I’m a big fan of my troll Rogue in World of Warcraft. He’s good at ambushing his enemies, and he hits hard. I find myself rooting for him as he’s trotting off to take on the next quest or fidgeting around in the Warsong lumber camp, waiting for a battleground to begin.

But every time he puts the killing blow on a nasty gnome Mage or detestable yeti, I always think, “Way to go, Wallace,” rather than, “Way to go, Rogue.” Every time I reach that small moment of excitement, when I’m no longer considering but only reacting, it’s always, “Yay, me,” and never, “Yay, him.” And every time I think that, it raises the question: Just who is it I see before me on my screen? Is it him, or is it me? What real difference could it possibly make?

It could make a big difference, it turns out. We call places like World of Warcraft and EVE Online massively multiplayer “roleplaying” games, but the term doesn’t really describe what’s actually going on there. Few players inhabit their avatars in the same way an actor inhabits a role. In fact, there are many more potential ways to enter an online world than most people realize. In one sense, the player merely pilots an avatar through the online environment, and only rarely becomes him.

Total immersion, in which the physical world is truly forgotten and one actually believes oneself to be someone else, is exceedingly rare (and probably an indication of serious mental problems). Even run of the mill roleplaying is almost unheard of; if it wasn’t, the chat channel in WoW‘s Barrens zone wouldn’t be filled with exclamations of “OMGWTFPWND!!” and endless paeans to Chuck Norris. On the other hand, the relationship between player and avatar is clearly deeper than that between a chess player and his king. Yet is it as deep as what happens with athletes who are at the top of their game, who seem to become someone different as they take the field?

To explore some answers to these questions, I turned to the godfather of virtual worlds, Richard Bartle. In 1979, Bartle became the first multiplayer world designer when he created a text-based “multi-user dungeon” known simply as MUD1. Still running today, MUD1 was the first online world in which large numbers of people could interact with each other, just as they do in World of Warcraft today.

And as Bartle points out in his book, Designing Virtual Worlds, the player-to-player and player-to-avatar relationships that arise in such places have not been changed at all by the advent of cool-looking graphics. You are what you are in online worlds, whether they have high poly-counts or just a Telnet connection.

So, what are you? The answer, according to Bartle, changes over time, and has less to do with a player leaving the “real” world behind, and more to do with the gradual merging of the person at the keyboard with the “person” on the screen.

The first time you entered a virtual world, you were probably struck by the avatar on the screen before you. This is the player as pilot, and the avatar as something entirely distinct, little more than a tool or vehicle with which to explore the new space you find yourself in, like a remote-controlled robot rover sending pictures back from the surface of a distant planet.

But as your familiarity with your new environment develops, you soon begin to understand the digital person before you as a character in his or her own right, according to Bartle. Now, the avatar is no longer a puppet, but is a distinct personality, probably a mix of your own character traits and a few you think might be interesting to have or to explore. The character is still someone recognizably separate from yourself, but it’s “someone” nonetheless (as a characters in a piece of fiction is “someone”), it’s no longer “something.”

Most people might assume this is as deep as things go without straying into the territory of mental illness. But there’s more, a deeper level of immersion. “The more immersed you are, the closer your game character is to being you,” Bartle told me in a recent interview. “By selecting an avatar, you’re choosing how others will see you superficially. By playing a character using that avatar, you’re experimenting with aspects of your personality. By emphasizing and de-emphasizing facets of the character’s personality and your own personality, eventually the two lock together and you have a persona.”

At the persona level of immersion, according to Bartle, the virtual world is just another place you might visit, like Sydney or Rome. Your avatar is simply the clothing you wear when you go there. There is no more vehicle, no more separate character. It’s just you, in the world.

Of course, Bartle says, many players will protest their avatar carries more weight than just a suit of clothes. If that’s the case, “you have more immersion to go yet,” Bartle argues. If you still inhabit a character in a virtual world – in other words, if you’re roleplaying – you yourself are not really in the world as fully as you could be. “You haven’t yet combined character and player into persona,” Bartle says. When you and the character are finally unified, “then it is you in there – no metaphor about it.”

Perhaps that explains why I compliment myself each time my Rogue puts a nice garotte around some vile Stormwind Warrior’s neck: Because it isn’t my Rogue in there at all, it’s me. And that answers the question of what difference it makes. Bartle puts it nicely: “The point of playing a virtual world is to celebrate and understand who you are.”

And here you were thinking the point was to level as fast as possible so you could get your hands on all that awesome loot. Not at all, my friend. This is “a personal journey of self-discovery” we’re on, according to Bartle, much like the “hero’s journey” Joseph Campbell described in his 1949 book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. There, Campbell outlines an archetypal “monomyth” in which the hero is sent away from the world he knows to accomplish a task in a world of unknown dangers and challenges. He must pass a series of trials by drawing on aspects of himself he hardly knew he had, or which he’s creating on the spot. Finally, he accomplishes the goal of his long quest, and returns home with new knowledge of himself, a person changed by the roles he took on during his adventure.

To me, this is an apt and enlightening description of what happens to a person in a virtual world. It doesn’t necessarily happen on a conscious level, of course. But if you’re open to it and you’re lucky, you may notice the manner in which you make your way through World of Warcraft is bleeding over into how you make your way in the physical world.

I’ve seen it in myself, at any rate. I am a person who is not very quick to action. I deliberate, I weigh my choices, I decide what the right course of action is – and then I still can’t make up my mind. But in Azeroth and EVE, among other virtual places, I’ve found that mode of adventuring doesn’t work very well. There’s a right moment to strike, and if I miss it I find myself at a real disadvantage. So, I’ve had to tailor my persona in World of Warcraft, to look for the moment and strike without hesitation. Maybe I get it wrong sometimes and I die as a result, but the results overall have been good.

What’s been interesting is to watch that persona creep into the person I am offline. I’ve hardly undergone a deep psychological change as a result of paying Blizzard my hard-earned $15 a month. But I do find I’ve been arguing with myself less over the right course of action, and simply taking the plunge more often. What’s curious is that it brings on the same sensation I described at the beginning of this piece, something akin to a little cheer, and then the thought: Who was that?

In both cases, whether online or off, the answer is the same: It was me.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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