Remembering and Dismembering IMVU
by: Janice Monticello
Cover art by Lucia Santos (BC ’25)
The third-person social-networking platform known as IMVU is a three-dimensional metaverse teeming with social potential; its visual tenor invites us to dress and undress the meanings of virtuality and corporeality––to play the game and allow the game to play us back. Neither an acronym nor an initialism, IMVU engages us to beg the question: What can it stand for? Virtual bodies posit the opportunity for virtual subjectivity, but more importantly, for the breadth and mutability of such subjectivity. This piece transforms the layout of the essay to bare the uniform of the human body, thereby traversing its organs, systems, synchronizations, breaks, and flows. Like a critical rendition of the board game Operation, this essay evokes the possible veins of thought that the eccentric IMVU bodies and their movement, or lack thereof, specifically animate a discourse on IMVU corporeality. A nuanced understanding of the cohesive IMVU body demands the specificity of the body parts, just as precision is necessary to win a game of Operation. Drawing upon Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella’s assessment of the virtual existence, we will segue into French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concept of the body without organs, which withdraws the image of the IMVU altogether to unveil the implantation of immeasurable human expression. This essay is accompanied by a compilation of critical collages made from scrap magazines and printed images that elicits the heart of its argument: Just as the name “IMVU” is only an arbitrary combination of letters cut and pasted from the birth of the virtual world, these collages emulate the breakage and consequential damage that organization and expectation wrecks against the body. Users revel instead of hide in the haphazardness and excess of curvature seeking to be desired in spaces that make room for the worship of stillness and pose. When we log in, we assume a body prepared for metamorphosis and we do not ever truly log off; we are always changing—always playing.
The mechanics of communion are the same ones that allow for conversation. To both join the discourse and assist the swallow, the tongue welcomes us to the body of IMVU as an online metaverse and social platform within and without. IMVU was launched in Redwood City, California, in 2004, the first successful product of the Lean Startup approach. It is accessible on both PC and mobile devices, and targeted toward 18-24 year olds. This essay examines predominantly the PC format of the game, IMVU’s original and intended medium of play. At the time of writing, there are over 200 million registered users, 7 million of which are active monthly and 60% residing outside of the United States. It is significant to distinguish IMVU as primarily an instant messaging platform, despite its likeness to a virtual game. The company utilizes virtual credits, which can be bought with real currency, to navigate the virtual economy.
The true community of IMVU germinates from the ground of other social networks: IMVU avatars can cultivate profiles on Instagram, Twitter, and Tiktok, introducing the potential for a following outside of their motherland. IMVU affords its users the opportunity to cultivate relationships beyond that of friendship. The website’s clientele takes on an affinity with pregnancy and familial relationships so that Instagram accounts are dedicated to the unification of IMVU parents and their ideal child. This is to say that the platform itself has the means to accommodate rather complex “virtual projects,” consisting of the leveraging of grounded human experiences onto the creation of a virtual existence (Gualeni and Vella 564). Gualeni and Vella posit that these two experiences have a reciprocal relationship. The layers of existence and presence in cyberspace are heightened when users incorporate external values in a world that is valueless. When users rely on interpersonal relationships to guide the narrative in massively multiplayer online role-playing games, the relationships nurtured in the real world imprint on the activity in a secondary virtual world. Ergo, IMVU children are born.
Though studies of virtual worlds, including Second Life and Sims, are abundant, IMVU-specific studies are relatively scarce, despite offering social opportunities comparable to those of the aforementioned sites.In fact, IMVU is considered quite niche. The current IMVU corporeality destratifies the body more than its contemporary virtual worlds. In tandem with a reading of the zaniness of IMVU bodies and the uncanniness of the IMVU condition, I will observe how a simple dress-up and chat medium has made off with its caricature of bodily proportions while averting the academic gaze–– how it is simultaneously unique and uninteresting.
The cyberspace of IMVU consists of variously themed 3D chatrooms, ranging between the luxury of utopian island scenery and the moodiness of the nightclub aesthetic. Each room can showcase up to ten “presenters”, but can be seen by any voyeur. Some rooms even make enough space for over a hundred viewers. As a viewer, you do not inhabit a body, but rather, an eye: “The point now is to see and be seen, to grease the gears of desire and the desire to be desired within the machinery of surveillance” (Rikagos 186). George Rigakos’ triangulation of risk, bouncers, and the nightclub offers an understanding of IMVU 3D chat rooms as loci of desire, situating spaces like these under Thomas Mathiesen’s contemporary critique of the Foucauldian panopticon, the synopticon: where the few watch the many and the many watch the few (Rikagos 186). This system of seeing becomes a playground for human social desire and responsibility over the few, known as a risk group. As opposed to the Foucauldian panopticon, which features an institution of asymmetrical control and objectification over the many, the synopticon inverts this and becomes a bottom-up force regulating the actions of the few. For IMVU, these nightclub-esque spaces, or optic orgies, function similarly: “The desires of the nightclub – what draws bodies and collects them – becomes its own machinery” (Rikagos 188). IMVU houses excess in both its bodies and its terrain in the desire to be the most visible in the room, where rooms are optimized for visuals more than any other sense.
