Brands Inspiring Creativity and Transpiring Meaning: An Ethnographic Exploration of Virtual World Play 

Sara Steffes Hansen

University of Wisconsin Oshkosh


This study uses participant observation to undertake an ethnographic exploration of the meanings of brands and objects in an online virtual world. Through the perspective of symbolic interactionism and the theory of self-presentation, the meanings of brands and objects emerge in relation to status in game play. Players create user-generated content with brands to gain status within and outside of the game. Game advertisers encourage players to create branded objects related to their avatars through clothing, accessories, pictures, and machinima. Similarly, players use nonadvertised brands to create avatar names, clothing designs, advertisements, and other communications. The process of social interaction influences status meanings in the multifaceted communication among players, the game, and advertisers, with impacts on self-presentation.

Keywords: Avatar, Brands, Games, Internet, Self-Presentation, Symbolic Interactionism, Virtual Worlds.


Media companies and advertisers increasingly enrich consumer engagement through online virtual worlds or social videogames, a form of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs). These games offer expanded platforms to reach consumers as avatars-or digital representations of the self-who can interact with the virtual world and other players online. Virtual worlds include Second Life, as well as brand-specific versions launched by MTV and Disney (Wilson 2008).

By 2011, 80% of active Internet users (Gartner 2007) and 53% of child and teen Internet users (Williamson 2007) likely will participate in virtual worlds. Young people in particular are rapidly embracing online technologies in their daily lifestyles (McMillan and Morrison 2006). About 59% of teens create Web content (Lenhart et al. 2007), 97% play videogames (Lenhart et al. 2008), and 55% of those online use social networking sites (Lenhart et al. 2007).

Not surprisingly, advertisers may spend as much as $971.3 million in game advertising in 2011 (Yankee 2007), and MMOGs may offer the greatest potential for in-game advertising, with millions of players, subscription plus advertising revenues, and player identification with placed brands (Lehu 2007). Virtual worlds may integrate with television, magazines, and Web sites and offer advertising through product placements, brand interactions, or purchase incentives (Lowry 2008).

In turn, Viacom’s MTV will invest $1.3 billion in games by 2010, in hopes of revenues from advertising and sales of virtual and nonvirtual items (Lowry 2008). One of MTV’s games, Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach, operated as a 3D virtual world from August 2006 until February 2009, based on the network’s shows The Hills and Laguna Beach.  Serving as another marketing platform for its brand and advertisers, the game is structured for social interactions that focus on the advertised brands (Mahmud 2007). In particular, one MTV study shows that Pepsi, a prominent Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach brand, received ratings indicating it was perceived as in touch with youth culture and cool or hip by almost 70% of the fans who watched The Hills, went online for show content, and played the game. Among fans who only watched the show, 30% aligned the brand with youth culture, and only 15% thought it was cool or hip (McClellan 2008).

Content creation requires players to design avatars, decorate virtual homes, and design avatar clothing to wear and sell. Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach and its advertisers, through e-mail and in-game promotions, encourage players to take paparazzi-style pictures of virtual celebrity appearances and make avatar performance videos, known as machinima. At times, both advertised and nonadvertised brands become part of the activities and avatar display.

This study explores the nature of these brand interactions by studying the meaning of brands and objects in game play. The perspective of symbolic interactionism helps frame the development of symbolic meanings of brands and objects through social interaction (Blumer 1969). Content creation, game activities, and conversation can produce and continually alter symbolic meanings. Influences on brand and object meanings are viewed in the context of the ways players display themselves as avatars, according to the theory of self-presentation (Goffman 1959). Identity, social roles, game structure, and social interaction may also provide potential influences in meaning development. The method of exploration for this study relies on participant observation in game (Blumer 1969; McCracken 1988b).

This study is significant, given the emerging trends in advertising and extensions of theory in online communication. Advertisers invest in virtual worlds to encourage player engagement and content creation (McClellan 2008), as well as to add a marketing platform with high growth potential (Lehu 2007). As players create content, they make and use objects that may include brands, depending on the influence of the game and advertisers in avatar displays or surroundings. The findings therefore may help advertisers understand the nature, effectiveness, and measures of such brand interactions. Moreover, this research should help extend theories related to brand relationships in virtual experiences and self-presentations.

Literature Review

Virtual worlds offer rich graphical environments in which players interact as avatars in activities and conversation. Players of different ages, geographies, and demographics can simultaneously meet in virtual worlds through the Internet. By providing social interaction, MMOGs are similar to informal gathering places that offer casual friendships and exposure to diverse worldviews (Steinkuehler and Williams 2006). The perspective of symbolic interactionism, as outlined by Blumer (1969), suggests symbolic meanings develop through social interactions and activities associated with group life. Within the field of symbolic interactionism, Goffman’s (1959) dramaturgical theory of self-presentation also emerged. These approaches provide a framework for exploring player activities and actions that contribute to symbolic meaning development for brands and objects.

Symbolic Interactionism

Social interaction is central to the perspective of symbolic interactionism. In human life, people interact. They create, negotiate, and alter social meaning through social interaction, a process of interpretation based on symbols (Sandstrom, Martin, and Fine 2006). Symbolic interactionism research studies how people use symbolic meanings to shape their social realities dynamically. Evolving from the foundational work of George Herbert Mead and pragmatist theorists, Blumer’s (1969) work outlined three core concepts of this interaction: People act toward objects, people, and other things on the basis of meanings; meanings of those things depend on social interactions with others; and meanings are created and change through an interpretive process with things and people.

