Creation, or Virtual Multiple Personality Disorder
I play videogames. A lot. Maybe not lots of different ones, but I do play them a lot. More than I should: they are my favorite form of procrastination. Until about a year ago, I kept my distance from MMOs – massively multiplayer online games. I knew from friends, from YouTube, and from common sense after having been browsing the Internet for years that the MMO atmosphere could at times be quite tense. By that, I mean you could run into a chat channel with either intense or offensive subject matter, or your party (of which most MMOs make it almost a requirement to be a part in order to advance through some quests) could get more or less worked up about your messing up, slow reaction times, misclicks, or anything else that might happen. Worked up – read: explosive.
I’m not a great player. If we’re into honesty and all that, I’m barely a good player. Attention span – that’s an issue. Planning ahead – sometimes an issue. Reaction time – definitely an issue. Seeing everything around me – don’t even get me started on how huge of an issue that is. Prioritizing the best skills (or even remembering them at some point) – definitely an issue. Misclicks due to either one of pets, sudden spasms, annoying wires, lag, lack of attention, so on and so forth – that happens to everybody…. Right? Anyway, you’re getting the point by now. I mess up. A lot.
And I also like to avoid being told that even more. Especially when it comes from rage-filled gamers whether in all-caps in the party chat or screaming through whatever voice chat client is being used. Especially when it comes from people I don’t know – who sometimes become a part of your party whether you want it or not. Have you started wondering by now how is any of this related to the title? I’m getting to that now. Soon.
Until about a year ago, I mostly stuck to single-player games – spacing out is one of the main reasons why I play games sometimes and they definitely allow for it, if you’re playing the right game, such as a turn-based strategy game. My favorite, since childhood, has been the Heroes of Might and Magic franchise, of which there are now many games and they have both the option of single and multi-player. It’s probably also the one game I’m actually good at. Actually good at – read: better than my friends whom I’ve dragged into liking it, but still suck at compared to the masters out there. And no, I’m pretty sure I’m not selling myself short here.
I’ve also, of course, experimented with Co-op games. For the most part, those I’ve played make it easy to play just with your friends – big groups aren’t a requirement and some games have NPCs – non-playable characters, in one word, bots – whose roles you don’t need to fill in order to play. They’re not the sharpest tools in the shed, but they get the job done relatively decently.
About a year ago, I watched an anime. Sword Art Online. Long story short: virtual MMO where a headgear allows you to be in the game world much like in a dream, but everyone is stuck there with the only way to get out being to defeat the final boss – no easy feat, by the way (it actually takes them two years and, compared to me, they are gods at this). Unreasonably, that made me want to try MMOs. Best idea ever, right?
Here we get to how all this relates to the title. Around the same time, a friend asked me to proofread her essay. A psychology class, I believe. It was a study about the real and virtual identities of MMO players in which she interviewed a player (not me, which did sting a little – but then again, as you will find out if you keep reading, my answers would probably have wrecked her thesis gloriously) about his experiences with other players, his characters and their creation process, and how the characters he played directly shaped the interactions with the other players. Something along those lines, but I don’t really remember what it really tried to demonstrate.
Either way, it got me to thinking about my own real and virtual identities and how they shape my in-game experience. I’m not much of a chatter in MMOs, but I have been known to interact with people. Still, I couldn’t reach any concrete conclusion about how my characters affect how I act around other people. Did changing from one character to another cause a shift? Maybe if I played a healer as opposed to a tank, I’d say something more – being at the back of the battle allows more time to type in a few quick words and there’s less of a chance I’ll royally mess up and stress.
It is probably assumed if you play for a female your interaction will be different than when playing for a male. Maybe that is different for guys more than for me. Then again, I hardly ever play for a male. Females are so much more fun to create. My usual partier, a guy, also plays almost exclusively for females and rarely interacts differently with people. For the most part, probably because he doesn’t care enough to change his attitude from one character to another in a chat channel. But he does tell me, “Tell them you’re a girl, they’ll give you stuff.” I’ve never done it and I doubt that it happens, but it is a running joke they’ll flock to you if you tell them you’re a girl. You might even be treated with a less explosive attitude if they know you’re a “girl”, though whether that speaks to sexism or not, I’m not going to get into (neither do I want to treat this subject here, nor do I really care about it if it were true).
I can’t speak for everyone else and I won’t speak for those interactions conducted while role-playing – assuming the role of your character and shaping your conversation around who your character is as opposed to what you would usually say yourself. But for me and my usual partner, who is really the only other experience I have witnessed, conversations are usually dependent on ourselves with others. Sure, there might be the mean making fun of someone’s character or actions harmlessly (and it is obviously so), which is easily facilitated by the anonymity a chat and virtual identity (your character) provide, but there isn’t really much of anything else.
