When the anoraks wear mink

May 3, 1996

Sociologist Sherry Turkle talks to Aisling Irwin about the potential and pitfalls of reconstructing oneself in virtual reality

Tarniwoof said: "Do you promise to take Silver Shimmering Winterlight as your mudly wedded wife, in sickness and in health, through timeouts and updates, for richer or poorer, until linkdeath do you part?" Achilles said: "I do", and with that he was married, in a virtual way, to Winterlight.

The marriage took place in a sacred clearing in Gargoyle, a region of cyberspace. Gargoyle is a MUD (multi-user domain), a virtual space which people can join through the Internet. MUDs can be elaborate worlds, medieval lands or countries populated entirely by furry animals. A user creates his own character, enters the world, and builds up relationships with other characters.

Achilles' wedding seeped out from virtual space into real space. At the moment when he and Winterlight exchanged vows, 25 of the virtual guests' real-life counterparts were celebrating at a party in Germany. But Achilles, whose real life owner is Stewart, an acutely shy physics postgraduate with health problems and few friends, remained in his student room at his American university with his computer and modem for company.

Perhaps we should celebrate the fact that a man who has been so lonely in real life (RL) has found intimacy in virtual space and, in his own words, "the friendliest people". On the other hand, a permanent power cut could leave him worse off than before.

Sherry Turkle, an American sociologist and clinical psychologist, has been studying the social effects of MUDs as well as of other inventions such as robot toys, artificial intelligence and the Internet in general. At the moment, virtual living on a MUD is regarded by many as a weird activity conducted by a small number of people wearing anoraks. But its use is more widespread than that and it is growing. As more people connect up to the Internet they will discover the magic of MUDs.

Turkle's warning is that MUDs are not just light-hearted games. "Some are tempted to think of life in cyberspace as insignificant, as escape or meaningless diversion," she writes in her recently published book Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. "It is not. Our experiences there are serious play. We must understand the dynamics of virtual experience both to foresee who might be in danger and to put these experiences to best use."

Turkle, professor of the sociology of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has interviewed hundreds of men, women and children about these experiences. MUDs are proving to be dating agencies, psychotherapists, masked balls. They are changing people's lives.

When you enter a new virtual world you build your own character afresh, give her a new name, a description that can differ wildly from your own. As this new persona you are free from responsibility. Nobody knows how old you are, what sex you are or that you are cross-eyed.

This kind of role-playing 80 hours a week, which is what some of Turkle's interviewees are doing, can also damage your health. Stewart turned to MUDs for solace after the break-up of one of his few friendships. But in the new worlds he discovered, he is exhibiting the same behaviour that damages his relationships in RL. He has annoyed MUD characters. He says that the experience has been "an addicting waste of time". His successes as Achilles, his marriage, for example, have not increased his confidence as Stewart in RL. He still thinks of himself as withdrawn, unappealing and flawed, says Turkle.

While Stewart has been damaged, other users have flourished. Gordon, when he was a schoolboy, was unpopular and overweight. As a college student in the United States he played on many MUDs and experienced the thrill of creating new characters. But each time he invented a new character he deliberately gave it a quality that he wished he had himself. Then he experimented with it. Turkle says: "For Gordon, playing on the MUDs has enabled a continual process of creation and recreation".

Gradually Gordon's virtual selves merged into his real life self. One of his characters met a character on a MUD, they courted, then they agreed to meet in RL - now Gordon is engaged. His life has been transformed by a computer. MUDs can therefore accomplish one of the roles of a psychotherapist - giving people a safe environment in which to explore their identities.

Inventing new character traits is not the only form of experimentation on MUDs. Among the fascinating stream of interviews in Turkle's book are discussions with people who indulge in TinySex (typewritten sex with other characters) and virtual cross-dressing - playing a character of the opposite gender.