Underlying these concepts are the basic ideas of the framework (Blumer 1969), namely, that human society is based on people engaging in activities and actions of continual influence, fit into the lines of one another’s actions. Individuals are like actors and do not merely respond to an environment. They rely on the anticipated actions and social roles of others, which shifts the meanings of physical, social, or abstract objects in interaction. Each person envisions his or her self as an object through role-taking. Collective actions result from separate acts of participants in formation (Blumer 1969).

Social objects with shared cultural meanings arise from the symbolic process of naming and categorization in social interaction (Sandstrom, Martin, and Fine 2006). A person who attains a social object, such as a stylish haircut, completes a social act (Hewitt 2003). The haircut may symbolize fashion sense, financial ability, or knowledge about the right salon to patronize. Symbolic meanings continually emerge in the interpretive process. People make indications of meanings and then take actions. What they actually do-the actions they take-reflect how they engage in daily living, fraternize with others, solve problems, or make mistakes. People interpret and change meanings as they construct social realities. The self thus becomes the ultimate social object of a person participating in social acts (Hewitt 2003).

Social object meanings in virtual worlds considered through symbolic interactionism benefit from this perspective’s integration with a wider body of sociological work (Fine 1993). Some consumer studies explore products used as objects, which create social identity and affect the behavior of individuals and groups (Solomon 1983). In novel role situations, people may rely more on visual, symbolic cues, such as products, for self-definition (Solomon 1983). For example, they may make digital associations to consumer brands and objects on their personal Web pages (Schau and Gilly 2003), which enables them to build and reinforce relationships with brands (Fournier 1998). Unique societies assign symbolic meaning and identity to consumer goods, making these meanings and identities concrete (McCracken 1988a; Solomon 1983). That is, meanings are created in “the culturally constituted world, the consumer good and the individual consumer” (McCracken, 1988a, p. 72), then transferred to create new meanings by advertising, the fashion system, or consumer rituals of exchange, possession, grooming, and divestment.

Virtual world symbolic meanings might serve as important components of the game as players create, achieve, and use their objects. Objects often convey status, such as game skill or social networks in MMOGs (Boellstorff 2008; Ludlow and Wallace 2007; Taylor 2006), such that “Players seek and acquire status not only through the items they own, but more generally via their knowledge of the game, its artifacts, and how to acquire them” (Taylor, 2006, p. 83). Players thus acquire cultural capital, a resource for action, through their game competencies and credentials, which may be invested in cultural objects with shared meanings in the player community (Malaby 2006). Cultural capital creates credentials, such as player status, that integrates with other forms of notoriety, such as winning a contest or scoring as the top performer in an activity. Virtual objects further may relate to offline objects, because symbolic meanings may transfer between real and virtual environments (Burbules 2004; Malaby 2006).

Various forms of social interaction in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach likely involve symbolic properties for brands and objects. Players, the game, and advertisers potentially influence the process of social interaction for these symbolic meanings to develop as a form of status or a resource for action. Content creation in the course of player use and negotiation may be part of the process. Self-presentation literature builds on these concepts.


As an extension of symbolic interactionism, the theory of self-presentation suggests that people give performances in everyday social interactions (Goffman 1959). They perform through a front in which they manage the impressions others form of them. Performances entail a setting or physical layout for the performance, as well as appearance and manner. Each performer uses appearance, including symbols, to depict his or her projected reality. Performers also use a manner, such as being outgoing or shy, to express how they will act in a particular situation (Goffman 1959). Impression management occurs through two kinds of expressions: given and given off. Expressions given refer to traditional communications, such as purposeful talking or engaging in an activity. Expressions given off enable a person to provide “the theatrical and contextual kind, the non-verbal, presumably unintentional kind [of communication], whether this communication be purposely engineered or not” (Goffman 1959, p. 4).

Goffman argues that the self creates situational identities through which people act out perceived social roles. They follow a script in their everyday performances, based on how they perceive themselves and others as social objects (Sandstrom, Martin, and Fine 2006). Self-presentation thus analyzes the self as a producer responding to a scene, in contrast to Blumer’s (1969) concepts of symbolic interactionism that viewed the self as an object of the performer’s action (Weigert and Gecas 2003).

In a virtual world, the self as producer provides expanding options for self-presentation and the management of impressions. Virtual symbols and objects in communication can expand, and technology can help disassociate identity from the physical body as “possible selves widen … and become options in today’s identity markets” (Weigert and Gecas 2003, p. 272). These produced selves can demonstrate multiple aspects of identity, as in virtual spaces (Boellstorff 2008; Taylor 2006; Turkle 1995).

Studies in Internet communication build on Goffman’s (1959) theory to show how people create content online to present the self in their personal Web pages (Dominick 1999; Papacharissi 2002; Schau and Gilly 2003), blogs (Bortree 2005; Trammell and Keshelashvili 2005), and online dating Web sites (Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006). Schau and Gilly (2003) find digital associations with objects and brands evident in self-presentations, even when they were not used exclusively or owned by the content creator. Creators of Web pages exhibit strategic tactics to gain approval, similar to participants in offline studies, by associating with Web links to depict their selves (Dominick 1999). Links and language used by female teen bloggers, for example, aim to gain the approval of online and offline audiences, as well as displays of competence (Bortree 2005). Popular bloggers also engage in approval strategies to seem likable and use displayed links to promote their competence (Trammell and Keshelashvili 2005). Content and links can convey social status markers through association (Papacharissi 2002), and content creators use symbolic cues to validate their idealized self-depictions through authenticity as they form relationships that might move from online to offline (Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006).

