Teenagers, identity: these are two terms that often come into contact with each other. Once kids hit adolescence, they spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are. If they’re anything like me, they go through a lot of strange fashion phases and begin to make declarations about Who They Are—even if those statements don’t really reflect what their parents have observed. Many of these changes are internal, of course, but when they manifest, they can be both confusing and lasting.
For instance, there was a period at about age 15 where I decided I wasn’t that into drawing, even though I’d been pretty into drawing for the 15 years leading up to that. Why didn’t I just say “I want a break?” Because sometimes, for teens, the moment can seem like everything there is—if I’m not interested in picking up my sketchbook this week, maybe that means I’m someone who doesn’t like art! The problem was that the week afterward, I did want to pick up that sketchbook, but by then I was Someone Who Didn’t Like Drawing, and I’d wholeheartedly declared that to everyone who could listen in an attempt to rewrite what they knew about me. It would have been embarrassing if I’d just…started drawing again. (It turns out that nobody really cared.)
This is all a normal part of growing up, but it isn’t always as inane as my drawing example. Lots of kids struggle with complicated issues like sexuality, gender, bullying, childhood abuse, or behavioral difficulties. These would be complex things for anyone to explore, but they are compounded by people on the outside weighing in. For instance, once a child is declared a bully or victim of bullying, it is very difficult for that child to leave those labels behind. When a young person is told they are one thing—whether it’s damaged, mean, unpopular, quiet, or disruptive—they tend to take those identities to heart despite our best intentions. And it’s hard to switch identities, even when it’s from a negative one to a more positive one.
Teenagers don’t always have a good outlet for exploring identity. They can (appear to) switch personalities at a whim, but not without consequence. Teachers, family, and friends all have to walk the fine line between treating them the way they (appear to) want to be treated and interacting with them the way they always have. Young people often don’t have the resources to change their looks or to escape to a place where people don’t know them.
This is where RPGs, or roleplaying games, come in—particularly MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games). In these games players can customize a character’s appearance, skills, attributes, and sometimes even personalities. There are myriad different ways to play these games. Some choose to actively roleplay—that is, they will take on their character’s given personality and play as if they were that character. Others play as themselves, or as some facet of themselves. Regardless of how players interact with the game, RPGs present an incredible opportunity for identity exploration.
To use an example, a friend of mine was fairly overweight as a child and was bullied relentlessly for it. He took the bullying to heart and was unable to come out of his shell until he started playing World of Warcraft, a fantasy MMORPG. There, he discovered a couple of things: a) no one knew he was overweight, so he wasn’t judged by appearances alone, and b) no one knew he was a victim of bullying, so it was a fresh slate, so-to-speak. He was able to make a wide circle of friends who knew him only as Xethoby, the troll warrior, and he became co-leader of our guild. These experiences reflect what researchers presented at the American Sociological Association in 2013—that MMORPGs present an opportunity for people to create a representation that approximates their ideal self. They found that players with high levels of depression and low self esteem were even more likely to idealize their characters.
To some, this might seem like simple escapism. What was the point of enacting this fantasy if he could only be awesome as Xethoby, and not as himself? The thing is, before Xethoby, he didn’t know he was capable of popularity, leadership, and respect. And that realization did impact his physical life. He gained a lot of self confidence that year, confidence he may not have ever found without the freedom to be himself in the MMO. The ASA study further emphasizes this point: this reduction in the discrepancy between players’ ideal selves and their actual selves (or perceived selves, anyway) could have huge positive impact on self esteem and depression.
I’ve known other players who have explored identity from an external perspective; for instance, adopting a different-gendered avatar in order to experience how they might be treated. Others were able to “try out” being gay without risking ostracism from their physical communities or their well-being. Some players found that it was a softer ease into coming out, while others realized that they were straight after all. Whatever the outcome, MMOs provided a safe world in which to explore these issues. Anonymity, escapability, and the option to restart as someone new at will was essential for their safety and comfort, something they would not have had had they tried to explore their sexuality in the physical world, especially in less accepting communities.
For my part, I found that World of Warcraft was one of the only places I could relax, ignore my physical self and focus solely on my personality. It took a great weight off my shoulders to stop thinking about my hair or makeup while I was talking to my guildmates. (I imagine I wasn’t the only teenage girl who struggled with this!) I also discovered that I was a good teacher to new players, and I found that one of my favorite activities was solving disputes within the guild. I was able to create a light-hearted, friendly atmosphere among my online friends, something I was never given the opportunity to do in the high school classrooms since I was a quiet kid and was always too worried about what people would think of me to speak up or joke around.
Identity exploration in RPGs is a huge part of a lot of young peoples’ lives these days, and it’s important to understand both the benefits and the drawbacks of it. One potentially negative outcome is that kids could become so immersed in the online environment that they have trouble leaving it. This is often referred to as game addiction, though it’s a complex issue. It’s important to note that in most cases of problematic gaming, there are underlying motivators. Depression and other mental-health issues are a big one; some people use games to self-medicate. Other reasons might be bullying or troubles at school, family problems, or lack of a supportive social circle. Understanding that immersive games can be used to help kids work through these issues, but that they can also heed them from moving past them, is an essential part of why it’s so important for parents to engage with the game.
Even though my dad and I played on different servers, knowing my dad was involved in World of Warcraft helped me recognize that it was a real world, and also gave us something to talk about that didn’t involve my grades or social life. While I might not have been able to prove my skills in leadership at school, I was able to do so in WoW, and my dad understood that that was a part of my identity.