"I have a confession to make." typed BabyDoll.
"Yeah?" I tapped out idly; more interested in trying to make sense of the avatar posing buttons that had appeared at the bottom of my screen. I click and smile as my avatar settles back into a more relaxed pose.
‘There’ is essentially a huge chatroom in which players control 'avatars', three-dimensional characters to dress up and prod into simulated interaction with one another.
In There every day is a holiday and the menu offers a staple diet of surreal themeless fantasy, played out over an archipelago of sunny islands. BabyDoll has built a house here and our avatars are sat on the couch in her living room. It looks innocuous and civilised, a caricature of the mundane that is far away from the usual science-fiction warriors and fantasy heroes I'm used to.
"Do you have any priest clothes?" She asks and her avatar bursts into an animation of enthusiastic laughter. I smile to myself.
"Hang on, let me check," I typed, playing along. "No."
"Dang. Well here goes anyway. I have two sons, one is 11 and one is 13 and the 13 year old has an account on here. The adult/kid issue has been something we have been dealing with."
A couple of days ago something happened to give me pause for thought. I'd been playing with a loose group of on-line friends and acquaintances and our mob had attracted several assorted hangers-on. I'd thought nothing of it, just enjoying the odd experience that the game had to offer, tearing up the desert in beach buggies, riding the green hills on a floating surfboard, playing for the sake of play in a refreshing break from my usual fare of frenetic competition in search of a better score. In those games I hardly ever consider the company of my fellow gamers, who they are, where they're from etc. They all gib the same.
But this one day, our little company dwindled until there were only two of us left, my avatar and an unknown woman, touring lazily above the islands in a hoverboat. The conversation was light and harmless but eventually I came to realise I was talking to a young girl, a minor.
Now I'm generally well-behaved online, but occasionally I'll share a degree of bawdy conversation in the company of adults. I don't baulk at talking about the things that adults have to deal with but I like to believe I have a good understanding of appropriateness. The realisation that I was previously unaware of my incidental companion’s age made me uneasy. Actually, I felt like a guy who had narrowly avoided being hit by a truck.
Still turning the implications over days later, I raised the issue with BabyDoll, a long-time and experienced There player.
“Do you think having minors around the place is a problem?” I typed.
“Do I think they can get hurt or bothered here any more than in real life or on other games? Probably not.” She replied. “But I think for the safety and peace of mind of the adults anyone who isn't over 18 should have some sort of tick by their nickname.”
“A badge of shame you mean?” I tapped sarcastically, already thinking of at least three ways I could get around that little restriction were I 14 again and straining at the leash to play with the grown-ups.
“I think something like that would bug the shit out of the kids, yes.” said BabyDoll, “But it would ultimately make it a safer game for them.”
Safer? I stopped fiddling with the clunky interface at that point as my idling brain began to start up and process the paradox. Didn’t she just say she didn’t think kids could get hurt or bothered here any more than anywhere else? And I can see how you wouldn’t want under-tens talking to all and sundry, but an 18 restriction? Most of the teenagers I know trash-talk to each other worse than anything I’d have the gall to say in public. Isn’t it slightly overreacting to restrict teenagers in this faintly silly, glorified dolls-house simulator?
“When my son is in here, he’s allowed to play with people I have met but not with strangers. He hangs with me and my real life friends in here and we have a blast together.” Her words hung in little chat-bubbles above her avatars head.
“See that's a perfectly good way of dealing with the issue.” I typed. “In fact, I think it's pretty fantastic that you're a savvy enough mother to play with her sons no matter how old they are.”
Let’s have a reality check for just one second. This game called There is a simple toy. We’re talking dress-up dolls and buggy races, bloodless paintball and hoverboat rides to the beach. Exactly how much trouble can you get into that requires a separate set of rules for teenagers?
“There’s a girl on here I worry about,” types BabyDoll. “She tries so hard to be an adult but she is only 14.” I changed the camera angle to better read the chat bubbles that sometimes float out of view. My girlfriend poked her head into my study.
“Your tea will be ready in a bit.” she said. “I’ll give you a shout.”
“Alright love, thanks.” I said and turned back to the screen as she left and went downstairs.
“Freshly 14. LOL” BabyDoll was saying. “But no-one watches her play and she wears whatever she pleases.”
At first I thought I’d missed something. I thought the direction of the conversation had changed while I was momentarily turned away, but I checked the little Chat History window and it was all there.
