Alt Out

Wanted: Real Life drivers of virtual avatars for over dinner conversation. It was unusual for me to be reading a newspaper, far less a local one and much less still its personals; a delayed train, a weak phone battery and a discarded copy of The Record on the bench next to me, however – and no other reading material to hand – left me with few other choices. Are you local to Basingstoke? Are you active in the Metaverse? As it happened, I was both. I’m looking to create a dining club for six to eight residents, meeting monthly for good food and stimulating conversation. I liked the idea immediately. Ring Edward, it said; I made a note of the contact number on the back of my hand.

A day’s work later I noticed the fading numerals and the memory returned, as it had with each successive hand wash of the day (only then to evaporate as I stepped out of the mens’ room and let the business of the moment back into my thoughts). Two more washes and it would be gone for good. I rang the number and asked for Edward.

“Ah,” said a gruff, but sculpted voice at the other end. “You’re ringing about the advert. Very good. Now, before you say another word, there’s a very important rule that I intend all members should follow – always assuming, of course, that you choose to become one. The rule is, you must never refer to your real life name during conversation. That includes the conversation we’re having right now. Am I clear?”

He expanded on his rules at the start of our very first dinner, some three weeks later. Edward was an imposing man, tall and elderly, but with an ageless vitality. He sat at the head of the table and the six of us fell naturally into position, three to each side. Whilst the wine was being poured, he tapped his fork against an empty glass and waited with a smile for us to turn.

“My friends,” he started. “I’ve greeted each of you individually, of course. I wish to say just a few more words to mark the start of our acquaintanceship; after that, there will be no more standing to occasion, I promise.”

“He’s a bit egocentric,” the woman to my right whispered. We’d exchanged a hello of sorts when we’d sat down.

“I like egocentric people,” I murmured. “They don’t waste mental capacity worrying about what others think of them.”

“That must be nice,” she said.

The rules were established thus: Absolutely no real life information was to be shared; avatar names were to be used at all times, though it was up to individuals how much of their metaverse identity they shared (and pseudonyms could be used if they didn’t want to share anything at all); everything spoken at the table was in the strictest confidence; finally, it was recommended that none of us met up inworld to prevent the formation of cliques. These policies agreed, we next introduced ourselves. The woman to my right, Mary-Anne Middlemarch, was a fashionista blogger, as was the middle-aged man immediately opposite me, though he introduced himself in the first instance as a photographer. When pushed for a name, he winced a little and checked that everyone agreed on the confidentiality policy (we all nodded vigorously). “I appreciate the option to come under a false name,” he said, “but what on earth would be the point if I had to just make stuff up all the time? Very well. My name inworld is Jennifer Bit. I play a female avatar, and none of my virtual friends know I’m actually male.”

Edward rubbed his chin for a moment about this. Meanwhile, the man to my left who had introduced himself as Raw Concrete, furniture builder, asked Jennifer, “So what are you? Gay? Bi? Transgender?”

“None of the above,” replied Bit, a little stiffly. “You are most welcome here, Jennifer,” said Edward, before further comment could be made. “Please feel free to adopt whichever gender role you feel most comfortable with.”

That left club owner and skin designer Indigo Williams to Edward’s left, a young woman with purple hair, yellow lipstick and black fingernails (she actually did look like an avatar), and Rainy September to Jennifer’s left, who declared that she did nothing at all in the metaverse except explore new places and party. I, of course, introduced myself as a writer.

“And what,” asked Edward, “do you write about, Leonard?”

“Anything in the metaverse that takes my fancy,” I replied, hoping that sounded grandiose. In fact, I didn’t really want to go into the details because people’s eyes generally start to glaze over when a writer they’ve never heard of starts talking about their work. I consider it an important quality as a writer to recognise that.

“And what do you do, Edward?” asked Mary-Anne.

“I role play,” he answered. “Which makes me similar to Leonard, because role play involves a lot of writing. But it also makes me similar to everyone around this table, since we are all, are we not, remaining in roles we have meticulously created.”

“Right,” Jennifer said and nodded his/her agreement

“Speak for yourself,” said Rainy. “How I am inworld is no different from how I am in real life.”

“You’re an explorer in real life, then?” I asked her.

“Careful now!” said Edward sharply, pointing his index fingers at each of us. “That question leads to real life discussion. If that happens I will simply get up and leave, and it will be the last you ever see of me. Sorry to be dramatic. Rainy, my dear,” he continued, more gently, “I don’t doubt for one moment that how, for example, you treat people is no different in the metaverse than it is out here – I would hope that that’s broadly true of everyone around this table – but that’s not really what I mean by role. Perhaps… ‘identity’ would have been a better word.”

The food came and, for a moment, the conversation went quiet. Presently, Edward commented, waving theatrically as he did a forkful of roast beef in the air, “So what I want for us to do, friends, is to discuss metaverse issues; to chew the fat over its unique curiosities; to keep each other’s counsel.”

“A council of avatars?” I asked.