Similarly, content creators, given tools for customizing avatars, use objects to establish setting, appearance, and manner in accurate and idealized depictions (Vasalou et al. 2008). The capabilities of technical tools or available Web site features thus affect the choices for self-presentation to portray an identity. The possibilities and limitations of these tools influence creative self displays in user-generated content (Bortree 2005; Papacharissi 2002; Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006; Vasalou et al. 2008).

Self-presentation theory offers a framework for studying the different ways that content creators display the self. However, the daily and moment-to-moment activities that people engage in for their ongoing self-presentation are less well covered in Goffman’s theoretical framework, which necessitates the incorporation of Blumer’s symbolic interactionism approach as well (Prus 1996). These aspects take on particular importance in virtual worlds. Compared with personal Web pages, virtual worlds are more persistent, demanding ongoing engagement in activities and social interaction for game play. The self-presentation of the avatar within the concepts of forming meanings thus requires ethnographic inquiry into the social life activities in the context of self-presentation.

Research Questions

At the conceptual level, symbolic interactionism studies activities that involve meanings as acted upon, affected by social interaction, and continually created and changed (Blumer 1969). Important components of social interaction (Steinkuehler and Williams 2006) refer to status related to objects (Boellstorff 2008; Ludlow and Wallace 2007; Taylor 2006) that also could relate to brand meanings. Brands might be considered objects with status or other symbolic properties as social objects, which would stimulate action (Solomon 1983) or offer a resource for action (Malaby 2006). Shared cultural meanings (McCracken 1988; Solomon 1983) may become manifest in blurred offline relationships (Burbules 2004; Malaby 2006). This line of inquiry leads to the first research question:

RQ1. What are some of the meanings of brands and objects in a branded virtual world?

With user-generated content, the self as a producer of identity expands to create a virtual display of the identity object as an avatar. This production is situational and based on perceived social roles, for which objects may be used in the setting or appearance to manage impressions (Goffman 1959). Brands also might be used in these displays to reflect a desired projected identity of the self through association and implied offline uses (Schau and Gilly 2003) and relationships (Fournier 1998). The self as producer (Weigert and Gecas 2003) thus may use brands and objects in identity displays. Social roles, related to the process of social interaction or enacted scripts, may relate to uses of brands and objects in avatar displays, game postings, and player activities. These ideas lead to the second research question:

RQ2. How do brand and object meanings relate to player identity expressions and social roles?

Game play is structured within an environment that influences the object meanings (Boellstorff 2008; Ludlow and Wallace 2007; Malaby 2006; Taylor 2006). Players who create content are confined to the choices imposed by the game structure for their self-display (Bortree 2005; Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006; Papacharissi 2002; Vasalou et al. 2008), which may affect the objects and brands they use in their social interaction. The process of social interaction occurs within this structure and may affect the social roles adopted by participants (Blumer 1969). Similarly, the setting for self-presentation depends on the graphical displays, game capabilities, and virtual locations for performance, such as a lounge, raceway, or beach (Goffman 1959). Influences may come directly from advertisements in the game for certain brands or branded objects that intend to stimulate behavior (Solomon 1983). Considering the role of the game, which is run by corporations and partly funded by advertisers, a third question emerges:

RQ3. How do brand and object meanings relate to game structure?

Finally, social interaction rests at the heart of symbolic interactionism. In the case of virtual worlds, content production is part of the interaction and invites the use of brands. The lines of action from each player fit together to create collective group life (Blumer 1969) and shared symbolic meanings (McCracken 1988a), which then are acted on through social interaction. Social objects represent social acts (Hewitt 2003), which can affect interactions and appearances of the self. This line of thought leads to the fourth question:

RQ4. How do brand and object meanings relate to social interaction?


Brand interactions underway during spring 2007 in different virtual worlds provide the input for an exploratory and qualitative study. The data collection focused on the types of brand interactions, demographics of the player base, and functionality of the worlds. MTV’s Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach serves as the study context for several reasons. Not only is this game one of the few branded virtual worlds, such that its virtual economy and brand promotions are controlled by MTV, unlike the open economy and advertiser structure of Second Life, but it also represents an extension of the well-known MTV brand, with active advertising promotions including content creation and cross-platform promotions (McClellan 2008). The sizable player base mimics the demographics of its related network shows, that is, 85% female and averaging 20 years of age (Woodson 2007). MTV projected 3 million players by late 2007 (Terdiman 2007) and achieved 241,000 unique visitors for June 2007 (Williamson 2007). Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach thus clearly reached an audience through this extension of the MTV brand, which aimed for more advertising revenues and an appeal to a demographic engaged in gaming.

The ethnographic participant observation took place in the spring and summer of 2008. Participant observation is a frequent approach in studies of online environments (Boellstorff 2008; Hine 2000; Markham 1998; Miller and Slater 2000; Taylor 2006; Turkle 1995). This method supports a direct observation premise (Blumer 1969; Goffman 1959; Prus 1996). A subsequent phase of this research project will include player interviews. The analysis of the observational findings uses the long-interview method (McCracken 1988b) for consistency.

