Who Are You?

If you visit this blog, or any facet of my website, I can identify the IP addresses that have been here. From there I can backtrack and identify the geographic location(s) that my visitors are from and, if I really desire, can spend the time to trace individual computers. This means that I can identify a visitor to the terminal that they access the computer from; I can bridge the ‘divide’ between digital environments and the analogue environment that we eat and breathe in.

Dynamic Identity and Static Info-Requirements

There is a common myth that you can be anyone that you want on the ‘net, that identity is effectively infinite, that identity is mutable insofar as people can assume a multitude of identities that deviate from their analogue identity. Some argue that this degree of mutability persists online, and often identify Massively Multiplayer Online (MMOs) environments such as Second Life (SL), Guildwars (GW), and World of Warcraft (WoW) as prime examples of this mutability, but such assertions are misleading at best. Players in these digital environments assume command of avatars that are created during the character generation phase of the MMO experience. During this phase you can choose your avatar’s gender, race, and basic ‘geographical’ starting locations.

To play GW and WoW you must identify your geographic location before entering the online world. The ‘you’ referred to here is not a digital avatar that carries magic tomes and hefts broadswords across a digitally rendered fantastic environment, but the ‘you’ that drives a car, types on a computer, and participates in workplace socials. This latter you, the you of the analogue-world, has (perhaps inelegantly) been referred to as ‘meat’ following Gibson’s classic work, Necromancer. Once you enter a MMO your ‘meat-self’ can be found by tracing the IP address that is assigned by your ISP to a computer terminal. In addition to the connection that links your meat and avatar when logging into MMOs via an ISP, or purchasing its software from a digital distribution site, there is an even clearer association of your meat to a physical location should you purchase the software required to enter a MMO at a brick-and-motor/meatspace store. There are many methods by which a person’s ‘meat’ can be associated with the digital code that constitutes their digital presence in MMOs.

In addition to a player’s geographic location, entry into these digital environments require players to enter a series of digital ‘passcodes’. I have chosen to divide these ‘codes’ into two analytical categories: ‘simple’ code and ‘complicated’ code. I define ‘simple’ code as non-user-identifiable – it is ‘dumb’ code in the sense that it is not designed to monitor or record user-identifiable information. I define ‘complicated’ code as user-identifiable, unique, used in the sanctioning of the the corporeal body, and requiring substantial interpersonal contact. Complicated code is used in the punishment and discipline of body. Punishment involved a shift from sovereign sanction (where sanction was directed by the sovereign as though they themselves directed their coercive might) to rendering the body’s appearance rather than its essence. Punishment sees the body’s appearance rendered using dozens or hundreds of micro-sanctions that are generated to alleviate manifest deviancy rather than involving the sole imposition of the sovereign’s immutable will.

Discipline, in contrast, involves the persistent observation by others. These others impose a set of norms that automatically correct deviant actions. When a person performs actions that deviates from norms the action and the deviate individual are seen by others, and this sight is responsible for the experience of shame and abnormality that accompanies deviancy. Sight here legitimises power by situating it in the hands of all individuals; all social actors are responsible for authoring and enforcing society’s norms, all are drawn into (semi-fabricated) narrative of authoring and addressing the norms to oneself. While both gaze and authorship can be understood literally, it is more fruitful to take a more nuanced account. While one is acted upon by the gaze of others – we are seen by the people who surround us – we are also acted upon by the gaze that we internalise and projected upon ourselves. We internalise public norms and evaluate our actions against those norms. While it is possible that we do not genuinely accept these norms – we may use them as a core means of justifying our own particularlised norm set– we do evaluate ourselves against their guideset.

The Gatehouses of Simplicity and Complexity

The ‘simple’ gatehouse that all players of MMOs must enter takes the form of a serial number which is associated with the software in accessing the digital environment. These numbers, while they are tied to particular distribution versions of the software, aren’t tied directly to individuals. These are the gatehouses of simplicity – there are no direct punishments for making a mistake at this gatehouse (punishment meaning no sanctions of any sort being applied to individuals who fail to pass this gatehouse).

