Wednesday, August 13, 2008

What's so special about avatar identity?

Writing this blog feels like walking through an unknown wilderness at times. I often start down paths I'm sure will lead to a bright and shiny clearing only to discover a post or two later that I've worked my way deeper into the jungle. But the journey's usually interesting and I hope you don't mind me dragging you along on a few wild goose chases.

For instance, this week started out with a promising set of images that finally clarified (for me at least) the separation between immersion and virtual identity. Unfortunately, I think I moved way too fast through a textual description and got a bit lost again. So I'm going to take a virtual breath, slow down and look more closely at avatar identity. I'm not aiming to draw any conclusions today. Let's just explore the territory.

I'm going to begin by making a short list of what I think is true about avatar identity and work from there:
  • Beings experience avatar identity in many different ways, ranging from feeling like there is absolutely no difference between human self and avatar identity, all the way up to the experience of a complete split.
  • Some beings experience themselves as an avatar personality that is fully individuated and separate from the human person who shares their brain. Regardless of debate about whether avatar personalities are "real," I am convinced that the beings I know who describe this high degree of segmentation express authentic experience.
  • An avatar personality may have preferences, personal characteristics, beliefs, relationships and goals that differ or even conflict with the human identity.
  • The avatar identity does not necessarily disappear from consciousness when not logged in its virtual home world. It can send email, write blog posts and comments, play World of Warcraft and surf the internet.
  • An individual may experience varying degrees of any of the above over time, even from moment to moment. However, some beings report a very solid and consistent experience of a separate self.
Okay, that's a start at least. So now let's see if there are any non-virtual parallels to this phenomenon.

It is not uncommon for a human to describe feeling at times like "two different people." Although they don't change names or bodies people can experience and express very different personalities depending upon the context. At work, Mary may dress conservatively and act aloof, prim and proper. Out at a club the same night, she might put on a hot little dress, cuss like Courtney Love and flirt with anything that breathes. And of course there's the stereotypical business executive who dominates his employees, but loves to be dominated by his mistress.

Actors, comedians, musicians and other performers can feel as if their onstage personality is quite different than their offstage self. Something emerges when they perform that feels quite different from their everyday personality. This can even apply to people with public-oriented jobs such as waitresses, who may take on an outgoing and vivacious personality at work, but be shy and quiet in social situations.

I'll leave it here for today. Anyone have other examples of non-virtual personality shifts? What if any connection do you think there is between the human/human and human/avatar examples I described? What if anything is special about avatar identity?


Dale Innis said...

I definitely have other personalities in RL to some extent. One of the more significant ones is the one that gets up and speaks before audiences; I have no idea how to do that, but the (what?) subpersonality that does know how is apparently pretty good at it (although it tends to talk way too fast).

The most obvious, superficial but important, thing about AV identities is that they have different names, different appearances, and different living environments than the associated atomic identities do. That makes a huge difference, and (although it's boringly obvious) may account for alot of what makes AV identities often more distinct (or more clearly distinct) than alternate atomic-world identities.

Unknown said...

I recall several strange instances during my first 12 months in SL.

Many times in RL, due to the level of my immersion in SL, combined with sleep deprivation, I would see myself as "Zoe" while standing and listening to others for several seconds. I imagined standing in RL as Zoe does in SL. Looking at things through her eyes instead of my own. It was as though the wall between worlds was disintegrating, and on more than one occasion had an adverse affect on my first life.

I've re-integrated the wall between worlds since then. Sleep deprivation cannot last and now both worlds are more balanced and distinctly separate.

Forelle Broek said...

Once again, BotGirl hits the nail on the head (poor nail!) asking the right questions.

From a sociological perspective (at least the one I adhere to), I don't think there really is anything special about avatar identity. Identity (or personality or self) is always situational and multi-faceted. Erving Goffman's dramaturgical approach (i.e. that "the self" is an emergent property of performance in various social spaces) is, I think, a very useful way to understand avatar identity and its relation to other facets of identity.

From this perspective, the only thing really special or distinct about avatar personality is that the performative space is commonly understood/experienced as very different from everyday life (even though it is, of course, still part of everyday life). This is where I think Dale's very astute observation about "different names, different appearances, and different living environments" fits in. These are part of the trappings of the performative space, and they help define that space as distinct.

But even in this respect, the difference is one of degree rather than of kind. For example, "work identity" is often demarcated from other identity facets by a distinct name (professional title, nickname, etc.), appearance (uniform, suit and tie, lab coat, etc.), and spatial setting (office, factory, etc.).

And speaking of work identity, I'd better get back to performing mine!

Botgirl Questi said...

dale: Humans sure are complicated! And your observation is neither boring nor obvious, unless we stop at the surface. Thanks!

zoe: Thanks so much for sharing that experience! I have a little poem for you in tomorrow's post.

forelle: I'm gonna kill that freakin' nail some day. I agree that one's environment and one's identity are woven tightly together. It's a feedback loop that presents a kind of "chicken or the egg" problem. That said, I think that the potency of of a virtual environment, compared to a natural environment is like the difference between cocaine and coca.

Anonymous said...

I've had a number of experiences that might be pertinent to this...

I've always made strong associations between ideas and behaviors and the people I learned them from. Thinking about cleaning house? Sometimes I imagine my mom reminding me to do so. Pondering political issues, or relationships, or identity? I sometimes imagine a dialogue with Soph.

These voices aren't clear, mind you, and they don't tell me to stalk Jodie Foster or anything of that nature. They're more like a cross between memory and daydream, or maybe my internal monologue is just really good at doing impressions ;)

Point being, for my human *I* have become part of that chorus too. I'm the voice they hear when they are trying to motivate themselves, or try something new, or be more artistic, or even just to engage with people on a deeper level. And trust me, it's not an easy job :P

Also, when they are drawing, or noticing shapes and structure in the world, they sometimes imagine looking through my eyes. Not conciously, and not noticed until after the fact, but it's there.

And then there are those brief moments of confusion, when they look up at the moon, or sip on a cocktail, or have one of those "perfect moments" I am always looking for, that they pause and have to remember just where and who they are.

None of this feels like possession, or a struggle of identities. It's more like being surprised by your reflection in a mirror. It's never really unpleasant either, just fascinating.

Sorry for the long post, but as usual your posts get me thinking. Cheers!

Anonymous said...

Botgirl- As is so often the case, you articulate clearly the issues which I am facing. In RL my identity is fairly consistent, with variations allowed depending on the situation. For instance, one of my co-workers coined the phrase "Ottawa Ahuva" when we were all on a business trip to Ottawa. He'd never seen me after-hours, hanging out at a bar with friends, sharing a beer. I was still fundamentally "me", but there was a whole facet of "me" he'd never seen. The person who relaxes and jokes and flirts in the bar after-hours is NOT the person who is sitting in the conference room or walking down the hall in the office. But the after-hours person never violates the fundamental principles of the office person.

This very week in SL I have been having conversations that deal with personality and behavior. I want to split my RL and my SL personalities. I want to experiment with all sorts of behavior that I would never allow myself to do in RL, because in RL the penalties are far too steep. I want to try to be someone other than who I am. I want to try the "road not-taken". I may decide to abandon that path in SL as well as in RL, but at least maybe I'll have learned something. Some people have a list of "50 things to do before I die". I don't have that kind of list. My list is more internalized.

I've been working myself up to creating an alt. Already I find that people in SL have an image of who I am, how I'll be. So in a sense I'm already locked-in.

I love your analogy of cocaine and cocoa. I am ready for the hard stuff. :)