Virtual Environments: Identity and Learning

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14 Νοε 2013 (πριν από 4 χρόνια και 6 μήνες)

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Virtual Environments: Identity and Learning

Mahboubeh Asgari & David Kaufman

Faculty of Education

Simon Fraser University

Burnaby, British Columbia




In the modern world, identities are no longer constructed solely in communities of
family, school, and work. Media play an important role in formulating our identities
and building our sense of self. Virtual environments such a
s the Internet, Multi
Domains (MUDs), and video games have been among the controversial popular
media in the past few decades (Grodin & Lindlof, 1996). The exploration of identity
in such virtual environments may be a search for a ‘unitary’ construct
about the self
(Erikson, 1968) or it may be to build a ‘social’ construct and multiple selves (Mead,
1925, cited by Calvert, 2002). This paper explores

in such imaginary worlds
that computer/video games and fantasy/adventure role
playing games in
Domains (MUDs) provide for players. In addition, the application of Lacan’s (1901)
mirror stage, and Erikson’s (1963) psychosocial moratorium to virtual experiences
will be investigated. Finally, the ways that these environments can be used as

learning” contexts, and the relationship among identity, computer/video games, and
learning will be examined.

KEYWORDS: identity; games; computer games; video games; virtual environments;
User Domains (MUDs); learning



Over the past

several decades, virtual environments

such as the Internet, Multi
User Domains (MUDs), and video games have provided a new context for identity
exploration. The anonymity of such environments gives people the opportunity to play
with their identities and

experience new ones. People step through the screen into virtual
spaces and express multiple aspects of their self (Turkle, 1995). They choose a name,
character, and enter a world that not only identify with that character on the screen, but
act for it. I
n such environments, especially role
playing video games in MUDs, players
can enact different roles and experience multiple identities. Through developing
characters, they can play outside their “real” identity, and project their own values and
hopes onto
the virtual identity (Gee, 2003).

Hundreds of thousands of people, mostly adolescents (Turkle, 1995), have been
playing computer/video games and online games in MUDs. More recently, hundreds of
thousands more players, with their average age in the late tw
enties, have been playing in
virtual environments called MMPG (massive multi
player games), e.g., EverQuest.
While there are some major concerns and critics regarding playing online games and
becoming addicted to such environments, we discuss here the wa
ys that these
environments can be used as “learning” contexts and experimenting new identities. We
examine the types of identities that are at stake when people step through such virtual
spaces. In this respect, we will explain three identities: virtual, r
eal, and projective
identity. We also investigate how these virtual environments can be used as "learning"
tools. To do so, we use Gee’s example of science classroom and discuss how deep
learning can happen through bridging real
world identity and virtual
identity, and
experimenting new powerful identities. Lacan’s (1901) "mirror stage", and Erikson’s
(1963) "psychosocial moratorium", and their relations with the characters/avatars that
people develop through playing role
playing video games will also be ex

Identity: Definition

Identity is usually described by answering the question “Who am I?"

a question
that has long been of interest to humans, philosophers, and psychologists (Calvert, 2002).
According to Calvert, identity is often characterized in

terms of one's interpersonal
characteristics, such as self
definition or personality traits, the roles and relationships one
takes on in various interactions, and one's personal values or moral beliefs.

Researchers in the past have approached identity th
rough the relationship between
internal experiences and the external world (Calvert, 2002, citing Erikson, 1993, Freud,
1989, Jung, 1976, and Lacan, 1986).

According to Boyd (2001), identity can refer to at
least two different aspects of the individual: a
n internalized notion of the self, and the
projected version of one’s internalized self. This means that what one produces or
conveys to others is not necessarily the same as one’s internal perception of self. Lacan


By virtual environments, we mean all digital spaces (the Internet, MUDs, computer/video games, and the
e) involving one individual or more than one; whether it is one person playing an online game or a video
game or whether it is a group of people interacting or playing.


(1980/1968, cited by Boyd, 2001) present
s a different approach and suggests that there is
no internal self, no such thing as “the ego”; self has no fragments, no multiplicity of
parts, but only an external one.

