The search for identity
by Scatter ///\oo/\\\
Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a mudslide, in virtual reality.
Here is a girl but is it a he or she?
I'm just a role-player, I have no identity,
Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Is she real or just for show?
Any way the scene flows, doesn't really matter to me.
--- With apologies to Queen!
Grace Kelly, beautiful as ever.
When you log into a mud, there is often almost nothing that
identifies who you are. Usually the only identifier unique to
you is a name you choose when you first connect to the mud. You
can even connect several times, choose a different name each
time and end up with several identities on the mud - generally
no one would be able to tell that all these identities are the
same person - save, perhaps, the mud's admin who have extra
clues such as where you are connecting from. In an environment
like this, where clues to who someone really is are so few, the
question of identity can reveal some interesting insights. Who
are you really? How does who you choose to be online depend
upon who you are in real life? Is it really ethical to
pretend to be something other than you are?
Self versus Character
Many muds (indeed, perhaps most muds) actively encourage role-play.
Generally they simulate a world or part of a world that may be
based on medieval fantasy, sci-fi, world history or even the
present day. They ask that you create an identity for yourself
that fits into their world and then play out that identity as if
the simulated world was real and the real world did not exist.
This mud-identity is generally called a character and from this
come the terms in-character (IC) meaning "consistent with the
mud world" and out-of-character (OOC) to mean "outside the mud
world." Good role-play usually means staying in-character as much
as possible and avoiding anything out-of-character. Role-play is
often assumed to also mean divorcing your character from yourself
in terms of likes, dislikes, emotion and personality, but this
is not necessary to role-play. All that is necessary is to
divorce your character from the real world.
There are many levels of role-play, varying the level of association
between your character and yourself. Each level can result in
a believable, well role-played character. The scale starts at the
simplest end - your character is simply yourself in an alternative
world. This is undoubtedly the easiest kind of character to play
since you need do no work at all. Your character's reactions to
events are simply yours - no need to act, interpret or think about
things beforehand. On the other end of the scale is the completely
fictional character, totally divorced from the person playing it.
This kind of character is much more difficult to play as its
every action and reaction needs to be carefully considered.
Whatever level of role-play you choose, it does reflect things
about yourself. No matter how different from you, your character
is created by you and driven by you. Your character says a lot
about you - though fortunately what it says is usually lost to those
who don't know the real you. In some ways, the more different
your character is from you, the more it gives away.
Aside from the differences due to the different world in which
the character lives, the personality of your character reflects
the personality of yourself. Sometimes a reflection can mean
providing a very close similarity, sometimes it means showing
the real thing but reversed. Either way, the reflection is there.
As a leisure activity, an escape from the real world, a mud
character is often an enhanced version of the real person. It
reflects what the person would really want to be like. It
exaggerates good points and skills, minimises bad points.
Sometimes the character is an inversion of the person - allowing
someone to exaggerate and enhance the bad side of their
personality, explore their darker secrets. Characters can
let anyone find out what it's like to be the bad guy for a change,
or the stupid guy, the ugly guy, the handsome guy, the hero or
heroine, the damsel in distress.
The Lure of Anonymity
One of the keys to a successful role-play game is for all the
players to stay in-character and respond to other players'
characters rather than to the other players themselves. This
is the downfall of many face-to-face role-play games as a
group of friends respond to the friends they know so well much
better than to the dwarf veteran on the character sheet. A mud
on the other hand can make it possible to know absolutely nothing
about the players behind the other characters, and likewise
have them know nothing about the real you. This can aid role-play
immensely since the only thing you have to base your reactions
on is their character - no conflicts or distractions from anything
else you might otherwise have known about them.
This lack of real person information also helps players to relax
in how they play their own characters. Inhibitions tend to slip
a little when you know the people you are interacting with do not
know who you really are. This shield of anonymity allows your
characters to do things that you would not dare to do in real
life or would not want a reputation for in real life. This doesn't
just cover "negative" things like aggression, it also allows being
more open without feeling you are exposing yourself, exploring a
different sexual attitude without compromising your own -be
it more wanton or more reserved!
