Hi folks, Draxtor here.

Been a while since I last blogged! Gosh am I tired. And psyched at the same time...

 an exhausted physical filmmaker and his avatar

an exhausted physical filmmaker and his avatar

It is finally happening: my feature documentary “Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is me”, chronicling the research of social scientists Donna Davis and Tom Boellstorff on embodiment and placemaking in virtual worlds, is published on the YouTubes.

What was supposed to be a slightly extended episode of “The Drax Files World Makers” ballooned into a dense investigation into the power of living vicariously through an avatar in Second Life and next generation virtual worlds like High Fidelity and Sansar.

 the crew at linden lab

the crew at linden lab

For almost one year I traveled the metaverse [and parts of the physical world] to collect audio and video, I sifted through tens of hours of virtual and REAL footage and supervised the imaginative set-building of the best production designer in Second Life - one Marianne McCann.

 set built by marianne = married with children or what?

set built by marianne = married with children or what?

 set built by marianne = the future is here!

set built by marianne = the future is here!

 set built by marianne = palm springs ca. 1981

set built by marianne = palm springs ca. 1981

This movie is a collaboration between geographically "dislocated" folks from all walks of life and from all generations!

 protagonist cody lascala - who interfaces with vr via a trackball and his foot - entering sansar.

protagonist cody lascala - who interfaces with vr via a trackball and his foot - entering sansar.

It is a celebration of collaboration and a celebration of trust: without my protagonists  opening up, without them embracing the often tiring process of continuously following up and re-recording virtual “flashback” scenes - often based on deep trauma - this film would not have happened and or resonate.

 second life founder philip rosedale looks on as caregiver cecii tries social vr [high fidelity in this case] for the first time...

second life founder philip rosedale looks on as caregiver cecii tries social vr [high fidelity in this case] for the first time...

But now it did happen. And it resonates. Or at least I hope it will....

 varahi and her avatar meditate....

varahi and her avatar meditate....

 lady and her morning coffee, early on the virtual set, ready for director draxtor

lady and her morning coffee, early on the virtual set, ready for director draxtor

 protagonist solas checking out next gen vw sansar

protagonist solas checking out next gen vw sansar

Alright, enough pathos  from me: I would like to hand  this space over to Deanya Schempp now for a bit of guest blogging.

Deanya is a longtime SL resident and professional writer who helped tremendously on this project by meticulously transcribing the subtitles.

 deanya zenfold in second life

deanya zenfold in second life

With her “outside” perspective in regards to this project - she came to the film during an already established rough cut phase - she is able to articulate that which I can’t anymore, being so close to this virtual “baby” for so long.

This may be weird for a man to say [but I was a stay-at-home dad after all!]: sometimes when you give birth you need someone else to tell you that everything will be not only be alright but possibly also be pretty great!

Thank you team!

We did good!

Take it away Deanya:

 deanya schempp in physical form [happy after transcribing hours and hours of virtual movie stuffs]

deanya schempp in physical form [happy after transcribing hours and hours of virtual movie stuffs]

“I see myself as someone who has different abilities.  I don’t see myself as disabled.”

I stopped the movie and went back to watch the scene again.

 cody lascala and donna davis at ll hq in sf

cody lascala and donna davis at ll hq in sf

Cody, a funny, 30-year-old white man, paraplegic to a casual viewer, had already explained, from his wheelchair, in a voice somewhat difficult to understand, about how, on his first birthday as a “normal” baby, he had wanted to go for a swim.  

 cody as avatar directing the re-enactment of his drowning as a baby....

cody as avatar directing the re-enactment of his drowning as a baby....

His mother and nanny had been getting ready to take him to a waterpark, but Cody went to their backyard pool instead, not knowing how to swim.

“And now I’m like this,” he says, pointing out the irony and laughing loudly.  

Cody’s sense of humor had already come through to me, as I prepared the subtitles for this film.

But as I transcribed what Cody seemed to be saying now, I hit a moment of cognitive dissonance and I had to back up.

 cody lascala at the santa monica pier

cody lascala at the santa monica pier

“I see myself as someone who has different abilities.  I don’t see myself as disabled,” says the man in the wheelchair.

Did he really say that?  Oh yes, he did.

This new documentary presents interviews with avatars, and sometimes the humans behind them, as an anthropologist and a communications expert attempt to bring together a group of differently abled people who find themselves “upgrading through the experiences,” as Slatan, one protagonist, says, in the virtual world of Second Life.

 artist slatan dryke [who owns over 300 tiny avatars] talking with draxtor about his second life

artist slatan dryke [who owns over 300 tiny avatars] talking with draxtor about his second life

The name Tom Boellstorff (pronounced “Bell-storf”) will be well known to many: his serious 2008 anthropological study, Coming of Age in Second Life, is still basic reading for anyone working or researching virtual worlds now, even 10 years later.

 tom boellstorff talking about worlds, games and avatars

tom boellstorff talking about worlds, games and avatars

In his latest project, he has formed a community of 30 differently abled people within Second Life called “Ethnographia,” creating a safe space for qualitative discussion, and therefore real research, on the individual experiences of disability.

 tom in 114 harvest in sansar

tom in 114 harvest in sansar

His colleague and-- as she sometimes comes across in the film-- co-conspirator, Donna Davis, with a background in communications journalism, focuses her research on how communities form and share information as social capital in the virtual world.  

 donna davis on the  job: observing a meeting in a persistend digital world called second life

donna davis on the  job: observing a meeting in a persistend digital world called second life