The ‘complex’ gatehouse, on the other hand, involves a significantly more rigorous series of checks before letting the player’s bytes constitute their avatar. In the case of this gatehouse you are required to make a payment that is tied to real-world bank accounts and credit repositories. These repositories are, without a doubt, checked against you ‘meat-world’ identity. If you cheat these systems you will either be denied access (i.e. insert and incorrect credit card number and you cannot make payment for the software and consequently are prevented from constituting identity in the MMO) or call the attention of ‘meat-world’ authorities. These aforementioned processes call upon methods of punishment – they can lead to direct punishments inflicted on the body’s appearance insofar as the body is affected with corrective regulative mechanisms, rather than injury being directed towards the being of the body itself.

Once you pay the fee and enter ‘meat-world’ information to associate your MMO account with your ‘meat’ another system is imposed.

The Imposition of Analytic and Socialised Discipline

Discipline is made manifest the second that the player begins the avatar creation process. Players are given a particular range of options and are left unable to transgress those boundaries. As soon as, or if, those boundaries are met there are (literally) hard-coded walls that are impenetrable, insofar as players cannot breech the walls with much, if any, likelihood of success. The Graphical User Interface (GUI) establishes a limited and necessary range of options that affect the avatar’s bodily appearance; male, female? Orc, elf, human, undead? Warrior, wizard, rogue, paladin? In this GUI, players can establish a body that is persistently subject to punishment from other players’ avatars. Punishment in the MMO occurs by having avatars’ ‘hit points’, or representative health units, reduced by coming into contact with other avatars’ weapons and mythical abilities. In these cases, avatars’ appearance is affected without the injury striking at the being, or code itself, of the avatar. The avatars of many MMOs are designed so that only the appearance can be ‘damaged’, and the code itself is shielded from the ravages of others by design. No matter how much ‘damage’ a warrior-character suffers their essential, digitally coded nature, remains precisely as the MMO designers have shaped it.

In addition to the explicit crafting of all the elements in the MMO, which has the effect of imposing normative constraints upon avatars and, by extension, the players’ ability to form digitised identities that externally made manifest by their physical presence, there is a persistent observation process that persistently occurs in the MMO. Michel Foucault notes that when discipline occurs it takes the form of the imposition of social norms upon us by others and by ourselves towards ourselves. To simplify, when other players see the actions our avatars take when in the presence of their avatars their subtle responses indicate whether I have deviated from social conventions. In ‘meat-space’ ‘meat-subjects’ operate in a persistently fluctuating environment where a subject can deviate from social norms without even being aware of a transmutation of those norms.

In MMOs social norms can change rapidly, but those norms are regulated by the code that game architects have laid in place. Whereas in ‘meat-space’ it is possible for a social norm that has members crossing their heart with their right hand as an identifier as allegiance to a newly formed social group, in the MMO environment such physical manifestations cannot be developed as readily by ‘law-abiding’ members of the community. Law-abiding in this sense refers to individuals who enjoy the game without attempting to alter or influence the code responsible for the MMOs operation. In MMOs such as GW and WoW the game architects run programs that persistently monitor for deviant code insertions. in order to enter the MMOs’ digital landscapes players constantly transmit information from the game client computers to the MMO game servers. The packets of data that pass from the players’ ‘client’ computers are examined as they meet the border of game servers – the avatars and their actions have their essential nature inspected at all times by a ‘central guard tower’ – gatehouse(s) of the MMO server(s) – at all times.

In addition to these lines of ‘vision’ that regulate and mitigate deviance from their essential nature each player is responsible for watching other players’ avatars – their vision is limited to outward appearance, and are expected to recount deviancy of normative class, gender, and racial attributes. Those who deviate are termed ‘cheaters’ and ‘hackers’ by Blizzard. On their website, Blizzard Corporation notes:

Many of you may know the identity of some of these hackers. We would urge you to work with us to eliminate cheating by not supporting people or websites that promote cheating and hacking. We also ask that you not link to such sites or interview cheaters/hackers on your site. Additionally, if you discover functioning hacks or sites with hacks, please notify us immediately by filling out this form.

