Roleplaying is a journey of trust you take with strangers. You may now and then start out with a group of people you know in real life, but for the most part, the people you roleplay with have no idea who you really are, or why you are sitting here at the computer. You can tell them if you want to, but most people don't ask. Roleplayers tend to keep personal details private, and don't intrude on one another's space.
Besides, other roleplayers don't necessarily care that much about who you "really are" either. They're there to get to know your character, not you as a person, unless your character first makes a very good impression and they decide that they actually want to be friends as real people. Even though you respect each other as people who share the same interest, there's still a distance between you which either (or both) of you may wish to maintain.
And yet, the relationship you have is one of trust. It's not at all at the same level as a best friend of course, but you still have to trust one another in a very creative sense -- you rely on each other to create interesting things for your characters to share with one another. You're not just buying a shirt from a salesperson or holding the door for a passerby -- you're exchanging behavior and language in an unpredictable and totally interconnected way. Any little surprise a stranger brings to an interaction may completely alter the whole game session and stick in your mind as one of your most memorable gaming experiences. Roleplayers have to trust other roleplayers to help make those experiences positive, even without knowing anything at all about one another. Sometimes two characters can even become very close friends, even though the real people behind them do not.
The word "anonymosity" first appeared in my head as I started thinking about all the people I've met in WoW, and how few I actually know by their real world names. I thought for a while that I had made the word up, but it's actually in the dictionary as "the state of being anonymous." It struck me that anonymosity is a very important part of what being a roleplayer in WoW is all about.
Some roleplayers would disagree with me, that they're more than happy to share their real world identity with anyone who asks, but the fact remains that they usually don't need to. We judge whether we want to spend time together, not by revealing who we are, but by entertaining one anther with something we are not.
In the game, between roleplayers, you may find a good number of people who want to talk to your character, but do not want to talk about anything related to real life. It's not because they are rude, nor because they have anything to hide, but because you're both there to roleplay, not to become real life friends, just like you're here at this website to read articles about WoW, and I'm here to write them for you.
Take my own experience as an example. When I first started roleplaying in WoW in 2005, I had a secret mission: I wanted to get inside the head of a female character and figure out why she behaved the way she did, to understand what being a woman was like. I had just suffered a very painful breakup with a woman I thought I wanted to marry, and I felt as though there was some terrible secret about women that I had failed to understand. Keeping my true identity anonymous seemed essential, because I thought that when found out I was a man in real life, then my little experiment would be ruined -- they would just start treating me as a man again and I would learn nothing.
Someone who didn't understand me at all might have felt as though I was trying to "pretend to be a woman" as if I wanted to lie to people and make them believe I was a woman in real life. Some people can't ever play a character of the opposite sex at all because it feels dishonest to them if they allow any possibility that someone might think they are the same gender as their character. One or two MMOs out there even force you to play your own gender by sending in a digital photograph of yourself to the company that runs the game.
While I respect that way of thinking, I also think it misses out on a deeper layer of honesty, in which you learn to interact with people's characters without knowing who they are in real life, and without having any need to know whatsoever. Just like an actor must find something in himself that really relates to the role he must portray in a film, you can learn a lot about an actor just by watching his or her movies, maybe much more than you could by just meeting that person in a line at the grocery store or something. The actor may be sharing something of his soul in a movie, but in a brief meeting, he may merely engage in a bit of otherwise meaningless small talk.
Trying (and failing, sometimes) to anonymously portray a female character in WoW was a deeply honest thing I did, because it was part of an honest question, and it helped me discover how I related, within myself, to some of the issues that women have to think about more often than men. As a man, my life is improved from being more aware about these things, and even though at the time I refused to give people my real identity, I was actually sharing an important part of my learning process with them, and to me that more honest than just playing a character who was more like myself in real life.
My hope in sharing this example from my own personal experience is to show that anonymosity in a roleplaying setting is not necessarily what you would think from watching the news and hearing horror stories about things that happen on the Internet. It certainly isn't necessarily a recipe for rude behavior.
While I was actually trying to learn a particular lesson in life, another person might just enjoy escaping the confines of whatever stereotypes people have toward their sex, race, age, or whatever. A woman might play a male character just because she doesn't want people to "treat her like a woman" for a while -- maybe she just wants to be herself, without people offering to help her or teach her do something else stereotypical just because she's a girl.
Another person might use anonymosity as a kind of shield to protect himself from uncomfortable emotional attachments with others. Giving away his true name makes him feel uncomfortably exposed, but through his character, he can feel safe interacting with people.
Yet another person might just want to keep the game life and real life separate, because that's how they organize their life. It's not that they have any reason to hide something from you -- rather they just want to focus on the task at hand, and going on talking about themselves and other aspects of real life is just too much like... real life! Anonymosity, to them, just means focusing on having fun.
What's your approach towards being anonymous as a roleplayer? Do you talk about your real life just as much as you roleplay? or do you consider your real life as a private matter you'd rather people didn't even ask about? Have you changed from one approach to another over time?