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Group Discussion 4/6 + musings on online relationships

2009 April 8
by The Doctor

One of the issues that came up during our creation of a MUD character was how exactly to represent ourselves/our character through text alone. (How) is this different than using a visual avatar like those displayed this week? We discussed how an avatar of any sort can be used to fulfill a player’s fantasy of themselves to create a Mary Sue – a representation whose sole purpose is that of self gratification. Perfect hair, perfect body, perfect everything – perfect according to society, of course. On the other hand, an avatar can explore aspects of ourselves that we usually push away, or we feel like others don’t fully acknowledge. On the other other hand, sometimes a character is just a character and the avatars we make are understood not to be ourselves.

As far as gender roles online are concerned, we questioned if the use of a certain gendered avatar would elicit similar responses online as they might in the real world – is a female in Azeroth treated the same as one in America? In my experience playing the MMORPG World of Warcraft, other players generally assumed that I was male regardless of which gendered avatar I created at the beginning of the game, and that I had chosen a female avatar for perverse aesthetic reasons.

Finally, online relationships… we had more questions than answers. Before discussing any realtionship, on or offline, you have to collect data. What sort of relationship is it (friendship, romantic, sexual)? How long has it been going on? Where did it come from, and what are the motives of either partner? Social interact online gets a bad rap because the first things we think of are 40 year olds who live with their basement off their parents’ salery to play WoW all day because he’s too socially inept to do anything else.. or that same 40 year old stalking prepubescent girls by pretending to be a young girl himeself. (Why is it always a 40 year old? Isn’t that ageist?) Even sites like or eHarmony are based around eventually getting together in real life, because who could possibly have a fulfilling relationship online?

Personally I’ve never seen a romantic online relationship end well, but I have had several friendships that have lasted upwards of three and four years in which I have either eventually met the person or just never met them at all. I consider these girls to be as close friends as anyone I’ve met in the flesh. The more I think about it, the more I don’t truly see a difference. Both relationships have a degree of danger to them – online, you aren’t able to visually verify who a person is (as far as age and sex go), but offline a person can physically hurt you. Both relationships start out as two individuals uniting from a common interest, often within a larger group (whether it’s a club meeting or LJ comunity) and require work to maintain – talking, emotional support, a creative sounding board. Both also require navigating through defenses we set up when dealing with other people, because you’ll never know someone on or offline the first time you meet them. Tearing down defenses for a relationship takes a long time. We already use avatars to represent ourselves in real life, they’re just generally tailored closer to our biological bodies than those we create online.