Citing Hall (1996), Boyd (2001) states that in postmodern theories, the individual
is no longer conceived as a whole, centered, stable and completed Ego or autonomous,
rational 'self', but individuals have multiple selves; self is understood as being fragmented
and incomplete. While in modernist Western philosophy, every person has an es
unique, fixed, and coherent “core”, in poststructuralism, the individual is depicted as
diverse, contradictory, dynamic and changing over historical time and social space.

In general, identity can be viewed from two different perspectives: as a
construct (Erikson, 1968) versus a social construct (Mead, 1925). For Erikson (1993,
cited by Huffaker & Calvert, 2005), a unitary sense of identity is constructed after a
successful search for
who one is
. However, for social interactionists, the c
onstruction of
self involves multiple selves, which are presented according to the demands and
constraints of particular situations; therefore, they view the self as a social construction
(Calvert, 2002, citing Mead, 1925, Harter, 1998).

In addition to c
onceiving self as either a unitary construct or a social construct,
there is another view presented by Boyd (2001) taking a multi
faceted approach to
identity. She considers a duality of identity: internal identity and social identity. While
internal ident
ity refers to “an individual’s self
perception in relation to their experiences
and the world” (p.21), social identity is perceived externally, “relying not on the
interaction, but the effective expression and perception of an individual’s presentation”
.22). Boyd indicates that self may appear to be fragmented in different roles and
different social contexts; however, it is not. In different roles, people decide what facet of
their identity they wish to express; i.e., they are simply fragmenting their so
cial identities.
In fact, the individual is maintaining and presenting multiple
of their identity as

Identity Construction in Virtual Environments

Living within a body affects the construction of identity (Calvert, 2002, citing
, 1983). People have a biological sex, an age, a race, and other physical features that
influence how they perceive themselves and how others perceive them. They also have a
name. But what if individuals were no longer constrained by their physical body? W
would they choose to be? How would they want to present themselves? Would they
create a persona which is an extension of their face
face personality or would they be a
whole other character? In virtual environments such as video games, especially rol
playing video games, people have the opportunity to try different roles, characters, and
personae. While physical constraints such as gender, race, age, and other biological
features can have a profound effect on how one defines and present his/her self,

many of
these features become flexible in such environments. For instance, they are able to create
virtual bodies and develop avatars

like representations of a character’s



, which allow people to create any kind of body that they want to p
resent to
others (Calvert, 2002).

Who is the "I" in virtual environments? Virtual space is often a place for
experimenting with the “I”; sometimes creating an imaginative self or actualizing a
hidden self, and playing with unexplored or unexpressed aspec
ts of the self. Some males
may try out and explore feminine aspects of their personalities while females may try out
and explore masculine aspects of their personalities. Social interactionists such as Turkle
(1995) see these virtual environments as places

where individuals build multiple “selves”
rather than a unitary self. Turkle (1996) calls these virtual spaces as “social virtual
realities” where "there is no unitary voice" and the self is "multiplied without limit".
Virtual reality is not “real”, but i
t is related to the real; it is a play space for thinking
about the real world. According to Turkle, virtual spaces such as MUDs have contributed
to the experience of self as a multiplicity of parts. They challenge traditional notions of
human identity, an
d make it possible to construct an identity that is fluid and multiple. In
such spaces, people become masters of self
creation and self
presentation. There are lots
of opportunities for them to play with their identity and “try out” new ones. The notion of

an inner, “true self”, as Turkle points out, is called into question. She quotes the
following explained by one of the players on MUDs to capture this idea:

You can be whoever you want to be. You can completely redefine yourself if you want.
You can be t
he opposite sex. You can be more talkative. You can be less talkative.
Whatever. You can just be whoever you want really, whoever you have the capacity to be.
You don’t have to worry about the slots other people put you in as much. It’s easier to
change th
e way people perceive you, because all they’ve got is what you show them. they
don’t look at your body and make assumptions. They don’t hear your accent and make
assumptions. All they see is your words. And MUDs are always there. Twenty
four hours a
day yo
u can walk down to the street corner and there’s gonna be a few people there who
are interesting to talk to, if you’ve found the right MUD for you. (p.158)

Therefore, in MUDs and other virtual spaces, individuals can play any character
they would like to,

and explore previously unexamined aspects of their identity. They can
construct and reconstruct their identity. To Turkle, such environments are a context for
the deconstruction of the meaning of identity as “one”. If identity was perceived as
oneness in
the past, today, it is perceived as multiplicity, heterogeneity, and
fragmentation. Experiences that people have in virtual spaces give more and more people
an experience of talking about oneself in the third person and of seeing identity in terms
of multi
plicity. In sum, Turkle believes that in such spaces, “one is not oneself”.

