So here I am, I make a character in a virtual world that I like. She’s got an aesthetic that appeals to me, a name that says something I want to say, and a space to hang out in. I’ve talked a little about self-expression, and how names are part of that. I use my avatar design to communicate something – maybe it’s something far from what my other embodied selves communicate, maybe it’s not.
I wonder, though, about audience. When I first ventured nervously into WoW and made Lantana, I was keenly aware of my audience. So picture this: There I sit, jittery and chewing on my thumbnail, clicking through option after option of race, class, and earring style. Blood elf? Hm. Pretty, but very girly. If I pick an elf, will the players who are surely almost all guys see me as yet another Gir-ul who just wanted to flounce around and look cute? Can a noob who selects the prettiest creature in the Horde (and is female to boot) ever be taken seriously? Nope, don’t want to risk it.
But an orc? A big cow thing? Uggh! So not cute!1 Turns out I am such a girl after all. Hm. These trolls look sort of in between. Cuteish but not “pretty”. I go back and forth between trolls and elves, getting more and more attached to the idea of being a sexy little thing, but finally let it go.
Now. A class. Okay, I’m no fool, I know that straight up warrior isn’t for me: I’m pretty awkward at the quick keys hard core fighting. I always end up using the cheats in the last stages of the RPGs I play. A healer? Hm. Again I think of my audience. I confess that I envision some youngish white guy sitting in front of a multi-screen rig, red LEDs flashing, beefed up mouse welded to his hand, fingers flying across the keys, character statistics scrolling through his head as he calculates the precise trajectories of outgoing battle axes and incoming arrows. That guy turns to my little troll healer and says, “oh, yeah, of course you’re a healer: you’re a girl.”
Okay, so clearly the gender thing is on my mind in this process. I guess, like some, I assume that because I’m female I’m not going to be as good at this game, and that because I’m female other people are going to assume I’m not good at this game, and I’ll have to prove myself over and over, and I won’t really be able to do it…
Focus. Class. Okay, my favorite D&D class (yes, I played D&D… my dad was the DM) was fighter/magic-user. I like a bit of sword-swinging with my lightning bolts, thank you. So as a troll, turns out there’s really only the one good fighter/magic-user option: the shaman. Whatever that is. Okay. Good. <click>.
Name. I have my little poisonous plants naming convention, thank the gods, so I try my classic, Belladonna. Nope. Not available. Or not allowed. Whatever. Nightshade? Nope. CRAP. To the internets to search for plant names.
<here passeth far too long with Teh Google>
Okay. Lantana (not available). FINE. Lantanayew it is. Two deadly trees. Now that’s something those too-accomplished boys will appreciate!
This all sounds very self-conscious, I know, and please believe me when I assure you that I do not go through this kind of dithering every time I create an alt. But for my first time in this oft-discussed game I was rather obsessive about it.
The point is (yes, there is a point) that creating Lan in a specific way is not just – or perhaps even mostly – about expressing myself. She’s about participating in a community with other people. I think about how these attempts at self-expression are being read, not just how they’re being spoken, as it were.
We do this in many contexts, of course. Goffman calls it performing social roles, where we think about what will maximize the role we want to project and then choose our words, attitude, dress, etc., accordingly. I don’t think we’re quite so strategic as Goffmann implies – at least not all the time – but there are those moments when we do spend quite a lot of energy on how we design our identity. Whether it’s dressing just right for that business meeting or tweaking our avatar’s nose angle and eye size, there are times when we consider the self in relation to the audience very carefully.
When I created Lan, I was entering a world that was, for me, very intimidating: although I was a pretty experienced single-player gamer, and had some exposure to MMOs through The Sims Online, this world was, in my view, populated with hardcore serious gamers who would most likely see me as a complete idiot.
I was prepared for that, but still, I wanted to create a character, a “me”, that fit. Not only that fit, but that would tell this group of high-level folks that I knew a little bit about what I was doing. I had in my head notions of how this group of total unknowns would see me, and I designed that online self to fit how I thought they would interpret me. So the pressure was on to do a good job in designing a self, designing a representation that would become linked to how this community saw me.
I mean, I wanted my WoW self to be cool! Wouldn’t you?
1. Now, though, I love Taurens, and I think they’re awfully cute. Orcs hold a special place in my heart as well – with experience we most definitely see these characters differently.