“You worry about what she wears?” I said, incredulously.
“She wears the sluttiest clothing.” said BabyDoll. Then it dawned on me. She means the avatar. She worries about the how the girl in question is dressing her computer-generated character. I must admit, I thought that was hilarious.
“Ha ha hah.” I said. “Look, I’m totally with you on protecting your children online, I think parents should take a bigger interest in who their kids are talking to, but when I ask myself about girls picking out clothes for their avatar, I have to ask: ‘what harm does it do?’. I mean, it’s not so different to dressing up Barbie, is it? After all, are you your avatar?”
“I’m darn close to it! But I have bigger breasts! ROFL” She says and I take a closer look at the low-poly figure, with its bob-cut red hair and black, short-leg catsuit as it goes through the ROFL animation.
“But at what point is it you and what point is it a doll you play dress-up with?” I said.
“It’s always a doll but it has real implications.” she said, “Because the things people do and say come into my real mind.”
“Heh, like possessing Barbie.” I said. “Yeah, but at which point are you responsible for what Barbie says and what Barbie does? Doesn’t Barbie exist to represent the things that little girls can only dream about?”
“Have you kissed anyone?” said BabyDoll.
“Um, no.” I replied but I’d seen the button for it, a cutsie animation that requires two avatars to be sat together, both consenting to the kiss animation.
“Some of the people in here see kissing as nothing. Some of them see it as very real. There is a married couple that comes here and the guy won’t kiss anyone. He’s scared to death his wife might leave him. But she’ll kiss anyone and laugh.”
“You’re saying this place consists entirely of the semantics people bring with them.” I said as the penny dropped.
“Of course.” said BabyDoll. “You wanna see something crazy wild?”
“Always.” I replied.
“Come with me.” she said.
She led the way through the little house, up a flight of stairs to a closed door. I plodded along behind curiously and just for instant I had the faintest glimmer of a memory of another woman who bade me follow her through her real house a long, long time ago.
Behind the door was a bedroom, neatly decorated and furnished, the bed a detailed custom model I hadn’t seen before. There allows a talented player to create their own assets to sell for Therebucks, providing an additional way to… Jesus Christ, what is she doing?!
BabyDoll has changed her outfit. The catsuit is gone to be replaced by a plunging open-fronted camisole, barely pinned in front. Lacy French knickers complete the transformation. “Sit there.” she says. My heartbeat quickened and my face flushed
And in the hallowed halls of my Inner Court of Morals all fucking hell broke loose. My perception cracked neatly into three separate and mutually exclusive shards. In one, I was engaged in a consensual act of intimacy with a woman I'd only just met and hardly knew. I was alone with this woman in her bedroom while she stripped for seduction. The verdict was announced with the hollow boom of a giant gavel. Guilty!
In the second, my advocate jumped to his feet bawling 'Objection!’ frantically quoting legal technicalities. "It's not real!" he yelled, "It's only a game!"
In the third, in the real world, my ears pricked straight into raw, primitive survival mode, straining for the ominous tread of my girlfriend’s foot on the stairs. A wave of panic shot down my spine, my bowels turned to water and I alt-tabbed like a sonofabitch to something harmless.
It’s been a long time since I struggled with the difference between basic ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. The filing cabinet of my mind fluttered with fragments of memories as I desperately searched for a previous experience with which to compare the event unfolding in front of me. The results were pretty grim, reminding me remorselessly that I haven't always been a paragon of virtue. It took an effort of will to push the comparisons out of my mind, to quash them with self-reassurances based on the words I had typed just a few moments earlier; that this wasn't real, that I wasn't responsible. I returned cautiously to the There screen.
"Sit there, on the bed." said BabyDoll and I sat wordlessly, pushing the moment along, feeling for the precipice where my conscience would call a halt.
"Not there," she said, "There's another spot further down." I found the hidden place and sat. Some shadow moved at the back of my memory, ghostly and ill-defined, an echo of another bedroom long ago and gentle instructions whispered in the dark. "Now lean forward." she said and I laid my head on her breast.
"Tea!" my girlfriend shouted from the foot of the stairs.
I fucking jumped, I admit it. Electricity in my spinal column and then a whole new hand of paradoxical emotions were dealt. Now I had to make my excuses and leave the little virtual bedroom. Right now.
“I have to go.” I typed.
“LOL!” said BabyDoll and I realised she thought I was running away. And I realised that I probably was.
