When dealing with the subject of avatars, we can think of identity in at least two ways: there is the non-virtual form of identity, in which the player thinks of him or herself in the traditional sense of self. That is, “I am me.” This concept of identity predates any thoughts of the modern avatar, and is not at all technology dependent. Then there is the virtual identity, perhaps most commonly thought of the identity of a player-character within a game environment (also more broadly thought of the identity an individual has built for him or herself through all manner of computer interaction: through social media, online communications, interactions through online courses, and so on. My blog entries have helped me shape my virtual identity in the education space, for example). For the context of this discussion, we want to examine virtual identity as that which facilitates the player-avatar relationship.
In addition to virtual identity and non-virtual identity, Zachary Waggoner identifies a third type of identity—projective identity—which he frames as the transitional state between virtual and non-virtual identities. That is, it is the phase during which the game player makes the mental leap from his or her own non-virtual natural behavioral state and the state that the player adopts for the game environment. It appears that the required amount of transition time is related to the level of identification the player has with the avatar character—back, again, to the concept of ego-investment.
I find this exchange between Waggoner and one of his study subjects (identified as Shiva) to be of particular interest (pp. 150-151):
Shiva: You get so much control over that character. I got to do whatever I wanted. I felt very connected with that character I guess and it was just, I don’t know, that’s what’s with you the whole time, the character. You kill things, you wander, you’re stuck in the wilderness, and you have to talk to people, but you’re always with your character so that is what stuck out to me.
Waggoner: Who was [Shiva’s avatar] in your mind?
Shiva: I guess mostly an extension of me.
The game Waggoner chose for his study (Morrowind) is a large, open-ended environment that allows players a tremendous amount of freedom to act in either ethical or unethical ways. It even distinguishes between (and appropriately rewards or punishes) similar actions, such as murder (not a good behavior) and killing in self defense (an acceptable behavior). Waggoner found that his study participants made some efforts to determine the limits of the ethical engine within the game so they knew what their boundaries would be within the game.
In this context, it was the avatar’s environment that modified the non-virtual behavior of the game players, at least during the time period of game play. I am very interested in going a step further and determining if in-game ethical boundaries ever have an effect on player behavior in non-virtual situations. In other words, does a player’s existing sense of self always trump his or her avatar’s identity?
In a practical sense, this behavior modification could take place; after all, if a player learns a fact of history inside a game environment, that bit of knowledge sticks with the player regardless of any game play participation. It is entirely possible that an attitude or behavior acquired in-game could just as easily stick with the player after the game situation is over.
Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona.