Id, Ego, Superego… Avatar?

Posted: September 11, 2010 by waltersthegreat in Game Genres, Games and Life
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Have you functioned in a dynamic online community under an avatar identity for multiple years?  Do/did you operate, or recognize the possibility that you could have operated differently in that community than you do in the physical world?  Have you ever consciously withheld information about your activity in that online community from the inhabitants of the physical world?

If you answered “yes” to those questions, like me, you may have also unknowingly experienced a strange phenomenon which I am about to describe.

Sigmund Freud’s theories about the human identity would have had much more value today if he had never articulated his theory of the Oedipal complex or experimented (excessively) with cocaine.  Instead, his is a controversial name.  Some use those two (his most significant screw-ups), to refute the rest of his theories.  However, within psychology, there still remains a compulsion to carry on Freud’s theory of the components of what he called the “psychic apparatus.”

Freud argued that the psychic apparatus has three components which struggle against one another, and that the struggle defines a person’s identity or personality.  The three components are defined as follows (thank you, Wikipedia):

1. The Id: Responsible for primal urges such as hunger/thirst, aggression, and the drive to reproduce.  Freud wrote that the id chases pleasure, is selfish by nature, and often attempts to flee from reality by way of drugs and/or fiction.

2. The Ego: Responsible for mediating the interactions between the id, the superego, and the external world.  The degree of success that the ego achieves will determine the identity or personality.  If the ego gives into the demands of the id, the person will be selfish and instinctive.  If the ego gives into the demands of the superego, the person will be heavily burdened by morality and guilt.

3. The Superego: Responsible for demands on the ego to be more perfect or socially ideal.  The superego controls our definitions of right and wrong, and is responsible for creating feelings of guilt.  It also allows us to function well in society by countering the socially unacceptable demands of the id.

In numerous movies and stories (as well as in reality), we see people who struggle with an alter-ego—that is, the “other self.”  The existence of an alter-ego (or multiple alter-egos) is caused by a condition known as dissociative identity disorder—more commonly known as multiple personality disorder.  Those afflicted by this disorder have a personality which is the sum of the separate identities.  In other words, the individual as a whole has a knowledge of the multiple participants in his/her overall identity, but maintains that each of the participants is a separate entity within the overall self.

Dissociative identity disorder can lead to murder, insanity, and other bad things.  However, with technology being what it is today; more specifically, with the way games (MMORPGs) can create dynamic and social alternate realities, this development of an alter-ego no longer needs to be unhealthy, a taboo, or the result of this serious condition.

I am proposing either that there is a fourth component of Freud’s psychic apparatus that runs parallel to the ego (which psychologists have yet to recognize), or that there is a second, more healthy and socially acceptable manifestation of dissociative identity disorder.  Either way, I would call it the avatar.

After over five years in the World of Warcraft, nearly all of which were spent competing at the highest levels of content and immersion, I have finally (maybe?) put an end to my career.  So far, the time off has allowed me step back and analyze my situation from an academic standpoint.  I have found that after years spent existing between two separate universes, I have developed within myself a distinct second personality—the avatar, which is uniquely for World of Warcraft (or, maybe, for MMORPGs in general), some of whose traits are substantially different from those of my real-world personality—the physical self.  Although the self is (although I am) fully aware of that avatar/alter-ego and its behavioral tendencies, as well as the fact that the avatar is a part of my overall self, the avatar is not the person writing this entry.  It is not the person you would meet (at least, not right away) if you were standing in my physical presence.

I know a lot about World of Warcraft. You could say I’m an expert.  I can give a detailed description about anything of even the most remote significance to the Warcraft universe, and I can explain how to do just about anything in the game.  But in this, the physical world, you would never know that unless you first met me in-game, or unless I volunteered that information for whatever reason.  Although the knowledge and personality of my avatar is a significant part of my overall being, I actively attempt to keep the two realities separate.  And I feel I do that for obvious and legitimate reasons—not the least of which is that gaming—especially MMORPG-type gaming—is not yet socially acceptable to the majority of people.

Still, as humans, our personalities are formed based on the degree of our resistance to the demands of our communities. Since games enable players to exist in a virtual community with different demands than their physical communities, the possibility exists that the separate sets of demands creates separate identities; one for the in-game community, one for the player’s physical community.  I have noticed firsthand how different these identities can become.

