A while back when I wrote about gender bending, I touched on something larger than just playing World of Warcraft as a different gender. There is something powerful for a player to be behind the screen and exist in a state of anonymity from the other some 11 million people who populate Azeroth.

Of course, if you read my gender bending piece, especially if you read the comments, not all is equal for female players. Regardless, there is something powerful in the anonymity that games give us.

The best and worst part of MMO’s and various forms of social gaming and networking is that we can be anonymous to those with whom we interact. When I am running around on anyone of my toons, the other players have no idea who is there. They only know me as an avatar. They only know me as one in their group or an opponent. They have no idea if I am 13, 42, or 63. They have no idea if I teach high school or work in a garage or may be the CEO of a large corporation. I could be their teacher, their neighbor, their old high school chum. Regardless, they might make assumptions about me. About my gender, age, ethnicity, and the like. But, these assumptions that are made about me have no impact on my real life identity whatsoever.

This can help all varieties of people be out there. I have read interviews with celebrities who play various MMO’s and refuse to make their user names public. I have read accounts where people who play feel like they are not judged for anything other than their actions. Of course, there are those who use this anonymity for nefarious reasons. Sadly, even in Azeroth we can’t get away from those who would prey on others.

We all know that before any words are exchanged, we make snap judgements about other people. For whatever reason, when a judgement is made, it is often hard to shatter or overcome — for both the person judging and the one being judged. This judgement can come from what the other person is wearing, the hand shake, or countless other variables we use to make judgements about others around us.

world of warcraft mohawk group

Games, though, give us the opportunity to be and do what we can’t or won’t in real life. Psychologists call this dissociative imagination. While this term is also used to define multiple personality disorders, in the realm of MMO’s and what is called cyber-psychology, it is used to identify the characters we create and the level at which we assume their identities online. I would assume that those who roll toons on RP servers tend to create detailed characters and identities, similar to the association a writer has with a character in a work of fiction; however, a writer does not speak in that character’s voice or interact with others playing a character. While those of us on non-RP servers allow much of who were are to enter the game.

Without the ability to see the other person, making snap judgements before they act is not possible. These judgements can only happen through seeing and being involved with their actual actions. The last time I got a wild hair up my fanny to tank on my paladin (it has been a while since I hopped on him), I blew it big time. I made the largest rookie mistake a paladin can make: I forgot to turn on Righteous Fury. Stupid. When the ensuing wipe happened, I was rightly judged by those in that PUG. But, I made up for it in two ways: I didn’t lose aggro and had the highest DPS. I wonder if in reality I would have been given the chance to continue. Would the judgements of others had caused them to push me out of the group? Would they have let me continue tanking? Would I have given up? I don’t know.

French existential philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre noted in his play No Exit, which takes place in Hell, that hell is other people. According to various themes of existential philosophy and most pronounced in the writings of Sartre, as much as we create ourselves through our actions, others are left to determine the meaning of those actions. Think of it this way: How often are you in the middle of doing something and hope that you don’t get caught? If it is an action you would like to have tied to your identity, then why not do it when others can see you do it? Simply put, according to Sartre and others, this is because our actions hold no meaning in the creation of ourselves and identities unless another is there to give the action meaning.

Jean-Paul Sartre

Thus the power of anonymity. We can easily disassociate ourselves from our actions if we are not tied to them. We can also be spared the judgement of others. Of course, this does not carry over so well to real life. In real life, we have to deal with others face-to-face and we must deal with their judgements. There is a bit of truth to Sartre’s notion that hell is other people. In No Exit, the four characters in hell are stuck in a room together. For eternity. In the play, they cannot blink, nor can they see their own reflection. Their torment is to spend eternity like this. Forever seeing others’ faces, but never their own; forever being judged and forever judging. This is the antithesis of anonymity. Sadly, it is closer to reality than most of us would like.

With the anonymity that World of Warcraft and other realms of cyber space offer us, we feel a bit of freedom. This freedom allows us to see and live in a merit based society where we are judged by our actions. If you were to see me in reality, I am the opposite of what you would expect of a tank. I am short, a bit rotund; I am a glasses wearing geek with mis-matched clothes, and I have no clue how to fight. But, with the screen dividing you and me, I can be powerful. Again, the power of anonymity: I won’t be judged on these first impressions, only on my actions.

I know I make snap judgements and have in the past, been completely wrong. What about you? Do you appreciate the idea that World of Warcraft is very much a merit based “society?” Do you think reality could be as merit based?

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