I'm not that dumb/I can pretend/the sun is gone/but I have a light... -Kurt Cobain
So last night Comcast decided, in it’s infinite Comcasticness, to drop my signal right as I was about to post. Sigh. Pwned. Epicfail. It’s all for the best, I suppose, as this isn’t nearly as good as my last gaming post, so it being a little late adds to the joy of it all.
One of the things I’m fascinated by is how gamers form in-game identities that sometimes don’t bleed out-of-game. When I did my major thesis research (almost a year and a half ago– seems like so long), I had one participant– who will remain nameless and protected by IRB protocol– who had “gaming dates” on an MMORPG with his wife. I considered this perhaps the sweetest thing ever, as I was, at the time, a lonely nerd who couldn’t imagine that he’d ever have a significant other who would game with him (what a difference a year or so can make. Nerds, everywhere, rejoice! There’s hope for all of us!).
But there was an interesting little quirk to this gaming interaction between the couple. They would play the same game, together (so that they had “virtual” physical proximity) while sitting in the same room, and they would converse within the room (giving them another semiotic channel that wasn’t available to others in the game), but they wouldn’t look at each other in the room while playing in the virtual world.
At the time I wrote it off as quirky. When I present in the company of friends, I can’t look from any notes I might have to my friend, or when I look back I remember that I’m reading and get unnerved. I can’t walk full speed on ice because I’ve fallen down a few times walking full speed. These are quirks. And not looking at someone in the same room while you are looking at their virtual self seems to fit that mold, sort of like the time-travel fiction caveat that if you travel into the past or the future and see yourself you will cease to exist.
I think I should have pushed more, though, to investigate that dynamic. The more I look at digital identities and what it means to adopt a digital persona, the more I think I understand it. I came to this realization in an odd way. My girlfriend has a Simpsonize Me image as her buddy icon. I realized, in a weird, embodied way, that her buddy icon looks enough like her that I instantly recognize it as her (and hence can recognize her IM messages as being from her during the AOL lag before the text pops onto my screen). The icon is a representation of her, an extension of her identity into the digital realm (just as, to a lesser degree, the South Parkized Phill on my Facebook profile is at times startlingly like me).
But both Julie and myself have WoW toons. They aren’t meant, specifically, to be us (though I do have one named Phyll, and he does sort of act like me. “We don’t need to kill that guy. He’s just questing. Come on, let’s head on down the path!”). As such when I see Julie’s Blood Elf, I don’t instantly think “that’s Julie!” just as I wouldn’t think anyone who has seen me and seen Lyon (my BE hunter) would think “dude, that’s Phill!” And while I won’t presume without asking her to know Julie’s intent, I know that I didn’t create Lyon thinking he was going to be virtual Blood Elf Phill.
So back to the couple I mentioned and away from the couple I’m part of. I know, from the interviews I did and the gaming experiences I shared with him, that the male part of that couple (I didn’t study his wife– in retrospect I should have asked her to join the study, but my IRB approval didn’t allow for me to solicit people by word-of-mouth, a mistake I’ll never make again) was very, very into role-playing. From my own anecdotal experience with pen-and-paper RPGs, and from my other interviews in that study, I know that people who role-play seriously make every attempt to stay “in character.” If the participant’s wife agreed with the idea that part of the joy of role-playing was to maintain the character, it would make sense that seeing each other in the room, as embodied people, would create a disconnect between the image on the screen and the identity of the person.
In short I can pretend I’m Lyon all I want. If you know me, and you can see me pulling his virtual strings, you’re going to realize Lyon is nothing but a rhetorical construction. I have no problem with people realizing that, but if I were RPing, and the joy of the RP was assuming Lyon’s identity within the space of a few hours, it would be counter to my enjoyment to RP him in the same room as a person who would, by the nature of our relationship to each other, address Phill.
Of course all of this is wild theoretical speculation. I don’t know that this guess is at all right about my participant. I also realize that in a world where we fetishize everything it would be in some ways a logical deduction to assume that a “MMORPG date” could be entirely related to romantic/sexual ritualization (though from how he participant talked it wasn’t; I’m not sure he would have told me if it were). It just makes sense to me that such a relationship between online identity in a gaming space and real identity could exist. It’s something I’d love to study, if I can find enough people who play online from the same physical space.