The Virtual Panopticon: Whose Point-of-View is it Anyway?


Session Title:

  • Avatars and Virtual Spaces

Presentation Title:

  • The Virtual Panopticon: Whose Point-of-View is it Anyway?




  • Virtual worlds such as Second Life privilege a single point-of-view, i.e. the user. When logged into Second Life a user sees the virtual world from a default viewpoint, which is from slightly above and behind the user’s avatar (the user’s alter ego ‘in-world’). This point-of-view is as if the user were viewing his or her avatar using a camera floating a few feet behind it. The user can also see from the avatar’s point-of-view or even move that camera completely independent of his/her avatar. Easily changing point-of-view has ramifications. The practice of using multiple avatars requires a transformation of identity and personality. When a user ‘enacts’ the identity of a particular avatar, their ‘real’ personality is masked by the assumed personality. In real life such change can lead to psychological distress. In virtual worlds and games a change in identity or point-of-view is thought to be desirable, liberating and fun.

    Yet we should take pause. While MMORPGs, virtual worlds and electronic games seek to provide a fun experience, all require that the users/players agree to Terms of Service (TOS). Rather than liberating TOS is a regime of ‘soft’ surveillance. Most include provisions that content created by users cannot infringe on the intellectual property rights of a third party; users agree to indemnify the owner of the virtual world from liability; all content created by users becomes the property of the virtual world owner and the owner retains the right to cancel a user’s account anytime for any reason. According to Greg Lastowka submission to the TOC is equivalent to a new feudal order: “Like peasants tilling fields around a medieval castle, users will lend their copyright labor and creativity in ways that will build the value of the virtual world platform, often paying for the privilege of doing so.” Foucault’s discussion of Bentham’s Panopticon applies equally to typical Terms of Service: “to induce in the inmate (user) a state of conscious and permanent visibility that assures the automatic functioning of power.” Today, the mummified Jeremy Bentham is locked in perpetuity in a box. But his omniscient gaze remains omnipresent.

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