The Value of a (Digital) Life 

While the “Are NFTs good or bad?” debate rages on, it’s safe to say that one settled point of the argument is that digital goods do indeed have value. How you commodify them is where the conversation gets heated, but it would be illogical to argue we don’t assign monetary, emotional, and personal value to bits and bytes. People seem to be alright with giving value to “data” so long as it’s something that can be manifested in the “real world”, but if you put that data onto the blockchain, some people start getting squirmy.

I started thinking about digital models a few months back when I read Lewis Cox’s article In White: Yohji Yamamoto in the world of D2. The article covers the use of (the now dissolved) Japanese video game studio WARP’s digital actress, Laura Parton, in the magazine High Fashion (HF). The eighteen pages dedicated to WARP’s (then upcoming) Dreamcast horror video game in HF #268 are promotional in nature, meant to build hype around the game. While a traditional video game publication would focus on aspects of the gameplay, technical feats, or narrative, in HF, the atmosphere, or feeling, of the game is what’s emphasized. What’s more, it’s not necessarily the game being sold at all, but rather the game’s aura, as manifested through fashion. 

The D2 HF spread is comprised of renders, photographs, poems, and even music sheets (Cox 2021). It’s worldbuilding for the game in a sense, but more so it’s expressing the feeling of the game, and by proxy selling the look and inspiration of Yamamoto’s clothing line. WARP founder, the late Kenji Eno, stated in the issue: 

In the Inuit language, they say there are more than 30 words to describe the subtle beauty of the colour white. I wanted to present another kind of symbolism to you, the reader, or any other number of players, that differs from the white world of snow Laura traverses in her journey through D’s Diner 2. That goal lead me to the fashion of Yohji Yamamoto.

Cox 2021

The visual fidelity of D2 may have played a part in landing Parton this modelling role, with the slick renders of her in Yamamoto’s clothing showing just how realistic (and idealistic) video game graphics had become at the time of the article’s publishing. D2 was released on the Dreamcast, which was the most powerful home console of the time, and the lifelike details produced by the machine (albeit pre-rendered models are shown in the HF piece) showcase how realistic computer images could be used to sell wearable real world products. 

Parton’s modeling created a bridge between the real and virtual worlds. Consumers could seemingly experience the thrill, and poetry, of D2 without playing the game itself, as Yamamoto’s fashion wasn’t just a licensed offshoot of WARP’s property, but an integral part of the D2 experience. 

Familiar (rendered) Faces 

WARP’s Parton was a virtual celebrity of sorts before the HF article, though she wasn’t the only one. The most recognizable digital person to transition from video game character to pop culture icon is undoubtedly Lara Croft (who, funnily enough, is also modeling clothes later in HF #268, though only via old-promotional renders with new clothes cut and pasted on top [Cox 2021]). 

Croft didn’t just sell Tomb Raider games and related products, she sold cars, clothing, and even soft drinks. The mania that followed Croft at the turn of the millennium was a different phenomenon from the artistic linkage Eno had made with Yamamoto. Croft was a superstar in the digital realm, and her crossover to the real world resulted in a sort of cult of personality. Companies wanted Croft to promote their products, tapping into her persona and “accomplishments” as a way to bolster their image. This phenomenon was played into by Croft’s parent company, Eidos, in more ways than just advertising, with media like Douglas Coupland’s Lara’s Book exploring the dichotomy in Croft’s existence between worlds (Coupland 1998). 

In a 2021 interview, former Croft voice actress Judith Gibbons recalled some of the promotional engagements she did for the games Tomb Raider II and Tomb Raider III: The Adventures of Lara Croft (Carpineti 2021). Eidos had Croft engage in Q&A sessions with fans. Though the violent nature of the games made the Tomb Raider audience more mature (or perhaps better put, older, as the questions thrown at Croft weren’t always… appropriate), the yearning to be near this digital character in real life held immense appeal. People wanted to know what Croft wore, what music she listened to, what automobile she drove, etc. She was a vaporware celebrity – a fictional character valued for her fictional actions on-screen, dragged into the real world to sell her digital exploits and persona to real life consumers. 

