[Journalist Chris Dahlen examines how online games - especially the MMO genre - should better feed data to the rest of our online lives, in this opinion piece, which was originally printed on sister editor weblog GameSetWatch.com.]
Excuse me if I sound a little distracted this week. See, someone posted a photo of my butt online, and I’m trying to get the situation under control. Actually, I’ll be honest – I
posted a photo of my butt. It was a total accident. The other day I was changing my boxer shorts when I accidentally hit the “Take Picture” button on my cameraphone. Now, you’d think this wouldn’t be a problem: I’d see the photo on my phone, maybe admire it for a minute, and then delete it before it fell into the wrong hands.
But I want my photos to go straight online the second I take them. What if I take a picture of what I’m eating for lunch, and I want my friends to see it immediately
? So with one stray click, my phone shot my butt online, where it was tagged, geocoded and ID’d and then posted for the entire world to enjoy. The minute it hit Flickr, everyone could see that it was my butt, taken by me, in my house, right when I’m usually changing into my silk eveningwear boxer shorts. There was just no denying it.
It got me thinking about the Internet, and how hard it is to stay anonymous. Time was, you could post a photo of your butt, and you could say it was anybody’s. But as technorati like Mark Davis of Yahoo! have said, “People who are living their lives online are living it as themselves.”
Sure, we may stretch the truth sometimes. But the days of anonymity are dying: now, we Twitter, run a dozen profiles on social networking sites, and trace everything back to our blogs and our Flickr albums, where we talk about every damn thing that happens to us. The thinking goes that people no longer want to hide behind anonymous, made-up or partial identities: they want to expose themselves online.
But as someone who reads the gaming press, I’m sure you can think of a giant exception.
Most of us who play games online work under an alias, and usually we stay there. In fact, most online games refuse to share your online life. Xbox Live, with its blog-friendly gamercards and social networking, remains the major exception – and it’s bizarre that MMOs haven’t followed its lead.
You can drop your World of Warcraft
stats on Facebook, but you can’t pull in your portrait. And while you can rack up loot, ranks and role-play biographies on every other online game, pasting them to your blog – which should be a one-click process - is either torturous or impossible.
This bugs me, because – in the same way that I’m aghast and embarrassed and, at the same time, weirdly excited to see my butt wandering around Flickr – I also have an urge to expose my gaming life to the world. Partly, I want to do it for science. Our game lives are our fantasies – an expression of what’s lurking in our subconscious. And for all the research pouring into this space, we’ve only started to dissect what these fantasies mean.
To take an obvious example: slews of us guys love to play girls online. Yet I’ve heard every explanation in the book, and none of them really gets to the heart of what fundamental headgame we’re playing with ourselves by trying to see ourselves in a new light and a new set of anatomy. Most people don’t ask these intimate questions about themselves. In fact, a lot of people say that they choose female avatars just because they want to stare at a nice butt.
Maybe the next wave of gaming/social networking hybrids – Conduit
, Rupture, Koinup – will nail the problem. But they have to give us what we really need: not just on-demand scores and bragging rights, but deep, personal revelations.
In the last couple years, the Internet has given us a whole new set of tools for looking at ourselves. Last.fm looks at every song I listen to, and tells me things I never knew about how I consume and enjoy music. My RSS feeds make a pointillistic portrait of my interests. My blog ties it all together. If I pull all that information into a single place, I’ve got a picture of myself that might surprise me – straight from my personal online therapist. I don’t call this stuff “Web 2.0”: I prefer the term Web Me
While it’s always a hoot to share a list of my five favorite books and my ten best friends forever, none of this measures up to my gaming life. And I don’t just want a widget that lists my level, class and loot: I want it to judge whether I’m an explorer, a socializer, or an achiever.
Am I a chronically-banned griefer, or the kind of guy who helps total strangers with random buffs and heals. Am I rash and a risk-taker, or timid and cautious? Do I make friends easily or keep to myself? What are my most-used emoticons – wave, laugh, flirt or fart? Online games could be reporting this to me, but so far, they’re keeping mum.
The Internet knows me better than I know myself – but someday, I’ll get that data. After all, that’s what technology has always been for. Think about it: before we had mirrors? We couldn’t even see our own butts.
[Chris Dahlen reviews games for The Onion AV Club, writes about music and technology for Pitchforkmedia.com, and blogs at savetherobot.wordpress.com. Contact him at chris at savetherobot dot com.]