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The digital persona and the actual self

Being oneself is an ongoing struggle and understanding who we are online might be an aid in that quest, not only for ourselves but also for those around us. An article about the roles we play online, and offline, and how they are connected.

Jonas Johansson, Blogger

September 4, 2010

10 Min Read

Recent reports prove that a growing part of the world is getting involved in gaming, and that not only does more people play, they spend longer time in front of their screens. The hobby that was once regarded by worried adults as an obscure and asocial activity has during later years become an active experience for the curious, without regard to age nor gender. However, even if the acceptance has risen there are still a large group of gamers who not just plays for the fun factor, but because it is an important part of their daily routine. This group is part of the hardcore gaming culture and they live most of their day (which in some sense equals their life) online, sharing a vast social network with others all over the world. This group consists of extremely talented coordinators, curious explorers, active listeners and efficient contributors to the area of which they are involved in (the Wiki of World of WarCraft is the second biggest Wiki). But for an outsider looking in, the picture is that they close the door, put the headset on and begin “escaping” (a completely wrong term) and wasting (another horrible term) their life. The behavior of being completely devoured by ones interest has caused parents during all times to feel distant and without understanding. They struggle with getting their loved ones to stop, to become normal, and to change their behavior into something less virtually manic. This is without realizing that for someone hardcore, it is about the value of life. Can one person take another persons intense interest away, and moderate it so that it suits ones own wishful thinking? The answer is of course no, and there is no solution to this, because it is also not a proper problem. It is however a problem that parents and children are unable to communicate with each other about life. To redefine the issue to its core; How can one person relate to another in the best way possible? The logical answer to this would be to experience what the other person has experienced, or by listening and understanding, trying to relate as much as possible. By sharing and receiving knowledge, we communicate who we are and build relations. This is what digital natives do by default (online that is), and what gamers have pioneered in. Understanding what in digital gaming and in the world of mass-communication is so attractive and alluring, and even better, understanding what role the person in question takes in this world are part of a greater solution. There is no going back, gamers will not stop communicating and integrating with friends on the other side of the globe, they will not stop taking part in epic quests and being part of forces that can make differences. So let us discuss who gamers are, why their behavior is interesting, which role they play on the Internet and how society and parents can begin taking part in their children’s life, without creating havoc.

 To begin understanding the subject one could think of a game as an imaginative digital imitation of life, but in a concrete and flexible way and without the strict timeline. If a digital character for ten years stands still, or travels and explores in a moderate fashion, his experience (and therefore level i.e. the gaming equivalent of age where age is the sum of collected experience) will be less than that of someone that for five year is active in exploring, working in teams, dealing in trade or just fighting and honing the characters skills. If a person in the real world would choose to to travel to a certain country once every year and stay at the same job, that person would probably have a quite narrow mind when it comes to different cultures, global knowledge and self-exploration. In contrast one that during five years traveled the globe, met new and interesting people and developed ones career or passions, might have a more empathic and cunning view on both the world and the inner self. The difference between digital and non-digital lies in the visible truth, the ease of comparison, since you can easily view the statistics of your character, and see what level of skill it is currently on. An imitation of life, just a less complex one, which is much more fun and easy to understand and relate to. Bear in mind that a level of reflection is not needed in the virtual world, spend a certain amount of time in practicing the piano the character will learn it. In real life traveling somewhere or performing a task does not mean that you have experienced or learned it, however, not trying means that you never will.

Gamers are not wiser or more experienced than others, even if their digital personas might be superior. Because when not online they do not think, understand consequences or reflect about their online presence. The thoughts running through the mind before bedtime (after perhaps an 18 hour gaming session) are usually not about the reason of gaming; Why the game is fun and what it means for them as individuals, but about which tasks to be completed tomorrow.

