Being anonymous is par for the course when it comes to the Internet. When approaching any kind of online community for the first time, the very first given task is usually to pick a whole new name, and even without thoughts of deliberate anonymity, it can be very difficult to actually be yourself. Common real names, such as James or Mary or John or Linda, are likely to have already been chosen as login names a long time ago and the nature of the database means duplicates are rarely allowed. A more unique name is needed when signing up, and so almost everyone begins to create for themselves an online persona.
In the world of MMOs, the idea of not being oneself becomes even more integral. The player is more than merely a user name attached to forum posts or comments, and is a mighty adventurer too! This presents even more choices; physical attributes, choice of class and profession, even an invented racial background, and with each choice, the opportunity to precisely recreate the real world self diminishes. A game might only provide two different 'light brown' hair styles for male humans, none of which resemble the player's real hair in the slightest. The player has to pick something however, in order to get on and play, and with each choice a made-up version of ourselves is increasingly realised.
This other self, comfortably detached from the consequences of a real life existence, can be a liberating thing, but can also be a source of troubles and difficulties all of its own. Just how much anonymity is good for us, and what makes us hide ourselves online?
For many, the chance to be someone entirely new is something of an opportunity. Rolling up a character in a new MMO in which you know no-one else, presents an entirely blank canvas, both from a gameplay perspective and from a social one. No-one knows about the embarrassing thing that happened to you at school, no-one remembers what you did at the office party and no-one even knows what you look or sound like. You are what you type, and typing is a considered process, one that allows you very much to think about how you are portraying yourself.
While most players merely use this as a chance to project their own real selves, but a tidied up version of themselves that they'd prefer to be known as, for a smaller group the medium of Internet chat text opens whole avenues of role-playing potential, in ways which a pen and paper role-playing game, with everyone sat around the same table, can never do. With a modest amount of skill in method acting, they approach an MMO the same way an actor approaches a stage; they invent a part and inhabit it throughout their play sessions, often for personal enjoyment and the enjoyment of other participants in the ongoing unscripted play. While essentially harmless, confusions can arise from these kind of players, mostly because not everyone is in on the act, and players who don't consider themselves to be role-playing are likely to assume that the people around them aren't either. This can lead to misinformed impressions and unexpected revelations in due course.
"I'd have to own up to not flying fighter jets for a living"
Curiously, the anonymous nature of MMOs offer exactly the reverse too, the opportunity to be less than you are. Some years back, there was a rumour doing the rounds that Samuel L Jackson played EVE Online. It has 'urban legend' written all over it and I'm not sure I ever believed it, but consider; you are a famous television or film actor or actress, whose face and voice are recognised the world over and you have trouble going anywhere to relax without getting pestered by fawning fans. You also spend long periods waiting around in trailers on location a lot, with perhaps only a wireless laptop for company. You enter an MMO world and suddenly, all that changes. Everyone around you treats you just like any other player, and even if you actually told them who you were, they probably wouldn't believe you anyway. The perfect getaway! Possibly a little far fetched, but I like to imagine there are celebrities among us as we play.
Being anonymous allows experimentation too. A Daedalus Project study in 2005 showed that 23% of male and 3% of female World of Warcraft players state a character of the opposite gender as their most enjoyable to play. The reasons for this might range from real life gender issues to superficial aesthetics, but in all cases the anonymity of the Internet makes for a far less jarring experience than might otherwise be possible. Not that this is always seen as a good thing, and one story that sticks in the mind from 2007 detailed how one Chinese MMO was to instigate a rather unorthodox plan involving web cams to verify customers gender, allowing only real women to play women in game. The story was later questioned as a hoax, but perhaps the whole thing seemed suspicious because we couldn't believe our anonymity would ever be so invasively dispersed? A certain amount of information is necessary for billing details, but an MMO requiring mug-shots does seem a step too far.
"Dear Soandso, I totally work for an MMO Accounts Department..."
Most of all, anonymity is a choice. It lies with us to determine how much of ourselves we put forward and how much we keep back, and most importantly, to whom. These kind of choices are more important than one might think, as while it very easy to move from being anonymous to being known, the return journey is not such a simple thing, and can generally be accomplished only by disappearing completely and starting anew elsewhere, a course usually reserved for the terminally embarrassed, or genuinely distressed. Rampant paranoia does nothing to improve the online gaming experience, but a pragmatic and healthy wariness is not a bad thing to carry with you into the world of MMOs.
How private are you and how much information is too much when you're out and about, online? (If you don't mind me prying, that is...)