OK, so in my last post I started talking about how forming social bonds within a game starts to make the virtual world real. By virtual world I mean not only the game world, in my case the rolling hills and aquatic badgers of Hibernia, but the websites, forums and social networks that accrete around a game. I want to talk next about prydwen.net, the forum that supported hib/pryd players (Hibernians on the Prydwen server in DAoC), but before I do that I’m going to allow myself to digress a little and take up the theme of identity. It isn’t really a digression, because in order to be a member of a social network, one does have to have an identity. People need to know who you are.
Identity online can be a tricksy concept, however. In a roleplaying game, potentially even more so, as people adopt personae in order to play out scenarios in-character. DAoC is an MMORPG, the RPG is in there and roleplaying is an element of the game. It’s not exactly rife on the Prydwen server however, and has never been a large part of my own playstyle. So, the dominant culture on Prydwen (now clustered with the Excalibur server under the collective moniker ‘Dyvet’) has always, I think, been one in which players present themselves as ‘themselves’, unless a roleplaying event has been arranged.
Why is ‘themselves’ in quotation marks? Well, when you meet someone online, you very rarely have a lot of information about who they are, unless you know them in ‘real life’ already. Take me for example. My first character in DAoC was a hero character called Ambera. I didn’t roleplay her, except occasionally in my head. When I talked to people I talked as ‘me’. They may have felt that they were getting to know the real person behind the avatar. However, I was cautious about sharing anything that didn’t relate directly to the game. I enjoyed the anonymity. I liked that people didn’t know I was really a 30-something English woman with dyed hair. I didn’t pretend to be anyone else, but I liked the way in which the game system – avatars, text-based conversation – prevented people from judging one another in the usual ways. People still judged each other of course, but in game terms. If you had skill and treated other players with respect, it didn’t matter what you looked or sounded like, what age or class you were (I’m talking social class here, not character class, which matters a whole lot), or where you were from.
So, anyone talking to me experienced only those aspects of myself I chose to share. And, although I never pretended to be someone I wasn’t, sometimes… well, sometimes I was someone else. At least Ambera was. My partner also played that character during our first months in the game, and was never very forward about letting people know he wasn’t me. It always made me deeply uncomfortable, and became unbearable once I started to make friends with Talien and others. I was acutely aware that if they didn’t see some sort of consistent ‘me’ behind the avatar, we wouldn’t be able to form a connection. Once my partner opened his own account and started playing, that tension went away, and the pair of us, playing together, became quite recognisable and made many friends.
I had to trade the benefits of anonymity for being able to make lasting social connections. People like to know who they’re talking to.
Of course, there are degrees of anonymity. You don’t have to share everything with everyone. There are many people, even in my guild, who know me simply as ‘Ambera’ (or Ascarii, the name of my warden character). They have little interest in how old I am, where I live or what I do when I’m not playing DAoC. They know the history of my characters, they know that I’m a mid-flight warden, not top-flight but not too shabby, they know what weapon I use, but they don’t know, or care to know, who I am in ‘real life’. And that’s fine, but those people will not remain my friends once the game servers are shut down. Friends are the ones who ask you how work’s going, have you had the operation yet, how’s your mum? And those are the people who keep you coming back to the game.