A Virtual Identity Crisis in the Making

Who we imagine ourselves to be may say more about our goals than our identity

Posted Jun 02, 2015

Poprotskiy Alexey / Shutterstock
Source: Poprotskiy Alexey / Shutterstock

When you play Monopoly, which playing piece do you grab first? The race car? The Scottish terrier? The thimble? The cannon? The iron?  Most of us can probably recall our favorite, even if we haven’t played the game in years. We probably could easily describe the reason that we preferred a particular playing piece, too—the dog was cute, it was fun to drive the car, the iron travelled smoothly across the board, etc. These playing pieces might actually be something like a prototype of modern day avatars we create and use in multiple manners today.

The word avatar comes from the Sanskrit language and refers to the earthly manifestion of Vishnu, one of the Hindi triumvirate of gods. His role on earth is described as being to preserve and protect the planet. If we follow this comparison a little bit further in terms of computer-based avatars, we come up with something of a reverse equation about the situation. Vishnu’s earthly manifestation was considered to be the avatar, whereas our virtual online manifestation is our chosen avatar. And we often have a lot more choice about how we “appear” in the virtual world than when we only had 6 pieces from which to choose when we created a player identity in Monopoly.

There have been an increasing number of studies about avatar choice and avatar identity in the last few years as the opportunities to create virtual identities have grown. Many of us may think of avatars as the identities created in role playing games such as World of Warcraft or Grand Theft Auto. However, avatars are also used in social media platforms, e-commerce, or even geographically separated business colleagues in task management software platforms. When we create a profile in virtual space, we are creating an avatar, of sorts, as well.

There’s a country song in which the singer brags about whom he is online—6’3”, a movie star, good looking, well-off, you name it. He may live in his parents’ basement, but he can be anyone he wants in the virtual social scene. According to a study by Trepte and Reinecke (2012), it turns out that our own satisfaction with our actual life influences the avatar we create as does the setting in which our avatar will perform its role.

If you are happy with your life, you are more likely to create an avatar that more accurately reflects your actual self, characteristics, and identity. You may vary the avatar a bit, but overall, you are going to act out your own self in virtual space. If you are less than satisfied with your life, it is more likely that you will create an avatar with qualities that you would like to possess in reality. Strength, power, attractiveness, etc. are enjoyed virtually if we cannot manifest these in real life.

Another interesting piece of the avatar puzzle is that the years in which most of us struggle most with identity development occur during our adolescence. Teenagers are also heavy users of social media such as Snapchat, Instagram, Facebook, and the like. Teens are also more likely to create avatars that are dissimilar to their actual identities—the anonymity of the internet allows them to create and act out identities that would never feel “safe” or “achievable” in real life.

On the down side, virtual reality creates an environment in which an imagined self can do virtual harm to others through behavior that would be unacceptable in real life—there are way too many anecdotes of unbridled and devastating bullying that occurs behind the mask of a false online identity. The up side, however, is that teens can “try out” different identities and roles to see if they are good fits for real life. The online world of virtual freedom can provide a safe space for adolescent “playacting,” so long as it is managed well by the young adult.

Researchers have also found that we enjoy virtual interaction more when our avatar is more like us—it may be that we feel more comfortable “being ourselves” than trying to be someone else. However, if we are involved in a game or interaction in which certain skills are necessary, such as speed, aggression, power, or greed, etc., then we are willing to create an identity that encompasses those qualities.

Another funny thing about avatar choices—if we are creating one in which the playing field does not require competition, then we are more likely to create one that is more similar to our actual identities.  Just as in real life, when we are facing scarcity of resources, our drive for survival or fear of losing out to another can kick in and have even gentle souls fighting for the last loaf of bread on the shelves if winter precipitation is in the forecast! Placing the winning bid on eBay may also bring out the “eBeast” within. Luckily, we are able to pull out the necessary qualities needed in the moment and then return to our “normal selves” after the heat of battle or competition fades. To riff on Freud, “sometimes an avatar is just an avatar,” it does not necessarily reflect our core identity.

In summary, it seems that avatars create a unique opportunity to try out a variety of selves—and provides what we perceive of as a “safe space” for engaging with others using our imagined self. It appears that we most enjoy interacting with others, though, when our avatar is more closely aligned with our true self—less cognitive dissonance, one would assume. Trying on different identities can feel good, but if you think back to the Monopoly games you played growing up, the energy, attachment, and meaning you attached to your favorite game piece may give you a clue to the avatar that is most congruent and satisfying to who you are today!

Reference

Trepte, S., & Reinecke, L. (2010). Avatar creation and video game enjoyment: Effects of life-satisfaction, game competitiveness, and identification with the avatar. Journal of Media Psychology: Theories, Methods, and Applications, 22, 171-184.