For example, some of the differences between the avatar and my overall, real-world self are as follows:

The avatar is highly social, I am not highly social; the avatar actively keeps in touch and pursues contact with current and former friends via in-game chat, or via e-mails outside the game and frequently engages new in-game people in a friendly manner.  The avatar also practices social networking within the game and belongs to many different social groups.  But outside the game, I reject social networking almost completely.  I do not participate in facebook, I do not go out of my way to keep in touch with former contacts or childhood friends, and I usually do my own thing while I wait for them to make contact with me.  I obviously possess the social skills that my avatar utilizes, but for reasons I do not understand, I am simply less likely to use them in the real world.

The avatar actively pursues group work because of a love for the feeling of command, but I will only work in a group if necessary.  In fact, I’d prefer to work alone.  When I do work in groups, I take command with relative ease, but I rarely enjoy it as much as I do when I am my avatar—the difference is quite significant.  The avatar enjoys and does not hesitate to take command of a small 3-10 person group, or even a larger 25-40 person group, and the avatar undeniably has the sort of fire that compels others to follow.  I am not lacking that ability to command, but again, for reasons I do not understand, I am less inclined to utilize it.

This may be an unfair comparison because I am young, but the avatar is highly desired by the professional community, I am not: it’s never hard to find a job as the avatar—Walters, the level 80 Night Elf Warrior, known by hundreds to be among the nicest and best players in the community in terms of skill, experience, and equipment.  However, despite boasting a reasonably impressive résumé, a much higher than average GPA, and a reasonable amount of work experience relative to my age, I clearly lack the  professional desirability that my avatar possesses—I am an unemployed full-time student with less than $2,000 to my name.

I think the most direct way to understand this feeling is to see or think of the movie Avatar (2009—James Cameron), in which a space marine takes control of an alien being’s body via a computer interface, and spends his time existing between two separate worlds.  Each world has a unique people, unique language/culture/history, and a life of its own.  Each functions independently of any single individual’s participation.  The aforementioned space marine struggles when the barrier between his physical world and the avatar’s world begins to deteriorate.  In his physical world, his personality is defined by his social constraints and his obligations as a soldier, as well as his physical disability.  In the avatar world, he experiences life in a new social structure and is freed of his physical disability.  His physical personality and his avatar personality are each based on a fundamentally different life experienced by the same mind, and the two (separate) resultant personalities reflect that fundamental difference.

As previously described, ever since the very origins of their discipline, psychologists have battled with the notion of identity.  Many different and opposing theories have been thrown into the mix, but many still have been reached by the overwhelming majority of psychologists.  For the purposes of this entry, the most significant of those widely-held theories is a two-part broad consensus reached by combining the theories of several renowned developmental psychologists including Erik Erikson, Carl Jung, Jean Piaget, and our friend Sigmund Freud.  Among their many theories on cognitive development, there exists an overall consensus—first, that there are different stages of psychological development.  And second, that the sense of individual identity and the resultant personality move toward permanence around the late teenage years to the early twenties.  That age group also corresponds to a massive demographic of MMORPG players, which would suggest that if my experience is typical or even somewhat common, millions of current and former MMORPG players have developed more than one identity.

Assuming this phenomenon exists among MMORPG players, why should we care?

Well, the barriers between our avatar realities and our physical realities often collapse.  Every avatar your avatar meets also corresponds to a being in the physical world.  Therefore, the possibility for overlap between avatar identities and physical identities is very real.  Despite knowing each other in the avatar world as Codegrey, Niantae, Qixx, Walters, and Zdex, if their paths somehow cross in the physical world, they meet as Dave, Kelsey, Gerardo, Mike, and Gregg.  Although it goes off without a hitch since their avatars are good friends, the realities are jumbled and the whole situation is absolutely impossible to explain to an outsider.

When I talk about my WoW friend who lives in Arizona, or my WoW friend who lives in Aruba, or my WoW friend who is a police officer in Virginia Beach, people who have never enjoyed the experience of an MMORPG look at me like I’m acting out my impression of Russel Crowe in A Beautiful Mind (2001—Ron Howard).  But, I swear I’m not crazy.  The whole situation gives a unique understanding of how people in the physical world (who do not know about your avatar life) react to the discovery of your alter-ego.

I do not have any data to support the notion that this phenomenon exists, and I probably never will.  I am also only guessing as to the scope and scale, and, to say the least, I realize that all of that is problematic in academia.  I may even be an atypical example considering the fact that I literally grew up part in the physical world, and part in the World of Warcraft.  But, my gut tells me there is something here, and I am merely suggesting that someone wiser than me pick up this idea and conduct a study—a study of the brain patterns of long-time MMORPG players while inside and outside of their game environments.

