Skip to main content

The Search For Identity

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?
Caught in a mudslide, in virtual reality.
Here is a girl but is it a he or she?
I'm just a role-player, I have no identity,
Because I'm easy come, easy go,
Is she real or just for show?
Any way the scene flows, doesn't really matter to me.
To me.
— With apologies to Queen!

Grace Kelly, almost a queen
Grace Kelly, beautiful as ever.

When you log into a mud, there is often almost nothing that identifies who you are. Usually the only identifier unique to you is a name you choose when you first connect to the mud. You can even connect several times, choose a different name each time and end up with several identities on the mud - generally no one would be able to tell that all these identities are the same person - save, perhaps, the mud's admin who have extra clues such as where you are connecting from. In an environment like this, where clues to who someone really is are so few, the question of identity can reveal some interesting insights. Who are you really? How does who you choose to be online depend upon who you are in real life? Is it really ethical to pretend to be something other than you are?

Self versus Character

Many muds (indeed, perhaps most muds) actively encourage role-play. Generally they simulate a world or part of a world that may be based on medieval fantasy, sci-fi, world history or even the present day. They ask that you create an identity for yourself that fits into their world and then play out that identity as if the simulated world was real and the real world did not exist.

This mud-identity is generally called a character and from this come the terms in-character (IC) meaning "consistent with the mud world" and out-of-character (OOC) to mean "outside the mud world." Good role-play usually means staying in-character as much as possible and avoiding anything out-of-character. Role-play is often assumed to also mean divorcing your character from yourself in terms of likes, dislikes, emotion and personality, but this is not necessary to role-play. All that is necessary is to divorce your character from the real world.

There are many levels of role-play, varying the level of association between your character and yourself. Each level can result in a believable, well role-played character. The scale starts at the simplest end - your character is simply yourself in an alternative world. This is undoubtedly the easiest kind of character to play since you need do no work at all. Your character's reactions to events are simply yours - no need to act, interpret or think about things beforehand. On the other end of the scale is the completely fictional character, totally divorced from the person playing it. This kind of character is much more difficult to play as its every action and reaction needs to be carefully considered.

Whatever level of role-play you choose, it does reflect things about yourself. No matter how different from you, your character is created by you and driven by you. Your character says a lot about you - though fortunately what it says is usually lost to those who don't know the real you. In some ways, the more different your character is from you, the more it gives away.

Aside from the differences due to the different world in which the character lives, the personality of your character reflects the personality of yourself. Sometimes a reflection can mean providing a very close similarity, sometimes it means showing the real thing but reversed. Either way, the reflection is there.

As a leisure activity, an escape from the real world, a mud character is often an enhanced version of the real person. It reflects what the person would really want to be like. It exaggerates good points and skills, minimises bad points. Sometimes the character is an inversion of the person - allowing someone to exaggerate and enhance the bad side of their personality, explore their darker secrets. Characters can let anyone find out what it's like to be the bad guy for a change, or the stupid guy, the ugly guy, the handsome guy, the hero or heroine, the damsel in distress.

The Lure of Anonymity

One of the keys to a successful role-play game is for all the players to stay in-character and respond to other players' characters rather than to the other players themselves. This is the downfall of many face-to-face role-play games as a group of friends respond to the friends they know so well much better than to the dwarf veteran on the character sheet. A mud on the other hand can make it possible to know absolutely nothing about the players behind the other characters, and likewise have them know nothing about the real you. This can aid role-play immensely since the only thing you have to base your reactions on is their character - no conflicts or distractions from anything else you might otherwise have known about them.

This lack of real person information also helps players to relax in how they play their own characters. Inhibitions tend to slip a little when you know the people you are interacting with do not know who you really are. This shield of anonymity allows your characters to do things that you would not dare to do in real life or would not want a reputation for in real life. This doesn't just cover "negative" things like aggression, it also allows being more open without feeling you are exposing yourself, exploring a different sexual attitude without compromising your own -be it more wanton or more reserved!

