Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Virtual Destiny: Are You Your Avatar?

How different would you be if you could be someone completely different? That's the issue faced by millions of online gamers involved in massive virtual worlds like "World of Warcraft". In my case, the answer is, "Not so different after all."

Granted, in my virtual life I have hair and am a ripped, big-eared, sword-toting Blood Elf. But the person beneath both the real and virtual skin remains surprisingly consistent. For instance, you have your choice of a bunch of different jobs you can have in WoW, just like in real life. Rather than a doctor, lawyer, web designer, or other real-life professions, in the game you choose from a "class" like Shaman, Rogue, Warrior, etc. From the very beginning I wanted to play a Hunter (lives in the wilderness, doesn't really need much help from others, has a big ol' pet), but I ended up playing a Priest instead (group dependent, can be kind of wimpy, lives to heal others) because the group I was in needed one.

That's right, even in virtual reality I put other people's needs ahead of my own. I think there's a name for that, and it begins with "pa" and ends with "thetic".

I worry about hurting other players' feelings in WoW. Isn't that silly? We're playing a game and I don't want to upset them. I can't "forget" that there's a person on the other end of the avatar, and whether they're a 13 year old kid or a 80 year old grandpa, I keep hoping they're having a good time. It's a throwback to my co-ed soccer days as a youth, when I'd yell "excuse me!" to the opposing girl player after I'd run her over.

This is a problem in a game like WoW which is fundamentally adversarial -- there are two "sides" and you are on either one or the other. Part of the goal is to kill the other side whenever and wherever you can (don't worry, they get to resurrect themselves right away, which would be nice in real life). Conflict is built right into the structure of the game, and yet I avoid it as much as possible.

Sound familiar?

I don't know what percentage of playing in a massive virtual world like this is running away from yourself, but it seems like I am not running fast or far enough to get away from who I am, fundamentally. That's good in some ways, bad in others. But just like in real life, this time around through WoW I am trying to grow. I'm finally playing a hunter as my main character, which is the way I wanted it originally. I'm on a dedicated Player vs. Player server (PvP), which ramps up the inherent conflict even more, hoping I can get over my dreadful reluctance to ever engage another human being. And I'm playing on the same realm (server) as my brother-in-law and nephew and their group of friends (guild), who seem to have the right idea about all of this. It's supposed to be fun, not an extended psychological drama, and that's a lesson I very much need to learn.

What about you? When you engage in fantasy play, whether it's through online gaming or in some other facet of your life, do you prefer to be someone else, or just another version of you?

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