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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 [1]), 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. [2] 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.

Get this:

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.”

Read the whole thing. [2]

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 [3]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?”

84 Comments (Open | Close)

84 Comments To "Can Your Avatar Determine Your Identity?"

#1 Comment By Brendan from Oz On September 1, 2016 @ 7:57 pm

Play Dark Souls online with a headset and some friends – very social and great fun. Playing D&D since 1976, it is now fantastic to “wield” sword and spells to take down drakes and goulies while having a laugh. We can see the dragon, fall off the wall, get ambushed and giggle. And beer and pizza remains the fuel of Dungeon Bashing.

Personally, I blame Trekkies and Jedi wonks for the “transference” to reality. I know folk who speak Klingon and live for Trek Conventions – travelling the world at considerable expense.

Superhero movies, game movies etc saturate the airwaves and are far more immature and silly than the games. Bob Hoskins never did live down Mario Bros, and playing Batman is a lot more fun than watching it.

The notion that video immersion and VR is the same as imagination has been for all time is obtuse and self-evidently wrong. Playing D&D, my imaginative dragon may be different form my friends’ imagination: online, we see the same pixel-generation algorithm; the same dragon.

And VR makes you physically sick if nothing else.

Me, I decided to find an interest away from Tech (my job and my entertainment) so bought myself a Fender Guitar and Amp.

What is the first thing to do with the Amp? Plug into a laptop for a precise Tuner, check the pre-sets and music library and lessons … and even learning the Blues is computerised and tailored just for you.

I’m picking up an acoustic and some sheet music next month.

#2 Comment By MichaelGC On September 1, 2016 @ 8:14 pm

I was an avid D&D player in the 70s. At my advanced age, I still enjoy playing a MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role playing game). You can be a female troll or an orc if you want. They have tusks and are decidedly ugly, yet many people choose to play as a female troll or orc, even though there are some very pretty human and elf avatars to choose from. Therefore, I wonder about the conclusions of the Proteus study. It’s in the eye of the beholder anyway, as when Shrek’s wife preferred the ogre she knew rather than the dashing dude he became after drinking the Ever After potion.

Although there are 14 races to choose from in this game, there are only two sexes in each race, male and female. I’m sure someone is going to contact the game’s producers and tell them that this is wrong, if it hasn’t happened already.

#3 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 1, 2016 @ 8:54 pm

At some point, the people most susceptible to this stuff will be locked in a warehouse with IV drips to provide nutrition, and kept in virtual reality dream worlds 24/7. The rest of us can get on with living.

#4 Comment By Turmarion On September 1, 2016 @ 8:57 pm

Following up on Dom Noah and Franklin, I’d direct everyone to [4] by David Klinghoffer back on Beliefnet, and the following video by College Humor:


I think it’s arguable that in this day and age there’s a strong RPG vibe to religious conversion in general, especially to religions seen as being more unusual or esoteric–Islam, Orthodox Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, and to some extent, Catholicism. For example, it’s not a coincidence, I think, that a certain type of overly-intellectual Catholic convert (and I include myself in this, at one time) reads huge amounts of fantasy, love the Middle Ages, and is a huge fan of Tolkien.

I’m not dismissing true spiritual factors or disparaging religion. I am saying that it seems, in the modern context, that the difference between LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) and religious conversion is often a finer one than one might think. There is a hunger for something beyond the sterile consumerism of our culture, no doubt. In the post Christian era, the language of faith is as exotic as Lord of the Rings, for many.

Thus, it’s easy to say how odd it is that a kid really into D&D made a religion of his own, or to deride LARPers; but many of the same psychological processes, IMO, are at work in religion these days. At least, I think a sound argument can be made to that effect.

#5 Comment By John On September 1, 2016 @ 10:27 pm

This is definitely one of those interesting chicken or the egg questions. Does the fantasy become true or are those who are already drawn to it reinforced in their beliefs by that factional world.

My guess is that those who are picking the transgendered, gay or female characters in this game were drawn to that character and that the game is used as a means to express how they truly feel through a legitimate and safe outlet of expression and that the success in choosing merely reinforces the thought that they are that way.

I don’t think a cisgendered straight person would pick a gay or transgendered character unless that character has special powers that would help them win which, as Candles correctly pointed out, can happen.

The character’s identity could be important but it could be pushed aside for the skill set.

In Street Fighter I always picked Ken because I thought he was cute. In Super Mario Bros 2 I picked the floating princess.

