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Offline: avatars and alts

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Paul Miller continues his offline travels.

paul 1020
paul 1020

In Neuromancer, Snow Crash, Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers, and just about every other chilling pseudo-cyberpunk vision of the future, there are two worlds. One is physical, where Real Death is possible, and where you choke on the pollution of New Tokyo-Beijing or whatever. The other world is virtual. You play an avatar in that world, or perhaps just a disembodied viewpoint, or you get polygonal hands to wave out in front of you, but there is only one virtual reality. If you're on the network, you're on The Network.

This is nothing like the year 2012. Sure, we've flirted with this concept. Some people have poured thousands of hours of their lives into a World of Warcraft avatar. That avatar quotes lore, has a touching personal backstory, makes friends, gets married, quests, lives, and almost breathes in Azeroth. But most hardcore WoW players have a dozen or so alts. Those alts aren't much more than stacks of numbers: level earned, hours played, equipment gained, prestige, achievements, guild rank, etc. Instead of pretending like WoW is real, people install fancy toolbars to automate certain arduous tasks, voice chat in unglamorous strategy lingo with their guildmates over Ventrilo, and grind out quests with a step-by-step guide on their phone or in another window.

But the world's most popular game isn't World of Warcraft, it's League of Legends, which clocks more hours of play time than World of Warcraft and Call of Duty combined. In League of Legends, you level up a character through the course of a single match, not over the span of months. You pick a character with the same amount of sentimentality as your Fantasy Football roster. The character has its own name, you're just a puppeteer. There's no pretension of a fiction, the game map is just a chessboard to you and your teammates.

We might be teaching ourselves to treat our friends like computer code

In most ways, I think this is a healthy shift in how we play games. With voice chat you gravitate toward people you know, or people you're willing to get to know, and those people matter more to you than a chunk of computer code. There's real camaraderie, real team building, real learning and growing. What we might lose in leaving behind the imaginative "role" aspect of an Role Playing Game, we gain in learning how to fill a tangible role, building leadership and cooperation skills that can follow us into our jobs, families, and friendships. The quick succession of matches in LoL lets you rapidly iterate on how you play, but also who you are.

Outside of gaming, I think being ourselves on Facebook and Twitter, and communicating with people we know, is healthy as well. Sure, we all play versions of ourselves, Funny Paul, Sexy Paul, Desperately Lonely Paul, but as Sherry Turkle points out in Alone Together, that can be part of learning who we actually are, and who we actually want to be.

But sometimes I worry that by reducing our online personas and achievements to numbers — Followers, Friends, Likes, Klout, Mayorships — we might be teaching ourselves to treat these characters like alts, and our friends like computer code. Because we're not hiding our actual identity, there's no requirement to "level up" a single character, no gargantuan investment needed to gain cred on a new social network — just have your Instagram shots pushed to your Twitter and Facebook, and the followers will follow.

In the hyper-nostalgic video game world, the "death" of the Japanese-style RPG is often lamented. Those 100 hour single player grindfests have become a thing of the past, or at least a niche. Kids These Days want sexy cinematics, huge explosions, and a new thing to do every minute. "Who has the time?" say the adults, mourning the SNES RPGs of their youth.

But everybody has the time, if the 1.3 billion hours logged in LoL this year are any indication. I think the problem is that we don't want to invest it into one character, one novel, one persona, one avatar. What if we get bored? What if we make a mistake? It's easier to just start over. Maybe quit Facebook for a month until things blow over, or block that person on Twitter you can't get along with. Mold your reality to suit you, instead of molding yourself to suit reality.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman decries the "and now this" framework that TV news is delivered in. An anchor might spend 3.5 minutes on violence in Syria, but "we'll be right back," she teases, with a story on all the new hilarious words that just got added to the Oxford English Dictionary. To keep the news entertaining, to keep viewers from deep reflection (which might involve them getting up off the couch and doing something about something), no story can linger too long.

I'm often asked if I've lost touch with a lot of friends and family since I've left the internet.

"Not really," I say. I was never much of a "Facebook guy," I explain, and I talk to my mom on the phone enough to keep up.

I'm better at saying something funny on Twitter five times a day than taking the time to wish my sister-in-law happy birthday

But now that I think about it, I wasn't a "Facebook guy" because I found it artificial, or fake, or lame. I just wasn't very good at it. I had hundred or so IRL friends on Facebook, but thousands of Twitter followers. I liked my Twitter "alt" better because it had better stats. I'm better at saying something funny on Twitter five times a day than taking the time to wish my sister-in-law happy birthday, as if I care more about a few retweets than bonding with the mother of my adorable niece and nephew. I'm better at retweeting @Horse_ebooks than pressing the Like button on a friend's blog post because @Horse_ebooks is funnier than my friend's blog post, and I want people to think I have great taste. Facebook is a grind to me, and "who has the time?" I tweet to my like-minded accomplices.

Cyberpunk always presents the fiction of two worlds, and then deconstructs those worlds: there is really only one reality, after all. No alts.

Paul Miller will regularly be posting dispatches from the disconnected world on The Verge during his year away from the internet. He won't be reading your comments, but he'll be here in spirit.