As I said, I don’t remember enough of my friend’s essay to make any generalizing claims with certainty now or even to draw conclusions on my own gameplay style in relation to others. And this won’t be the focus of this piece either. What I have noticed, though, when it comes to playing games, which might very well be a restrained experience not common to all players, at least not at the level at which me and my friend take it, is that the greatest part that is influenced when playing is the character itself, players be damned. Identity still plays a huge role but outside the realm of player-player interaction.
I haven’t played many RPGs, mainly because I always get distracted from the main quest and want to do my own thing or because the character creation process wasn’t satisfying enough. You’ll see what I mean about that soon enough. But I have played plenty games where the character is given – you do not create your own and you do not have any opportunity to create its own story. That didn’t stop me from getting attached to characters where there is an actual story. I might scream my frustrations and disappointment or excitedly exclaim my satisfaction or even, yes, I admit it, cry when something happens to the character I am playing for or someone else in the story line. I might get unreasonably attached to an NPC and hesitate in killing it, spend time mourning it, or do my best to advance my quest in such a manner that I force a happy result for them, which in turn makes me happy. For some Co-ops, and here I will give the example of Left 4 Dead 2, the character pool is so small (here not counting mods that change a character’s appearance to whatever you might like and you might be the only one to know it, unless others use it, too) and there are so many people playing these characters that it becomes difficult to establish a rapport with any character. Most gamers will fight to get the few characters that are really liked (for which there is quite a consensus among the community), while the late comers will bemoan being stuck with the one no one wants. Interactions are conducted completely outside the character itself, who has become a mere avatar with little meaning, which is why my friend’s study and those of researchers out there focused on MMOs.
MMOs really allow you to create your own character. Your own persona. I take you back to the first time I created such a character. It was last year, end of March, beginning of April. I’d watched videos, preparing myself, choosing which race and class I would play. I enter the character selection screen. I already know the race and class. I don’t know what I will create. Obviously, a female. I cycle through the faces – as usual, the choice is quite limited, but they are good enough. I choose the one that I liked best. Surprisingly, she looks quite punky, which I didn’t expect. I’m not one to appreciate the punk style. But she is slowly taking shape. A creature I never envisioned, a creature I never prepared for. I choose her make-up, add one cross earring on her left ear. Painstakingly, I choose a hairstyle, which sadly is bundled with the horns – I cannot choose them independently. But it’s good enough. I’m disappointed these devilish people haven’t been given a tail – a long, thicker one for the males and a thinner, shorter one for the females. To me, they have one, it’s just not shown.
Seeing her better, a story slowly starts forming in my mind. She is young, she is a warrior, she is still naïve, but not innocent. She has joined the army for glory, having grown up listening to stories about heroes, but knows little about what it means and what it will mean for her. She has no idea what is in store for her and I don’t either. The surprise hasn’t unfolded entirely. I tweak her features, make her really my own, then I go to the name creation tab. I’m stuck. What do I do? I think and think and think. I always liked the name Rae. I always liked Sailor Moon and in the English dub (which I never watched as it is, sorry, voice actors, awful), Sailor Mars’ name is Rae, to be similar to the Japanese Rei. I always liked Sailor Mars – my favorite. But Rae doesn’t quite fit this beauty I have here. I keep on thinking. She is ferocious and brave. Reckless, really – being so young and inexperienced, she doesn’t know the weight of loss, of sacrifice. The story continues to form as I think on her name. She’s a redhead – a vivid, lava-like gorgeous redhead, as it fits her race. Fire. Fire… Rae… And ferocious, right? She strikes fear into the hearts of enemies. Like a wraith. Fire, Rae, Wraith. I have the name. Fyraethe. I am satisfied it is unique and that it fits her.
Over days and weeks of playing her with my friend’s character, Binala – a quiet, lonely elf who knows the value of life and the meaning of loss, providing the perfect balance for Fyraethe – both their stories develop. It takes my friend by surprise. “I can’t believe we’re actually making them stories!” he exclaims one day exasperated with how far we have gone. Today, he loves it. Fyraethe becomes Fyra, her name shortened for convenience, giving proof of their close friendship. Fyra becomes what her parents, removed on a different continent also call her. Her life takes shape behind the scenes, in conversations and musings whenever she comes to mind. She falls in love with an NPC. I do not, but she does. Her emotions take a life of their own, outside my own control – they just happen and it seems unreasonable for me to try to change them.
I’d been writing stories and fanfictions with another friend for a long time. I knew what it meant to put yourself in a character’s shoes and simulate their emotions. I was also used to their emotions running out of my own control. I was no longer the author, I was just a narrator, witnessing their tribulations and feeling everything they did, against my own wishes. Feeling their pain and crying, feeling their joy and smiling like an idiot while no one around me understood why. Crazy, right? I’d say I am. You don’t know half the story yet.