We believe that if we attack cheating on multiple fronts we can prevent hackers from negatively affecting other player’s games. This effort is presented in the best interest of all parties that are passionate, dedicated and enthusiastic about honest and genuine gaming. We hope you understand the importance of this message and will be willing to work together with us in a unified effort to promote the well being of our games and our online gaming community. (Source)

There is an important benefit for reporting others: the social norms that all players consent when logging into the game, and agreeing to a kind of ‘social contract’ that takes the form of a Terms of Use contract, will again be universally imposed. Moreover, the corporation behind the World of Warcraft environment notes that if you genuinely care about the game, if you want to be classed as a ‘genuine’ player of the MMO, that you should be invested in maintaining social norms. This establishes a normative position that, while you can deviate from it, such deviancy trespasses upon what it ‘right’, what everyone else is supposed to be doing. Without a comment page associated with each section of the player responsibilities, players are left with an aura that others must be accepting the policy, so why shouldn’t they?

I Am What We Are

When presenting myself in a MMO I don’t show myself to be ‘me’, in the sense that I cannot genuinely express a unique identity that I am significantly responsible for crafting; any identity that I adopt must be approved by the facets of the ‘complex’ gatehouses that I must pass through in order to constitute myself in the MMO. This means that the digital packets of information that I send to the MMO servers must be inspected and deemed ‘acceptable’, and that the actions that I take in the game must meet with the approval of others players and the normative code-basin we operate on. I can only talk about certain matters – if I admit to ‘hacking’ or ‘deviating’ from imposed norms I must be mindful of the possibility that my avatar will be banished. The digital archetype that I have created, the avatar who’s appearance deviates from the norm, is denied its very existence. In this sense, the avatar (and by extension I) am denied a right to exist; the digital representation is subject to sovereign sanction, sanction that can literally obliviate my essence.

To avoid this brutal extinction I behave like we behave. We have to operate in a certain way to simply ‘enjoy’ the game. We have to meet the social norms, accord with the social conventions we have ‘accepted’ when agreeing to the Terms of Use every time I cast my avatar upon the MMO’s soil. I must watch others or else they could detract from my fun. If I think that others are infringing on my hedonistic enjoyment I can contact the game architects directly, or notify my fellow players using online forums, newsgroups, blogs, email, and other digital communication technologies of the injustice that has been cast upon the MMO server. If we take a somewhat simplistic attitude that MMOs are played simply for hedonistic pleasure, and since my pleasure bears a strong relation to my ability to maneuver my avatar with the avatars of my fellow players without illegal interference, we punish the cheaters who discovered a method of deviating from code-imposed norms that make all people essentially equal.

We transmit our desire to be equal, and be free from unwarranted unfairness, into a desire for mass conformity. While it is possible that we may want to be unique ourselves in some fashion we think that it is unfair when others have some advantage over us that it manifest in the enhancement of essence. Cheaters’ advantages violate the social contract we and out fellows have agree to – such violations are the manifest examples of injustice turned digital.

Fortunately there is a pathway, a conduit, that we can transmit our rage along. We can notify others of the injustice, we can ensure that punishments are levied, we can ensure that our collective contract is maintained. By using our disciplinary powers, along with the powers of the game architects, it is possible to mete punishment upon the deviating players’ ‘meat-selves’. As players we can realize the pleasure of righting a wrong in the game, and knowing that such a right might provoke criminal charges towards the offending player should their deviation have either violated to ToS or manipulated an avatar’s essence. We can experience the pleasure of contributing to the systems of justice that rule the life of the avatar – the system that holds sway over the meat, and the system that constitutes their digital incarnation. I can be like we are by welcoming the code-regulated normativity that dictates how we can appear – I can be free by being, essentially, just like you.