It didn’t matter in the Zelda games it didn’t matter because you could only play Link, but the myth is what intrigued me.

I think a lot of what is going on is the emphasis on being real. We want basketball players that look like real people. We want the games to be grounded in some reality. The quest may be to find characters we can relate to.

I don’t know if pure fantasy cuts it anymore. Not when the entertainment industry pushes “reality shows” on us.

#6 Comment By artsandcrafts On September 2, 2016 @ 6:12 am

David J. White, what a good comment about belles-lettres now being regarded as primarily source materials, rather than books readers would be interested in on their own. It is certainly true that the market for quality nonfiction has grown much smaller since, probably, the 1970s. I can think of any number of respected nonfiction imprints that have long since disappeared.

#7 Comment By ginger On September 2, 2016 @ 7:43 am

Erin: “I have heard a similar story in my local homeschooling circles about a boy who started reading all sorts of books with pagan gods and goddesses, and went on to slip away from his Catholic faith to worship pagan deities. The problem was that the books were collections of Greek and Roman mythology he had been assigned as part of a Classical curriculum, so naturally his parents didn’t think there would be any problems. To me, this says more about the unfortunate deficiencies in modern Catholic catechesis than it does about any specific fictional depiction of paganism.”

Ha! This brought back a memory I hadn’t thought about in quite some time. In 3rd grade, the gifted and talented program included a module on Greek mythology. I thought the idea was totally cool and was excited about learning about Zeus and the rest of the gods. My mother got wind of it, which resulted in my getting pulled out of the course. At the time, I thought it was complete crackpottery, but perhaps she had read about the family you mention 😉

That was also the school year during which I checked out “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from the school library. My mother made me return it immediately and proceeded to make much noise at the school about the moral dangers of having books about witches available for young children.

Good times!

#8 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 2, 2016 @ 9:06 am

Rod, if you haven’t already, take some time to escape your present miseries and watch Stranger Things. A D & D nerd such as yourself will love it.

#9 Comment By mark_be On September 2, 2016 @ 9:23 am

I play female characters in RPG’s about half the time. If given the choice, I prefer looking at a shapely female butt rather than a shapely male butt. Until higher-tier armour covers everything up, of course. The other half of the time there is no choice and you’re playing as a male, anyway.

Then, of course, there’s Rust, where the introduction of female character models led the developers to never offer any choice, but randomly and immutably linked a player’s sex to their Steam ID number. Cue some guys whining how they didn’t want to play as a (possibly black!) woman, and some trans activists whining about the reinforcement of binary gender thought. Good troll by the devs, good laughs by the non-idiots.

#10 Comment By Siarlys Jenkins On September 2, 2016 @ 12:02 pm

I studied Greek mythology (which I much preferred to Roman, although I read some of that too) as a result of spending third grade at St. Andrew’s school in Oxford. (My family was living in a cramped flat on Sandfield Road that year — I recently found the place is still standing, when I found it on Google Street Views). This was what the English called a “public” school, which means what we in America call a “parochial” school. My mother figures that out too late. It was attached to St. Andrew’s parish, a classic high church Anglican establishment in a beautiful old stone church we were walked to on All Saints Day and other occasions.

The stories of the Odyssey were taught in third grade, and I virtually thought we were learning history at first. I retained an interest, and had some attachment to Athena, who was smart, beautiful, invincibly strong. It was only many years into adulthood I began to struggle with what a ruthless, amoral creature she was. Similarly, while Odysseus is more or less the hero of his tale, he boasted of being the “Sacker of Cities,” and thought nothing of all his paramours on the way home to his faithful wife Penelope, who was of course expected to be chastely waiting for him.

However, it did me no harm, and when I ran across a web site by people trying to revive the worship of the Olympic pantheon, it just seemed really weird to me. Do those people really expect to be drowned for eating the wrong cattle or something? Its just a game.

#11 Comment By Sam M On September 2, 2016 @ 12:06 pm

“the main difference between then and now is that people back then knew the difference between fiction and reality, and enjoyed them both in their proper spheres.”

Maybe looking back it seems that way, but I think that the people commenting at the time were less sure. From the scolds who worried that kids reading novels were NOT reading proper epic poetry, to the novel-haters Austen railed at, to the Southern Agrarians who worried that their daughters would be carried away on the nefarious shoulders of moving pictures and that infernal jazz music, people have ALWAYS feared that great story telling coupled with technology would be a Siren song of despair for helpless children. Usually girls. And that boys caught up in it were already half-girlish and not nearly man enough.

