I'm a big fan of my troll Rogue in World of Warcraft. He's good at ambushing his enemies, and he hits hard. I find myself rooting for him as he's trotting off to take on the next quest or fidgeting around in the Warsong lumber camp, waiting for a battleground to begin.
But every time he puts the killing blow on a nasty gnome Mage or detestable yeti, I always think, "Way to go, Wallace," rather than, "Way to go, Rogue." Every time I reach that small moment of excitement, when I'm no longer considering but only reacting, it's always, "Yay, me," and never, "Yay, him." And every time I think that, it raises the question: Just who is it I see before me on my screen? Is it him, or is it me? What real difference could it possibly make?
It could make a big difference, it turns out. We call places like World of Warcraft and EVE Online massively multiplayer "roleplaying" games, but the term doesn't really describe what's actually going on there. Few players inhabit their avatars in the same way an actor inhabits a role. In fact, there are many more potential ways to enter an online world than most people realize. In one sense, the player merely pilots an avatar through the online environment, and only rarely becomes him.
Total immersion, in which the physical world is truly forgotten and one actually believes oneself to be someone else, is exceedingly rare (and probably an indication of serious mental problems). Even run of the mill roleplaying is almost unheard of; if it wasn't, the chat channel in WoW's Barrens zone wouldn't be filled with exclamations of "OMGWTFPWND!!" and endless paeans to Chuck Norris. On the other hand, the relationship between player and avatar is clearly deeper than that between a chess player and his king. Yet is it as deep as what happens with athletes who are at the top of their game, who seem to become someone different as they take the field?
To explore some answers to these questions, I turned to the godfather of virtual worlds, Richard Bartle. In 1979, Bartle became the first multiplayer world designer when he created a text-based "multi-user dungeon" known simply as MUD1. Still running today, MUD1 was the first online world in which large numbers of people could interact with each other, just as they do in World of Warcraft today.
And as Bartle points out in his book, Designing Virtual Worlds, the player-to-player and player-to-avatar relationships that arise in such places have not been changed at all by the advent of cool-looking graphics. You are what you are in online worlds, whether they have high poly-counts or just a Telnet connection.
So, what are you? The answer, according to Bartle, changes over time, and has less to do with a player leaving the "real" world behind, and more to do with the gradual merging of the person at the keyboard with the "person" on the screen.