Do Game Avatars Inhibit Relationships?

Part of our identity as humans is the concept of a compound sense of self.  As Steve Matthews states in his paper Identity and Information Technology, “as self-reflective beings, we have a sense not just of who we are, but of the ideal person we might strive to become…as narrative agents we provide reasons for our future selves to best continue the story we have so far established for ourselves,” (Matthews, 2008).  Matthews goes on to argue that “…this theory of narrative agency is inadequate unless it recognizes the possibility that autonomy comes in degrees.  Our identities are almost never fully under our control,” (Matthews, 2008).  Ultimately, we are a reflection of how we see ourselves, as well as how others in our community see us. That concept of community can venture into the gaming community as well, especially in MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft, Second Life, or The Sims, where people often develop significant relationships with others via their avatars.

Matthews argues that these relationships are not as valid as close connections made offline because he argues that avatars are a presentation solely of the individuals’ ideal selves and not of their community-constructed whole selves.  He states, “Technology that disables our capacity to both be seen and to see the other, within a relationship, for the good of that relationship, and which enables us to come across as something we are not within a relationship, risks its derailment; in such cases, technology also risks something that is a proper source for identity construction,” (Matthews, 2008). Here “proper source” means the community-constructed identity that Matthews earlier mentioned.

However, Matthews advocates avatars for relationship-building in one context only, arguing an exception for “technology which led to a person’s being more fully seen for what they ideally would like to be, if the unwanted attribute had hitherto prevented the person from successfully engaging with others in the social world,” (Matthews, 2008).  This exception can accommodate those with physical or mental disabilities, as well as people who have trouble making attachments in the real world because, for example, they are painfully shy.  In those cases, he argues, avatars can aid in relationship development and displaying the truth of oneself to others.  However, with whom are these individuals building supposedly more honest relationships? Only with each other, or with individuals who are only displaying their ideal selves? I wonder what Matthews would have to say about someone who falls under the exception building a relationship with someone who doesn’t.  Is the relationship between the two socially inhibited, or is it socially enhanced?

Matthews, S. (2008). Identity and information technology. Information technology and moral philosophy, 142-160.

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