Opinion

Being polygons

Guest post! Two simple words that form a beautiful harmony of “I don’t have to do anything” and “here is something interesting to read”. Also, they are the simplest words you are likely to find in the entirety of what follows.

Hello world! Seeing as Charles was otherwise occupied/too lazy to provide you with the update you so desperately crave, I’ll be his utterly uninteresting replacement. I suppose some sort of introduction is in order. My name, which isn’t actually my name but my real name is so hard to pronounce I won’t even bother with it, is Razzmatazz. I’ve been playing World of Warcraft for almost 5 years now, primarily through something of the hunter variety, very often in a raid group and/or guild I’ve shared with the erudite founder of this blog. I hereby firmly promise that last sentence was the only moment in this entire blog post where I shoehorn in big words like “erudite”, without knowing their proper meaning. Not.

Anyway. I struggled for a while to come up with a good subject for this post, mainly because I know very little about shamans (which isn’t in itself a problem considering the breadth of topics this blog covers) and because I feel like everything WoW-related I want to write about has already been written about a million times, often by people far more eloquent and knowledgeable than myself. I even toyed with the idea of doing something terribly meta like “all the topics I wanted to write about but won’t” or “why I don’t like blogging about WoW”, but I quickly realised that’d make me appear as someone who desperately tries to be clever, but really fails on more than one level. Which, to be fair, isn’t far from the truth, but that’s not the point. I’m also realising, while I write this, that I’ve already written two paragraphs about absolutely nothing. I should’ve told you in my introduction that I’m an expert at being very wordy about very little. Also at being modest.

Anyway. Let’s get down to business! The business in this case being the title looming overhead. For this post I will do what all great writers who lack inspiration end up doing: steal stuff from someone else. Officially “building on what others have written”, which doesn’t make it sound nearly as bad. I am a lover of WoW, but at heart I am a lover of all things which have to do with games. Console games, pc games, mobile games, casual games, hardcore games, false dichotomy games, all sorts of games. I play a lot of games. I also read a lot about games (I’m just establishing my virtual authority here, bear with me). One of my favourite go-to places on the electronic internet for information, opinions and silliness is Rock, Paper Shotgun, a pc gaming blog written mainly by four awesome, experienced game journalists who are totally awesome and experienced.

To avoid this becoming an ad, I’ll get to the point: a couple days ago the gentlemen of RPS posted one of their trademark random observation articles called “Face Book: A Game+Life Blending”. Basically Mr. Alec Meer, esteemed author of said piece, argued (based upon.. just go read it, OK?) that in our minds and memories, there may not be as much difference as we might assume between real people and virtual, game-inhabiting people. There’s a lot to be said about this, not all of which I’ll cover. The interesting thing for us, players of aforementioned muhmorpuhguh double yoow O double yoow, is our ability to transpose this idea to our own virtual lives and the implications of that transposition.

In academic literature about virtual worlds and the internet in general, there have been a couple of different stances in the whole virtual vs. real debate (don’t worry, I won’t go into a lot of academic detail or existentialist questions – mainly because I’m too stupid to explain those properly). On the one hand you’ve got the people who think of virtual worlds as distinctly separate from reality. On the other hand you’ve got those who see virtual worlds as a natural extension of reality, which means reality+virtual worlds become some sort of tangled, chaotic mess with a constant interaction between both, like a bowl of freshly cooked spaghetti frozen in place. (Note that all of this is oversimplified for the sake of argument and to prevent myself from frying my brain at this early hour (5 PM), and that there’s a lot to be said about even the definitions of concepts like reality and virtual worlds. But as I mentioned, I won’t go into that as it’d lead me to places I carefully want to avoid, because they smell of wee and sulphur.)

Let’s look at World of Warcraft for a second, to entertain the single WoW player who bothered to read this far. In WoW, and many other (online) multiplayer games with it, we don’t just interact with computer-controlled characters, as we do in singleplayer games. We take it about twelve steps further, and interact with the digital representations of other people. They, and we, have crafted a character according to our own wishes, chosen a race, and given it an appropriate haircut and that earring no one notices. And we use that virtual body to continuously communicate and play with others. This is a remarkable thing. Not only do we take the role of a character in a videogame, we become our digital selves through the customisation of our characters (thus expressing our identity) and how we use those characters to interact.

