
And the list goes on and on. So do the questions: what happens to the question young people deal with of, “Who am I,” when they might spend so much time breaking hearts or crushing castles in the virtual world?
Could be that critics of these sites are tilting at windmills themselves.
Perhaps there is no more danger lurking here than Grandpa faced when he forced his mom and dad into buying much more Ovaltine than they ever needed just to collect enough product labels to send off for his very own Captain Midnight Secret Decoder Ring.
As in most questions regarding the virtual unknown, only time will tell. In the meantime, Beam me up, Scotty!