Participant observation involves watching the television series, reading popular celebrity and fashion press, and interacting as an avatar with other players in online activities, conversation, and forums. It also includes Internet searches related to players, activities, and game artifacts displayed outside of the game (Hine 2000), such as player pictures and videos posted on social networking Web sites like YouTube ( and MySpace (, promotional e-mail messages, and advertiser Web sites. The game provides a public space, with institutional review board approval and MTV’s knowledge of the research activity.

Data Gathering and Analysis

In line with McCracken’s (1988b) recommendations, the researcher reviewed existing literature and related experiences to approach the data collection for the research questions. The first two stages in the method of inquiry are the creation of analytic categories and design, followed by the creation of cultural categories. The third stage entails the discovery of cultural categories, followed by a fourth stage associated with the discovery of analytic categories and the analysis.

Observations were documented in notes taken during game play and related online research. These notes list the observations as independent items, which are subject to five stages of analysis: (1) each observation is treated independently; (2) observations are developed by themselves and then according to other findings in the observations and existing literature; (3) connections are examined between second-level observations, considering the literature and culture review; (4) determinations of intertheme consistency and contradiction are made; and (5) patterns and themes are considered across observations for the final analysis (McCracken 1988b).

During each session, the researcher took multiple screenshots of observations, conversations, and activities and made handwritten notes. The screenshots were edited for size and cataloged in a Microsoft Word document. Detailed notes were typed after game play with the help of the screenshots; for example, an hour of play may produce ten pages of single-spaced notes and 70 screenshots. Usually the notes change iteratively on the basis of the handwritten notes, recounts of experiences, and details newly evident from the screenshots. A personal journal entry after each play episode records the researcher’s emotions (Bernard 1988; Neuman 2000). The avatar names of the researcher and all players documented are disguised in the notes and erased from the screenshots.

Researcher as Avatar

MTV’s Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach offers a rich graphical interface, similar to other videogames, and replicates the beaches, streets, and shops from the shows (see Figure 1). I accessed the MTV web site ( to reach Virtual MTV (, from which I downloaded software that enabled me to log into the game. From a setup screen, I selected a starter avatar from eight choices with different hairstyles, clothing, and skin tones. I created a user name for my avatar and password, then teleported into the game through a screen that said “A FREE ONLINE VIRTUAL WORLD WHERE YOU CAN LIVE THE MTV LIFE, MEET THOUSANDS, PARTY WITH CELEBS AND SHOP FOR THE HOTTEST GEAR! DON’T JUST WATCH IT, LIVE IT!”

Figure 1. Map of Places an Avatar Can Teleport in MTV’s Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach

Map of Places an Avatar Can Teleport in MTV’s Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach


In my first sessions, I changed my avatar’s clothes to lessen my appearance as a new player. Then I start exploring different beaches, lounges, and gathering places (see Figure 2). My avatar, Tannah, started with a dark blonde, short hairstyle. I could change Tannah’s hair (see Figure 3), skin, and other physical attributes at any time. Using the virtual currency of MTV$, I purchased a fitted, olive-green halter top and distressed denim miniskirt. Purchases of clothes, gear, pets, and transportation (e.g., buggies, hoverboards) can come from the vHills or VLB catalogs, as well as the Galleria marketplace, where players can sell virtual clothes they own or have designed. Virtual currency can be purchased or earned through activities.

Figure 2. Player Dashboard and Social Conversation Underway on a Street in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach

Player Dashboard and Social Conversation Underway on a Street in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach

Notes: Player names that appear above avatar heads in the game are erased. The “ChangeMe” view to the right indicates I have not purchased additional heads yet. The dashboard also shows radio playing, pop-up messages from MTV, and a quick view of the place choices.

Figure 3. Another Head from the Catalog for the Researcher’s Avatar

Another Head from the Catalog for the Researcher's Avatar


I explored what Tannah could do to communicate and experience the game. Her pose changes frequently and involuntarily. I can make Tannah sit, stand, run, walk, dance, show emotion, flirt, and dance. She can sit around a bonfire on the beach, at a lounge card table, or in a car. She communicates through typed words that appear in voice bubbles above her head. Premium players, who pay a monthly fee, can speak via voice.

At any time, I can teleport Tannah-physically move my avatar-to different locations. As I teleport from the beach to Area, a club in the city, my notes state:

Understanding the meanings of brands and objects requires an understanding of context created by the players and game. I talk to players, read forums, follow MTV communication via e-mail, and try activities. As the game proclaims in its content for new members (see Figure 4):

Figure 4. Activities in which to Engage

Activities in which to Engage

After six months, Tannah amassed player-designed clothing, different hairstyles, and other gear. Her appearance is not that of a new or high-status player, which aids conversation. She has interacted in promotions with Pepsi, offering vending machines and a rewards program via virtual bottle caps, and skill ladders for in-game Pepsi gear and privileges; with Sunkist, promoting a club with celebrity appearances that encourages players to make machinima to climb skill ladders and get Sunkist gear; and with Garnier Fructis, sponsoring the Rock Your Style Lounge where players can get free avatar hairstyles.

