Lost in the Machine: Self-Expression in Virtual Spaces

The color of my skin and my accent have always made it difficult for people to identify my ethnicity. This first became apparent in primary school, when my classmates were shocked to find out that I’m Indian. I was constantly asked, “Why are you white?” and “Were you adopted?”, making me question what culture and community I belonged to. I had no obvious proof that I identified with the community that I did: I didn’t wear traditional clothing, I couldn’t speak Hindi, and I had only visited India once or twice. Because of the rejection I had experienced from my peers, I rejected my ethnic identity for most of my childhood by adamantly proclaiming that I was only Australian. I did not feel comfortable being in limbo.

My experience is not the norm. I was only able to assimilate with my classmates because of my skin color. Being white-presenting is what allowed me to code switch so easily. For many people, their race and ethnicity are inescapable parts of their identities.

But what if you could change aspects of your identity so quickly that code switching and fitting into socially prescribed standards was as easy as changing outfits? What if the different components that are so integral to who we are suddenly became impermanent? Today, in the realms of social media and gaming, the ability to be someone else is a mere signup button away, putting into question how we define our true, authentic selves.

On multiplayer virtual game platforms such as Second Life, your character is an extension of you. Customization, from the way you look to the jobs you perform, is elemental to the game. Even in Fortnite, an action-centered game where identity customization is not essential to the experience, different skins, objects, emotions, and dance moves are all available for purchase for the sole purpose of self-expression. These possibilities to constantly create and recreate yourself can be a source of entertainment and freedom. But they can also be dangerous, threatening to replace our authentic identities with artificially-curated selves.

Read more on the Georgetown Voice