“A dining club,” Edward asserted, “nothing more.”

“Would that make us a fraternity?” said Indigo, speaking from the lip of her wine glass.

“It would make us a dining club,” replied Edward.

“In any case,” commented Raw, who was clearing his plate with alarming efficiency, “fraternities are men only.”

“Historically,” said Indigo. “There’s no reason I can see why a male-female organisation with similar aims couldn’t exist. Not today.”

“Maybe not,” said Raw, “but you’d have to call that something else.”

“What would you call it, Mr Concrete?” Jennifer asked.

Raw actually tore his eyes from his dinner plate for a moment to consider the question. “Framaternity? Framternity? Friternity? Biternity? I dunno.”

“Is that with an I or a Y?” Indigo asked.

“How the hell should I know?” he replied, his attention now well and truly back on the pizza he had ordered. “Ask someone who’s not dyslexic.”

“In any case,” said Edward, “it just makes us a dining club.”

Raw said, “Well, since the subject of identity came up earlier, I have a metaverse puzzler that’s been playing on my mind the last couple of days.” He flicked an olive to a gathering pile at the side of his plate and carved himself out an enormous rectangle of pizza, which he then proceeded to fold in two.

“Why did you order olives if you don’t like them?” Rainy asked him.

“By themselves they’re diabolical,” he replied, “but I like the way they make the cheese taste.”

“Share with us your problem, please,” said Edward. “Perhaps we might collectively be able to shed some light on it.”

“Well it’s not really a problem as such,” Raw said through his mouthful. “I just can’t figure it out. You see, I got outed as an alt the other day and I can’t work out what gave me away.”

“You have an alt?” asked Rainy.

Raw looked at her. “You don’t?”

“Absolutely not.” She looked down at her plate quickly and skewered a carrot.

“Well good for you. I do.”

“So who called you?” Indigo asked.

“A friend I have in both circles,” Raw replied. “But there are only four or five in that overlap. As Raw, almost all my time is spent building. My alt’s my ‘off duty’ avatar and I mostly mix with other people when I’m using it.”

“And your friend didn’t tell you what gave you away?”

“Nope.” He flicked another olive to one side. “She told me not knowing would be my punishment for not having told her who I was.”

“Good for her,” Rainy commented.

“Bad for me,” Concrete retorted, “It’s driving me nuts!”

“Why didn’t you tell her?” asked Mary-Anne, who I noticed at this point had hardly started her turkey salad.

“Why should I?” Raw demanded. “What I do in the metaverse is my own business. It’s not like I’m partnered or anything; who has the right to know?

“In any case,” he continued, “I don’t even have these people in my friends list in my alt account. They just happened to be in the places I visited as him.”

“But they were on your list in your primary account,” I said.

“Oh sure. And Lilly’s one of my oldest pals.”

“Why didn’t you just lie when she asked if it was you,” asked Indigo. “It’s what I would have done.”

“In the first place,” replied Raw, “she didn’t ask, she stated.” He paused to swallow. “In the second, not telling her and actively denying the claim are two different levels of lie. I could live with a lie by omission, but telling her she was wrong when she was right would be diabolical.”

“Even so,” said Jennifer quietly, “you still have the right to privacy.”

Indigo swirled her wine glass in the air thoughtfully for a moment. “Perhaps it was what you were wearing that gave you away. Do you shop in the same places for both your avies?”

“Yes, I was wondering the same thing,” Mary-Anne commented.

“I haven’t bought a new outfit for Raw in at least a year.” The builder carved up the remaining half of his pizza into three precisely equal slices. “What do I want clothes for?”

“And your alt?” asked Mary-Anne.

“I buy for him all over the place. I don’t ‘shop’,” he added, forming the air quotes with his temporarily foodless cutlery. “I think up what I want to look like and then I hunt the look down in web stores. I don’t care where I get it from, so long as it looks like what I want it to look like. I can’t bear all the standing around in metaverse shops just to see if there’s something I like there.”

“Typical man,” said Indigo, and got nods of approval from Mary-Anne, Rainy and Jennifer. Raw just shrugged.

“Okay, so forget about the actual clothing,” she continued, “what about your skin and shape? If you hate experimentation, did you just stick with what you knew when you created the new avatar and buy those again before you got going on creating an outfit?”

Raw thought about that for a moment, chewing whilst he did. “Now that you mention it, I think I did buy the same brand of shape and skin when I created him as what I was used to, though definitely not the same specific products. It doesn’t make any difference, though: I’ve changed both at least twice since then. I haven’t worn those for at least a couple of years.”

“Hairstyle,” said Mary-Anne. “Good quality hair in the metaverse is so much harder to find for men than it is for women. Do you use the same hair on both avatars? A woman would definitely notice that.”

“Well, you’re right about it being hard to find anything worth wearing,” Raw said. “But it’s not like it’s impossible. Raw wears blonde dreadlocks. My alt has four or five different styles he alternates between – none of which are dreadlocks.”

“Are they all the same designer, though?”

