Note: This was written as a research paper for a class that focused on new media and video games. Consider this a rough-draft for a larger paper I would like to write on the concept of agency and gameplay.
Virtual spaces, as a new medium for human activity, allow the individual to break free from traditional conceptions of how identity is constructed and maintained. In the past, identity was understood as a static state of being limited to our physical and mental traits; however,
“Changes in the surrounding world have given us tremendous freedom in shaping our ‘self’ — unlike our ancestors, who had little opportunity to break out from their social caste or to change their residence.” (9)
On the Internet, and in other virtual spaces, the individual has found a place to create alternate selves — alts, avatars, agents — and these personas provide her with the agency to manipulate the preconceived self;
“…we have an opportunity to painlessly manipulate our identity, to create situations that we could never experience in the real world because of social, sex-, or race-related restrictions.” (10)
She can create an alternate identity that mimics her physical features IRL (in real life), or more popularly,
“…take advantage of a game’s possibilities to improve [her] representations, making [her] smarter, prettier, and stronger.” (11)
However, how she decides to explore her identity depends a great deal on the level of anonymity granted to her in the virtual space.
Facebook is the largest virtual space to which individuals flock to manipulate their identity. Browsing through photos and public profiles of any one of the 500 million users on the website exemplifies the massive level on which people today are reconstructing an online identity for themselves and others. (12) Facebook’s mission is to empower individuals in being more expressive and connected, (13) but the website’s focus on obliterating a person’s anonymity ultimately forces the individual to look into a metaphysical mirror. This mirror is no different than one the individual may use in real life; it amplifies those labels and personality traits she is forced to carry in real life. Facebook forces the individual to reconcile the differences between her perceived identity and her beliefs, but not in an exploratory way.
“In games where we expect to play an avatar, we end up being ourselves in the most revealing ways; on social networking sites such as Facebook, we think we will be presenting ourselves, but our profile ends up as somebody else — often the fantasy of who we want to be.” (14)
We end up too self conscious to experiment with our identity, as Facebook only allows a single person to officially host one profile. In this way, video games and other virtual spaces that preserve anonymity ultimately serve the individual as a better means of exploration and adventure.
(8) McGonigal, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, 38.
(9) Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” 93.
(10) Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” 91.
(12) Aden Hepburn. Facebook Statistics, Stats and Facts for 2011. http://www.digitalbuzzblog.com/facebook-statistics-stats-facts-2011/.
(13) Facebook. “About.” http://www.facebook.com/facebook?sk=info.
(14) Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books, 153.