In my dream I dreamt my avatar was swimming. The sensation was so real to me, like the me I watched on screen was the same one lying in bed dreaming. It has gotten that way when I game now, the virtual me and the real me overlap. And that leaves me wondering if I’m more aligned or askew. And if I should take a break from gaming.
On a philosophical level, it is both fascinating and distressing to think I could have multiple selves. It makes me feel expansive and empty at the same time. But shifting between roles is something we do so effortlessly as humans we don’t even think about it. It’s like changing scarves. And yet it makes me wonder, who’s behind the artifice? Is there a constant, “real me?” A wizard behind the machinery?
The term avatar, most commonly used now in gaming, originates hundreds of years ago in Indian culture. A similar term, persona, goes way back too. Each convey the idea of an alternate version of ourselves used as a proxy to represent the real us. Coexisting selves in different form factors, available for any setting. One is perhaps less of a realized ‘self’ than the other, but that depends on your point of view. In a gaming scenario, the ‘me’ another player encounters on screen is arguably more real to them than the ‘me’ that player will never see. And this is where the question of “what’s real?” gets really interesting.
Avatar comes from the Sanskrit avatāra, the ‘divine descent’ of a god to earth. Vishnu famously had 10 avatars who came to earth in various forms when things got so bad we needed an intervention. The avatar was an earthly manifestation of the god, so you can see how the term got co-opted as a skin gamers use to represent themselves virtually. We come down from the heavens to descend on screen. Kind of poetic, right?
Marketers took on the avatar term too, alongside persona, to focus their selling on an imagined demographic or ideal buyer. When I worked a contract for Zillow, the company actually gave their marketing personas names. “Alan” was the name used to represent all real estate agents. Personifying their target customer as Alan had the uncanny effect of elevating the role of their customers in meetings or on company communications. Basically it made them more real.
In researching the origin of the word persona I learned that personō from the ancient Greek means “to sound through,” and persona in Latin means mask. The persona was a key prop in Greek theater: actors used masks to denote their character or role in society so the audience could understand what kind of person they were.
The Greeks used the mask as a tool to make their audience feel a certain way about a character (villain, prostitute, court jester) and to follow along with the storyline. But the mask couldn’t always be trusted. And this is one of the universal truths about human nature that continues to this day. Even though it has taken on different forms, the persona is a tool we still use with our audiences. What’s most intriguing about it isn’t so much who we really are when we wear a mask, but who we could be.
The mask idea of persona relates back to the question of which self is more realized, based on the point of view. Similar to the gaming scenario where the online avatar is more of a “self” to other players than the real player behind the console, the same could be said for a character on stage, the actor behind the mask. While the actor subsumes their real selves to the character they’re playing, method actors rely on their own experience to pair the character’s situation with one they personally identify with. And in this way they make the performance more convincing, aka real.
In the most literal sense of the phrase, we are who we seem to be.Emily Bernhard-Jackson, on David Bowie
Perhaps no entertainer has celebrated the persona more than David Bowie. (You can take the image of the Indian god Vishnu with his 10 earthly avatars and replace it with the many faces of Bowie.) In fact, Bowie was such a genius of the persona he was like a set of Russian stacking dolls. It was a grand celebration of human creativity and the elasticity of self, and Bowie made no bones about practicing his shape-shifting live, publicly. And for the self-admittedly weird, or for those who were made to feel that way by society, Bowie helped liberate untold people to explore, and to be more of their own selves. Bowie wasn’t even his real name.
But what does that even mean, to be more of your own self? In the case of Bowie, throughout his many personae there is still the thread of David Jones, of David Bowie. There is some static identity beneath the characters. Was Bowie helping us consider that elasticity of self, or instead showing us the self is a farce? That it’s all a performance? Fantasy?
To me, technology has made the fantasy world seem more real and the real seem more distant the more we lose ourselves in it. Social media has lifted the banal to the remarkable, reducing everything we experience as material for us to record and perform. That performative mindset projects us outwards but removes us from our physical worlds in the process. The mask we use to “sound through” becomes the primary identifier to an abstracted elsewhere. Most of us carry one in our pockets every where we go.
For our two teenaged daughters, I wonder how they grapple with the constant tension of fitting in and individuating in such an arena. With literally a world full of teenagers (and creepy men) in the audience. With our culture’s emphasis on the external self (particularly with women), as the internal so delicately forms. Our brains not designed to handle so much data, no wonder the psychic toll it’s taken on our youth.
Or could it be that our children understand the shape-shifting required of online personae better than we ever will?
Still I wonder if they have a strong enough foundation, a ‘real self,’ to come back to when they leave the stage of their cameras, as 14- or 15-year-olds. And with all the distractions and options for who they could be, is it too hard for kids to cement that real self?
If the phone is the new mask of Greek theater, a personō for us to sound through, perhaps our kids just understand better than we do how to really use it. Because as Bowie showed us, isn’t the self a kind of fiction? For Buddhists, the shedding of self a letting go of egoism, a form of enlightenment? What’s the point of it?
When I dream I’m flying it feels real because I imagine I’m flying. It’s the perception that makes it seem real. And could it be that it’s the perception of who we are that constitutes the “real me?” This is what politicians and pop stars know best. And if it’s true that we can influence that perception, we can be anyone we want to be.
…or, we can be made into whatever we’re told we are, what someone else wants us to be. That’s the second person. Perhaps the argument for the first.