The following paper discusses the usage of online gaming avatars within virtual environments and communities and the ability for individuals to alter self-presentation through avatars in an online gaming context. The articles utilised describe online gaming, communities and virtual environments through massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) such as World of Warcraft (WoW) and Second Life as a “third place” (Hendershott & Oldenburg, 1991) for sociability and computer-mediated communication (CMC) whereby users through in-game avatars depicting self or an altered self-presentation of self interact with one another within the online virtual environment.
Keywords: massively multiplayer online, computer-mediated communication, communities, World of Warcraft, identity, Second Life
Online Gaming Avatars Offer Individuals the Ability to Alter Self-Presentation and Identity within Virtual Environments and Communities
The rise in popularity of online gaming has lead to new ways in-which individuals can communicate, interact and present themselves online, and through usage of user-created, online gaming avatars individuals are afforded the ability to alter self-presentation and identity within virtual environments and communities outside of their “real self” (herein without quotation) as discussed and defined within this paper. The real self I define in this paper as an individual’s real world moral compass, attitude and disposition that user’s can willingly alter within virtual environments to explore new experiences or actions not permissible within a real world setting. As stated by Belk (2013), the changes and development of technology have affected the way we communicate, present and extend ourselves in a technology-based environment. Through examination of online games such as World of Warcraft (WoW) and Second Life as a computer-mediated communication platform (CMC), I aim to present an argument that convergence of network and interdependence of players within virtual environments contributes to community (Tseng, Huang & Teng, 2015) based upon use of in-game avatars and potential choice to alter self-presentation within these contexts. The paper will describe the genre of MMOs such as WoW and Second Life, the creation of avatars within virtual environments and the establishment of identity and social presence theory and capital within online virtual environments populated by user-created avatars depicting self. In entirety, the focus of this paper will therefore be limited to establishing that online gaming avatars facilitate the ability for individuals to construct an identity that portrays the real self, alter self-presentation or construct the ideal self within virtual environments, with the ability to form online communities through online gaming contexts.
Firstly, I will discuss the potential of new communication methods developed via internet connectivity and access and the advent of mediated social (virtual) spaces that have risen as a new form of social technology allowing individuals to meet and gather with new people or friends to communicate and interact (Kowert, Domahidi & Wuandt, 2014) within gaming environments. This, as stated by Jenkins (2006), is the act of media convergence with contemporary mediums developing, and becoming more interactive and immersive for the participating audience. With the introduction of internet technology and formation of new methods of CMC from web-based text chat-rooms and the like, convergence of text-based chat, inclusive of internet technologies and the digital games medium has converged, creating the genre of MMOs combining communication with user interactivity within a virtual environment designed for individuals to inhabit as a shared point of connectivity.
An example of this type of social technology and convergence of mediums is within MMO titles such as WoW and Second Life, whereby users log into a virtual environment populated with user-created avatars, utilised as a means to interact with the playing environment and communicate with other avatar representations of individuals. Within the virtual environment construct, facilitated by MMOs, individuals are then afforded the opportunity to alter the real self, and their identity through vicariously acting through their in-game avatar as a means to interact with the gaming environment, other connected participants that are controlling their in-game avatar self and the collective game context. The representation of self within an MMO may see the individual use the avatar as a representation of real self, an ideal self or as a canvas to try out an alternate self (Belk, 2013). This can take the form of designing the avatar as a reflection of the individual’s real appearance, with in-game identity to match, or utilise the game to embody that of an Orc, Mage or Druid – in WoW – to name a few, while adopting the personality of an evil avatar within the virtual environment, going against ones real life moral compass.
