Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Identity Crisis

I want to share some theories about the nature of the avatar/pc (player-character), for people to consider or debate. Your avatar being of course the character you lovingly created for five minutes before first setting out on adventure.

Several ideas exist about what these avatars express about their creators. I will provide an overview of some of the key theories here.

The Avatar as a revealing truthful expression
Some studies imply that the behaviour of an online avatar is unlikely to stray too far from that of the real world player. That play at being someone widely different to the player cannot be sustained over time. Further that ‘aspects of real persona normally inhibited by physical or social limitations’ may find expression through the behaviour of the avatar’ (Krzywinska 2007). Or in other words, that inhibited aspects of the real world personality may come to the fore through your character. ‘Virtual worlds enable you to find out who you are by letting you be who you want to be’ (Bartle 2003).

The Avatar as pure escape
If we consider the MMORPG environment as a substitute community providing ‘an alternative to life’ (Alexander 2008) then the avatar might be regarded as an opportunity to escape from being oneself. Along with incredible powers and an exciting environment, the player may choose to become more noble or ignoble than their real life inclinations, in order to extend the sense of escape.

The Avatar as edited self
Another theory is the idea that the avatar represents a carefully chosen selection of qualities that the player wishes to express within the game environment (Taylor 2002). This might involve hiding or subduing qualities that they do not wish to share. The avatar from this perspective is an edited version of the player.

These perspectives may resonate more or less true with different players. To test the robustness of these ideas further, one would also need to consider the incidence of players deliberately role-playing characters which they have designed to further the story-telling aspects of play. However this might not necessarily imply a further filter between the truth of player and character, because choices made in a deliberate predetermination of behaviour are still reflective of the decision maker.

How do others see you?
However we are not in absolute control of how others perceive our avatars. There are issues both in superficial and intimate interactions with other avatars. In the most superficial encounters you will not recognised beyond your class, for example when referred to simply as ‘Pala’ or ‘Lock’ in a busy party or raid. Your behaviours and capabilities will be the next things noticed, but only you will have a near accurate sense of your values and identity. Further the absence of non-verbal communication may further muddy the waters and cause misreading of other’s intentions.

In sustained intimacy, for example long-term friendships, guilds, or role-play others are sure to see things about your avatar that you will be blind to. These may or may not be flattering! (For more on this google: Luft & Ingham’s Johari Window 1955).

Final thoughts
As you explore and express whatever it is you personally want to get out of playing a fantasy character in an imaginary environment, you may have some fun by paying attention to the roles ascribed to you by other players. Through their eyes you may be playing a supporting role in their story (whether friend, foe or merely incidental). How much attention do they pay to you beyond your class or function? How much attention do you pay to others?

‘The challenge is that of how to accomplish heroship for all PCs, while also allowing PCs to play other functional roles for other PCs in their function as heroes’ (Eladhari 2007).