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The Girlfriend Experience

Online avatar communities have made an enormous growth. These online social gatherings are known by a variety of names, including ‘online communities’, coined by early pioneers such as Howard Rheingold, who describes them as ‘cultural aggregations that emerge when enough people bump into each other often enough in cyberspace’ (1).

The growth of online communities such as Second Life and World of Warcraft has enabled the creation of a personal online social and economic existence. With this growth, a lot of questions arise. Questions about our own existence, but also questions about the consequences and even the dangers of online communities, for example, the well-known “Rape in Cyberspace” reported by Julian Dibbell in the Village Voice in 1993.

Artist Martin Butler pushes these ideas with his work, ‘Girlfriend Experience,’ a multiplayer game allowing you to enter into a real-life person and use this person as an avatar. Because the avatars are real people, in order to win their trust and have them perform special tasks, you first need to get to know them and find out what is possible. If you are rude they will probably cancel your playtime.

Butler presents four human avatars to play with. At home, the user can log in with his character of choice. Each avatar was equipped with a small wireless headset transmitter consisting of an eye view 135 degree mini camera, a microphone and earpiece. The user can direct his avatar, walk around the space and even challenge him or her. The user crawls under the skin of his avatar, for in ‘Girlfriend Experience’ he lives the live of his online avatar. But that’s not all. You can even observe the avatars live in their ‘Analog Villa’, three days a week from 18.00 till 23.00. (There is one law though, the ‘no fluids-exchange..)


‘The title of the project, The Girlfriend Experience, denoted the paradoxical character that online social interaction has. On one hand, the safe anonymity by using the avatar, on the other the intimate releases and projections that can spread easily. For Martin Butler it was this merging of two apparent extremes, anonymity and intimacy, which characterized an important part of contemporary social traffic. The best paid prostitutes are the ones with whom the client feels as though he is with his girlfriend, or with whom he has a Girlfriend Experience’ (2).


The project ‘Girlfriend Experience’ can be linked to earlier work in the book, Art and Electronic Media.. ‘TechnoSphere’(1996) for instance, is, in th words of its creator, Jane Prophet, ‘an online project that enables users to design artificial life forms and send them into a 3-D virtual world where they interact with life forms designed by other users of the Web site. Our intention was not to create a groundbreaking artificial life environment, but rather to produce a project that made certain aspects of artificial life accessible to a wide audience’ (3).


1. Reingold, 1994.


3. Jane Prophet, Art and Electronic Media, p. 249.