When I first visited A Favela, a parcel in Second Life decorated by Lotus Mastroianni and Fred Hamilton in a way that represents a typical Brazilian slum (actually, a typical slum in Rio de Janeiro), I thought it looked accurate enough to go well beyond one of those simple displays of stereotypes. Indeed, it offered me quite an opportunity to reflect on a series of subjects concerning what one could call otherness: how to balance the temptation of treating different societies (or, let’s say, different cultures) as exotic; how powerful can SL be as a tool to avoid that risk; and how it feels to be the other in a world of so many possibilities.
A Favela is really well put together (apart from minor physics problems in some buildings). It does look like a small favela in Rio, where slums are often located on hillsides. Favelas are typically unregulated settlements initiated by low-income people who have no access to units in formal housing areas in Brazilian urban zones. They are said to have originated in the city of Rio de Janeiro, where they are actually more prevalent than in the country as a whole: while in Brazil about 6% of the population live in what is officially known as “subnormal settlements”, in Rio that number rises to 22% (and this is not a particular characteristic of Rio, for in the city of Belém almost 54% of the population live in “subnormal settlements”; in Salvador, 26%; in São Luís, 25%; and in Recife, 23%. In absolute numbers, though, Rio is the Brazilian city with the highest number of people living in favelas – around 1.4 million).
Being from Brazil and having grown up in Rio, I would say that A Favela seems closer to reality than most favela representations I’ve seen in Second Life. I haven’t visited so many favelas in Rio, they are not areas where middle-income people living “on the asphalt level”, as we say, would go that often. Still, I know some, and they may feel like A Favela in SL. Probably with more dogs on the streets, I would say (but not with less cats). I can’t say if it would be common to see murals such as the one by Eduardo Kobra used at the landing point (which celebrates architect Oscar Niemeyer), but certainly they fit the place (and there’s at least one more mural by Kobra partially reproduced in A Favela).
Many representations of Brazilian slums in SL look a bit stereotypical to my eyes. Not surprisingly, some are made as combat places, which is understandable for the elements they gather: irregular ways, a disorganized occupation of spaces, areas dominated by drug trafficking gangs and characterized by high levels of violence. It’s worth noticing that stereotypes are not, in general, crazy fantasies coming out of the blue. They are based on real traits: a number of favelas can actually be like that. Still, even in the ones where violence is ubiquitous, it is on a crossroad of numerous dimensions that life happens. Stereotypical representations are meant to domesticate it, simplify it and make it more predictable – and that’s why they reduce or completely eliminate complexity.
SL is, of course, a limited platform to represent the full multiplicity of life. Yet, there are means to indicate it. I don’t intend to find out a formula for that – it would also be a simplification, after all. Still, A Favela seems to have found a way. Even occupying a 4096 square meter parcel – i.e., with a lower capacity for objects than a full sim – it gets richer from its openness: though it depicts a real-life environment, and because of that it is constrained by the appropriate references that it has to invoke, A Favela doesn’t really determine how visitors should interpret the place. It can be seen as a dangerous area, a fancy one, an invitation to find out more about Brazil or about Brazilian slums and so on.
That doesn’t prevent another risk that I sometimes find in SL: the one of exoticism, of involving other cultures, societies or environments in a fantasy of mystery, weirdness or charm.
As stereotypes, exoticism often involves some expectation – and it is no coincidence that exoticism generally relies on stereotyping. The search for exotic experiences seems to add a particular element there, though: the willingness to display surprise. It’s like traveling to a foreign country in excitement about seeing how locals act and behave – and, there, reacting to every gesture as if it were marvelous and never seen before. In other words, exoticism is more about performing surprise than about surprise itself.
I remember that, when I was younger, there was a Brazilian TV show in which a woman would travel around the country to see how diverse Brazil could be. She would often look surprised in situations that made me think: why is she reacting like that? In one episode, she decided to take a bus in the morning rush hour from a suburban low-income area (but not a favela) in Rio in order to go downtown, as millions do every day to arrive at work. Clearly, she wasn’t used to doing anything like that, and so she got excited about people that, taking the same bus, at the same hour, and seeing themselves every day, would start talking and get to know each other to the point of celebrating birthdays and sometimes establishing friendship or even dating. I can understand it may feel different for someone who lives in a place where people seldom talk to strangers – which was not the case of that TV star, who is from Brazil, where we do talk to strangers easily. Anyway, is it so difficult to imagine that people who see each other so often can start talking and establishing some kind of contact? To be honest, that day, the woman presenting the TV show felt more exotic to me than the passengers of the bus.
It’s worth noticing that Second Life is mainly an American universe. Most of its users live in the United States, a number of its references come from the American imagery… I would say that there are significant communities from European countries, from Japan and even from Brazil in SL, but they don’t compare to the US community. For instance, the biggest charity initiative in Second Life, that includes some of the most well-known events on the grid (such as Fantasy Faire) is a donation campaign in favor of the American Cancer Society. An annual event with the same structure, involving the same number of people and gathering comparable volumes of donations on behalf of some charity in, let’s say, Ghana, would be highly unlikely.
In that context, I sometimes feel that I am required to adapt to what I call the American way of Second Life. For example, the winter season in SL and the winter sales on Second Life Marketplace coincide with the northern hemisphere winter. In different situations, I saw myself celebrating Valentine’s – which is not a tradition in Brazil. SL’s culture involves Burning Life, based on Burning Man, an yearly event that happens in Nevada, US.
It’s natural that things are like that: Linden Lab is based in the US. Still, it’s curious that, in a virtual world so American-referenced, A Favela can attract visitors and bloggers as it has been doing. I suspect it may have to do with exoticism. Yet, the fact that A Favela seems to avoid easy stereotypes may stimulate curiosity about the real favelas or about Brazil in general.
On a final note, I was pleasantly surprised to see a “Biscoito Globo” ad at A Favela. It’s really a great reference to Rio, and maybe a truly exotic one: if I had to describe it, I would say that “Biscoito Globo” is an almost tasteless crunchy snack that foreigners would probably fail to understand but that many people in Rio love. That was a nice touch.