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The Romanticism of the Electronic Era (VI)

To Jim

The virtual reality as therapy ?

The reality is one of the windows

"The reality as a window" - this would be the hypothesis on which Sherry Turkle’s book "Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet" is based. Starting from its standard meaning of "opening towards…" (another world, another way of being), the window becomes a primary symbol of the postmodern Self: multiple, fluid, heterogeneous. The reality is turning out one of the possible scenarios therefore we start migrating from one space to another, from one ego to another as they all belong to us and they all, more or less, portray us.

Turkle builds her theory upon this environment of virtual interaction that is called MUD (Multi User Dungeon, 1978) where the game grows into the exclusive way of being, where anyone can turn into fictitious characters living, just by the means of words, in equally fictitious worlds. As words always went along with fiction, a world of fantasies is implicitly created, a world in which everyone is chosing his/her own masks. The enticement of setting free all kinds of fantasies, all the hidden faces of the compulsory socialized ego, is brought to daylight. The real beings behind the characters start to relate to the real world as to one out of many possible ones.

"In MUD, the boundaries between reality and fantasy, between Self and character eventually vanish; you are what you claim to be, you are what you are acting…the actor comes to be the character." (Turkle, 1995).

Thus, the identity, in its etymological meaning of uniqueness, is canceled. The anonymity offers the possibility to transform one’s self, to play with the personality’s multiple and unexplored aspects. The temptation of complementariness is great: changing sex, experimenting some psychological types completely opposed to the real ones, composing multiple characters, each one starting from fantasies never exploited in the real world – all these are featuring actions of this virtual environment.

Doug, a student from Midwestern, always works with three windows opened to three different MUDs, where he stands behind four characters: a seductive woman, a macho, a passive without sex and another one that he prefers not to talk about.

"I share my mind…I can see myself doubled or tripled. I pass from one segment of mind to another as I go from one window to another…when I get a message on the screen I come back to reality which is a window as well and, certainly is not the best of them."

Stewart, a 23 years old student, extremely shy and unsociable, who spends almost 40 hours per week in a MUD’s window, pictured himself as a powerful, attractive, elegant man – Achilles. Stewart’s only romance was a virtual one and, when he tried to bring the reality closer to the game, by endowing his character with the shyness and sensitivity of the real Stewart, he failed. Unfortunately, he could not transfer the character’s strength into the real life; this virtual world succeeded only to increase his sensitivity.

Gender swapping – changing one’s sexual identity- is the most frequent tendency in MUD. It is usually associated with the predilection of setting up psychological types that are complementary with those from the real life: obedient males who found their inner stability by turning themselves into very dynamic and direct feminine characters, females who were taught that "they should never disapprove of men" had to suppress their feelings until, by building up masculine types in the virtual environments and by adopting a more open language and behavior, they managed to transfer this strength into the real life.

Turkle considers that this intended fragmentation of one’s ego could only have a therapeutic effect in that happy situation when the positive effects of the virtual game are being transferred in real space; otherwise, the qualitative difference that appears between "real" and "virtual" generates a dependency of MUD and, consequently, the complete detachment from reality.

 

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