“I don’t think so,” he replied and shoveled more pizza into his mouth.

“I bet it’s your animation over-ride,” wagered Jennifer. “Guys use about three. You’re either a foot-to-foot or a jiggler or a crotch-clutcher.”

Concrete dismissed all this immediately. “In the first place, I dispute your claim: there’s loads of good AOs out there for men, though I know the sort of thing you’re talking about and the crotch one is diabolical.”

“I didn’t say there was an absence of choice,” grumbled Jennifer, “just an absence of choosing.”

“In the second place,” Raw continued, “I use completely different animation sets for my two accounts. My building avatar has to remain still whilst I work: if he moves in front of small things I’m editing it drives me mad.”

“Well then, it has to be something about the way you write chat,” I said, pleased to be owning the query concerning words, “the way you say stuff or the type of vocabulary you use.”

“Actually I did think about that,” Raw replied, waving his fork at me whilst he spoke so that a mushroom slice fell onto the table cloth next to my plate of ravioli (I generally tend to choose pasta when eating out with people I don’t know very well; it’s just the safer option). “The thing is, when I’m working as Raw I really don’t chat all that much. And when I do, I tend to talk technical stuff related to building: my building, my friends’ building, builds I’ve seen, and so on. It’s not that I never chat informally, but it just doesn’t happen all that much.

“Now in my alt, on the other hand, I’m much more sociable. Well, the whole point of creating him in the first place was to have more fun. I’d even go so far as to say I force myself to take part more in local chat. It’s a completely different interaction.”

“What about your emoting style?” Indigo asked. Chat is one thing, but emotes can reveal your style much more clearly. Unless you’re a writer-” she looked at me on this word and I could swear she was dangling almost invisible quote marks around it, “-it’s like a fingerprint.”

“Simple,” he replied. “I never emote as Raw.”

“I’m guessing you don’t voice in both accounts either,” said Mary-Anne. “That would be too obvious.”

“I don’t voice in either,” Raw said with a grimace.

I wasn’t convinced by his dismissal of my point about writing style and said so. “It has to be that,” I insisted. “It’s just something you’re not aware of.”

“Maybe you’re right,” he said, “but I’m telling you, I talk in two completely different styles in there.”

“Well I still think it’s something you were wearing,” said Indigo. “Maybe you don’t consciously shop in the same places, but you could still have ended up wearing the same label.”

“If so, then it was a complete coincidence,” Raw replied. “And in any case, what if I was? Plenty of guys must go around wearing the same designer as others. It’s too slim a connection, and she was definite.”

All the obvious ideas depleted, the conversation suddenly lulled. I looked at our host, who had been taking in the whole thing with a large, satisfied smile on his face. “What do you think, Edward?”

He leaned towards me. “What I think, my dear fellow, is that this little idea of mine has already exceeded my best expectations. We must make this a regular occurrence. We must.””

“Just a shame nobody could solve my problem,” Raw said and commenced his assault upon the final slice.

Our host put down his cutlery and dabbed at the side of his mouth with his napkin. “Well, perhaps I might be able to help you there.”

“Edward, don’t tell us you’ve gone and worked it out whilst we’ve all been making fools of ourselves,” said Indigo, smiling for the first time that evening.

“Hardly fools, my dear,” said Edward. “All very helpful lines of enquiry, I assure you. I must agree with Leonard, however, that the most likely clue would have to be something said.”

“Fine,” said Raw. “But what?”

“Something – a single word, perhaps – which you might use as the situation demanded in both social conversation and discussions about building.”

“Like I said,” protested the builder, “I can’t think of anything.”

Edward smiled. “We are so rarely aware of our own mannerisms. Did you know, my boy, that on three separate occasions this evening you’ve used the word, ‘diabolical’ to indicate your disapproval of something? One could just as easily describe a building as diabolical as a behaviour or predicament.”

Raw’s fork, with its final mouthful of pizza, stopped halfway to his mouth. “Diabolical,” he repeated. “I do like that word. Really? Do you think that could that be it?”

“Oh come on,” said Rainy. “That’s even more tenuous than the branded clothing. It’s not like he said it every other word.”

“Indeed,” said Edward, “except we’re not actually talking about a word that ever has been said in the metaverse by our friend here.” He removed a ball point pen from his jacket and handed it to Raw with an unused paper napkin. “Be a good chap and write it down for me, would you?”

Raw frowned. “Well,” he said, “I’ll have a go. You really should be asking someone who’s not dyslexic.”

“Ah,” I said, watching.

“The word itself,” said Edward to Rainy, “would indeed probably only arouse at best a mild suspicion. But if there was something else about how the person wrote that word…” He held up the napkin, on which was written, “Diabolicle”.

“That’s not how you spell it, is it?” Raw said miserably.

“I’m afraid not, my boy,” Edward replied. “But it would scarcely matter in the vast majority of contexts. And I have to agree with you completely that it is a very fine word indeed.”

Written by Huckleberry Hax

Advertisements