|Issue:||Issue 11, August 2001|
Avatar, Character, Persona. Immerse yourself...
Some people just don't
In my quest to archive
all the writings about MUDs and their descendents that I can
possibly find, I come across many articles concerning identity
issues. Some of these are heavyweight academic papers in keynote
books on cyberculture, others are pieces from the heart by players
on their personal web sites. The academics have the weight of
formal paradigm on their side, but they don't always understand
the true nature of what they're describing; the players know
in their souls what they want to say, but often lack the means
to express themselves in terms that allow their views to be
This article addresses
one such point of friction that I find particularly annoying
because there is a growing corpus of research based upon it
that completely misses the point about playing online games
like MUDs. It concerns immersion.
First, we have players.
Players are real-world people who are sitting at a computer
connected to some virtual world (usually a game, hence the term
An avatar is a player's
representative in a world. It's really just a puppet. It does
as it's told, it reports what happens to it, and it acts as
a general conduit for the player and the world to interact.
It may or may not have some graphical representation, it may
or may not have a name. It refers to itself as a separate entity
and communicates with the player as such: "I can't open the
door". It's a mere convenience, a tool.
Contrast this with a
character. A character is a player's representation in a world.
It's a whole level of immersion deeper. Your character is an
extension of yourself, a personality that you don when entering
the world. The game reports things that happen to the character
as if they were happening to you: "you can't open the door".
You can feel quite upset if one of your characters dies. "Aw
no, they killed Huey! Poor little guy...".
Many of the people who
write about avatars actually mean characters, but they don't
understand there's a difference. Avatars are dolls, characters
Neither avatars nor characters,
though, are people. Neither are anything to do with what makes
online worlds so completely absorbing. There's a level of immersion
beyond that of the character: the persona.
A persona is a player,
in a world. Any separate distinction of character has gone -
the player is the character. You're not role-playing a being,
you are that being; you're not assuming an identity, you are
that identity. If you lose a fight, you don't feel that your
character has died, you feel that you have died. There's no
level of indirection: you are there.
This is what so many people
looking at online games from the outside fail to understand,
and what so many people on the inside know instinctively but
can't explain. Avatars and characters are just steps to immersion,
they're not really immersion themselves at all. When player
and persona merge as one, that's immersion, that's what people
can get from these games that they can't get anywhere else.
That's when people stop
playing a MUD and start living it.
This article first appeared on mud2.co.uk, a website acting as a portal for other MUD2 websites, before it was disbanded.