Ayrendal & me: Examining the juncture between online and offline

Ayrendal_1
Ayrendal (Blizzard Entertainment 2017). In-game screenshot created by the author, used with permission under Blizzard Entertainment’s limited use policy.

I have been performing versions of myself as characters in Blizzard Entertainment’s (2004) online game World of Warcraft (WoW) for close to 15 years now. My dominant online persona is a night elf druid called Ayrendal (Blizzard Entertainment 2017), the first character I created in the game and the one who has come to represent me not only in WoW, but in other aspects of my online life. When I first started this blog, I glibly named it “Ayrendal’s Adventures”, and even a quick glimpse at my About page – written at the time of establishing the blog – demonstrates at some level the interleaving of our personalities and histories. Ayrendal and I have had two significant relationships in the past 15 years. We married the first one, and are living with the second one now. Not bad for a country girl and a bunch of pixels put together from a template in an online game. I say “we”, as without Ayrendal neither relationship would have happened. Exactly how interrelated are we? Is she me? Am I her?

According to McKenna et al (2002, p. 9) I’m fairly typical, and becoming more so as social technologies are more commonly adopted. They say regular computer-mediated social interaction is leading to the formation of relationships. Further, they explain that anonymity – such as that provided by my use of Ayrendal as an avatar – encourages “greater intimacy and closeness”. Intimacy, in the view of Smith and Watson (2014, p. 70) is an aspect of authenticity – what makes us believable to those we encounter. Drawing those concepts together gives a clearer picture of my online behaviour. I am anonymous via Ayrendal, which helps me create intimacy with those I meet online, and that lends me authenticity, deepening those relationships to a degree I maybe would not find possible offline.

Tweet embedded from my own @ayrendal Twitter account.

Some proponents (Krotoski 2012) take an opposing view to McKenna et al (2002), believing that online anonymity prevents authenticity – that without showing (at least) your name, you cannot “be” the real you online. Krotoski’s subjects’ opinion is that without authenticity, intimacy is reduced and that without intimacy, relationships cannot be meaningful. In my unscientific, single-person sample of one, I believe both – romantic – relationships I have experienced have had meaning. They were started under a veil of anonymity, but as offline identities were revealed, they continued and grew.

Would it not be possible for me to form, offline, a relationship of the types I have initiated online? Stanton et al (2016, pp. 187-8) have studied the personalities of people who engage in mediated relationships through the twin lenses of intimacy and deception. As a participant in online relationships that grouping is, on the surface, highly confronting. While they acknowledge that those who set out to deceive others online are more likely to misrepresent themselves, their results clearly indicated “‘those who seek intimacy online also misrepresent themselves” (2016, p. 195).

OnlineMisrepresentation_Chart_1
Online Misrepresentation – statistics taken from Huang & Yang (2013). Infographic created by me using Piktochart.

Huang and Yang (2013, p. 1) reinforce this position, calling the phenomenon of online misrepresentation “universal”. They report more than 70% of respondents to their study admit misrepresenting themselves in online scenarios, with the most frequent incidences being over age or gender; and the most common rationales privacy and security.  Just looking at the image of Ayrendal, above, it is clearly true that I misrepresented myself. I am not a 10,000 year old, 7-foot tall, grey-skinned, green-haired, glow-eyed Amazonian carrying a large stick. Yet that is how I presented myself to initiate my former, and current, relationships.

Huang and Yang continue to say that the anonymity afforded in mediated relationships allows the removal of personal behavioural barriers (2013, p. 2). In a discussion of anonymity and authenticity in the social networking application Tinder a further explanation is provided regarding anonymity and online relationship building (Brianmccle 2015).

Tweet embedded from my own @ayrendal Twitter account.

The blog explains that by preserving anonymity the user is “protected from embarrassment”.  Both theories offer explanations as to why I found establishing relationships online easier than those in real life. The barriers of fear, belittlement – gone, because I could play-act any character I chose.

Tweet embedded from my own @ayrendal Twitter account.

In reality I’m the above. Not a green hair (although the lighting in the above shot may indicate otherwise…), nor an eye glow to be seen. Bridging the gap between my online self and real self was not traumatic. I have a bit of faux-chutzpah; I act a lot braver than I feel, but I had also selected an environment where there could be no mistake that my avatar was a direct physical representation of me, other than being female. However, Geraci and Geraci (2013, p. 335) point out that I may have been at least subconsciously influenced in the choice of my avatar’s appearance because it may boost my self esteem. They say that in part, the impossible physical attributes Ayrendal possesses help me mask potential feelings of inadequacy. In turn, that increase in empowerment gives me the confidence to initiate relationships I may otherwise have avoided, behaviour reflected in Huang and Yang’s (2013) studies.