Tomb Raider: The Trilogy was a promotional video made for Tomb Raider III, shown exclusively at a private launch party for the game (Nordwall 1998). Here, Eidos leaned into the cultural pull their digital character held, selling the game on the obsession factor rather than gameplay or graphical features. According to the tongue-in-cheek noir film, the experience of playing Tomb Raider III could illicit an almost deranging effect on players. 

The film begins with serval shots of a man inside of a small interrogation room. He rolls around the space, performs a handstand, and displays an anxious demeanor. Inspector Detective Murdoch and Doctor Sarah Greenwood are then introduced. Murdoch called Greenwood in as a consultant to help analyze the man’s condition. Murdoch states that the man’s thumb prints have worn off, and they have little information about him other than his alleged obsession with a woman named “Lara.” When asked who Lara is, the man sarcastically responds, “she’s my girlfriend.” Murdoch reveals that the man was carrying several items on him when he was picked up, including a pair of matching handguns and a key (Nordwall 1998). 

The thumb print note is a joke, suggesting the man has played so many video games that his thumb prints have worn off from continual rubbing on a gamepad. However, it also alludes to the crossover of digital characters into material vessels, and the hijacking of one’s personality from such an immersive experience.

Throughout the interview, the man refers to Croft as a real person, stating she needs help, and only he can save her. He also talks about the “light”, and how she’s closer to reality than ever before (Nordwall 1998). Tomb Raider III featured numerous graphical upgrades from the previous entry, and it was undoubtedly the most impressive looking game in the series to date. What’s curious to note is that the video footage shown from Tomb Raider III in Tomb Raider: The Trilogy consists almost entirely of scenes from the game’s urban environments: London and Nevada (Nordwall 1998). Of course, graphical updates like higher polygon counts and lighting effects can make a video game more immersive, but here it is perhaps suggested that in taking Croft away from ancient ruins and putting her in more contemporary or recognizable environments, she is closer to our reality than ever before, threatening to break through. 

Finally, the man hands Greenwood a folded piece of paper. Later, as she is leaving, Murdoch confronts her, asking what they should do about “Lara.” Greenwood smiles and hands Murdoch the piece of paper, revealing it to be a portrait image of Lara Croft. The video ends with typed text stating, “Does Lara live in our world… Or do we now live in hers?” (Nordwall 1998). 

Freeze Frame 

While Patron and Croft had been introduced to the public by way of video games before their modelling careers took off, James-Wilson’s Shudu is a digital supermodel in the purest sense. She, unlike Patron or Croft, has no resume outside of modelling. She is only a model, though from what I can ascertain, is a highly successful one. 

I first learned about Shudu from a Vice article back in 2019. Though I saw her “working” in several advertisements thereafter, it was when render software giant Daz 3D announced their foray into NFTs that Shudu came back on my radar. Daz’s entry into the NFT space started with a bang, recruiting none other than Shudu to an exclusive line of NFTs.

The artist (or manager, in a sense) is one thing, but the model, Shudu, is what’s at the centre of Daz’s NFT lineup. Shudu is arguably the most recognizable digital model in the world, and while that’s not to dismiss the work of her artist, she does live a digital life of her own outside of James-Wilson. The Daz NFTs, and Shudu’s modelling career as a whole, are less about James-Wilson’s presence and more about Shudu, strange as it may seem. Even if Shudu is more connected to James-Wilson than a real model would be to an agency, ultimately it is her persona that has taken precedence over his artistic work, even if the two are irrecoverably intertwined.

