MMOGology: Identity crisis

Ed Norton is a mild mannered claims adjuster. He's a friendly fellow and a model employee. He's never late to work. He keeps his workspace nice and tidy. He always speaks in a pleasant and clear manner during staff meetings and never raises his voice. But underneath the freshly pressed shirt and polished shoes lies something sinister. Mr. Norton has a dark secret. As night falls on the quaint suburbs where Ed resides, a blue-white light flickers in the otherwise dark bedroom of his modest home. Ed hovers in front of his PC's monitor; the glare reflecting eerily off his horn rimmed glasses. He smiles wickedly as World of Warcraft finishes loading. Suddenly, Ed undergoes a hideous transformation. His perfectly shellacked hair becomes a wild jungle of frizz. His eyes sink back into his skull. A demonic, green light leaks from between his pointed teeth. Ed has become Durden, the blood thirsty, undead warlock. Using his epic staff of carnal destruction, Durden reaps the souls of his victims with reckless abandon, laughing at their pathetic pleas for mercy. He is guildmaster and raid leader and wields ultimate power. All shall obey his commands or be forever be exiled from his presence.

Does this sound like you? If so, please seek psychiatric help immediately.

While most of us don't undergo the dramatic personality change illustrated by Mr. Norton when playing our favorite MMOG, many of us do have an online persona quite different from the one we present to the real world. Akela Talamaska's recent post about the Daedalus Project lead me to a fascinating survey that examined player role reversals. The survey highlights several different scenarios in which the roles of the players are completely inverse from the roles they play in real life. What are some of these roles swaps and how do they tie into our personalities? Why do we chose to act they way we do in our virtual worlds? Find out after the break!

Some examples of role reversals found in the Daedalus survey include a father experiencing a power-reversal in his son's guild where his son is the guildmaster; a shy wife becoming an outgoing social butterfly while her assertive husband becomes reclusive; and a lackey employee becoming his manager's boss in-game. These role reversals can have both beneficial and detrimental effects on the relationships of the gamers outside of their games. In the case of the employee / employer, the relationship soured and the employer eventually thought his employee spent too much time gaming. Despite the fact that the employee quit the game he was playing, the employer continually gave him poor performance evaluations after the experience.

So why is it that we sometimes reverse our real-world roles within virtual worlds? Most of these role reversals seem to be tied to shifts in personality that only express themselves when a social dynamic changes. As an example, self-image in the real world is often tied to our physical features. In virtual worlds physical beauty is a matter of choice, rather than chance. A player can choose to create an attractive avatar, rather than an ugly one. With physical beauty no longer a barrier, many socially awkward people suddenly come out of their shells. If those same people posses good communication skills it's possible to appear more attractive to others. This attraction can then be used as a tool in acquiring social power (i.e., guild leadership, raid leadership, etc.). For example, studies in real world society have shown that taller people make more money and are put into more positions of power than shorter people. As odd as it may seem, we literally seem to "look up" to those who are taller than ourselves. If such issues of physical beauty and preference are suddenly non-factors, and individuals must rely on other skills to acquire social stature, it's only natural that the social dynamic shifts to prefer a different type of individual, thus enabling the role reversal. In the case of a virtual world, preference is usually given to the most compelling communicator.

Another reason for a shift in personality may tie to the anonymity of the experience in a virtual world. This anonymity allows individuals to re-envision themselves. People can start from scratch and create a personality that they like, rather than slog through one they might feel stuck with in real life. The coward in real life has a chance to destroy that image and create a new image as a hero. Conversely, a popular, outgoing person carries none of that clout into a virtual world. It may be that a popular person actually seeks obscurity as a relief from real world pressures brought on by popularity; such as the responsibility of a higher position in a workplace. Anonymity allows for a complete re-imagining of the self.

Another, far simpler reason for a personality shift might simply be because a person is role playing a specific character for fun. An upstanding citizen of the real world may find it compelling to role play a villain for a stress relieving change of pace. A nice, mousy person, might roleplay a belligerent, foul-mouthed crazy character to harmlessly vent real life frustrations. Such role playing activity is more of an intentionally chosen way to enter the shoes of a different person and take a breather from your own personality.

Whether it's the result of role-playing a character, or the anonymity of an MMOG that lets us re-invent ourselves, MMOGs allow us to be someone we can't normally be, and allow us to be ourselves. It's up to us to decide who we are. How does your real-world personality stack up to the person you present online? Do you act differently? Are you a scrawny nerd that plays a brash, foul mouthed warrior, or a beefy linebacker that plays a dainty, female healer? Are you more outgoing online than in real-life, or more shy than you normally are (perhaps because your typing skillz sux0r). Or are you pretty much the same in game as you are out of game?

MMOGology [mŏg-ol-uh-jee] – noun – The study of massively multiplayer online games via the slightly warped perspective of Marc Nottke on a weekly recurring basis.

This article was originally published on Massively.