IDENTIFYING WITH OUR CHARACTERS
Updated: Jan 8
(Adapted from Learning to Roleplay in Virtual Worlds)
There has been much discussion about whether we can or should identify with our avatars. The term ‘avatar’ comes from the Sanskrit अवतार or avatāra, literally ‘descent,’ meaning incarnation or manifestation of the ‘atman’—spirit or soul—in a body. According to a Buddhist worldview, our physical bodies are not our ‘real selves’ but only avatars or outer vehicles of the atman. In this regard, Teilhard de Chardin would say that we are not physical beings having a spiritual experience, but rather spiritual beings having a physical experience—or, in our case, a digital experience.
Tom Boellstorff, who studied embodiment and place-making in VR, says, “In the physical world you get to know people from the outside in, but in [a virtual world] it is from the inside out.” A century ago, Oscar Wilde said, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask [avatar], and he will tell you the truth.” In his book The Reality of the Virtual, Slavoj Žižek says, “When I deal with you, I am basically not dealing with the ‘real’ you; I am dealing with a virtual image of you, and this image… structures the way I deal with you.”
This suggests that identifying with a flesh-and-blood avatar is no less illusory than identifying with one of pixels and code. In Hindu terms, the atman—our inner reality—uses both these physical and virtual bodies to experience the material and virtual worlds vicariously. When we see and hear, it is the atman that sees and hears; when we think and feel, it is the atman that thinks and feels; when we speak or act, it is the atman that speaks and acts, much like the person behind the computer managing a virtual avatar. Just as we are not ‘inside’ our virtual avatars but relate to them electronically, our atman is not ‘inside’ our physical body but relates to it like a reflection in a mirror. The same light source can reflect in more than one mirror. So, too, the atman can manifest itself in more than one avatar in more than one world—in our case, a physical and a virtual world—at the same time. This is one of the beauties of virtual worlds: they teach us this important lesson while still in this life.
If this is so, then why do many roleplayers prefer not to present their characters as themselves? This is called a ‘self-insert.’ When people roleplay as themselves, they tend to identify too much with their characters and take things too personally. When someone else’s character insults theirs, they feel personally offended instead of realizing it is one character insulting another character and not the other roleplayer insulting them personally. One of our most basic human needs is to feel we have a positive identity, so roleplaying as oneself can work against giving our characters certain flaws. We may be tempted to take our characters too seriously and make them too perfect—known as a ‘Mary Sue’ or ‘Gary Stu’—a character with no flaws or weaknesses and without all the interesting nuances that make for a well-rounded personality.
Even in table-top RPGs such as Dungeons and Dragons, people often come to identify with their characters, even though they exist primarily in written profiles. So, it is not surprising that in settings as immersive as virtual worlds, we would find it hard NOT to identify with our characters. However, our survival instinct may lead us to want to come out on top of any situation, be it a simple argument or an all-out fight. If we see our avatars as characters we are managing, and not as a virtual personification of ourselves, it will be much easier to accept that sometimes one’s character won’t, can’t, and even shouldn’t win.
Immersive roleplayers often feel whatever their character feels. When their character cries, they will tear up, and when they laugh, they will chuckle. The character becomes so real—takes on a life of its own, so to speak—that they often tell them what to write. And vice-versa: when they are sad, their characters are glum, and when they are joyful, their characters are happy. It is like when we laugh, cry, or get frightened reading a novel or watching a movie. It can be cathartic.
Some think that this is something they need to get over; that it is because they are new to roleplay. They say that at the start, it can be hard for people not to identify with their characters, because things in virtual worlds can feel very real. They claim that roleplayers should try to be objective, that maybe we enjoy feeling those emotions and do not want to let go. Others, however, say it may be the other way around, that those who can’t empathize with their characters aren’t quite there yet, or that maybe they have been roleplaying for so long with different characters that they have lost some of the mystique that comes from immersing themselves more deeply in their roles and stories.
Studies show that people tend to design their avatars and develop their characters to express and explore certain facets of their inner selves that social pressure has obliged them to suppress, and that many come to identify with their virtual characters. This seems similar to how many of us identify with our physical bodies, how we dress and adorn them to reflect the ways we perceive—or want to perceive—ourselves, and how we feel and act differently depending on whether our flesh-and-blood avatars are clean or dirty, informally or formally dressed, skinny or well-rounded, in ugly or beautiful surroundings, and so on.
When people use alternate accounts or ‘alts,’ they often find their personality changes to match whatever avatar they are using or character they are playing at the time. Some thinkers have even suggested that the emotional link between our two avatars—the one of flesh and blood, and the other of pixels and code—may be due to our human capacity to empathize with others, to put ourselves in their shoes.
So whether you identify with your avatar or character or feel more like a puppeteer, bear in mind that other players may be deeply affected by your roleplay. Be gentle with them. It may be a virtual world, but the feelings and emotions can be very, very real.
What do you think? Do you disagree with anything or have something to add? An example from your experience, maybe? Please leave a comment below to make this more of a conversation. Thanks!
 Our Digital Selves: My Avatar is Me [full feature film]: youtu.be/GQw02-me0W4.