Can Your Avatar Determine Your Identity?
Early in my teenage years, I was a miserable nerd. One great joy in my life, and in the life of my small nerd circle, was Dungeons & Dragons. This was the early 1980s, and I was aware of the D&D panic in some Christian circles. But those weren’t my circles, and my parents had no idea what I was doing. It was a heck of a lot of fun, and became the center of my social life for a year or two. I remember being so ticked off at the scare stories about teenagers supposedly freaking out over the game, and losing their minds. There was a 1982 TV movie, Mazes and Monsters, starring a young Tom Hanks (see this clip), exploiting this fear.
Yet I remember one night lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, thinking about the adventure my character was having in the game. I did this a lot, and that night was no different from any other. For some reason, it struck me that the life of this fictional character whose story line I was narrating was far more engaging to me than the actual life I was leading as a ninth-grade nerd and social outcast. Don’t get me wrong here — I was not remotely close to thinking that the game was reality. It was a bit unnerving, though, to realize that I preferred to live in the imaginative reality created by the game to real reality, in which I was deeply unhappy with myself and with everything around me.
It was deep escapism, no doubt about it, and I still don’t think it did any harm. In fact, it probably did me a lot of good, compared to other ways I might have escaped my adolescent unhappiness (booze, drugs, etc.). Still, I can’t deny that living imaginatively as what I suppose today we would call an avatar had an unusual psychological affect on me. This character I played — I believe he was a half-elf, but I can’t remember — was everything I was not in real life, but wanted to be. There was obviously no way to become a half-elf, and if I had started presenting in public as a half-elf, I very quickly would have been made to understand that I was living in a fantasy world, and ought to return to reality.
All of that is background for this story from today’s NYT, about how the latest generation of video games are allowing players to expand their gender identities. Excerpts:
In the popular simulation game The Sims, players have long been able to create male and female characters — but only up to a point. That changed this year.
In May, Electronic Arts, the publisher of The Sims, released a patch for the game that removed all gender barriers, freeing players to create virtual characters with any physical attribute.
For Blair Durkee, the shift was significant. The day after the patch was introduced, Ms. Durkee, a student at Clemson University in South Carolina, logged into The Sims and started designing her first transgender character. She named the character Amber, gave her a deep voice and broad shoulders, and made her infertile, “which is really the only attribute that all trans people have in common,” said Ms. Durkee, 28, who transitioned to female at 24.
“A lot of people assume that all trans men have feminine features and trans women have masculine features, but that’s not the case,” she said. She plans to make another trans character as a love interest for Amber.
This inclusive attitude toward gender and sexuality, once a rarity in video games, is becoming more common as games take on more diverse and weightier subject matter, beyond flesh-eating zombies and alien attacks.
One man says playing gay characters in The Sims while in the Navy led him to come out:
At the time, the United States military operated under the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy, which prohibited gay, lesbian and bisexual members of the armed forces from openly disclosing their sexual orientation. So Dr. Schloss found an outlet for his identity in the game, creating four male characters, who were in two couples, and having them live in the same virtual house.
“The more I played the game and experienced that possibility for life in an alternative universe, the more I wanted to make that a reality for myself,” said Dr. Schloss, 41, who was granted an honorable discharge from the Navy Medical Corps in 2007 and is now an assistant professor of clinical radiology at a New York hospital.
This is linked to what is known as the Proteus effect, a concept introduced in 2007 by the Stanford researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson, who concluded that the appearance of a person’s online avatar had a significant impact on his or her behavior, in and out of a virtual environment. In one study, participants who were assigned a more attractive avatar in a virtual environment were found to exhibit more confidence and intimacy in the real world than those assigned to a less attractive avatar.
“This tells us that avatars can change our behaviors,” Ms. Fox said. “They allow us to practice and test out certain behaviors in a virtual world.”
Is there ever a time in one’s life when one’s identity is more unsettled than adolescence? Even though things are rather more, um, diverse in 2016 than in 1981, we still are not in a culture in which one can declare oneself a half-elf and find oneself affirmed and even valorized by one’s culture, including the institution of high school. We are there, however, with transgenderism and gender fluidity. What if the happiness I thought would be mine if I could have stepped into the constructed identity of my D&D character, with whom I had come to identify after months of intense playing, had been offered to me as something real? How would I have reacted at 14 and 15?
But there are no such things as half-elfs. There are such creatures as transgenders, genderqueers, and the lot. If the Proteus effect is real, then a child or an adolescent who feels some attraction to playing an alternative gender role in a simulation game may find that this constructed, artificial identity feels more real to him or her than who he or she really is. One can imagine that the totally immersive virtual environments coming with Oculus Rift and its successors are going to be more potentially transformative of adolescent psyches.
I laughed at adults who thought D&D nerds like me were going to run off and get lost in the woods, thinking that we were half-elves fighting orcs and basilisks. But I’m not at all sure that this new stuff is a laughing matter.
The reader who sent me the link to the Times story comments, “What are we becoming, before our very eyes?”