Additionally to being a platform for communication and connectivity with the affordance to create a self within the virtual environment, Van Looy (2015) state media forms such as online gaming provide individuals an opportunity to safely experience acts such as crime, violence, and fantasy, without consequence, which may be in opposition to the individual’s real world moral compass. Therefore, virtual environments inhabited by avatar depictions of users can extend self or broaden emotional horizons outside of real world familiar settings, in addition to utilising the gaming platform that can be described as a multifaceted method of communication and connectivity. However, the notion of crime and violence may appear severe regarding exploration and vicarious use of avatars, given real world societal attitude and reaction to such acts that are deemed impermissible, the virtual construct as a self-contained entity is not constrained to real-world laws and regulations, therefore, allowing individuals to interact with the gaming world as separate to real life. This begins to form how an individual within a virtual environment can create an avatar depiction of him or her, or an altered self-presentation within the gaming construct while vicariously using the in-game world avatar to participate and form an identity while using the platform as a means to explore, express oneself and communicate.
In addition to Van Looy (2015), Kowert et al (2014) further state that by understanding the social affordance and anonymity made possible through online settings and environments as those within an MMO, they can afford those that are socially anxious, unskilled, or shy a means of interacting and communicating outside of a real world setting that may be socially discomforting. This I argue, is that while MMOs may firstly be methods of CMC facilitated by internet technology, they are multifaceted in that individuals are afforded possibilities to engage with themes and fantasy not permissible within the real-world, while being a platform for those unskilled with face-to-face communication, being an outlet to communicate, partake, and participate within a safe virtual environment. Therefore, although the avatar is used to represent an individual’s place within the virtual environment, depicting real self or a representation thereof, individuals can overcome real-world issues through online gaming and feel a part of a community or as a means of exploration within a closed, safe virtual environment by using the avatar as an extended self (Belk, 2013).
Furthermore, by applying social presence theory to online gaming, virtual communities and communication, to examine how individuals within the construct define self and social presence while interacting within a virtual environment, and how they communicate through the medium (Tseng et al. 2015) is, therefore, able to be established. Through the MMO Second Life as an example and applying social presence theory of being in the virtual environment, the interrelation of the physical (real-life) and virtual (Online) can be compared, with both forms of communicative interactions taking place in a space such as physical architecture, or online virtual spaces that facilitate communication and interaction (Berger, Jucker & Locher, 2016). However, while physical communication and communities rely upon face-to-face contact in order to maintain participant’s relational connection, virtual spaces are not restricted in this sense and thus are able to form communities based upon the possibility of internet, global connectivity within a shared virtual environment (Trepte, Reinecke & Juechems, 2012) such as an MMO. The correlation between the physical and the virtual as stated by Berger et al (2016), in relation to Trepte et al. (2012) is the communicative ability to form community regardless of physical or virtual space, with each form of communication having their own set point of interaction. Berger et al. further state (2016) MMOs such as Second Life afford possibilities to interact through avatars in a three-dimensional depiction of physical space which serves as not only an extension of self through an avatar, but also as an extension of the physical environment converging into the virtual to be the point of interaction facilitated by the internet. Furthermore, individuals connecting to the virtual environment of WoW or Second Life are capable of, as in the real world, of obtaining possessions that may add to the identity development within the gaming construct. As stated by Koivisto (2003), houses, for example (in Second Life), within online social places, not only serve as a place for people to meet and interact, like the physical real world, but can also show others what they have achieved within the virtual environment and community. This develops the multifaceted nature of MMOs as a CMC in that as individuals connect, and navigate virtual environments and communities of online games, players not only construct an avatar in-which to embody, but also accumulate possessions, or virtual architecture as a means to establish an identity that may not be possible outside of the virtual community.