If this game-induced dissociative identity ‘disorder’ ended up being a quantifiable phenomenon, it would give tremendous new insights into the uncharted areas of the brain and the unknown dimensions of human identity.  We have some understanding of dissociative identity disorder in the sense that we know it exists.  Beyond that, there are limited treatment options considering that psychotherapy rarely seems to solve anything, and, even after all our remarkable progress and advancements in the medical field, medication affecting brain chemistry is still problematic at best.

In the long run, viewing MMORPGs as microcosms of the physical world can help us not only to further recognize the ever-expanding implications of online games, but also to better understand human interaction and psychological development.


  1. Twitchdoctor says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of days since I first read it. There is so much interesting material here, even in parts of it that almost appear as asides (the idea that “our personalities are formed based on the degree of resistance to the demands of our communities” for example). But I want to pick up on two things in particular.

    Dissociative identity disorder presents us with a bit of a challenge, I think. Like so many diagnosed “illnesses” it is defined not by a difference in kind from a presumed normal state but a difference in degree. There is enormous pressure in western society in particular to have a singular, stable and above all coherent self. . .or if you don’t, to pretend that you do. But a lot of people would, if pressed, probably acknowledge that many times they don’t feel themselves to be a self as much as a collection of selves. Are you one person with your parents, another with your oldest friends, another with your SO? But people don’t like to feel that those might be alternative selves, so they come up with different names for those states. So “dissociative” seems to become a “disorder” only at the point where it becomes socially disabling, in some way, where you lack an overall governing function perhaps that enables you to switch between alternative selves, for example (your the one with the psych background, not me!). What would be really interesting, I think, is to see what kind of self developed if you play an alternative MMORPG. Would it be the same kind of self as in WoW? Or something new? This would start to show us, perhaps, the degree to which the design parameters of particular MMORPG worlds help to shape what kind of avatar–in your usage of the word–we can develop.

    The second point that occurred to me is you could almost take your analysis and use it to make an opposing point. Instead of taking MMOs as “microcosms” of real worlds, perhaps there is virtue in treating them as fully separate worlds? I know there’s a lot of academic and industry emphasis at the moment in trying to establish the connections and influences between virtual and material worlds. But your own analysis seems to indicate that your RL persona and your avatar really don’t have a lot to do with one another.

    • waltersthegreat says:

      I was writing a paper for my “Intro to World Religions: West” class the other day–the assignment was to follow a model (Ninian Smart’s “Worldviews: Crosscultural Explorations of Human Beliefs,” 1999) for describing my worldview. When I started to describe the social/institutional aspects of my worldview, I started to realize one of the same challenges that you’re describing here. I do fit into a bunch of different social groups, some of which conflict with each other (WoW friends and football teammates, for example). Even though my behavior temporarily changes according to who I’m around, my overall worldview doesn’t undergo a fundamental and/or permanent change.

      I got the idea for this whole entry when I thought of multiple personality disorder, so I was pretty determined to make some kind of a connection. However, the more I think about it, the more inappropriate the comparison is between dissociative identity disorder and the way people can be different in the physical world and the avatar world. Those afflicted by dissociative identity disorder have no control over which “self” is present at any given time–I certainly shouldn’t make the claim that that’s something from which the typical MMORPG player suffers.

      It’s definitely an interesting thought that a new avatar in a new MMORPG would possibly be different from the WoW avatar. As I wrote in the entry, I think that in any environment, one’s personality traits “are formed based on the degree of [one's] resistance to the demands of [one's] communit[y].” In other words, personality development is highly dependent on social interaction. In MMOs, one’s social role is defined by his/her avatar’s class or specialization. So, in a new MMO, the corresponding new avatar could be specialized to leave me in a less natural position of leadership (i.e. not the group’s tank), or I could be surrounded by new players who might be even more inclined to lead. The resulting avatar personality in that new MMO could differ dramatically from that of the WoW avatar. I’ll let you know when I pick up Star Wars: The Old Republic!

      I was also probably overly sweeping and unclear with my point about using MMORPGs as microcosms. I do think of MMO worlds as fully separate from the physical world except for one important factor: human behavior. The MMO world and the physical world can be up to 99.999% different, but humans are–at least until the perfect bot is developed–always in control of the avatars in the game environment. While I have argued that people can exhibit dramatic behavioral differences between their avatar and physical personalities, any/all of their personalities will be human on the most basic level unless they actually physically suffer from dissociative identity disorder. For that reason, I’d argue that we can use MMO environments as a sort of petri dish for studying human behavior.

      I think that the thought of changing the world and turning psychology and game research on their collective heads got the better of me… I made some pretty general, sweeping claims and attempted some wild analogies in the entry. Still, as you’ve pointed out with your comment, there’s a lot worth discussing here.

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