Unfortunately there are a number of people who misuse the disguise the mud provides. Rather than play the game, they are instead playing a power-game of their own and get their amusement from annoying and harrassing other players. This kind of behaviour crosses an ethical line - the line between valid role-play and malicious deception.

There are good uses of anonymity and bad uses. The obvious bad use is for someone to act out an unpleasant need or emotion through by abusing others, without the danger of real life consequences. This raises some ethical questions about anonymity and identity — not only on muds but on the net in general.

The Ethics of Identity

Is it wrong to hide who you really are? Many people believe that it is. Is it wrong to pretend to be different than you really are? Again, many people say yes, but this ethical line is very difficult to draw. In a mud, you are expected to pretend to be someone else. On IRC, you are expected to be yourself. On usenet, posting with an obvious alias will often get you chastised as a coward - though if you'd chosen "John Mulingham" as an alias instead, chances are no one would have realized. Identity really only becomes a moral issue when malicious motives are involved - when the deception becomes harmful to others.

Many people, perhaps even most people, have a net-identity that is distinct from their real-world identity. The personality expressed on the net is subtly different from that in the real world. Using a net-alias is in many ways simply recognising the fact that you are a different person online, however slight the differences maybe and naming your alter-ego. The lack of face to face interaction is often enough to relax barriers and make you more open, more friendly, more helpful - or more aggressive, more brash, more thoughtless. You have time to consider your response, and since you must type it out you have the opportunity to change your mind and say something else instead. On the net, no one can see you blush, wince, grin smugly or any of the other thousands of body-language tell-tales. So is using an alias really pretending to be someone else or just an admission that you are someone else online?

If it's accepted that your net-identity really is different from your real-world identity, which is really you? Perhaps the net-identity since it often reflects your deeper personality, with less of the baggage of social mores and constraints. Or perhaps the real-world-identity - the one that has to successfully interact with other real-world people instead of the insubstantial ones on the computer screen. The net-identity that responds to an insult with a light-hearted smilie or the real-world-identity that was hurt by it? The logical answer is perhaps 'both' - your real identity is the one that functions best in the environment it exists in. To put that another way, wherever you go, you always go as yourself. It's just that from place to place, the self may be different.

The root of the problem that some people have with net-identities is the fear that they are being fooled. No one wants to be taken for a ride. Nothing is more likely to cause a storm in a virtual teacup like the discovery that a net female is in fact a male (or vice versa though that seems to be much rarer and cause much less concern).

The reasons for this are probably down to the way gender is usually tightly coupled to the sense of who someone is. Hence the discovery that someone is masquerading as the opposite sex seems to threaten a basic element of self. This psychological response seems to manifest usually as an immediate assumption that the person concerned must be homosexual, transexual, or somehow peverted and out to get you.

While this may be true sometimes, it certainly doesn't account for all cases and is often a bad over-reaction. Adopting a female role may simply be a way for a male to express what society labels as female characteristics without being seen as unmanly himself. Things like just being kind and sensitive or helpful or able to ask for help. Or it may be a simple way to explore the male/female relationship and see the other point of view, how the other half lives.

Of course, in a mud, the reason may be even simpler - its much more likely that a female newbie will get help from higher level players rather than a male. On a male dominated mud, male players may even compete to help the new girl, whereas the new guy is just another loser newbie to ignore. Admittedly, a male playing a female this way is a deliberate deception. How can it wrong though, in an environment where the whole point is to pretend to be someone other than yourself?

The critical point ethically seems to be not letting a false, role-played identity become involved with relationships that extend beyond the characters to the players behind them. Be aware even as you play a part that there are real people behind all the parts and not everyone takes the deception as far as you might. Role-play relationships are only okay as long as all parties involved really are role-playing.

The Rainbow of Self

Who are you? What do you want? Why are you here? These are just some of the questions used to find out what you are. No one has good answers for any of them. What defines your self, your personal identity is still very much up for debate. However everything you do is a small part of the answer. Each character you create, each role you play, each identity you maintain is a shard of the real you, a tiny part of the whole spectrum. A colour in the rainbow of your self.