Because we all know today that the manliest kid in 11th grade is the one infatuated with Orlando Furioso. Or wait, I guess that’s too girly. So maybe… Homer?

Ah… just make the kid go hunting, OK? Otherwise it’s a short, 4,000-year fall to driving around as a princess in Mario Carts!

#12 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 12:12 pm

Turmarion: So glad to see you posting, my friend.

I think it’s arguable that in this day and age there’s a strong RPG vibe to religious conversion in general…

Okay, I’ll argue. 😀

I’d argue that the roots of this predate role-playing games. The craft of acting — I’m often struck by how sophisticated actors of my acquaintance often cite concepts and ideas from the time of Shakespeare — is as embedded in the human experience as sharing a meal. The iconic quote starts, of course, with “All the world’s a stage…”

Where is the line between imagination, processing of reality and conscious choice to be something or someone other than oneself? I would submit that the line is transient and frangible.

“And one man in his time plays many parts…”

#13 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 12:46 pm


…when I ran across a web site by people trying to revive the worship of the Olympic pantheon, it just seemed really weird to me. Do those people really expect to be drowned for eating the wrong cattle or something? Its just a game.

Don’t know what website you found, so here’s one that might answer your cynicism.


Another problematic term is ‘Reconstructionism’. We cannot begin to reconstruct the ancient religion because of our incomplete understanding of many practices, the absence of polis religion (i.e. group worship as practiced by inhabitants of a city) preventing the celebration of festivals in their traditional way, and the vast differences between the ancient and modern cultures, just to name a few. The best we can do is understand ancient practice based on scholarly research and to base our modern practice on the spirit of ancient practice.

There are more things in Heaven and Earth, dear Siarlys, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

#14 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 12:56 pm

When you read Austen or the Bronte sisters, you get a narrow but still accurate glimpse into the cultures of their times. When you read the Greek playwrights, of whom there were many beyond the familiar ones we usually cite, so too do you get a narrow but still accurate glimpse of their cultures.

Homer, and to a lesser extent Aesop, were the street corner bards to the playwrights’ place in popular consumption, and while one would have to work hard to glean culture from them… they all, the bards and the playwrights, can still be seen clearly in every story from Shakespeare, to Tolkien, Frank Herbert and Dan Brown.

There you have, in a nutshell, the motivation for my personal agenda: to bring back to public, conscious awareness these roots in the cultures of my spiritual predecessors. When I retire, only my grandchildren will command more of my time before theater production.

#15 Comment By JonF On September 2, 2016 @ 1:11 pm

Re: That was also the school year during which I checked out “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from the school library.

Good grief, Ginger, it’s Christian fantasy! The allegory is so thinly veiled Tolkien panned it.

For some people the Christian faith must be nothing but a dolorous grind I guess. (See also: Cromwell banning Christmas, and a few sects that do so to this day).

[NFR: Seems to me that Ginger agrees with you, Jon, that her mother overreacted. — RD]

#16 Comment By grumpy realist On September 2, 2016 @ 1:25 pm

Franklin–aren’t you just restating the age-old truism that authority is a collective hallucination?

#17 Comment By Turmarion On September 2, 2016 @ 1:40 pm

Franklin, I don’t really disagree with you at all. What I’d say, perhaps, is that “imagination, processing of reality and conscious choice” regarding fantasy worlds is commoner and easier in a mass culture society such as ours. The groundling who saw a Shakespeare play had to go back to farming or smithing or whatever the next day, and would have had little time, ability, or tolerance for LARPing, or the equivalent. Only the elite (think of the classic dotty British aristocrat) could do that. With mass market culture, eccentricity and what the Encyclopedia of Fantasy refers to as “lifestyle fantasy” has also been democritized. Thus, while the fine line between fantasy/literature and reality has always been there, it’s more of a thing these days.

I forgot to link to [7] before, but it’s also instructive reading, IMO. For some, religion really is a sort of lifestyle fantasy.

#18 Comment By PeterA On September 2, 2016 @ 1:50 pm

Plato says, “I told you so.”

