“It is transmutation through the dream, a phenomenon known to communities of prisoners who, when acting, live a reality different from their own. They give a degree of reality to their dreams of dignity, nobility, and happiness. It is a cruel and bitter game which derides the prisoners’ own aspirations as they are betrayed by reality.” — Jerzy Grotowski
I remember sitting in a theatre criticism class at York, bored out of my mind (I’ve never been a fan of criticism). And then I read the lines above, and had one of those moments where it feels like someone just split your head open and started pouring light into you. I had never heard or read that sentiment expressed before, and yet it was something I’d experienced numbers of times in a theatrical setting, and could never quite put words to. An idea of alternate reality, one whose only tangible aspect is the bodies of the people experiencing it, though those bodies are only embodying an idea, a group hallucination. See? Hard to put into words.
An example – back in Grade 13, we put on a production of Fiddler on the Roof in high school. We figured out our characters, their ages, personalities, mannerisms, feelings, and mentally built the environment and community and culture of which they were a part… And we would talk about them, like they were relatives or something. I remember one Sunday we were talking about European history, and figuring out approximately when the story would have taken place, and figuring out what ages characters would be when, and where they would be. When it was determined that two characters (a married couple, with a baby), would have been living in Krakow in the late 1930s, someone actually said, “Oh, I hope they move to America to live with their parents soon!” We were worried about fictional characters falling victim to the Third Reich. My “family” started acting like family, and our drama teacher made a point of warning us to be cognizant of not treating the people playing “bad guy” characters badly.
After the play was over, for some time nothing felt right. Reality felt like anything but. Friends felt like the wrong people to be with. They weren’t the people who understood, they weren’t the people who shared my experiences.
That said, may I introduce… myself.
Looks like me, don’t it? (Ironically, in the days of the play I just outlined, I did have red pigtails.) 🙂 It’s an old picture. She’s Level 60 now, I’m told, and her clothes and weapons are different. A lot of work has been put into her. Her name is Fraufern. She is an alternate me. Not mine, but she could be. She is an avatar. She represents many, many hours of immersion. Many, many hours to build, to buy, to create, to make her better and more useful. And she’s an alt. Not just an alternate me, but she’s not even a main character. She doesn’t garner the most hours, the most effort. When Andrew logs in to server, his guild mates don’t associate him with Frau. (Though they know he is she when he plays her.)
“We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” — Kurt Vonnegut
It has been over a decade since I had a really good alternate personality. A little less than that since I’ve dabbled in others that were not so… multi-dimensional. I’m not a crazy person. No, really. I am, however, an internet junkie. I embraced the addiction of the wild and wacky internet in my first year of university, 1994-ish? I learned what these “talkers” my friends had become addicted to were. (Basically MUDs where there was no… adventuring, just people talking.) Out of nowhere I had friends in other countries. The side of my personality that expresses itself better in written form (which is probably the best side) flourished. And I changed. I could be whomever I wanted to be. IRL (in real life) I was still fairly socially isolated (I wasn’t quite like my theatre compatriots, and I was older), and still in an ugly duckling phase. Online, though? I was more like a femme fatale. Me after a bottle of a nice, bold Cabernet, perhaps. 🙂 Invincible me. I saw it happen to other people, too, and invariably, the more shy, the more nerdy, the more a person did NOT stand out in the real world, the more flamboyant and dramatic a person’s personality became online. And so it ever shall be. It’s just that now your alternate personality can have a face and a costume of your choice as well. I joked, when City of Heroes was all the rage, that I had no interest inplaying it, but I could happily have sat there creating characters all day. Is it any surprise the first female character I created was six feet tall? (Interestingly, I seemed to undergo a significant physical transformation that first year of university as well, and by summer ended up looking probably the best I ever have. Huh. There’s a whole other story there about my “magical powers”, but again, another post…)
I think most people’s online personalities are fairly innocuous. However, many an environment has been ruined by the people who realize what they can get away with. Behaviour people wouldn’t dare perpetrate in public, name-calling of the most degraded combinations of racism, sexism, and homophobia. And the mob mentality. The more attention it garners, and the more participants there are, the more it escalates. Charming. Often it’s worse among the younger demographic, but not always.
Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these. — Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Rands referenced Snow Crash in his last piece. An excellent example. In fact, much of Stephenson’s work involves just this theme of the self and its incarnations. I have been very fortunate on two fronts recently, in both feeling much better after attempting to exorcise my demons in the realm of gaming addiction, and in getting to talk a fair bit to the man himself (Rands, not Neal Stephenson). Throughout a number of conversations we have hashed out concepts of the self, real and virtual, and how those relate to basic human needs. (God, I love smart people…) As a man with a nearly-fetishistic dedication to making connections with people via ever-evolving technologies, if anyone would get these concepts of the alternate self, it would be him. (Hell, Rands is an alternate self. The guy behind him is even cooler.)
The aspects of community and cameraderie that I addressed in my post on addiction relate directly to ideas of the alternative self (in this case, gaming). So, too, do ideas of building, though Rands had to explain that one a fair bit before my brain dissected it to a point where I could separate out the need to build from the results of building. It’s a whole ‘nother post, believe me. Bottom line is, basically, “grinding” is not that interesting, or stimulating, and yet people do it. They expect to do it. (Grinding refers to the hunting/gathering/fighting/etc. required to gain points to level up characters and make them bigger/better/faster/stronger, as I understand it. It’s not the fun part of the game where you get to go out with a bunch of others and try to kill things, but it makes you more useful and gets you more stuff.) We grind in real life, too – ask anyone who is not passionate about his/her job, or who is honest about what raising children is like. (Any of you gamers feel free to correct me, I don’t claim to be an expert and hell will freeze over before I experience it for myself.)
What’s fascinating is that all these phenomena, all these concepts, can be translated to real life. How so, you may be thinking… cuz Melle? You can’t specify when you get up in the morning that you’re going to be six feet tall, be a master blacksmith, and wear chain mail.
But think about it, we do it all the time. I don’t think that, in life, we even have a main character that we play, but rather, a collection of alts. And yet, we are perfectly normal for it. For example, I do not act around my friends like I do around my parents. I do not act with my co-workers how I act with my friends. I do not act with Andrew how I act with Cody. Hell, even the familiarity of three days’ acquaintanceship changes things. If you ever want to feel untethered, uncertain, and uncomfortable, attend a social event where the streams are crossed. Happens at weddings sometimes. Your newest friends group is there, as are friends you’ve had since childhood. Your Work Spouse is chatting with your parents. Eek! How do you act? Can you swear? Oh crap, is so-and-so going to tell that embarrassing story? How are you going to go to work on Monday if you know your co-workers know your childhood nickname?
And that’s not all. You’re on a date. Your date is: a) someone you’re not interested in, b) someone who’s really annoying you, c) someone who you just really want to fuck, d) someone you feel you’re totally connecting with and want to get to know better. Each of these scenarios will produce a different you. Different choice of words, of body language, of calculated reaction to the other person.
So which one is you? Online, at work, at home, on a date. Dwarf warrior or femme fatale. All of it and none of it. I agree with Rands that people have a basic need to build. And the thing we first begin to build, the thing we most often renovate and redecorate, and the only lasting structure we finish life with, is ourselves.