Real, Virtual, and Projective Identity

As mentioned earlier, virtual environments have the potential to provide new
contexts for people to explore their identities and construct n
ew ones. In his book
video games have to teach us about learning and literacy”
, Gee (2003) mentions similar
points about video games. He states that video games can recruit identities and encourage
players to take on a new identity. According to Gee,

there are three identities at stake
when someone is playing a role
playing video game: real identity, virtual identity, and


projective identity. All these three identities are aspects of the relationship working
together as a larger whole.

We explain real
, virtual, and projective identity in the context of a role
video game, as Gee (2003) describes in his book.

world identity:

One’s own identity, as a non
virtual person playing the game, who
has many different identities in the real world; suc
h as being a woman, a friend, a student,
etc. Any of real identities can be involved when one is playing a video game. For
instance, when choosing a character at the beginning of the game, I may choose to be a
, or I may choose to be a male or fe
male elf, etc. Which real identity of me is
engaged when I choose to be any of these? Thus, my real
world identity can affect my
identity as a video
game player, while playing.

Virtual identity:

It is one’s identity as a virtual character in the world of

the game. For
instance, if I am playing the role of a superwoman in a game, my virtual identity is

Throughout the game, I develop my virtual character in a way that can do
things and sometimes cannot.

Projective identity:

In a game, I, as th
e real character, want my virtual character to be
and become a particular creature; therefore, I project my own values and desires onto the
virtual character. In my projective identity, I worry about what sort of “person” I want
my character to be; I want
my character to reflect my values, beliefs, and my desires.
Therefore, the projective identity is both mine and my character’s.

Gee states that in computer games, some players play outside their “real” identity.
They project their own values, hopes, and d
esires onto the virtual identity. For example,
they may play their virtual character as someone who takes risks, is creative or is resilient
in the face of failure. However, in their real life, they may not be anything like that.

Below, we explain how vir
tual characters that people develop can relate to
Lacan's (1901) mirror stage. The application of Erikson's (1963) psychosocial
moratorium to virtual experiences will also be explained.

Lacan’s Mirror Stage (1901) and Computer/Video Games

A mi
rror provides an image in which we can see ourselves and postulate what
others see. In “mirror stage”, Lacan (1901) discusses the formation of
. From his
perspective, the mirror stage

in development is when infants first get a notion of
themselves as uni
que individuals. He proposes that infants pass through a stage in which
the external image of their body which is reflected in the mirror produces the mental
representation of an “I” for them. For Lacan, this formation of ego is fundamentally

dependent u
pon external objects, on an “other”, which is the same as Ideal
I. As the so
called "individual" matures and enters into social relations, this perception of self extends
and develops throughout his/her lifetime.


The mirror is an interesting metaphor for

consideration. In physical world, this
mirror reflection provides a source of feedback that allows people to adjust their
presentation in order to convey what they want to project. In virtual world, they lack the
body with which to project themselves. The
refore, they project their ideas, values, and
desires into a digital representation that serves as their online agent. By operating their
agent, they are able to perceive themselves. While this may seem deceptive since people
may mislead others in terms of

how they represent themselves to others online, Boyd
(2001) points out that it is not; in fact, it gives people access to all that could potentially
be seen about them. It also helps them understand how their different facets of self
operate online and ho
w they can adjust them.

Similar thing happens over the course of a role
playing video game. According to
Schleiner (2001), in such a game, the player develops his/her character/avatar and
constructs his identity through the reflective connectivity that hi
s identification has with
the avatar’s movements in the game space. Therefore, the virtual character and avatar that
players choose to be, whether to be a female or male, thin or fat, what race or age they
want to be, etc. operates in fact as an externaliz
ed Lacanian “mirror image” of the player.
In other words, as the players are exploring their identity through their virtual characters,
to some extents they are reflecting themselves through those images, so how they want
others to see them.