It is stated by Steinkuehler and Williams (2006) that the relationships and interactions beyond the home or workplace, facilitated by these types of virtual environments that digitally mediate physical spaces such as cafés, clubs or similar locations of hangout can be, defined as third places as first conceived of by Oldenberg (1991). The possibility to develop relationships and form community within the virtual environment is through establishing an identity within the virtual construct in the same manner as physical space, through regular participation and interaction amongst peers in third places that are mediated reflections of real world spaces. As a third place of interaction is separate from first (home) and second (workplace), MMOs such as Second Life can be perceived as a neutral ground allowing for individuals to enter (connect) and leave (disconnect) without permission or invitation as in private or first or second place settings (Steinkuehler & Williams, 2006). ). I argue, that the online gaming medium is not only a form of entertainment, but as stated by Tseng et al. (2015), a communication system where gamers use the interactive medium as a tool to develop relationships through recreation of physical spaces within virtual third places which facilitate the possibility to develop a sense of community within an online construct. Therefore, virtual third places such as MMOs offer alternatives to communication with environments that are able to deliver dynamic, interesting social experience not available within typical face-to-face communication – such as aforementioned first and second places (Soukup, 2006), with potential benefit of escapism from first and second places. With titles such as WoW in a fantasy setting, and Second Life reconstructing real-world elements such as cafés, clubs and other locale, there is allowance of detachment of real self through avatar vicariousness and interactions with other avatar depictions of individual self that form the virtual third place community.
Furthermore, with virtual environments as a third place in comparison to face-to-face communication within first and second places, it is worth note that whilst the player of the avatar is able to present themselves within the online setting by establishing an identity, the virtual environment by design is a CMC platform reliant upon user, avatar interactions and communication. As stated by by Koivisto (2003), “communities do not exist without communication”, which highlights the correlation between physical and virtual environment is that the core factor to the development and maintenance of a community is reliant upon communication and interaction of individuals within either a physical or a virtual context.
However, the reliance upon user, avatar interaction to form a community is better understood with social capital theory application, and developing an understanding that within convergent networks such as MMOs like WoW or Second Life Tseng et al. (2015) state as norms, social trust and relationships that are formed by members in a group or community through CMC. The definition of social capital theory as stated by Tseng et.al (2015) is the interdependence of members within a networked community and how they, the gamers, rely upon each other and how that reliance constructs the foundation of social networking and relationships within virtual environments populated by avatar depictions of individuals and self. Putnam (2000) states further theoretical understanding of social capital theory as being able to be broken down into two components of bridging and bonding. In the context of virtual environments, social capital in regards to bonding is, understood as individuals through their avatar depiction of self that form guilds or in-game groups with pre-existing social ties based upon real-life relationships that transfer to the online construct. However, the forming of relationships through continual social connection within the virtual construct can be defined as bridging within the application of social capital theory, or simply as individuals with no prior real world connection meeting within the virtual construct to interact, share information and communicate (Putman, 2000). The importance, I argue, of social capital theory and social presence theory in relation to MMOs such as Wow and Second Life is that theoretical frameworks help to develop a greater understanding of how individuals within virtual environments display self or an alternate self, and the way that forms their personal identity within the game and community as a collective. In addition, understanding of theory aids development of general social activity usage of online gaming as a CMC which Domahidi, Festl and Quandt (2014) state that social capital and bonding in-game environments spent amongst avatar peers may develop into an offline context and relationship development which positions online gaming as an effective communicative, third place.
Through the altering of self within the gaming construct by utilising the in-game ability to create an avatar, the individual is also afforded the possibility to form a new identity in which to vicariously play and interact through whilst a part of a virtual environment. The use of online gaming as a CMC platform and third place, highlights another form of communication and social affordance offered to individuals outside of home and work as first and second places respectively. The ability to embody, and vicariously interact with an environment and other avatar representations of individuals within a virtual construct may prove to be of benefit to those with social anxieties, and I state, may be an area of future research to examine avatar use and socially shy or depressed individuals utilising gaming and avatars as escapism. Additionally, to develop a greater understanding of online gaming and avatar use, future studies may also seek to explore player time spent within the virtual environment and examine, if at all, an increase in social presence and capital as they become more familiar with the virtual environment and a part of the virtual community in which they are interacting. Lastly, community through facilitation of online gaming platforms redefines community as possible without the need for face-to-face contact, with users globally interacting within shared virtual environments as a point of connectivity through avatars of self, whilst being afforded, if so desired, the ability redefine and to alter their self-presentation and identity within virtual environments and communities.
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