Similarly, Keith McIntosh, in his “Social Construction of Virtual Space,” celebrates the “themeing” within MMORPG Second Life as lacking the seduction of themeing in real life—“IRL” (McIntosh). Here, “themeing” represents the extension of real life systems that require representation in order to break and reimagine them. McIntosh asserts an innocence in the creation of space in Second Life that casts light on IMVU’s own erasure of malice in the desire to be desired. In a similar way, the night life of IMVU sheds the antagonisms of true visceral disorientation and inebriation that often occurs in the night time economy. Where real nightclubs commodify and market the cultural and social expression around desire, IMVU nightclubs contain a machinery that does not control the excess of expression. Instead, it merely lets one play. Themeing in IMVU becomes a job of mimicking the physicalities of the nightclub—the dark and the loud—while draining them of their power over the exploited senses. When this breakage happens, all that remains is a caricature.
Where the IMVU body is a source of inexhaustible creativity, it can also be a site of damage. Gualeni and Vella warn that the unlimited latitude and instant gratification that come with reproducing the virtual self “very quickly morphs into a compulsion to constantly re-produce ourselves anew” (Gualeni and Vella 3183). “Re-produce” here espouses an abusive meaning as opposed to a creative or fruitful one. This becomes the means by which we oppress and exploit ourselves, where our virtual bodies become victims to the indecision of being. Of course, virtual spaces are praised for this same pliability, but in the face of infinite resources, it becomes easy to neglect the use of caution against the commodification of existence and identity. Identity becomes flimsy and makeshift, ripe for experimentation but weak in its certainty. The self remains ambiguous, ebbing, and flowing. Perhaps that is the point of the IMVU body: the playability of the self in a game that one can never quite win.
Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the Body without Organs, appropriated from Antonin Artaud, allows the IMVU body to become a space of a different form of damage against the organizing principle that is the virtual body (Deleuze and Guattari). The phrase “body without organs” does not claim to be a specifically incarnate one, but follows a panpsychic understanding of matter, in which “everything has a mind” (Goff). It is significant to note that this concept is faithful to a perpetual Brownian motion wherein there is no promise of eventually reaching the state of a body without organs. Neither an emancipatory concept nor a cynical one, the body without organs is simply the existence of plurality of intensities and the erasure of a stratified system constituting organs.
This damage of the virtual body participates in the dismantling of our own selves as the IMVU body adopts avatar intensities across the unlimited space allotted to the curves of its body. The IMVU body stretches, scales, shrinks; it is irreducible in its magnitude of possibility for becoming-avatar. In Stephen Seely’s exploration of affective fashion, the author adopts an “involutionary becoming” from Deleuze and Guattari that takes place between clothing and the female body in which one “becom[es] out of hegemonic stratifications” (252). Similarly, IMVU bodies are a minoritarian subject: their practice of body-bending renders familiar human body parts absurd and freakish when they operate together, as a product out of not only Western ideals of bodily proportions, but also the established virtual ideals of the representation of the Western body. If the “body without organs” is a cosmic process for experiencing multi-layered intensities, the IMVU body is a reservoir of vast virtual potentials where we find ourselves becoming-mutated. The IMVU catalog sells “body scalers” which grant users the chance to transmogrify the original, default IMVU bodies into a myriad of contours and physiques, even those which are anatomically unsound. There is no concern with designing a mimicry of real life, but an augmentation of it.
The novelty of IMVU rests on its rendition of an avatar and its worship of the stasis of image. The degree of inaction within the virtual world reimagines the capacity and responsibility of the body and its organs that inform the limits of this kind of play. This inaction is known as what I will refer to as the perpetual pose, or an uncanny stillness.
Rainforest Scully-Blaker investigates the decision behind stillness and stasis in video games, arguing that stasis is a product of game mechanics while stillness is “voluntary inaction” and a product of game aesthetics (2). For the purposes of IMVU, as a game without objective, I will mainly discuss stillness rather than stasis. While IMVU does not follow the same velocities and stakes as traditional video games, the notion of “slow[ing] down our lives” as a counter position is valuable to spaces like IMVU to reveal the privilege of IMVU bodies in their “ability to ease the pain of acceleration” (Scully-Blaker 4). Surrounded by accessible sports cars and designer shoes, it is no surprise that IMVU avatars indulge themselves in the prerogatives of the elite. The game is not intended for the relentlessness of labor, but for the serenity of laissez-faire.
