Tuesday, June 1, 2010

I'm Not Mean; That's Just My Avatar

Few things put fear in my heart like the wrath of a teenage girl. If you went to school, you know what I mean. Some time around 7th grade, all the girls sprout wings and drop fangs and enter into a world of hate. They hate their parents, their school, that girl, this shirt, her shoes, his voice, those jeans, and you. Before I go any further, let me say that of course I have met some pleasant, charming, middle school girls. Of course. But I was not one, nor did I know any when I was in middle school. My boss has a daughter who is one – a sweet, middle school girl. No, really. I’ve met her. She’s positive and loving and gracious. But, you know, she’s still in sixth grade. Full of light though she is, I wouldn’t turn my back on her; the proverbial shizzit could hit the fanizzle any day now. Horror aside, though, I empathize with the plight of the teenage girl. It’s hard business, that adolescent female stuff. Hormones and pimples and cramps, OH MY. It’s no wonder they turn on everyone – and they turn on no one more viciously than they do each other. In the epic journey through identity formation, girls take no prisoners. They are wont to decimate the self-esteem of every girl in their paths, if only so that their misery has company. As a girl, I can tell you there is relief in adulthood. Sure, some girls are still competitive and catty, but at the very least the behavior is subversive. Or, shall I say, it was. The fine folks at Facebook, in partnership with Playdom, now bring us “Sorority Life,” a role-playing game that offers you all the hate and hazing you enjoyed from middle school to college, in convenient Facebook form. Yay!

Here’s how the game works: Players choose and outfit their “Sorority Life” avatars and then spend real or game money (usually the former) to accumulate better clothes, flashier accessories, makeup, and boyfriends. Yes, one purchases boyfriends. Then, to rise up the ranks of fake sorority members, a player puts herself on a virtual runway with two or three other avatars so that the community of players can vote for the “girl” who is hottest. To gain even more status, a girl can fight another girl. In a "Sorority Life" fight, one player challenges another to a showdown. Their avatars are displayed next to lists of their assets, and whoever has the most (outifts, boyfriends, etc.) wins. And make no mistake; the game is all about trying to be the hottest chick around by publicly attacking and shaming other girls based on what they are wearing and how much stuff they have. There is no effort to disguise the agenda. Christa Quarles, CFO of the game’s manufacturer, Playdom, told jezebel.com,  “It’s as simple as an ‘I’m prettier than you are’ type of thing.” Great. But none of this is really shocking, right? Girls are mean, blah blah blah, and they like to harass each other on social networking sites, yeah, yeah, we know. Here’s the kicker: According to Quarles, of the approximately 700,000 daily players of “Sorority Life” on Facebook, the great majority are women over 35. Whaaat?!

My first reaction to the age of the players was this: What in the name of all that is good and holy would make a 35 year-old woman spend time and money animating herself so that she can prove her avatar is hotter than other avatars? It made no sense. I read the jezebel.com post over a week ago, though, and since then I've thought about it quite a bit. First of all, I need to lighten up, right? It’s a game. Look at "Grand Theft Auto." Plenty of grown men spend countless hours pretending to be felons who kill people and hire prostitutes. What’s worse? And why am I surprised that people like to recreate themselves online? Remember the early days of chat rooms, when “I’m a 20 year-old Olympic swimmer” translated to “I’m the creepy guy talking to himself at the bus stop?” Look at online dating sites, where every couch potato who subscribes to Mad magazine lists “mountain climbing” among his hobbies and War and Peace as the last thing she read. But, um, "Grand Theft Auto" is gross, chat rooms are creepy, and lying about yourself on match.com isn’t exactly a banner for your intact self-esteem.

My point is not that “Sorority Life” is the worst thing that has ever happened to our civilization. No, no, no. We have Miley and Speidi and The Housewives to destroy us. And, I’ll admit, a lot of online competition is lost on me. I always pick on Farmville, and I am still trying to figure out why anyone tries to be “Mayor” of a restaurant on Foursquare. You do know that you’re not real mayors, right, Foursquare-ers? So, maybe it’s me. I am not asking anyone to start a revolution. I don’t think “Sorority Life” warrants bloodshed or a boycott or anything. Rather, I just ask that you consider what the F is going on when adult women choose to pretend they are catty sorority girls. Come on, ladies. Weren’t the real “mean girls” days bad enough? Let’s save Facebook for what it’s good for, thinly veiled narcissism and sanctioned voyeurism. We’re grown-ups, after all.

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