“No really,” I protested. “I have to go and eat.” I wanted to convince her that I wasn’t chickening out of this encounter because there it was again, an overlay of emotional reality onto crudely rendered image. I didn’t want her to question my nerve; I didn’t want her to question my worldliness. My virility.
About ten minutes later I was thoughtfully chewing steak and hollowly exchanging domestic pleasantries with my significant other. Eleven years together and I’ve never once been unfaithful, never even come close, but I sat there that night trying hard not to meet her eyes and pretty much speechless with guilt. Tick.
But then again, where was the crime? What was there to feel guilty about? My record was just as spotless as it had ever been and no low resolution, slightly silly, glorified chatroom can impinge on this real, real world? Can it? Tock.
And that’s how it went, an inner metronome slowly swinging inexorably back and forth between guilt and dismissal, guilt and reasoned dismissal, my conscious mind repeating reassurances like a litany while in my gut it couldn’t have been worse if I actually had a woman closeted upstairs in my study.
When I returned to the computer (with no small degree of trepidation) and retook control of my avatar the scene had changed considerably, BabyDoll had acquired more visitors. The small company that I usually kept had arrived to visit and she was gleefully showing them her repertoire of avatar naughtiness. Outside the house, on a patch of lawn, she had them trying out a variety of seating exploits and forced poses. The gaggle of male avatars were being prodded into sitting on each others laps and giving each other simulated blow-jobs and generally performing a comedic circus of rude-if-you-squint-a-bit humour. I watched them line each other up for screenshots and was suddenly crushed by a growing sense of embarrassment.
Not at the daft show being played out on the lawn, but embarrassment at my earlier reaction, my guilt. Seeing this nonsense, this sheer meaninglessness, threw a bucket of cold water over me. It was just a game; it was always just a game. What was I even thinking?
I took my hoverboard out for a while, skimming it around the place, turning the whole scenario over and over in my mind from start to finish. What, then? What the fuck was going on in my stupid addled head? I couldn’t very well deny that I’d felt the way I had, but then I couldn’t reconcile that with the ludicrous show on the lawn either.
I crashed the board into the living room area, rudely dismounting and sat on the couch again. BabyDoll had long since left the others outside to their game.
“Well what do you think, now that you've seen the alternative seating arrangements?” She said.
“I think I’m confused.” I replied.
“About what?” she said.
“Before,” I said, “When you showed me the bedroom… That was a little weird for me.”
“Of course, it was!” She said, “You hardly knew me!”
“It caught me off guard…” I said.
“It was a li’l thrill though, huh?”
“Well, yes… but it was more the shock. I think… I mean… I dunno.”
“But it’s ‘just a game’ LOL!” she said and that animation kicked it again, knee slapping riotous laughter, mocking.
“No, well I dunno now.” I said. Because I didn’t, I really didn’t have a clue.
“See?” said BabyDoll.
I’m smarter than this, I thought, work it out and make a fucking point or something. Say something.
“Out there,” I said. “In front of all my friends, it was just manipulating animations for laughs but before, in the bedroom, it wasn’t.”
“Exactly. Dear god, I think you've got it.” she said.
“So what’s the difference?”
“The difference is because we were alone and you were beginning to know my mind. I wasn’t just an avatar.” she said. “I was a person.”
“I think it reminded me of something that happened for real once.” I said. “It’s the only way I can explain having real physiological responses. I mean, like embarrassment and heart rate and god, the guilt.”
“Ha, I win!” she typed.
“But you can only win if it's a game.” I said.
“Yes, that’s true.” said BabyDoll. “It’s both. It’s a game but it’s also real. People are affected by other minds, it’s unavoidable. You bring your own morals with you and you set the limits.
“Kids can’t do that. They have fewer warning systems, because they have been hurt less and they are more open. But they want to explore and there are people who will take advantage of that innocence and curiosity.”
And that was just the final answer. I didn’t have any way to argue, embroiled in my own moral quagmire how could I deny the point she had made? I left the house a little later and headed elsewhere. As I surfed my hoverboard across the green hills I wondered, if There is not a ‘game’ then why did I feel like I’d just been comprehensively owned?
And in the distance I thought I heard the sound of a tree falling in the woods. Maybe I imagined it.
Footnote: Possessing Barbie first appeared in the UK edition of PC Gamer (PCG142) in 2004. PCG's coverage of online gaming and the culture that surrounds it has gone from strength to strength in recent months with the development of its Extra-Life section.
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