Tannah communicates casually with others. I identify myself as a researcher in most initial chatting. I also eavesdrop on nearby conversations (see Figure 5), just like other players who not only make observations but also can post them as pictures or videos on social networking sites like MySpace (, YouTube (, and metacafe ( MTV and its advertisers encourage players to take pictures and make videos. Players may, at any time, be subject to another player’s camera. Such user-generated content becomes an artifact of community culture and serves as a communication channel. The game encourages community formation through contests, forums, and the many other ways for players to interact.

Figure 5. Watching a Conversation

Watching a Conversation


The findings from the participant observation are presented in terms of each research question. Some results overlap among the questions regarding the meanings of brands and objects and how they relate to identity expression, social roles, game structure, and social interaction.

RQ1: What are some of the meanings of brands and objects in a branded virtual world?

Brands and objects of value broadly mean having game skill, being rich, or knowing the right social networks in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach. These meanings transpire through player social interactions and displays of the self as avatar. Starting with objects, avatars can be seen with cars, handheld devices, pets, and stylized clothing. The avatar itself is an object that consists of multiple accessory objects. The acquired objects symbolize status. Bunny slippers are given to players who work events as crew. Rare forms of avatar hair are traded for high sums of virtual currency. Unique items are distributed at game events. Stylized avatar clothing is typically user-generated content-designed, sold, and traded by players through the Galleria auction system. These objects are recognized and pursued by players for status. Objects function with some similarities to real life, but status meanings tend to center on the game.

With brands, the meanings manifest and extend the brand in different ways unique to the game. First, players may earn branded objects instead of paying for them, as in real life. After multiple log-ins, a new player may find an MTV-branded avatar shirt in his or her closet. In Sunkist’s Orange Nation club, players climb skill ladders to gain and display Sunkist-branded gear. Branded glowsticks, shirts, orange-hair, and beach buggies can be acquired as a player earns points by making pictures and machinima of his or her avatar with the brand (Figure 6). The brand conveys the status of game skill, in addition to meanings or personalities of the brand itself.

Figure 6. Learning How to Climb the Sunkist Skill Ladder and Make Machinima at the Branded Orange Nation Club

Learning How to Climb the Sunkist Skill Ladder and Make Machinima at the Branded Orange Nation Club

Second, brands or brand elements may be incorporated or mimicked in player-designed clothing and objects. These brands may be game sponsors, like MTV or Sunkist, or brought into the game by the player. Designing skill, ability to purchase stylized clothing with virtual currency, and social networks in which to trade objects all may be reflected in a player’s clothing choices or game postings in the Galleria (see Figure 7). For example, a designer created clothing that mimicked a nonadvertised brand, and another player sought a similarly branded outfit through a message forum. Notes from participant observation reveal the in-game value of acquiring the clothing from communication, for all players to view (see Figure 8):

Figure 7. The Galleria: Your Marketplace-Where Players Can Sell Clothing They Designed

The Galleria: Your Marketplace-Where Players Can Sell Clothing They Designed

Notes: See “caramel” references to skin tone and Pepsi brand presence.

Figure 8. Pink Coach Miniskirt for Sale in the Galleria

Pink Coach Miniskirt for Sale in the Galleria

These notes show how meanings can develop further through the marketing activities of the players to promote themselves. Mia23Lou is extending a brand and demonstrating her designing skill to gain virtual currency and status. Likewise, cali3Qxo is willing to pay for the branded outfit and is also, through the forums, establishing her personal connection to the brand. All players potentially can see this connection, which can aid both players’ communication with social networks. Both players’ postings are typical of dialogue in the Galleria and its forum. Players see the promotion of sponsored brands, interact with brands, and then are encouraged to advertise their designs and themselves. Galleria and forum “advertisements” at times mimic popular real-world advertising slogans, like the “Got Milk?” campaign or those of real-world brands. Brands help present the self as a means to gain game benefits.

RQ2: How do brand and object meanings relate to player identity expression and social roles?

Identity expression and social roles for social or status benefit partly develop through avatar displays with brands and objects. The meanings associated with player identity may develop in game play and, at times, be presented out of the game. Social roles may relate to status out of game, such as age. They also may relate to status in game, such as skill or experience.

Perhaps the ultimate object related to identity is the avatar itself. The game requires the player to create an avatar by choosing skin tone, hair, and clothing. Objects like sunglasses, paid premium membership, and houses are optional. Expressing one’s identity through the avatar can be broad or limited. For example, skin tone can be lightened or darkened at any time at the spa. Yet that choice is limited if a player wants to wear stylized Galleria clothing. This clothing is mostly available only for avatars with tan-looking caramel skin tone. In the case of Tannah, a trip to the spa was required before she could wear Galleria clothes. Expressing my identity with my preferred skin tone and particular clothes was not an option. As a player, I therefore had to weigh the social benefit of not wearing catalog clothes, reflective of new players, as more important than playing in my real-life skin tone.

The importance of objects for expressing identity and social roles is plainly visible in forums. Hair, cars, paintball guns, and premium membership are just a few of the visible status markers that affect how players are perceived and treated. Excerpts from the forums reflect this player reality:

“Because I don’t have the new hair [for my avatar], I get called the noob [new player]”(Nmes8Doll)
“Tonight i came across a girl being really mean to a person who was new saying how hes a noob blah blah blah to this game… I kinda felt bad for the kid so i gave him a car to borrow and a pb [paintball] gun.” (XOne2222)
“SOME of the premies [premium subscribers] have the tendencies to pick on non preimies”(ElecXX123)
“I am no longer premium subscriber, I hope I can still hand out my [designed] goodies at my events…” (Heav3Dee)

Brands are apparent in identity expression across player names and communication. Player names incorporate brands like Hollister, Abercrombie & Fitch, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Roxy, Nike, and BMW. These names cannot be changed and always appear above the avatar in play. Use of these brands comes with implied but not necessarily real-world ownership, to express identity in every social interaction. A player unable to afford expensive brands in real life may appear in a virtual top-fashion social role, constantly associated with the brand when it appears in his or her avatar’s name.

