I’m the great pretender
Can we reliably say that in SL people pretend to be something different from what they really are? Just think about it: in RL, are we always what we really are? Let me point you to Luigi Pirandello‘s novel “One, No one and One Hundred Thousand“. The reason is that, in our everyday interactions in RL, every person we know, everyone we’ve ever met, has constructed a different persona in their imaginations and not one of these personas corresponds to what we believe ourselves to be, i.e. the persona that we have constructed in our minds and believe to represent who we really are. More often than not, we ourselves project a different persona under different circumstances, according to how it suits our needs or not.
Let’s face it: A lot of people out there are indeed control freaks, gossips, given to jealousy, fond of power play and malicious mind games, regardless of whether these attributes are in the context of sexual relationships or not. Yet, many hide those attributes quite well, because they need to: societal conventions and constraints demand that they keep these attributes at bay and not allow them to surface. So, they pretend to not be like that, because they fear that their behaviour would be perceived as inappropriate by their peers (also see Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development). This fear often has, as Gwyn mentions, a pragmatic character. People don’t want to make bad impressions in their workplace, because that could easily cost them their job. So, these unsavoury characteristics are repressed, because their consequences can be downright unpleasant. Of course, not everyone can keep such urges that much in check, which is why we often refer to certain people as bad examples (although, in recent times, Antisocial Personality Disorder and the “art” of being a complete and utter selfish asshole has been baptised an “ideology” and promoted heavily as “the coolest philosophy ever” by the minions of Ayn Rand’s Objectivist cult).
SL, though, is a different ball game altogether: it’s a world where constraints are far looser, because of the (rightly) celebrated disconnect from our RL identities. We don’t risk losing our job for expressing certain sides of ourselves that we wouldn’t normally express in RL. Therefore, while we redefine and reinvent ourselves, our behaviour in SL might actually be far closer to our true RL personality than our RL behaviour: even for a limited time, we display our real motives, our real innermost feelings, attributes and motives, whether they are harmless and actually good or bad: affection, altruism, arrogance, bullying, care, desire, gossip, jealousy, love, lust, power, pride, selfishness; a propensity to control and manipulate others; a propensity to play mind games on others – the list can be literally endless.
And all this, because we know that our RL identity is as well-protected from those we interact with as we want and allow it to be; because of this, many people are left with the impression that, in SL, there is no “real” incentive for someone to strive to be respectable (by RL societal standards). Gwyn also argues that displaying these behaviours, desires and emotions in SL is tolerated (if not encouraged, regarding some of them), whereas in RL we have to suppress them. If we make a huge mess, we can just start over with a new account or a new alt. No one will ever know, if we play our cards right. As a matter of fact, if we are so inclined, we can invent an “RL backstory” that is entirely different from who we really are; we can even invent a different “RL backstory” for each of our alts (effectively dividing our RL self into numerous different invented persons that form the core of different avatars). As I said, if we play our cards right, no one will ever know. And, if we think we’ve gone too far, we can drop out of SL completely, for as long as we wish and start over, either with the same avatar or with a new one.
So, there’s no real accountability, and this is another serious factor in why emotions, reactions and, well, drama, are often more intense by a few orders of magnitude in SL than they would normally be in RL: in SL, we feel we can let loose and throw whatever conventions and RL societal constraints away.
What does this all mean? Well, it leads us to a rather ironic conclusion: in SL, we actually pretend less than we do in RL. Sure, we often use avatars that are more attractive than our RL selves. We might be using avatars that may be entirely different than what we look like in RL; in this capacity, our avatars are indeed our masks. But, behaviour-wise, in SL we simply drop the mask and the pretense to the ground – it seems that it is in RL where we wear a mask to protect ourselves and well-being from others, whereas in SL, where we have nothing to fear (or at least that’s what we like to think), we are really ourselves. Here, we see a very interesting situation: our avatars – our graphical representations – are, like I said, our mask. Masks – supposedly – hide one’s true face and self, physically and psychologically, and, in this respect, they are personas, as defined by Carl Jung. But, unlike Jung’s definition, they don’t “conceal the true nature of the individual”; instead, they allow the individual to unleash their inner self!
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