Observing the dimensions of virtual movement, travel in IMVU is not just inaction, but often just invisible. Navigating the room involves the pull and drag of the mouse, the screen often reacting slowly as if configured with resistance against any nimble, harsh movements. This mechanism is one of the many cases of a dawdle by design. In terms of the avatar, every 3D space contains arrows across the landscape that, upon clicking, spawns the avatar to a new position and pose. Avatars exert no energy and therefore implies no attempt within the site to emulate the functions and labor of true human activity. Lacking a linear mode of travel and movement, the site maintains the barrier between the player and the avatar that eschews immersion. Simply hovering the mouse over the arrow generates a holographic image of one’s avatar that previews the potential space one can occupy and how. The physical existence of the IMVU body is a series of aesthetic choices in which the website prompts user meditation on one’s capacity to move. There is no simultaneity of the player and the ‘played’, but a flow between the hover of the mouse, the ponder, and the committing click.
Although IMVU bodies did not always take on these maximalist appearances, the blank, deadpan visage has always colored the community of IMVU. However, the “blank face is not an empty face” (Barker 5). Meghanne Barker’s extensive account of all the motivations of the blank face is a testament to faciality as a process within time, space, and culture, and Barker specifies that the interpretation of the blank face is a product of the viewer and their experiences alone. In the context of virtual worlds, this stillness of the face coupled with the stillness of the body generates a striking pause. It appears contemplative, not only for the avatar, but for the user as well, in which we buffer at the sight of an inert, uncanny being. More importantly, though the face is often static, the meaning and affect persist fluidly. The IMVU face is in an eternal state of both contemplation and interpretation. Therefore, our ability to play is curbed by the game’s inherent absence of movement and expression.
These examinations of the IMVU appearance culminate to the very heart of an unremitting transformation allowed by the IMVU canvas. The complexity of avatar design gives way to a right to over-exist, but the built-in lack of specific expression can regulate the license to play.
The once evocative poesy of the mating call, “u singl?” [sic] and pornographic spam that held a candle to Wordsworth can now only generate the sigh that blows it out. He who promised to be my kingdom come revealed himself to be from the depths of the underworld: IMVU.
Drama is central to communication on IMVU, promoted on the main website as “the chance to share our secrets, our fears, our passions and our individuality in a low-risk environment” (“Product”). The stakes are expressly acknowledged and erased, even demonstrated in the lack of oversight in its messaging features. IMVU seldom practices censorship or filters obscenity in chat the way most virtual worlds would.
While IMVU bodies undergo self-inflicted aesthetic abuse, the spaces in IMVU also mutate into hotspots for verbal violence against other bodies. Though IMVU rooms are themed hubs containing real-world sensibilities sans the logic of a capitalist system undergirding IMVU relationships, the verbal abuse that is still made possible and often remains unfiltered is a danger in its own right. While the space for the exploitation of labor is relinquished in virtual worlds, the exploitation of one’s presentation via avatar remains a symptom of IMVU’s lack of regulation.
The chat system in IMVU enables other avatars to create and send animations with and using the recipient’s avatar. Users can send gifs of a variety of interactions, often suggestive or intimate. As a consequence, our avatars are not exclusively ours; they can be appropriated and animated against our will to fulfill the desires of others. This position divulges the manipulation and spectacularization of the IMVU body, whose aesthetic power lessens with the growth of an exploitative origin. IMVU is unique in its seemingly limitless reciprocity of play: a rhizomatic system of players and ‘played’ that extend far past the screen itself.
A series of 78 critical collages accompanies the original thesis that operate as a system akin to the, more or less, 78 organs of the human body, transforming this into a “body” of work. Shown are only a fraction of the 78 images that convey the pith of the total work. The process of such a creation is just as vital to the work as the product: the act of cutting and pasting, printing images just to re-digitize them, and dismembering already cohesive shapes and images. The images are adhered with glue and tape, offering a creation without the promise of permanence, where we can peel back the layers where the paper bleeds and expose a series of breaks and flows and breaks, again. Their presentation reveals these moving parts as, ultimately, a singularity, whose layers are flattened to produce new meanings: a playful and serendipitous cohesion of torn, broken things. It is a process in the same way that IMVU corporeality is a process, existing so that you
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