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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 October, 2004, 07:57 GMT 08:57 UK
Virtual gamers reveal themselves
By Jo Twist
BBC News Online science and technology staff

Lucas is Gaenank online  (Image: Robbie Cooper)
Lucas is known online as Gaenank, but what does he really look like?
Virtual people are to step offline and reveal themselves in a "real-life" photography exhibition.

The Alter Ego display shows what kind of virtual characters people choose to be in online games and 3D worlds.

The exhibition, the first of its kind in the UK, will show how people play with identities in online environments.

Millions participate in virtual worlds globally. They have a long net history, but improved technology means people can better customise their avatars.

Photo-journalist Robbie Cooper wanted to see if people's real lives were echoed in their digital alter egos in role-playing environments.

"It seemed really fascinating that there were people interacting in these environments and getting to know each other through avatars," Mr Cooper explained to BBC News Online.

"They did not actually see each other, they were interacting with a likeness of a character they played or something that wasn't real."

Varied selves

In creating the 30 exhibits, Mr Cooper was also able to understand a bit more about how meaningful some of these worlds are to people.

According to Sony 58 million people worldwide interact in online games and that is set to grow.

To Mr Cooper, the creation of virtual people, or avatars, for online environments is another form of art.

The Alter Ego exhibition includes 30 different photos

Mr Cooper concentrated on so-called massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which have complex social elements aside from the aspect of gaming.

They have existed in various forms since the early days of the web, and are now big business for major games makers. They have also attracted much attention from academics.

In these games, social bonds are made and clans are created, but some often choose to meet up in real-life too.

"Technologically-mediated interaction is made out to be dehumanising and unnatural, and I think that is maybe a bit exaggerated," said Mr Cooper.

The self-images that people create vary, but most show that there is an echo of the person in the avatar.

"Mostly people go for either human, or a variation on humans, like a dwarf or elf or humanoid alien," said Mr Cooper.

But the more control players have over how the avatar looks, the more there is some sort of reflection of the real person.

"It is quite a subjective thing, putting together a likeness. Your real life is bound to be reflected in it."

But those echoes are not necessarily physical. They may be aspects of a person's personality rather than a look.

Inside story

These kinds of virtual environments are very often used as a way of expressing a different side of personalities, or escaping the social constraints of real life.

Some of Mr Cooper's photos show how some almost self-consciously construct something that is completely opposite.

Chalmaine aka Jova Song (Image: Robbie Cooper)
Chalmaine is a full-time mum but online she is a minx
One woman he photographed is a full-time mother with two young children. Chalmaine looks just like any other busy parent. Online, her life could not be more different.

"She plays Jova Song, this character that hardly has any, or few, clothes on. She was playing a second life in a 3D chatroom where the competitive element has been removed.

"They have photoshoots for avatars and that go in a games magazine. Her avatar was the first centrefold for the magazine."

The exhibition, sponsored by Sony PlayStation, also features gamers like Jason.

He has muscular dystrophy, is wheelchair-bound, and breathes with the aid of a respirator. Online, in the game Star Wars Galaxies, he is Boba Fett-like.

Swathed in silvery armour, with his face obscured, he is the masked epitome of strength.

Many use their online personae to experiment and find out what kind of person they want to be in real-life too, like shy, insecure April who played Everquest.

"Because you are in an environment where you are not really you, there is a filter, you can experiment with role plays," explained Mr Cooper.

"She ended up dropping her role-playing and just being herself. She found people liked her for it and it boosted her confidence."

Booming economy

The games also give players the ability to create, buy and sell virtual goods.

Ultima Online
Dark Age of Camelot
Star Wars Galaxies
City of Heroes
Legend of Mir
Final Fantasy XI
Lineage II
MU Online
Ragnarok Online
Kingdom of the Winds
Habbo Hotel
There are companies which specialise in making and selling enhancements and add-ons specifically for customising avatars.

Some games, like Lineage, have populations of around four million and are extremely popular in countries with a high number of broadband connections, like South Korea.

The characters Mr Cooper photographed are from Europe and USA. But he plans to go to South Korea, which has the largest online gaming population, to document how gamer identities are translated online there.

"I think it [virtual worlds] have huge potential, are very exciting and are now part of our culture. They will continue to evolve and people will continue to break new ground," said Mr Cooper.

The Alter Ego exhibition is on at the Proud Gallery in London from 8 to 28 October.

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