The digital world and the actual world are no longer simple definitions to make since “reality” is constantly shifting and digital media is introduced everywhere. What is real, and what is not, is a way of thinking that has been broadened by technology. So when it comes to terms of escaping “reality”, it is really a matter of perspective. One could instead see it as embracing it, without all the responsibility, consequence, constant reflections and external influences that are forced on people every day. This goes for everything, and is based on that doing what makes you feel happy can not be part of an escape, that the ordinary and dull life is instead the escape from oneself. This would imply that embracing ones interest brings people closer to the themselves, and in here lies the obvious paradox when it comes to gamers (since they create digital personas to do it). As with all things, a balanced combination is the better option and since both worlds are not yet fully connected it can be dangerous to spend too much time in a digital environment. What I am trying to point out is that for a child, or someone with a strong digital behavior, being inspired to let go of the online presence demands that other people understand what it is that makes it so great, and addictive.

To further the understanding, it is important to think about what roles the gamers pose, and why they tend to sit around a screen all day. By not taking in to account all the varieties of gaming, and all that is available on the web, I want to focus on the role that is taken by the hardcore gamer. That role is their digital self, or online persona, which often describes their personalities better then their real life behavior. In virtual life, you are judged by your actions, and not by your looks or abilities. You get instant feedback, and you are fed with tasks that you can accomplish, and you will by adding hours of devotion. And even though this sounds great, it is also the reason why gamers have a hard time letting the game go at times. The digital personas gamers develop are often as concrete as the games they play, and can be referred to classic models for behavior or personality types, making the subject even more interesting. Can it be possible to learn more about an individual by looking at their actions online, and in-game? Does being a Healer or Warrior reflect the personality and behavior behind that sits in front of the screen, controlling the character? To make it easier to grasp, I will introduce some theories regarding characteristics in gamer, and afterwards make simple references to those of a gamer.

Hippocrates, a practitioner of medicine (also known as the father of medicine), structured four personality types based on the amount of separate kinds of body fluids that existed within. These were not used as a way to categorize people, but as a way to give them help in a more efficient way. These theories have of course undergone some transformation, and a latter one that has gained fame is the one of David Keirsey. He used a model of two categories consisting of four general temperaments (Artisans, Guardians, Idealists and Rationals) which all four possessed two individual roles. Without going in too much detail, these temperaments has characteristics which define certain behaviors. In most MMORPG’s (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) the character can often find themselves in taking a certain role which co-relates to several of those stated by Keirsey, and since it is Massive, the roles are chosen and played in millions. Choosing the role leader of a guild might imply that you are more towards the Rationalist and if you are the impatient and impulsive kind, seeking new conquests and thriving on being unique might make you join the Artisans, and so on. Of course, it is not as easy as just finding some attributes that connect, and digital behavior goes way beyond just the part of gaming. But adding all that is around the actual game, such as chatting, browsing, investigating, organizing, lecturing etc. one could actually build a personal profile better than any written test could. This is because it relies on actions based on thought and feeling, and not just what the mind believes might be correct, or what culture makes us believe. Doing these observations does not provide any absolute answers, and neither does it aim to. It is meant as an aid for understanding, and it does not give any truth other than the one we add ourselves. We are still individuals, way more complex than any category could ever define us, but in understanding that it is often good to start somewhere. For a parent, it might not help directly, but it might give an insight to what kind of emotion lies within a character. For a gamer, or child, it might help provoke self-investigation and increase the meaning of gaming.

By understanding these models and where you, and people around you, are recognized you can start to understand and relate, because the power of the digital addiction is so strong, that someone without knowledge of its essence will not be able to. Gaming can be an excellent form of entertainment, of educating, of collaboration and of competition. In itself it introduces digital play as a mass-pedagogic form and like the ocean, there is a lot left to explore.

Understanding what is happening in digital evolution is crucial for understanding the new generation of digital natives and hardcore gamers. Just as society closes their eyes on the evolution of digital media and focuses on the really small parts, the meaning and reflection gets lost. So, even though the essence of gaming is great, it has caused and will continue to cause problems. So let us redefine the problems and begin asking educated questions with regard to the people playing, not just ignoring their whole existence. Otherwise, the games we play in the future will not be just about fun, nor available for everyone.

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