Erikson’s Psy
chosocial Moratorium (1963) and Computer/Video Games

While for some people, as Turkle (1995) mentions, virtual space is “an
environment for acting out unresolved conflicts, to play and replay characterological
difficulties on a new and exotic stage”, for
many others, virtual space “provides an
opportunity to work through significant personal issue, to use the new materials of
cybersociality to reach for new resolutions” (p.11). This is because of the psychological
space that such environments provide; what

Erikson (1963) has called a

Erikson identified adolescence as a time of identity formation and called it
‘‘psychosocial moratorium’’, implying ‘time out’. He suggested that identity formation
involves exploration and ‘‘trying on
’’ different identity possibilities; therefore, his idea of
“time out” did not mean withdrawal, but a time of experimentation (Turkle, 1995).
Adolescents need to

experiment, try various roles, and thus hopefully find the one most
suitable for them. In this

respect, Erikson’s notion of the moratorium was not about
suspending experiences but their consequences;
i.e., a "time out" is placed on the
consequences of actions.

free experimentation can facilitate identity
development and virtual spaces a
re good at providing a moratorium
. They provide people
with an opportunity to expose themselves to different experiences without being
concerned about the result of those actions and to experiment with alternate forms of

Erikson developed his i
deas of a moratorium during 1950
1960. At that time,
according to Turkle (1995), the notion corresponded to a common understanding of what


the college years were about, but now the notion of a consequence
free college period
that provides this moratorium s
eems a thing of the past; virtual spaces are taking the
place. These spaces can contribute to the experience of self as a multiplicity of parts, the
player can take risks, real
world consequences are lowered, and the development of
identity is facilitated.

Players have the opportunity to
, practice, develop their skills,
and when they fail, try again.

playing Video Games, Identity, and Learning

Computer and video games have the potential to create virtual environments that
support learning. In rol
playing video games, people can develop characters, construct
new identities, and perform in new practices. Using Gee’s example of a science
classroom (2003), here, we explain the relationship between video games, identity, and
learning. Gee states that
in a good science classroom, teacher puts in motion a set of
values, beliefs, and interactions that represent a specific scientific viewpoint. Learners
need to engage in these so that they will be able to take on the identity of a “scientist”.
Therefore, i
n such a classroom, the learner’s virtual identity is the one that acts, interacts,
and uses the language in a way that “scientists” do.

On the other hand, in a good science classroom, the learner’s real identities are
also involved. For instance, a stude
nt may bring his/her real
world identity as someone
who is bad at technical stuff, or as someone from a family that is not “into” science, into
the classroom. According to Gee, this student is at a disadvantage because he/she must
see and make connections
between the new identity that he/she is making in classroom
and the other identities that he/she has already formed and bringing into classroom. If the
learner’s real
world identity is already damaged, it should be fixed before any active,
critical learnin
g can occur. This is the same in video games; i.e., if, as the player, I am a
person who is intimidated by racing against time, in a real
time strategy game, I may fail
my character because I project my real
world identity onto my virtual character. Thus,
there should be a connection between the real
world identity that the player brings into
the game and the virtual identity that he/she plays. Gee believes that it is the same in
classroom; if learners cannot bridge between their real
world identity and the

identity they make in classroom, learning will not happen.

How can a repair be undertaken?
Gee suggests three things to consider in order to
repair the learner’s real identity that is not in compatible with his/her virtual identity in

The learner must be enticed to

The learner must be enticed to
put in lots of efforts

The learner must
achieve some meaningful success

when putting effort.

Video games are good at these three things. As mentioned earlier, they provide
the “
ial moratorium”

space, so that players have the opportunity to
. They
can save the game and start back at the save point when they fail and try again. Video
games can be compelling and stimulate players to put in
some effort

and practice.
Furthermore, v
ideo games provide different levels of difficulty for players with different


level of skills. Therefore, players can adjust to different levels of play and
achieve some
. It is disappointing if there is no reward for the effort a player puts in, and

computer/video games are good at it, they reward each sort of player. According to Gee,
in a good computer/video game, the player discovers new powers in him/herself, and
experiences a new valued identity to his/her previous real
world identities. Through

playing video games, players project their real
world identity onto their virtual identity.
They learn how to see that they have the capacity to take on the virtual identity as a real
identity, and to see their potential capacities.