Lifelike 

Despite my best efforts to separate the real from the digital, I find it hard to not personify these digital models. Even Ama Badu, Muse and Journalist for Shudu, stated “I’ve been working with Shudu for a while now but the last year has shown even greater possibilities for her. This project, in particular, excites me! It’s a new milestone for Shudu, and what can be accomplished when tech and fashion collaborate in this way.” (Daz 3D) 

Tomb Raider III was not Croft’s game, nor did she have anything to do with crafting or bankrolling it – she’s not real. Neither has Badu been “working with” Shudu in the tangible sense of collaboration between conscious entities. Yet, we talk about these digital people as though they are in-fact real. Even if the influence between digital models and designers is technically one-sided, that’s not how it actually manifests in the real world. With models selling real products by way of renders – modelling them as though they exist in the real world but were created in an authentically digital one – it’s clear there is a draw not just to fictional worlds and characters, but specifically the virtual world. On one hand, we want these characters to come into our world; on the other, I wonder if we really want to go into theirs.

The digital world, and how we look, sound, and move through it, does matter. While some may dismiss NFTs, I doubt many would be so keen as to close their Facebook account, for example, severing ties to a wholly fictitious digital world. That’s perhaps an overzealous statement, but my point is that we clearly value digital work, and often fail to distinguish, or care, about the differences between our world and the one we experience through screens.

I think it’s cool that Parton sold blazers (inappropriate as they may be for winter hiking) and it’s just as cool that people of all genders wanted to drink the same drinks and drive the same car as Croft. Furthermore, it’s astounding that a digital character made for the sole purpose of modelling has had such an influence on fashion, art, and popular culture. Shudu is not Hansen Robotic’s Sophia; She is an image, a sculpture, a wire-frame construction who “works” at the whims of her creators and curators. Yet, what she wears and where she goes matters to people. Her actions have real (and digital) world consequences.

I don’t know if NFTs are the solution to giving digital creators the recognition they deserve; I don’t even know if that’s a problem that can be compared to the creation of physical art. What I do know is that digital media has such immense appeal that the push and pull of content between our world and the virtual one has become a blur, and I love it. 

References 

Carpineti, Chris. 2021. “Raidercast LIVE: Meeting Judith Gibbons – 25 Years of Classic Lara.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Kpv6I7iFRQ

Coupland, Douglas., Kip Ward. 1998. Lara’s BookLara Croft and the Tomb Raider Phenomenon. Rocklin: Prima Publishing.

Cox, Lewis. 2021. “In White 1999: The Time D2’s Laura Appeared as a Model in a Japanese Fashion Magazine.” Dreamcast Junkyard. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://www.thedreamcastjunkyard.co.uk/2021/04/in-white-1999-time-d2s-laura-appeared.html

Daz 3D. “The Diigitals and Daz 3D Release NFTs of Shudu.” Daz 3D. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://opensea.io/assets/ethereum/0x63e0eab409f1c1e737aad225003d709b57dbe9e5/14

Daz 3D. 2021. “Shudu: Rose Petals.” OpenSea. https://opensea.io/assets/ethereum/0x63e0eab409f1c1e737aad225003d709b57dbe9e5/14

Daz 3D. 2021. “Shudu: Heart of a Lion.” OpenSea. https://opensea.io/assets/ethereum/0x63e0eab409f1c1e737aad225003d709b57dbe9e5/7

Duhaime-Ross, Arielle. 2019. “The guy who created the world’s first digital supermodel says actual people ‘will become heirlooms.’” Vice. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://www.vice.com/en/article/j5wdxp/the-guy-who-created-the-worlds-first-digital-supermodel-says-actual-people-will-become-heirlooms

Lucozade. 1999. “Lucozade Original: The Refreshing Glucose Drink.” YouTube. Accessed July, 2022. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KbtNHRu3z_w

Nordwall, Janey de. 1998. “Tomb Raider: The Trilogy.” YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=91SoddPBJG8&t=4s

Reyes, Francesca. 2000. “D2: The original horror heroine crash lands in the Great White North.” Official Dreamcast Magazine, Issue 3 (January): 76. Accessed July 22, 2022. https://archive.org/details/odcm-us-03

SEAT. 1999. “SEAT Cordoba.” Vimeo. Accessed July, 2022. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x83f0i

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