Saturday, October 30, 2004

Virtual Identities

One of the things that always makes me pause and frown (being the shy quiet Norwegian, that's a strong expression of - umm - anything from insecurity by way of thoughtfullness and way over to annoyance), is when the discussions of identity and virtuality take off and people start to make sweeping statements about life in Cyberspace.

As a player and as a scholar interviewing players, I found that identity is extremely stable. The players had certain limitations to their identities which they would not be able to transcend. Examples are for instance how it is impossible to pretend to be more intelligent than you really are. It is possible to appear to be more intelligent than you appear in real life, particularly as there are different skills required in the flesh world and the game world. An otherwise socially insecure and unskilled character, can bloom in the game. But this can not happen unless the potential is within this person, embodied, as it is, in the physical body carrying the wetware of the brain around.

I also found that the flesh world has a very powerful influence on the game world. The game would work around such things as chores, meals, social obligations in the flesh, timezones and repeated stress injuries. And so the body and our physical lives influence the world. I entered as an adult in control of my life and time, with an agenda that let me put other things aside without being accused of neglecting central western social values such as work, duty and ambition. The body is caught by these considerations and so the players' actions will at some level be influenced by this.

For instance, Celia Pearce is just now demonstrating how her research avatar functions. But her avatar interacts oddly with us, broken up and haltingly, and even if she has Mary Flanagan reading for us who can't read the text on the screen, the delay of typing colours the communication. And Celia Pearce is a fluid typer, Mary Flanagan is a willing interpreter, and the audience is patient, but still the physical and the digital does not merge fluently enough to make me read the avatar as anything but an annoyingly slow and actually quite boring filter between us and the real body, and not a value of itself.

The actions in digital worlds are not something "different", they are a same which is edited and limited, the same way a blog representation is limited by the editing activity of the writer. Reading outside of the represented text is so much less rewarding in digital spaces, due to the more narrow bandwidth. It is however the same individual behind all actions, and while different aspects are activated in different contexts, this was observed quite keenly by Erving Goffman in his 1959 Presentations of Self in Everyday Life.

While the discussions of roles, identities and human interactions have developed since Goffman, I miss this background material in the discussions. The digitally mediated interaction areas (aka virtual worlds) are just new contexts for human interaction, and what we do is studying humans, first of all.

And now, as a white arrogant female, rather than bringing to you all the very interesting and important discussion of how ethnicity and gender influences, I have written out my own issues on virtuality and identity in this line of study. However, as a female representative of an ethnic minority I can play the race and gender card and say: my voice has a right to be heard! But I don't know, really, which voice I speak with here, the working class girl, the half-blood sami with nomadic kaukasians on the other side, or the over-educated doctoral one?

And Celia Pearce by way of her avatar and given voice by Mary Flanagan just stated the same as I me: that identity online is aspects of the offline personality.

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