Why am I rambling about this? In Alec Meer’s article, digital actors in videogames are placed on equal footing relative to people he’s met in the real world. This is a stretch, but in terms of our memories, they can be said to occupy a similar place. Just like we’ve experienced good and bad times with real people, we’ve experienced, thanks to the inherent interactivity of this medium, good and bad times with videogame characters. This is already true in singleplayer games. In an MMORPG like WoW, something similar happens on an entirely different level. Often, the people we play and interact with in WoW, we won’t actually get to know or even meet in real life. This means we aren’t able to make mental associations between who a certain person is and their physical selves.

When I think of wonderful Charles for example, I don’t think of the spectacled Scotsman he is in real life [Ed: South African, actually], but I immediately associate his name with Chayah, the female draenei shaman I’ve become so familiar with. And maybe even moreso with no “body” at all, virtual or actual, but with impressions, thoughts, conversations, memories of boss kills and instance runs. To go back to the academic debate: what is actual and virtual are flowing together naturally, becoming an entangled mess, to the point where we can’t possibly separate one from the other. The digital actors, in our minds, are the people behind them, because they’re the only reference point we have as to who this person really is.

This also means Charles’ “body”, so to speak, is fluid online. It changes continuously, whenever he switches to one of his bajillion alts. Without delving too deeply into postmodernist theory, this is a beautiful thing. It allows us to eliminate all the prejudice associated with our physical bodies, and purely judge a person based on what he says or does (even if it is “virtual”). It allows us to focus not on what a person looks like, but his thoughts and feelings and however he wishes to express himself.

There are caveats. Obviously how we perceive a person online is very much dependent on how he chooses to present himself. Which means the potential for lying and manipulation is there. Secondly, our physical body does have a function and is undoubtedly important. There’s something to be said about the qualitative aspects of friendships (or, dare I say it, relationships) online compared to offline. The body plays a large part in that. And finally, we can never eliminate our physical bodies online, not entirely anyway. Inklings of it always push through the layers of digital representation.

But the potential in virtual worlds for our digital bodies to replace, or at least become more significant than our offline bodies, is very real. And because we share this virtual world with so many others, this fundamentally changes how we interact with people and how we view and remember the situations we’ve experienced together. Despite all the caveats, isn’t that something we should cherish? A mode of interaction that is so unique, that we can indeed place a created, virtual face, next to that of a real person without thinking twice about it?

The real and actual can’t be as easily separated from the “virtual” as some academics try to argue. I’d say that we, as players of World of Warcraft, are in a privileged position to prove that separation is unsustainable. The people we’ve encountered, the experiences we’ve had, even if we did use our digital instead of our physical bodies, are real despite the fact that they’re intangible. Which is why Alec Meer’s collected photo album could just as well house pictures of the faces of his real friends as the videogame characters he’s “met”. And why my personal photo album could just as well contain a picture of Charles as one of Chayah.

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Being polygons

  1. He is Really South African? I Am From Cape Town myself living in USA now. Lol

    Posted by Springbok | May 16, 2010, 4:02 am
  2. Yes, I’m from South Africa. I’ve lived most of my life in Scotland though.

    So to the topic at hand. I broadly agree with most of what you’ve said (great post, if I’m allowed to say that!), but I’d like to note that there also seems to be something useful about having your online friendships augmented with in-the-flesh experience of those friends. Just as we experience many difference facets of a person’s character online through our interactions as well as through representations by different avatars (I especially notice forum avatar pictures and usernames) which add new dimensions to our mental conception of someone, so meeting them face to face adds another fresh and useful perspective.

    I’d hesitate to say it’s a more *important* perspective as one of the powerful aspects of virtual worlds is their ability to bring out genuine aspects of personalities which are maybe not normally visible in their “real” lives, but I do find that it provides a solid ground on which to anchor your conceptions. So when something weird or “out of character” happens online, you have something to recourse to to make sense of it.

    However, the reverse is also totally true – experiencing someone through the medium of virtual worlds enables us to see them in totally new and often very illuminating ways.

    Posted by Charles | May 17, 2010, 11:08 pm
  3. Yes indeed,
    The whole mmo social experience is a great way of showing a bit more of ourselves.
    I can definetly see people who expose their ragequit aspect or even leadership tendencies, i mean, as i see my friends IRL that play wow, i totally can see their toons and their choices, in a really cool mix.

    Posted by Hexlol | May 21, 2010, 1:35 pm

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