These brands also are manifested as players develop skills in creating user-generated content. Designers may borrow brand elements or brand themselves to (1) communicate an identity to sell clothes, (2) maintain a social role in game, or (3) uphold the value of their designs. The fashion magazine background on Mia23Lou’s Galleria advertisement typifies this approach. The Sunkist promotion’s pictures and machinima provide wearable game status but also connect the avatar identity to the brand by providing branded clothes or pictures with the brand in and outside of the game. Creating content extends from game play to self-presentation of identity and social roles.

Brands and objects can transcend the game in influencing social roles. Some players construct separate MySpace pages and social networks for their avatars. Social networking sites based on just the Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach community (, provide expressive platforms. These visible statements of game identity are all tied to the MTV brand, in the form of Virtual MTV or Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach outside of the game. Although they are out of game, these postings can offset or reinforce social roles in the game, because players live out aspects of their virtual selves, including appearance, interests, and identity markers. Players use brand names and branded objects from the game in these other spaces, such as artifacts or pictures from the game.

RQ3: How do brand and object meanings relate to game structure?

Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach and its advertisers influence brand and object meanings related to status. Game structure and brand promotions by sponsored advertisers provide the primary means of influence. MTV’s game investment extends its brand interaction with target audiences and provides revenue from advertised sponsors and players. The game structure and brand promotions thus support MTV’s investment, but they also contribute to the status meanings of brands and objects in several ways.

Game structure encourages social interaction, participation in activities, and creativity to gain status. Game staff and players also regularly post to forums, which facilitate communication and build community. Players can earn virtual currency or objects, as well as social status, for participating in crews that hold events and welcome new players. Players level up for trying on and buying clothes, being social with other players, and playing paintball or racing. MTV rules help motivate this leveling up through different kinds of interactions. New players must level up before purchasing from the Galleria. Such leveling up is not required of premium members, who get immediate access to more clothing choices, house rentals, and voice communication.

Contests encourage creativity by offering activities to create user-generated content. Designing clothes helps the game make real money from designers, build the virtual economy, and provide designers with game currency. Winning contests based on user-generated content gains status and popularity. Contests include shooting the best paparazzi-style picture of a celebrity avatar, performing as models, or writing the best caption for a scene from the show. For example, an in-game contest promotion from the participant observation notes highlights the notoriety of creating the winning design for avatar versions of The Hills celebrities (see Figure 9):

On MTV Central-where you can find out everything going on in-world, is a promo labeled ‘WHAT’S HAPPENING’ with the following: ‘CHECK OUT THE SCRAPBOOK! DRESS THE CAST CONTEST! For their next appearance, the Hills cast might wear what YOU design! Learn more!’ which links to clickable content. Next to this promotion are two pictures of female avatars, representing characters from the show. One is Lauren (I recognize her from last session when I saw a pop-up ad on my dashboard that I clicked on to learn about how to enter the contest) as an avatar in a very short bright true-blue dress and the other is Heidi as an avatar in a white summer thin strap gown…. The promotional wording is a layer on top of images of two other avatar characters from the show, Audrina and Whitney.

Figure 9. Promo for the Dress the Cast Design Contest

Promo for the Dress the Cast Design Contest

Player creativity tied to status, like Mia23Lou’s advertisement and cali3Qxo’s forum posting, becomes commonplace thanks to the game structure. Particular brands and objects garner higher prices, with exclusivity imposed through an auction system. Status results from reaching certain levels of ability. Players respond to this structure to compete in the game for perks of higher status, as well as to engage in interactions with other players who are near their status levels. As players become empowered to create, they use brand elements to increase sales to other players. Although copyright infringement is discouraged, designed clothing can be similar to real-world brands.

Brand promotions, such as the sponsorship of Sunkist and Pepsi, pay for player exposure. The Sunkist promotion encourages players to take pictures or videos of their avatars with the brand, then wear branded gear as achieved status. The promotion involves teaching players how to make music videos or short films. Machinima skills also can be taught player to player. The Pepsi Style Catalog is an iconic link for shopping that says “Buy virtual Pepsi Gear and get 10% off at” Brands like Pepsi also advertise in e-mail newsletters and sponsor crews of players and activities, like paintball and buggy racing. Players can become Pepsi ambassadors to promote the brand in-game for virtual currency or gear. Players also can buy real-world clothing worn by stars on the show, in addition to the virtual clothing.

Creative power comes from the game structure and promotions. The game encourages creative license by players, with all kinds of brands considered allowable. It reinforces the connections of brands to identities, particularly when doing so enhances status. As players help promote brands, they may learn how to promote themselves. Empowered by creating a video with brand permission, posting a picture of a branded avatar, or shooting random happenings-thousands of avatar pictures and videos live outside of the game-the portrayals of MTV, its game, and its advertisers are partly in the hands of players outside the game.

RQ4: How do brand and object meanings relate to social interaction?