#19 Comment By Turmarion On September 2, 2016 @ 2:12 pm

Franklin and Siarlys, I always find Hellenic religious reconstruction hilarious because actually making a serious effort to honor the gods is the least Greek thing one can do! The first piece of Greek literature we have, The Iliad, subtly lampoons the gods, as Plato perceptively saw. Xenophanes ridiculed the idea of anthropomorphic deities, and most of the philosophers viewed the rites as, “equally true”, just as politicians viewed them as “equally useful”, to use Gibbon’s phrase.

I’m not saying no one took the gods seriously; but certainly by the beginning of the Common Era the old civil religion had worn thin and even the commoners yearned for more. Hence the surge in the mystery religions, the fascination with the East, the fascination with Judaism, and ultimately the improbable success of Christianity (which was spreading rapidly even before Constantine and later Theodosius made it official).

I should be clear I’m not dissing the paganism of that day or of this as such. I’m just pointing out that the attitude of the classical Greeks to their own religion was complicated, and that just as organized Christianity is now in decline, so was the institutional paganism of early Common Era.

Relatedly, I think Bonewits’s classification of paleopagan, mesopagan, and neopagan is quite useful. A person is perfectly free to be a Hellenic devotee or an Ásatrúar; but I’m not sure they’re doing or experiencing what, say, a 5th Century B.C.E. Greek or a 10th Century Viking were doing and experiencing. Following the blogger Arturo Vasquez, whom I used to follow, I’m not even quite sure that a modern Catholic, even a Trad, is doing or experiencing quite what a Catholic in the Middle Ages did. We are self-conscious about it in a way they weren’t then. Hence the analogy to RPG’s once more.

#20 Comment By David J. White On September 2, 2016 @ 2:13 pm

Playing D&D, my imaginative dragon may be different form my friends’ imagination: online, we see the same pixel-generation algorithm; the same dragon.

Perhaps for the same reason, I always seem to enjoy discussing, with a friend, a book we have both read, than seeing, with the same friend, a movie based on the book. I also prefer to read a book before seeing a movie based on it, for much the same reason: if I see the movie first, I find it hard to imagine the characters and the setting in any way other than the way the movie depicts them.

I studied Greek mythology (which I much preferred to Roman […])

So did the Romans, which is why they simply appropriated much of it. 😉

That was also the school year during which I checked out “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” from the school library. My mother made me return it immediately and proceeded to make much noise at the school about the moral dangers of having books about witches available for young children.

I suspect that if your mother were told that the Narnia books are a Christian allegory it wouldn’t have made much difference. On the flip side, I remember reading an article in Salon several years ago, where several of their writers talked about falling in love with the Narnia books as kids and then being terribly upset to discover that they were intended as a Christian allegory. 😉

#21 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 2:59 pm

Grumpy: well, maybe, but not consciously.

Abstract authority is very much a problem, from my point of view. Our founding document took a stab at it, and look to where it didn’t get us. There are examples of small successes — consensus based groups like co-ops, the Quaker model of worship, much of which would not have appeared let alone thrived in previous societies — but our history arguably can be defined as the replacement of traditional authoritative models like monarchy with class and power assumption based on wealth, or outright oligarchy based on religion or social standing. I won’t get started on racial and ethnic models, but they belong on the list.

#22 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 3:05 pm

Turmarion, you make a good point. I’d waffle a bit and say that neither of us is qualified to comment beyond speculation about the imagination life of that groundling, and I’d start by citing rags-to-riches stories starting with Malory’s Arthur (the one T.H. White ran with)… actually, Mary Stewart — The Merlin Trilogy — made it a primary plot device.

#23 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 2, 2016 @ 3:18 pm

Re reconstructionism of ancient Pagan religions.

I have a privileged (negative connotations stipulated) view of Hellenismos, Asatru, Celtic, Kemetic (Egypt) and African sourcing and usage. There’s too often a faded thin line between honoring and appropriating. Indeed, appropriation vs. syncretism is an open-wound argument in our wider community. I grind my teeth when European or Asian descendants assert that they have “spirit animals”, this being a core experiential tenet to North, Central and South American native beliefs. I might snark “so, how much peyote did you consume before your animal appeared?” Feh.

Turmarion, thank you for citing my friend Isaac’s work on the three categories. I keep up with his widow as much as I can via Facebook. He is not as widely appreciated amongst Pagans as I believe he should be, for his disciplined, scholarly approach. I consider him our intellectual Elder. I had the rare pleasure of in-person conversation with him.