…I am not a 10,000 year old, 7-foot tall, grey-skinned,
green-haired, glow-eyed Amazonian…

With anonymity helping me bridge the gap between my offline and online personalities, how soon did I introduce the “real” me into the equation? In the first instance it was a couple of months; the second, a matter of weeks. During my second experience there was an interesting shared history which encouraged me to open up private details quite early in the piece. Zogg and Hooper (2013, p. 329) highlight this as a demonstration of “value congruence”; a sharing of ideals and ideas that can increase the perception of trust, helping build a relationship. However, one possible danger of the convergence of my online and offline identities is the potential for my levels of comfort to become so great that I demonstrate pathological internet use. As explained by Bayraktar and Amca (2012, p. 264), a blurring of the lines between my avatar self and “myself” could lead to my habitual seeking of gratification online.

Returning, finally, to my original questions: am I Ayrendal? Is she me? I believe so. Although my influence on Ayrendal was obviously dominant in the early stage of her creation, over time we have become more and more closely integrated. We play together, work together – she’s in the background waiting for attention as I write this. For better or worse, we are linked – part of the same person – online, and off.

At least she takes up less room on the desk than the cat.

BooKeyboard
Maribu – a distant relative of keyboard cat – believes the assignment is done and she may now assert her natural right to the desk. Image taken by the author.

1032 words.

References

Bayraktar, F & Amca, H 2012, ‘Interrelations Between Virtual-World and Real-World Activities: Comparison of Genders, Age Groups, and Pathological and Nonpathological Internet Users’, Cyberpsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 263-269, retrieved 03 April 2017, EBSCOhost database.

Blizzard Entertainment 2004, World of Warcraft, online game, Activision Blizzard, Santa Monica.

Blizzard Entertainment 2017, Ayrendal – Nagrand US, in-game screenshot, Activision Blizzard, Santa Monica, retrieved 01 April 2017.

Brianmccle 2015, The Me You Wanna Match: Automediality, Anonymity, & Authenticity on Tinder, 1 March, retrieved 30 March 2017, <https://selfierhetoric.net/2015/03/01/the-me-you-wanna-match-automediality-anonymity-authenticity-on-tinder/&gt;.

Geraci, R, & Geraci, J 2013, ‘Virtual gender: How men and women use videogame bodies’, Journal Of Gaming & Virtual Worlds, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 329-348, doi: 10.1386/jgvw.5.3.329_1

Huang, C, & Yang, S 2013, ‘Study of online misrepresentation, self-disclosure, cyber-relationship motives, and loneliness among teenagers in taiwan’, Journal Of Educational Computing Research, vol. 48, no. 1, pp. 1-18, retrieved 01 April 2017, EBSCOhost database.

Krotoski, A 2012, Online identity: is authenticity or anonymity more important?, The Guardian, 20 April, retrieved 25 March 2017, <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/apr/19/online-identity-authenticity-anonymity&gt;.

McKenna, K, Green, A, & Gleason, M 2002, ‘Relationship Formation on the Internet: What’s the Big Attraction?’, Journal Of Social Issues, vol. 58, no. 1, p. 9-31, retrieved 01 April 2017, EBSCOhost database.

Stanton, K, Ellickson-Larew, S, & Watson, D 2016, ‘Development and validation of a measure of online deception and intimacy’, Personality And Individual Differences, vol. 88, pp. 187-196, doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2015.09.015

Tinder 2017, Tinder, <https://gotinder.com&gt;

Zogg, A & Hooper, T 2013, ‘Does the Need to Belong Drive Risky Online Behavior?’, Proceedings Of The European Conference On Information Management & Evaluation, pp. 328-333, retrieved 01 April 2017, EBSCOhost database.

World of Warcraft, ©2004 Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. All rights reserved. World of Warcraft, Warcraft and Blizzard Entertainment are trademarks or registered trademarks of Blizzard Entertainment, Inc. in the U.S. and/or other countries.

My broader ALC203-related online activity

My primary activity has been on Twitter, and my blog. I’ve been aiming for a post a week on my blog, triggered by discussions within the unit hashtag, and from readings undertaken during the unit.

I’ve also delighted in using content creation tools; making my first little video, and uploading it to YouTube – for the practice at both content creation and distribution.