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Identity in a virtual world

Story Highlights

• Are virtual images an echo of true self?
• Online worlds lack behavior guidelines
• Virtual characters tend to behave in human ways
By Michelle Jana Chan
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- There's more to someone's identity than a social security number, passport photo and set of fingerprints but it's difficult to define exactly what else it is. Is it what the public sees or the inner self? Some would argue that virtual identity is a truer reflection of self than someone's image in the real world.

Photographer Robbie Cooper has studied the relationship between gamers' real and online identities, taking photographs of the two images for the book he co-authored, 'Alter Ego: Avatars and their creators'. Cooper fuses together real portraits and virtual images of dozens of gamers and investigated if people's digital representations in role-playing environments were an echo of their true selves.

Cooper says it was initially tough to get people to volunteer for the book, which essentially took the mask off the character. 'It was extremely difficult going to chat rooms and trying to persuade people I was really a photographer and doing this project,' he explains. 'But then I posted web pages on fan sites associated with certain games, asking people to apply with a picture of themselves and their avatar and I was quite surprised. We were getting 50 emails a day.'

He confesses he doesn't completely understand why some people came forward, especially when they highlighted how much they enjoyed the anonymity of the online world. 'It's a bit ironic,' Cooper says. 'There was a professor, a man in the 50's, who teaches public policy and law at Seoul University in South Korea. In the game world, he plays a little girl and he said he wanted to maintain the illusion, yet he's sitting there posing for my book. My feeling about it is you might create a character and enjoy the anonymity of it at first, but that character then becomes a bigger part of your life.'

Who's who?

In a virtual world, online identity is potentially much more flexible than real identity, allowing easily changes in race, class, gender, age, socio-economic background, and even species. It offers freer self-definition, including multiple identities and shared identity., within worlds lacking behavior guidelines or prescribed etiquette.

Cooper says, if there was a general trend, the online identities people chose were 'less ordinary' than their real selves. 'In the virtual world, they either had more powers or better looks. I tried hard to find someone who deliberately played a fat avatar and I couldn't find anyone -- although apparently they do exist. It does seem like in almost every case, the avatar is bigger, better, faster, it can fly, it has abilities the person doesn't have in the real world.'

Nick Yee studies immersive virtual reality at Stanford University, California and says there are measurable trends in character creation. 'One of my studies showed that introverts generally describe their avatars as idealized versions of themselves,' Yee says. 'Another observation is that in games where people can gender-bend, men are much more likely to than females.'

But Yee concedes there's not necessarily a deep psychological reason for everything. 'It could be that it's harder for men to explore different gender roles in real life. But the most common reasons I hear from men is that female avatars are treated better in games, that they are more often given free gifts, and if they are going to stare at a character for twenty hours a week, they would rather look at a female!'

Blurring the lines

Studies do suggest virtual environments can be a way of expressing a different side of personalities or escaping the social constraints of real life. But Yee says, even though online characters are not bound by rules, they tend to self-regulate how they look and often mirror human behavior in the real world.

'I've found the more flexibility there is,' Yee says, 'the more limitations come in. Take Second Life. It's a place where you can get away from your first life but it ends up looking exactly like suburban America. Second Life bores me because it feels like my backyard.'

As Cooper was taking photos for the book 'Alter Ego', co-author Tracy Spaight was conducting interviews of the subjects. Spaight agrees that human characteristics and behavior patterns are present throughout the virtual world. 'We bring a lot of ourselves into the game space, the appropriate norms, what's considered proper and not proper,' Spaight says. 'I mean, if you just got up and logged off from the game, if you didn't wave or bow or say goodbye, that would be rude.'

Yee says he can be scared or sickened by what he sees in the online world. 'When we have all the freedom that we could want, what's strange is how much we insist on being in bodies that we're used to and spend time doing suburban activities like shopping,' he says. 'In the virtual world, we even exaggerate the superficiality of what we're used to, like stereotypical female anatomies. That's what really fascinates me about these worlds. They trap us even more.'

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South Korean gamer Choi Seang Rak and his avatar Uroo Ahs.

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