A premise for Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach is social interaction, which happens in many ways in and outside of the game. Social interaction occurs among individuals and groups. Conversations take place on beaches and dance floors. Ideas, requests for help, frustrations, and community support become message threads on forums. Communication happens among players, the game structure, and advertisers. Avatar displays serve as objects in avatar-to-avatar conversations, and objects are frequent conversation topics-how to design clothes or buggies, where to get particular hair, or types of gear available at an upcoming event. These conversations can happen inside branded clubs. Brands come up in talk, such as how to earn specific items. Pictures and videos of avatars that incorporate brands also appear on social networking sites. Each player may interact with other players, a crew, the game itself, the forums where players post messages, and the cultural artifacts outside of the game.

As Blumer (1969) notes, the intimate familiarity of symbolic interactionism comes from experiencing the process firsthand as an ethnographer (Prus 1996). Social interaction as a process leads to symbolic meanings that are created, used by players, and altered during communication. Examples from this research show how such social interactions convey symbolic meanings about status.

As I played this game, I was a researcher seeking familiarity through respectful observation of a unique culture. The new player or “newb” experiences I had were reflected in the forums and other observations when I was new to the ways of the game. Leveling up, making friends, and participating in activities lessens this newb status, but so does the avatar as object. Within a few sessions, I strongly felt that my avatar needed to be in Galleria clothes and different hair. This feeling stemmed from my interpretations of the meanings of these objects. I learned through messages in the forums, values conveyed by game advertisements, and social conversations with other players that I needed higher-than-newb status to interact with players for this research. Furthermore, I experienced cultural artifacts out of game, such as videos of paintball attacks on newbs that other players had posted on YouTube and similar documented episodes.

I often talked with stylized female avatars for advice on appearance, usually complimenting their look and then asking where they got it. Other times, I simply observed their behavior in groups. Sometimes these females acted hyper-running quickly, dancing, saying bold and, at times, obnoxious things. It was fun to interact with them. They usually told me that they shopped at the Galleria. So I went there and had my first encounter with a branded item that I wanted for my avatar:

I stand away from the street in a quiet space away from the main area so I can go unavailable to shop. The females that tend to be outgoing and looking for social action appear in stylized clothing. These cool-dressed females wear clothes that come from Galleria, as they’ve told me in past conversations. And I’ve seen what they’re wearing and those same outfits in Galleria. These are items put up for sale by players-either trading out clothing they no longer want or selling clothes that they made for others to wear. Not just clothes, also buggies and accessories. What catches my eye is a Coach pink mini-skirt… I try it on for five minutes and I like it!… with a great pink background, like an ad, and the wording … next to it. Not sure if this is in reference to the magazine. But the ad caught my eye.

Stylized clothing from Galleria offers a clear example of symbolic meanings from brands and objects for status. Galleria clothing means you can buy it or design it. Those meanings arise from the game structure, player communication in forums, and what players wear in social conversations. Designers create and advertise by mimicking brands at times. An empowered culture pushes creative content for rewards and generates symbols that extend beyond generally acceptable rules.

The status of wearing Galleria clothes usually forces the avatar into a caramel skin tone, potentially overriding the importance of skin tone or offering status to a particular skin tone. The social interactions that have made the symbol of Galleria clothes more important occurred over time, through influences of designer style or preferences, the technical structure of the game regarding how designs and skin tones may go together, and perceived demands of buyers. Macrocultural influences may include a large U.S. demographic and the California culture of the show and game.

Galleria clothes are just one example. Mia23Lou brings design, advertising, and brand knowledge to social interactions. Low-status hair created social consequences for Nmes8Doll, which this player experienced through negative interactions of being called out as a newb. The loss of premium membership as an avatar object prompted Heav3Dee to explain, and possibly overcome, the loss of a status marker. All four of us participated in an interpretation of symbolic meanings of objects, at times involving brands, which we perceived as necessary for play and status. MTV is a persistent presence and influence on brands. Advertised brands tie to achievement-based status as another dynamic.


Brands join objects in symbolizing status in play. As in other games, objects convey status through skill earned through activities or social networks. However, Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach is also a marketing platform. Brands affect status through social interactions and self-presentation.

Brands Influence Status through Social Interaction

Participant observation reveals the multiple aspects of social interaction (Blumer 1969; Hewitt 2003) among players, the game, and advertisers, which lead to symbolic meanings of status evolving for brands and objects. Advertised brands influence status in interactions, as do nonadvertised brands brought in by players. Frequently, brands appear in user-generated content, starting with basic avatar creation and advancing through to higher forms of creativity when players create clothing, promotions, or machinima. This advanced creativity can use brands to broaden status in individual and group player behavior (Solomon 1983). Players digitally associate with brands (Schau and Gilly 2003) to stimulate action, including expressions similar to personal relationships with brands (Fournier 1998).

A designed avatar outfit or display of Sunkist gear represent examples of social objects (Hewitt 2003), namely, the act of accomplished capabilities that earn virtual currency or achieving a step on a skill ladder. Brands can make avatar clothing more desirable as individual actions (Blumer 1969) and collectively create value meanings in the culture (McCracken 1988). Sunkist gear has more positive symbolic value if players collectively agree through their actions that it is a worthwhile promotion for participation. Game rules and Sunkist influence that collective view through the game structure and social interaction.