Unfortunately there are a number of people who misuse the
disguise the mud provides. Rather than play the game, they are
instead playing a power-game of their own and get their amusement
from annoying and harrassing other players. This kind of behaviour
crosses an ethical line - the line between valid role-play and
There are good uses of anonymity and bad uses. The obvious bad use
is for someone to act out an unpleasant need or emotion through
by abusing others, without the danger of real life consequences.
This raises some ethical questions about anonymity and identity
- not only on muds but on the net in general.
The Ethics of Identity
Is it wrong to hide who you really are? Many people believe that it
is. Is it wrong to pretend to be different than you really are? Again,
many people say yes, but this ethical line is very difficult to draw.
In a mud, you are expected to pretend to be someone else. On IRC,
you are expected to be yourself. On usenet, posting with an obvious
alias will often get you chastised as a coward - though if you'd
chosen "John Mulingham" as an alias instead, chances are no one
would have realized. Identity really only becomes a moral issue
when malicious motives are involved - when the deception becomes
harmful to others.
Many people, perhaps even most people, have a net-identity that
is distinct from their real-world identity. The personality
expressed on the net is subtly different from that in the real
world. Using a net-alias is in many ways simply recognising the
fact that you are a different person online, however slight the
differences maybe and naming your alter-ego. The lack of face to
face interaction is often enough to relax barriers and make you
more open, more friendly, more helpful - or more aggressive,
more brash, more thoughtless. You have time to consider your
response, and since you must type it out you have the opportunity
to change your mind and say something else instead. On the net,
no one can see you blush, wince, grin smugly or any of the other
thousands of body-language tell-tales. So is using an alias really
pretending to be someone else or just an admission that you
are someone else online?
If it's accepted that your net-identity really is different from
your real-world identity, which is really you? Perhaps the
net-identity since it often reflects your deeper personality,
with less of the baggage of social mores and constraints. Or
perhaps the real-world-identity - the one that has to successfully
interact with other real-world people instead of the insubstantial
ones on the computer screen. The net-identity that responds to an
insult with a light-hearted smilie or the real-world-identity that
was hurt by it? The logical answer is perhaps 'both' - your real
identity is the one that functions best in the environment it
exists in. To put that another way, wherever you go, you always
go as yourself. It's just that from place to place, the self
may be different.
The root of the problem that some people have with net-identities
is the fear that they are being fooled. No one wants to be taken
for a ride. Nothing is more likely to cause a storm in a virtual
teacup like the discovery that a net female is in fact a male
(or vice versa though that seems to be much rarer and cause much
The reasons for this are probably down to the way gender is
usually tightly coupled to the sense of who someone is. Hence
the discovery that someone is masquerading as the opposite sex
seems to threaten a basic element of self. This psychological
response seems to manifest usually as an immediate assumption that
the person concerned must be homosexual, transexual, or somehow
peverted and out to get you.
While this may be true sometimes, it certainly doesn't account
for all cases and is often a bad over-reaction. Adopting a female
role may simply be a way for a male to express what society
labels as female characteristics without being seen as unmanly
himself. Things like just being kind and sensitive or helpful or
able to ask for help. Or it may be a simple way to explore the
male/female relationship and see the other point of view, how
the other half lives.
Of course, in a mud, the reason may be even simpler - its much
more likely that a female newbie will get help from higher level
players rather than a male. On a male dominated mud, male players
may even compete to help the new girl, whereas the new guy is
just another loser newbie to ignore. Admittedly, a male playing
a female this way is a deliberate deception. How can it wrong though,
in an environment where the whole point is to pretend to be
someone other than yourself?
The critical point ethically seems to be not letting a false,
role-played identity become involved with relationships that
extend beyond the characters to the players behind them. Be
aware even as you play a part that there are real people behind
all the parts and not everyone takes the deception as far as
you might. Role-play relationships are only okay as long as
all parties involved really are role-playing.
The Rainbow of Self
Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? These are just
some of the questions used to find out what you are. No one has
good answers for any of them. What defines your self, your
personal identity is still very much up for debate. However
everything you do is a small part of the answer. Each
character you create, each role you play, each identity you
maintain is a shard of the real you, a tiny part of the whole
spectrum. A colour in the rainbow of your self.
November 1998 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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