In her life away from the screen, the world of Tateru Nino is absent other people, mostly. By her estimate, she has all of four "flesh friends" (as she puts it), two of whom she sees only once a year. This is largely attributable to her Asperger's, a mild autism sometimes known as "geek syndrome", since it disproportionately inflicts people proficient in mathematics, engineering, and high tech. Symptoms vary, but mainly they involve an inability to connect and emphathize with others on an emotional level.
"I seem to have most of the set," Tateru tells me of hers, "including a broad set of optional symptoms. I emphasize my words a little differently to most people. A bit like the G-Man from Half-Life. I rarely look at people I'm talking to. Ticking clocks and dripping taps drive me batsh*tf**king loco. I have a unique talent for programming because of the way I think about things. I soak up knowledge, but I can't remember if I had breakfast. Most memories before ten years ago are just a grey haze. Nothing there. People are unable to interpret my emotional states accurately, if at all."
All this would probably seem strange to the many Residents who know her, for in-world, she's widely regarded as a warm, matronly Mentor, a uniquely beloved member of the volunteer group who help new users. Dressed in Victorian gowns of crushed blue velvet, with a wry wit and an arsenal of endearments, she's something of a hip Mary Poppins, gracefully and gently guiding emigres through the complexities of Second Life. She's so beloved, some Residents built a shrine in her honor; one of them, Mera Pixel, even created a group called Cult of Tateru. At the moment, it's 77 members strong.
All this for someone who, in real life, is not the greatest of conversationalists.
"The more people talk to me in person, the less they like it," she explains. "Because I'm usually facing in the opposite direction."
All this is actually not so strange to me, for while an entire island in SL exists to teach Asperger's patients real life social skills, it often seems that people with the syndrome flourish in here. Somehow, with all the normal facial and vocal cues of social interaction supplanted by text chat and broad physical gestures, Residents with Asperger's can sometimes be more empathic and more emotionally engaged, than the average community member.
"People... think differently when they have to serialize their thoughts into text," Tateru speculates. "Maybe they think a little more like me. Certainly all the confusing body-cues and tone-cues don't mean so much here."
Veteran Residents know that longtime SL member Torley Torgeson (now a Linden Lab staffer) also has Asperger's, and like Tateru, is universally loved by the community.
"It seems to be, like Torley, you are able to read text more closely and intuitively than others usually do, since they depend on visual/sound cues normally," I suggest.
"I feel a very strong sense of kinship with Torley," she says. "I feel sometimes like we're standing back to back, looking in different directions across SL. She's the Childe Goddess of chaos, bitten by order. I'm a creature of order, tainted with the blood of chaos. She's watermelons and paradoxes. I'm sheep and zen gardens."
Tateru Nino actually began Second Life as a male avatar, but, she says, people couldn't quite accept her in that gender-- something about her manner and language made them think of her as motherly. Eventually she relented and flipped the sex switch to become Ms. Tateru. And though she doesn't dress provocatively, she's often harassed and propositioned, she says, even moreso than the avatars who resemble supermodels and club babes.
"Nobody really harasses Ken and Ruth," she says, referring to the default avatars all new users begin with. "Or the
plastic Barbies. Just the folks who stand out and look like real people. You've probably seen it in crowds. A lot of
avatars you can hardly tell apart, and a few who just stick out. Maybe we look more....I don't know.
Vulnerable. Maybe it's just because we stand out in a crowd. You can be in a
public place surrounded by fantastical avatars, people with pink hair and
angels with particles shooting out of their asses. But an ordinary face, and a bit of thickness
around the middle, and you stick out."
The way she sees it, from her unique vantage, "Avatars are an extension of that idea. The way we present ourselves subtly affects our persona, just as it does in real life. Only we can change more here. The psyche chooses the presentation, but the presentation feeds back into the psyche."
I ask her if the few people who know her offline would be surprised at how deeply loved by so many she is in here.
"I'm not sure," she answers after awhile. "I suspect it would cause some surprise or shock... For 20 years I've worked to come to terms with who I am. SL showed me I was not that person. You can consider me to be rather startled."