His work is a valid guide. We can heap scorn on many modern Pagans and Heathens because at least superficially some of them deserve it, but I know too many sincere and disciplined believers, people who keep the “but how exactly is this supposed to apply 2,000 years (or more) later?” question prominent in their thoughts (and accept “it doesn’t” as a valid possible answer), to allow it to be applied as a generalization.

#24 Comment By Mia On September 2, 2016 @ 5:57 pm

“Is there ever a time in one’s life when one’s identity is more unsettled than adolescence?”

How about mid-life/fifties? I have noticed over the years that the adult freakouts and murders that occur at the hands of people in this stage of life/age bracket are just more often ignored by the media while everyone obsesses over every little thing the kids do. I think that just makes it seem like kids are in the most unstable age group ever.

#25 Comment By Avatar On September 2, 2016 @ 6:01 pm

Hmm…. My social media avatar is my dog…. That can’t be good…

#26 Comment By Mia On September 2, 2016 @ 6:09 pm

“I am saying that it seems, in the modern context, that the difference between LARPing (Live Action Role Playing) and religious conversion is often a finer one than one might think.”

I wonder about that. Would you say the same about the very serious Society for Creative Anachronism people who role play living in pre-modern Europe? How about Civil War re-enactors? Locally, we have a special annual campsite set up for re-enactors where they go for two weeks and live in their designated camps for each country/time period according to the way they lived during that time theoretically. They have a full schedule of classes and activities related to the eras and countries covered, sort of like an expanded Renaissance Festival.

The adults I’ve known who are into this are usually high-achieving, creative types with an interest in history. I don’t really see it as escapism exactly, or even “wanting more.” I think they just think it’s a cool thing to do with their time, a hobby like taking up golf, and there’s a built in community to go have fun with who share your interest in history. I learned alot about history when I decided to at least make up a character to use when I went to their events, so I can see there are some intellectual benefits to it. Sometimes things are less complicated than outsiders observing these groups assume.

#27 Comment By JonF On September 3, 2016 @ 11:46 am

Re: Seems to me that Ginger agrees with you, Jon, that her mother overreacted.

My comment was not pointed at Ginger per se, though reading it again today I see where that impression could arise. My apologies to Ginger if she thought I was being critical of her. It’s really a jab at the whole iconoclast tendency in some strains of Christianity, and yes, hating on imaginative stories, even those intended for pious purpose, is also a form of iconoclasm.

#28 Comment By Turmarion On September 3, 2016 @ 2:35 pm

Mia, I’d say (as a person who has friends in both) that the SCA and Civil War re-enactment are indeed both manifestations of the same thing I’m talking about. Of course there’s education, classes, etc.; and the people are indeed “high-achieving, creative types with an interest in history”. So are those of a certain type of religious convert which you can’t miss in Catholic (especially Trad) and Orthodox circles (and Buddhist and others, as well). I’m not putting down these people by any means, or denying the intellectual and social benefits of which you speak. I guess I’d argue that these phenomena are all aspects of a pop, mass-market version of Romanticism.

As far as we can tell (and I’ll agree with Franklin that we have to be cautious about getting into the minds of those of earlier eras), ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance people didn’t see their ancients as being much different from themselves (except wiser and nobler). People didn’t cosplay Roman or Greek (heck, look at paintings–they dress the Romans and Greeks in what were then contemporary clothing).

You first get a yearning for reviving the past with the Renaissance princes, such as Cosimo de’ Medici, who tried to re-found the Platonic Academy. Then, in the late 18th, early 19th Centuries, with the Romantic movement, you get a wholesale fascination with the past, and an almost escapist yearning to inhabit it. It is then when you get the fascination with regional cultures (e.g. Celtophilia), the revival of jousting, novels written in an antiquarian mode (e.g. the Gothic novels), and so on. At that time, it was only the wealthy who could afford what you might call “LARPing” or “lifestyle fantasy”–once more, consider the quintessential eccentric English lord.

With the advent of mass-market culture and the widespread disillusionment after the world wars, you gradually get this trickling down to the masses, first with the rise in esotericism, neo-Druidry, etc. at the turn of the 20th Century, and then with the 60’s counter culture. I don’t know as much about re-enactment, but I think it’s become most popular since the second half of the last century.

My thesis isn’t that re-enactors or SCA members or religious converts are nutty or weird (far from it). I wouldn’t categorize all this as escapism as such, either, though I think a certain degree of escapism is inextricable from them. I think there’s something about the modern age that makes these interrelated phenomena a “thing”–something that makes people seek an alternate lifestyle different from the mainstream. That’s all.

