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?


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A beautiful thought experiment personified through the imagined perspective of a self-aware avatar. My creator's site can is at