Alter Egos

So here’s an interesting article about a photo project concerning real people and their online avatars by Maria Popova on Brain Pickings. I think I mentioned at one point that most of the time, if given a choice, I will choose a male avatar over a female one (and generally a non-human over a human). My husband is the opposite, typically choosing a female avatar (with the notable and disturbing exception of his Mass Effect character, which he managed to make look exactly like him).

What I like about the photo project (photographed by Robbie Cooper) is that it demonstrates something interesting and unique about online communities that is not really replicable in the real world. In short, what someone looks like online does not necessarily have any relationship whatsoever to what they look like in real life. I’m pretty sure that the majority of people, if asked, would recognize that this is likely often the case. Online avatars and user pictures – as well as usernames – give us a much more complete sense of anonymity; we are not only not giving our real names, but we’re providing an image that may not be related to any aspect of ourselves: gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, etc. In the real world, you can give someone a fake name and approximate your age, but your physical body is still an identifier that is difficult to belie.

But what I find particularly interesting about online avatars/handles/icons is that they actually do showcase something about the person in a much more intimate way than a face-to-face meeting does. An avatar shows a person’s imaginative self-identification – what they think of themselves and their skills, what they wish they could be, how they wish others to perceive them (even if only in this limited digital context).

My handle on Girl Gamer and XBox Live is the name of a little-known angel who attempted to overthrow Satan’s rebellion in heaven (and failed). I’m not entirely certain what that says about me, but it is more personal in some ways that I identify with that identity than if I were to just use my name.

My favorite of the images in the article, though, is the one below. The boy in this image has declared something rather meaningful in his choice of avatar. He refuses to be either confined or limited by the restrictions of his physical body, but he also seems to be acknowledging (by choosing what appears to be a mech, or a heavily-armored soldier at the least) that being contained by machinery is also a part of his existence. Who he chooses to be online is more him than the body we see in real life – and I think that is likely true of many people.

While most of us don’t face the real-life limitations of disability or physical confinement, we are limited by the genetics we inherited, and virtual worlds (whether game worlds or virtual space like Second Life) allow us to transcend those imposed limitations on our abilities and identities; to take the opportunity to become more or better than we are in mundane, analog space; and to create an alternate reality that allows us to decompress, to experience fiero (elation), to improve ourselves, to socialize, to do whatever it is we go there to do. Small wonder we are beginning to see more and more people escaping the cruel limitations and bigotry of the real world, engaging in what Edward Castronova calls the “digital exodus.”

But, as I’m sure is painfully obvious to a lot of people, the anonymity and non-tangible nature of the digital universe can also provide excuses for bigotry and cruelty that people would not necessarily engage in were they in a face-to-face situation. But the benefits of digital experience – whether gaming, social, etc. – I would argue, outweigh the negatives, and the recent impulse to de-anonymize online forums and communities threatens one of the most interesting and potentially freeing aspects of being online: the ability to be who and what you want to be, rather than being judged primarily for the physical body and appearance given to you by genetics.