#29 Comment By Stefan On September 4, 2016 @ 5:28 am

All of this is in se totally fine. To the reader who sent this in askig, pearls anxiously clutched or jimmies ominously rustled I assume, “what are we becoming, before our very eyes?”: we are going back to what we have always been, temporary reterritorialization of male and female principle, better off fluid than brittle. The only thing that an intelligent person ought to be concerned with is the desire of the technocratic state and the technocapitalist media and academy to impose their preferred theories of fluidodynamics (“gender is fluid, but at the same time it’s also fixed at what the individual claims it to be”) upon this potentially sublime process in order to more rationally administer it, which always ends up in failure. The government, the media and the academy only want to make you believe that your gender is what you say it is because the administration of left v right outrage spectacle that follows when conservatives rightly feel that their worldview is being actively delegitimized is what legitimizes them now that modernity has turned out to be an unexiting cul-de-sac.

#30 Comment By Franklin Evans On September 4, 2016 @ 10:34 am


That was an eloquent and insightful post. Just a quibble or two for your consideration.

I’m not a scholar on classical and early modern esotericism. I am surrounded by people who collectively amount to that, and I listen closely when they speak. The roots of modern esotericism — being an inescapable predecessor to modern Paganism despite the objections of many of my siblings-in-faith — cannot validly be put into the “escapism” category as movements per se. They all had members who were drawn to it for that reason, but that was a consequential effect, not a “design” feature. Egyptian antiquities, Free Masonry, The Golden Dawn, a couple others I’d need to look up to remember the names, all contributed to later movements cum religions like Wicca and Thelema (Ordo Templi Orientis, or OTO). Gerald Gardner (Wicca) was very much not an escapist. Aleister Crowley (OTO) was one of the most immoral men of any era or context. A special mention must be made of Anton Szandor LaVey, whose Church of Satan was as much a direct and aggressive attack on Christian belief and morality as the hardest of atheists could later muster.

Personal note: I lived for two full semesters in the “Medieval Studies Center” residence on campus, a former frat house taken over by the university as an academic (rather than social) focus residence. Nearly everyone in the house was a SCAdian (skaydiyan), I became one by osmosis, and I can assert that every one of us was nutty, weird or both. Seriously, though, I’ve never encountered before or since such a fortress of escape from the pressures of the mundanes (the SCAdian predecessor of “muggles”).

#31 Comment By Justin On September 5, 2016 @ 3:37 am

It seems most roleplaying games these days have something homosexual in them. In Fallout 4 everyone is just bisexual. In Dragon Age, same-sex characters will openly hit on your character. Plus many games have straight-up sex scenes and many parents don’t know. (To be fair, Bioware makes a lot of these titles and their lead story designer is gay and open about promoting gay content, last I checked)

#32 Comment By mohammad On September 5, 2016 @ 8:10 am

as a child, I would imagine myself as a Count de Monte Cristo: all powerful avenger of all evil and injustice in the world! Later I put aside the notion of being the powerful Count, but still I would imagine a world where all powerful humans would obtain all pervasive justice. Only after becoming philosophically conservative and a pessimist, and all the spiritual dangers of such an attitude I could get myself rid of a mentality all too often present in the modern man.

#33 Comment By CBC On September 5, 2016 @ 8:29 am

I am an avid gamer. It is always interesting to observe reactions from people when I mention that. The characterisation of ‘nerds’ is always really interesting and something a lot of commentators here should pay more attention to. People who game and don’t live in ‘the real world’ are expected to be a lot of things, none of which are very positive. It is true that a lot of people struggle with exercise habits and time management but this is not necessarily related to gaming.

I’ve never played Sims but hazard that the actual number of Sims enthusiasts who have gender dysphoria and act that out could be on the lowish side. If I had to guess(as a financial analyst), sagging or stagnent sales figures and lack of publicity on the more recent sales numbers of Sims’s games could be backseated by a bit of attention grabbing headlines which are easily coded into the game. Low cost implementation for a bit of publicity and PC karma could be all this boils down to.

#34 Comment By Greg On January 7, 2017 @ 12:28 am

Wow. Anecdotal personal experience and taking an article and a study out of proportion and context. He’s so objective.

THe idea that any sort of fiction can change otherwise sane people’s behavior has been around since at least the time of Penny Dreadfuls, and so on to comic books, D&D and video games causing violence. It seems it has to be debunked every generation.