#edcmooc Avatar Days; reflecting on Digital Identity

One of the questions that was asked in an edcmchat was that of our digital identity and how it might differ from our real world identity.  The responses were varied; many people said that their digital identity and their real identities were the same, probably just as many said they kept the two separate.

As teachers we have always had the responsibility of helping our students develop their own identity, work out who they are and where they are in the world and their journey through it.  We now have a dual task of enabling them to develop an online identity.  Should that be the same as their “real” identity or different?  And how can we expect to help them if we have not worked out what our own digital identities are?

It might be too late for many of our youngsters; they already have a digital identity, possibly from even before they were born.  How many photographs of scans have been posted on Facebook? How many baby photos adorn blogs and other social media sites? How many of our youngsters were allowed (or even not allowed but they did it anyway) to have FB accounts as children and have published their lives all over them?


Do we need to shape and own our “real” world identity before we can know what to put of ourselves in the virtual world? Or should we be just as careful about both? And what if our identities change? I know that I am not the same person as I was twenty years ago, or even ten yeras ago.  Our identities change as our experiences, our relationships, our learning shapes us.  Surely we have the right to show that we have progressed, moved on, adapted and that people should accept that our actions as children, as teenagers, as students, as young adults, as parents, as teachers are going to be as diverse as those stages of our lives?

The difficulty is that in the online world, the cyber memory does not forget.  We may move from one part of the country or the world to another, build relationships with completely different people, build new identities safe in the knowledge that it is unlikely that the two worlds will ever come together.  That is not the case in the cyber world, we cannot erase the footprints we have left and easily leave our pasts behind us!

two boys sitting on a sofa in a living room playing games on their computers

Avatar Days raised some other questions; it was clear that there was a blurring of the lines for some of the gamers interviewed between their real life and their virtual gaming life. I ask myself how much of themselves do they leave in their virtual playground?  One gamer said “I don’t change my personality when I’m playing – it’s a lot like me in a way”.

There are whole communities of people in online games who know each other only as their game names, but who communicate and interact with each other on a daily basis. How is that different to Facebook or Twitter or Google +.  I met someone the other day who said it was good to meet the face that went with my Twitter handle.  I wonder  if that will make our online interactions any more meaningful or not?

It has also been suggested that going into an online environment can also be a way of coping with real life stresses in a way that we would not be able to do in the real world.  One gamer said, “I may have, on a bad day, made a dwarf, very miserable”.  Perhaps it is good that we can have some release in a virtual world.  How is that different to a squash player hitting their stress out in a fast and furious game of squash after work?

Most of us already inhabit several different worlds; that of son or daughter, sibling, Mother, Father, student, teacher, employee, employer, friend, acquaintance, carer.  Do we not have different roles and responsibilities in each of them?  We already compartmentalise our identities, some better than others, some not at all and that is a choice we make.  That choice too is informed by our personalities and our identities.

The fear about games is that the lines become very unclear and that people start to live the game in the real world. As parents we worry what the impact of violent games have on our children and there is conflicting research in the news almost every day.

“It’s not just escapism, something crosses over with your real life”.

Boy playing on the floor with lego and other toys in his bedroom

I have seen my sons totally absorbed in online games but as one of the gamers said in the short; “games are no more escapist than any other obsession”. Children have always played and absorbed themselves in imaginary worlds.  I have seen my sons totally absorbed in make-believe battles with horses, figures, lego, playmobil, animals.  They built (my youngest still does) whole communities across the floors of their bedrooms and happily act out their own dramas.  How many times have you read a book and been unable to put it down?  I used to become so absorbed that I could shut out the hubbub of three noisy younger sisters quite effectively!  How is that any different?

Are we in control or does the game, the book, the adventure control us?  I think the lack of control that we fear arises out of a lack of understanding.  If we don’t understand the technology our children are immersed in we worry that they will lose their identity before they have even had chance to develop it and know what it is.

Maybe we should liook at the skills that can be learned from the games that they play?  I have watched my sons play with their friends both online and off.  In both environments I see times when they play independently with little communication and seemingly no interaction.  I have also seen them communicate and interact extremely effectively in both arenas.  Online games usually provide a framework, a set of rules by which people live (and die), decisions have to be made through negotiation, collaboration and communication.  They have to manage resources, look to the futures, consider past actions and adapt and think on their feet.  There are repercussions of the decisions and actions that are taken that have to be dealt with and learned from.

It is true that we have to be circumspect about the games that our children play, we have to talk to them about them, ask them searching questions about them, maybe we could even play with them?  After all, we might find that we develop another personal identity and skills that we never knew we had?

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