The researchers, together with a grant from the National Science Foundation, have, for the last three years, given land to anyone in Second Life who identifies, or is identified as, “disabled,” and the resulting documentary, presenting people in their own words, is something everyone should see.

 student alumnia autumn in her vienna home - customizing her alter ego

student alumnia autumn in her vienna home - customizing her alter ego

 

One protagonist, Shyla, who symbolizes herself in her avatar as a small gecko lizard with a cape, explains that she is a “super gecko” in Second Life.  “Why?” Drax asks. “Because I wear a cape,” Shyla jokes back.

 shyla the super gecko [her sansar version]

shyla the super gecko [her sansar version]

But in her super form, she finds super powers to write super poetry and creative non-fiction:

“In mob fervor, they blame disabled for disability, impoverished for poverty, religious without charity, or clarity, or integrity.  The children sing on, ‘Armageddon, this is Armageddon. Armageddon, the game I like to play.”

And the sound of her voice reading resonates with everyone who has ever been blamed for their disability, impoverished for their poverty, or berated by so-called religious fervor that had no, as she says, charity, clarity, or integrity.

And so it is, with everything that is said in the movie.  Everything resonates; everything is important.

 shyla the super woman in the physical world [no cape though!]

shyla the super woman in the physical world [no cape though!]

I had come into Second Life myself when I was a caregiver for my mother who has MS: trapped back in my small hometown, where I had never felt at home, I longed for social interaction that went beyond discussions of the next local car show, which beauty shop you go to, or which church.  

And I found that in Second Life. I found friends, communities, concerts, classes, discussions, assholes, freaks, and lovers. The man I would go on to marry in real life, and move to Germany to be with, was my virtual neighbor in the Second Life New Orleans Swamp Hostel.

So maybe Second Life is more important for those of us who can see it for what it is.

Shyla says, “I don’t know if this is a GAME, but it certainly is sustenance.”  

But this movie is not about debating the question of whether Second Life is a game or not.

True enough, when iSkye says that Second Life gives her the ability to be “text-enabled,” to get to know people in a way that, as a deaf woman, allows her more time and clearer understanding in her communications, it’s about Second Life.  When she says that she is “in a foreign country in real life!,” I could also hear that as an homily to Second Life.

 iskye's build depicting her yough as a deaf child

iskye's build depicting her yough as a deaf child

But when she goes further, saying that she felt treated as if she were a piece of furniture as a child, because others could not communicate with her, it transcends anything specific to SL or even to virtual worlds in general.  

 linden lab ceo contemplating the fleating nature of perfect health...

linden lab ceo contemplating the fleating nature of perfect health...

It stirs me instead to remember our “real lives,” and how inhumanely we often treat those whom we are incapable of communicating with there: our loved ones; children; a neighbor with Alzheimer's.

I had volunteered to do the closed captions for this movie pro bono, as the subject, the people, and the research are all important.  The voices should be heard, and if they cannot be heard, they deserve to be read. But I didn’t realize how the project, over the three months I worked on it, would impact me personally.

 daisy the gator may have written the book on the media and disability

daisy the gator may have written the book on the media and disability

This movie makes me want to be a better person, a more responsible human.

When Shyla asks normally enabled people to not set Olympian expectations on her ability to deal with her life day to day, I think, YES!  THIS is what is wrong with us as a culture: water-cooler talk pits seemingly abled-bodied people against each other, each describing how Olympian their own exploits were that day or the day before: we come to EXPECT Olympian feats from each other, in the able-bodied world, and we apologize and are made to feel less than human, if we cannot comply.

 colorful avatars congregate irrespective of their human or non-human nature...

colorful avatars congregate irrespective of their human or non-human nature...

Daisy reminds us that disabled people just don’t “think about our disabilities on a daily basis...or not until some insensitive blockhead points at us and reminds us we’re meant to be this thing called, ‘disabled.’”  Shyla says, “The thing is, I’m not broken, and it’s this ableism of the world that thinks I am. You don’t have to fix me.”

As one protagonist, who has found peace in a Second Life racially mixed marriage with seven other people who “play” the children of her and her partner, says, “I am 61 years old.  I deserve to express myself and be heard. It’s who I am.”

 virtual land. to build on. to express. with symbols. and avatars.

virtual land. to build on. to express. with symbols. and avatars.

As I listen and watch, I come to understand that it is not these folks who are disabled: the disabled ones are the ones who cannot see, who cannot accept others for their different abilities.  The disabled ones are the ones who look at a guy in a wheelchair and, if they can’t “fix” him, they stop looking.

The disabled ones are the ones who will not be able to look beyond the cartoon appearance of virtual worlds, or even of this movie, to listen and learn from other human beings whose daily lives are so much different from their own.

 varahi and beeflin: sharing a life in physical and virtual reality

varahi and beeflin: sharing a life in physical and virtual reality

The disabled ones are those who cannot see beyond appearances to respect the human there.

And so I run the film back again; I have been trying to transcribe everything Cody says without waiting for his caregiver, Cecii, who is interviewed later in the film, to speak.  Yes, he says,

“I see myself as someone who has different abilities.  I don’t see myself as disabled.”

 cody and caregiver cecii at a private preview screening of the movie at paramount pictures in hoilywood

cody and caregiver cecii at a private preview screening of the movie at paramount pictures in hoilywood

And this time when I see it, I think, “DAYUMMMM!  He’s right! I cannot work a freaking trackball with my foot!”  But more importantly than that, I can never be Cody. Fortunately, I don’t have to be.  As he says in the movie, he’s full of himself.

Go watch it now.  

Turn the captions on if you want to see the small part I played in this awesome experience.

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