Therefore, it is impo
rtant that learners be able to build new values and identities;
video games make it possible for players to practice forming new identities and realizing
that they have the capacity to do that. Gee states deep learning occurs when students can
bridge their

world identities to the new identity and value that they make. Similar
point has been made by Wenger (1998) that learning transforms our identities: “Learning
transforms who we are and what we can do, it is an experience of identity. It is not just a
accumulation of skills and information, but a process of becoming

to become a certain
person, conversely, to avoid becoming a certain person… it is in that formation of an
identity that learning can become a source of meaningfulness and of personal and s
energy.” (p.215).

According to Gee (2005), good video games contain principles of learning that
can be applied to school learning. He believes that meaningful learning happens when an
extended commitment is recruited and this commitment happens whe
n people take on a
new identity they value. Video games are good at this; they provide the players with
identities that request a deep investment on the part of the player. They can either offer a
character so compelling that players want to own the charac
ter and therefore project their
own desires and pleasures onto that character, or they can offer a relatively empty
character that players work on its characteristics and create a deep life history for the
character through the course of the game.

e, in academic areas in school, activities and ways of knowing are carried
out by people who recruit certain types of identities; i.e., certain ways of actions, words,
values, attitudes, and beliefs. Learners need to know what these new identities are, pla
those certain sorts of actions, and adopt the new values and beliefs. According to Gee,
when learners practice and adopt such new identities, list of facts or body of information
come free; they are learned as part of being that sort of person; however,
out of the
context and identity, learning such facts seem hard to learners.

Summary and Conclusion

In everyday life, there are areas of identity that an individual can control, such as
work roles, ideological values, and social relationships. However, th
ere are many other
dimensions that individuals have little control over, such as their biological sex, race, age,
and other physical features, which are all important in identity construction. In virtual
environments, these areas can be controlled, making
the exploration of identity more
flexible (Calvert, 2002). This exploration can be a search for a ‘unitary’ construct about


the self or it may be to build a ‘social’ construct with multiple selves. Social
interactionists such as Turkle (1995) suggest that
people construct multiple selves in
virtual environments. Such places offer possibilities for constructing and reconstructing
identities, and projecting multiple selves.

Gee (2003) makes similar points in regard with computer/video games. He
indicates th
at video games have the potential to recruit identities and allow players to
form new ones. According to him, three identities are at stake when someone is playing a
playing video game: real, virtual, and projective identity. Through developing their
characters in video games, real players (real identities) may find themselves playing
multiple roles and characters of the opposite sex, for example, (virtual identities), and
want their character to reflect their values and desires (projective identity).
Here, the
video game character operates as an externalized Lacanian “mirror image” of the subject;
i.e., the character and personae that players choose to be, can work for them as a digital
mirror that they reflect themselves through those images.

In addi
tion to the role of virtual environments as a digital mirror to project images
and identities, these environments can provide a space called a
psychosocial moratorium
that let people take risks. Psychosocial moratorium is a consequence
free period of
imentation that facilitates the development of identity. According to Gee, video
games are good at providing such space. They present players with simulated worlds
where consequences of experiments are lowered. Players can try, practice, and develop
new sk
ills. As Gee mentions, all learning in all domains need identity work. It requires
taking on new identities and forming bridges from one’s old identities to the new ones.

In conclusion, while playing computer/video games and interacting in virtual
such as MUDs may appear wasting of time or unsafe places to some people,
especially parents, these new interactive technologies can help individuals explore their
identities and experiment dimensions of their selves that they are not always comfortable
ressing in real life (Gee, 2005). They can provide spaces for
experimentation and facilitate

identity development; they can create worlds where people
can have meaningful new experiences, as Gee points out; and they have the potential to

used as learning tools by creating simulated worlds where both children and adults can
practice, develop skills, and experiment new and powerful identities. Therefore, while
virtual spaces, including computer/video games, offer opportunities for people to

practice, develop and/or refine their skills, and operate at the level of their competence,
they recruit identities in a powerful way and trigger deep learning.


We gratefully acknowledge the support of the Social Sciences and Humanities
Research Council of Canada for providing funding through an INE Collaborative
Research Initiative grant for the ‘Simulation and Advanced Gaming Environments
(SAGE) for Learning’ project under which this work was completed.


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