The game encourages brands to develop status through structure and advertising. The structure rewards skill and desired activities with objects that symbolize achievement, sometimes including brands. Social communication and activities aid leveling up efforts. Brands become part of the conversation in forum postings from game leaders and players of all abilities. Senior players that participate in crews, which are structured by the game, promote brands at events and in postings. Advertisers build on game structures, with branded lounges and promotions. Players exhibit behavior that mimics brand incorporation in-game to promote their avatars, designs, and skills.

From social interaction evolves a shared culture. The Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach culture empowers players who exhibit creativity by encouraging them to create content to earn status. Advertised brand promotions incorporate such content creation, tied to achievement and appearing offline. The empowerment to use brands in this content comes with broad creative license. And their creativity appears widely outside of the game.

Self-Presentation Incorporates Brands for Status

For self-presentation, status displays happen through avatar presentation and player postings in and outside of the game. Goffman’s (1959) performance metaphor rests within a new dynamic of encouraged user-generated content that can become manifest both within the game and outside of it. Quite accurately, the player is in a state of performance, beyond the usual drama of real life. The player can choose to see his or her avatar on the screen, unlike the embodied self, and at any time, the player may be subject to another player’s camera shot for a picture or video. Advertiser-induced creativity has made the world a stage for players in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach. 

Inside the game, players must design an avatar to engage in different situations-such as locations and activities-that add script to the social dynamic (Goffman 1959). The game literally tells the player, though promotions, how to live a virtual MTV life. Constructing an appearance that contains symbolic objects of status is important to lessen newb treatment. Borrowed brands brought into the game, in postings or avatar names, communicate identity and maintain social roles in-game, such as being a designer or a fashionable person offline. An advertised brand that connects with skill also can be displayed to present the self as accomplished.

Outside of the game, created content appears as part of self-presentations, blurring the line between game and offline identities on social networking sites. This content may show advertised brands, like Sunkist or Pepsi clothing, backdrops, or game locations. Or nonadvertised brands may appear with the avatar or posted communication. Out-of-game content displays also serve to enhance status, potentially as an artifact of cultural capital with value for the gaming community (Malaby 2006). The process of social interaction contributes to the production of the self in offline spaces (Weigert and Gecas 2003), particularly in social networking sites. The avatar, as an object of self-presentation, results from the symbolic negotiation of appearance choices. As other studies show (Bortree 2005; Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006; Papacharissi 2002; Vasalou et al. 2008), the game influences these choices. A player must select hair and skin tone, which may influence subsequent display choices like clothing. But the game allows players and advertisers to influence choices too, leading to social norms based on perceived status items.

More broadly, players discuss the acquisition of brands in their social conversation, forum postings, and advertisements, through which they make further digital associations with brands (Schau and Gilly 2003). Status gets conveyed through these and other visual cues in self-presentation (Papacharissi 2002). In turn, status might be seen as a form of the game community’s approval for social benefits, as other studies of appearances of the self online suggest (Bortree 2005; Dominick 1999; Trammell and Keshelashvili 2005). Idealized representations of self (Boellstorff 2008; Taylor 2006; Turkle 1995) may function in these avatar displays (Vasalou et al. 2008), but they are tempered by potential offline connections (Ellison, Heino, and Gibbs 2006). In social networking sites, some players only portray themselves as avatars, whereas others integrate their game identity with their offline identity. Status can enhance authenticity in these blurred presentations (Burbules 2004).

Social roles also can use the status of brands, derived through social interaction. Use of a brand in a clothing design may net a higher selling price. It also may allow avatars wearing them to provide higher status for the players in-game, which could affect player behavior. The observations support these ideas but also require validation from players directly to draw additional conclusions.


The findings from this exploratory ethnography spotlight an initial understanding of how brands and objects develop meanings in game play. They provide a basis for player interviews to validate and expand existing patterns. User-generated content is central to players and the culture in Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach and provides opportunities for players to interact with brands and advertisers in new ways. These findings focus on status, one of potentially many social dynamics intertwined with brands and objects.

Researchers and practitioners realize that creativity in displaying consumption choices is not new to the real-world ways that people use brands and advertising. However, in the virtual world, MTV and its advertisers grant creative power to players, allowing them to decide how far they can leverage their personal identity, borrowed brands, or advertising interactions for social benefit. These findings offer a virtual-world glimpse into how social interactions among players, the game, and advertisers evolve and dovetail with the real world. Much remains to be learned about effective advertising campaigns and how they influence attitudes or actions with brands in these spaces.

This study is limited to one point in time of Virtual Hills/Laguna Beach, a persistent and continually changing virtual world. The study tends to focus on design activities, due to their connections to user-generated content, which is only one aspect of activities underway in the game. It incorporates only participant observations, though future studies also will contain player commentary. These in-depth interviews may clarify the relationships of brands and user-generated content with social interaction, self-presentation, and virtual-real distinctions. This study considers status quite broadly, especially compared with other studies that interview content creators about their online self-depictions to understand their motivations. The extension of this work therefore will pursue multilayered facets of virtual worlds with the projected expansion of user-generated content and online brand interactions.


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About the Author

Sara Steffes Hansen (Ph.D. Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an Instructor of Journalism at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Her research interests focus on strategic communication in interactive media, with particular emphasis on consumer engagement with brands and marketing campaigns via social media. She previously worked in public relations and marketing for high-tech companies. Email: [email protected]