I have perhaps a dozen characters split across two MMOs. They all have their own story. They all have a name. They all have their own emotions, their own likes and dislikes. Just the other day, I created my newest character. A beastly one, of a race that is really an animal evolved with intelligence and society, like humans. I perfected him. Fur, fur pattern, hair, horns, facial features, everything. His story slowly takes shape. I need a name. I cannot think of a proper name. All the names that I choose – with the half-exception of one, who shares a clan name with a favorite character from a series – are truly unique. They are their own people in their own right. To me, to my friend, they bleed, they feel, they cry, they get their hearts broken. Now I need to make this one. I sat in front of the screen, thinking for more than an hour. You read that right. More than an hour. Insane, right? I’ve passed insane long ago and took a left turn down Maniac Boulevard. Finally, I decide on the silliest name such a brute could ever have. He is massive, a giant really, towering over humans by twice their size, with huge fangs and a mean, surreal look in his eyes. (He is also my only male character.) His name is Snowflake Ironforge.
The creation of a character is not what I first expected it to be a year ago. I never assumed I would put so much effort and heart into them. If someone makes a negative comment, even a good-humoured one, I get worked up over it. They have insulted my creation, what I have spent so much time perfecting and developing. They cannot be forgiven and the foul mood (if the comment struck a particularly sensitive nerve) doesn’t pass easily. I jump to the defense, whether vocally or not. Everything churns within – I go over everything that the character is, everything that proves the opposite of what was said. I have no children, but it does feel like someone has just insulted my baby.
As I log onto one character, I go into a particular mode. Loading Fyra? I am ready to take every in-game, in-quest action that fits her to the letter. Loading Mei Mae Minn? Initiating crazy, clumsy genius mode. Dahria? Dark, brooding, tough mode – I am the boss, I am vengeful and am not easily impressed.
You get the point, I don’t need to go on. Actions are taken, even if I myself would prefer it to be the other way. I feel everything that they feel, even if I wish they felt differently. Even if I wish this character didn’t hate her childhood neighbour, because I do like that childhood neighbour. My creations are close to my heart and come to life.
Their life is, to some extent, led outside of me. I have no control over whom they love or hate, what they desire, what they hate or like – while I am the story-teller and answer the question when asked, after serious deliberation, it is always chosen based on who they are. They have clear, distinct identities and, were I to overlook the game’s default story, they would all go their different paths. These paths would at some point intersect, for some, not for all.
I would assume some tenet of psychology would say they all share something of me. That their identities are, at the heart of things, stemming from the one thing they have in common – the creator. I cannot find that. Can an author similarly say the characters woven into the story are truly only made possible because a part of them provided the root? Where the root might only really be their imagination and ability to empathize with others to the extent of creating the semblance of life?
I can admit the root found within me, the one thing in common is that I perhaps cannot envision some things that would create different characters. Perhaps some mentalities are impossible for me to recreate. But more than that, I am the root because although they all have their own lives, their own ambitions and desires, these identities are constantly swirling around in my head. My head is a boiling pot, assaulted at the most random of times by these multiple virtual personalities that I have created and lost control of. The one thing that I can say is truly dependent on me is the likelihood of one character to figure in my mind more than another. I can only say it is truly mine this favoritism that makes me feel closer to one character than another, but even then I cannot be sure if it really is my choice. Some grow on me with time, some are cherished so deeply from the very beginning.
I don’t know what sense can be made of this virtual identity mania of mine, but I could probably safely say that I have a multiple personality disorder. And it does not include only personalities created for the sake of MMOs. I have been writing stories for the better part of five years – true stories, with fully-fleshed characters, not the short, discarded stories written in high school for class. Over the course of these five years, I have created more characters than I can remember. But those that I do remember are so close and true to my heart. I feel their joy and their disappointment and I bend over backwards to find loopholes or new means of getting them what they want, giving them the chance to become what they have the potential to be.
I have previously said my friend also created such personalities for his characters. But unlike my own, he is in full control of their feelings, their ambitions, and their desires. If he wants it one way, that’s the way they’ll have it. Something like, “When I want your opinion, I’ll give it to you.” He cannot comprehend how I am unable to change these personalities and all that makes them what they are. He says, “You are their creator, you should be in control.” Maybe I no longer am their creator. Maybe I am now something else.
Creation is important. It is an inherent part of us and what we have created, we will defend tooth and nail. Much like an artist who defends his painting against the howling, humiliating mockery of others, it becomes an intrinsic part of us and it is difficult to let go.
Maybe I am really just a maniac, treasuring these personalities that exist only deep within my mind and heart. Maybe I no longer am a creator, maybe I am just a sufferer of a strange sort of multiple personality disorder. But even if I am, these characters of mine are that amazing that, say what you want, I am damn proud of them.