Many people switch genders in order to have TinySex with members of a different sex from the one they experience in RL. Whatever the reason for switching, it gives people a new insight into sexual stereotypes. Men have reported that when they play women they receive a surprising number of offers of help, with the underlying implication that they are incompetent. "When women play males on MUDs and realise that they are no longer being offered help, some reflect that those offers of help may well have led them to believe they needed it," says Turkle. She adds:"For some men and women, gender-bending can be an attempt to understand better or to experiment safely with sexual orientation. But for everyone who tries it, there is the chance to discover that for both sexes, gender is constructed".

So the MUDs become a big experiment in which ordinary people begin to learn things that have until now been the province of sociologists. Some users learn to deconstruct intimate relationships - but MUDs can cause great harm to RL relationships as well. Imagine that you join a MUD and get talking to a fascinating character. One thing leads to another, perhaps over weeks, and you end up having TinySex. Have you betrayed your RL partner?

Janet, 24, discovered that her husband, Tim, had had a virtual affair. It has seriously damaged their marriage. Tim's was a strange, unreal, yet not non-existent, affair. Turkle says: "This distressed wife struggles to decide whether her husband is unfaithful when his persona collaborates on writing real-time erotica with another persona in cyberspace." A moral ruling is tricky. Turkle says: "Should it make a difference if unbeknown to the husband his cyberspace mistress turns out to be a 19-year-old male college freshman? TinySex and virtual gender-bending are part of the larger story of people using virtual spaces to construct identity".

TinySex can be useful. Turkle describes Peter, 28, who developed a rich emotional, intellectual and sexual relationship with a virtual girlfriend. But when he met her in RL he was disappointed. He returned home and unearthed his log of every virtual conversation they had had: something that, as Turkle, points out, one cannot do in a RL relationship. "When he read over his logs, he remarked that he could not find their relationship in them. Where was the warmth? The sense of complicity and empathy? When everything is in the log and nothing is in the log, people are confronted with the degree to which they construct relationships in their own minds. In Peter's case, as he reflected on it later, his unconscious purpose was to create a love object, someone who reminded him of an idolised and inaccessible older sister". It was a painful experience but, in the long term, probably a helpful one.

What emerges from these testimonies is that MUDs are giving people hands-on exposure to rather esoteric ideas about relationships that until now have only been discussed by an array of academics or analysts. Turkle thinks that MUDs are uniquely forcing people to confront ideas that come straight out of postmodernism. Ideas to do with the fragmentation of the personality and the construction of multiple identities.

Doug, a college student, switches between three different MUDs and his homework which are on different windows on his computer screen. At the same time he can receive real-time messages from other system users. He says: "I split my mind. I'm getting better at it. I can see myself as being two or three or more. RL is just one more window. And it's not usually my best one."

When postmodernism was bubbling in Paris in the 1970s, Turkle was there as a student. She was sometimes irritated by the postmodernists, whose deliberate obfuscation seemed tantamount to elitism. Twenty years later, while playing on a MUD, she had her "epiphany", for the first time feeling "the power" of postmodern ideas. Her checklist of postmodernist claims - that sex is the exchange of signifiers, that understanding happens through argument and simulation rather than through analysis - all correlated, not just with her MUD experiences but also with the way in which adults and children related to artificial intelligence, with robot toys and computer games.

"In order to understand these worlds I needed postmodern ideas," she says. She needed Derrida to explain hypertext, a facility through which a user can create links between texts, songs, photographs and video and can travel along the links made by others. "Derrida emphasised that writing is constructed by the audience as well as by the author," Turkle writes, "What is absent from the text is as significant as what is present".

In the brave new world of screen life Turkle sees a great tool for understanding ourselves as well as a force that will change us and challenge us. But she is not fully at ease with it. To avoid damaging ourselves and to avoid disengaging completely from reality, we need to learn to analyse what we are doing - and we are not doing this.

"Certainly when I watch the appropriation of this technology and people's understanding of it I think it is dangerous for people not to develop the habits of critical readership."

"Multiple viewpoints call forth a new moral discourse. I have said that the culture of simulation may help us achieve a vision of a multiple but integrated identity whose flexibility, resilience and capacity for joy comes from having access to our many selves. But if we have lost reality in the process, we shall have struck a poor bargain."

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