The Avatar and the Gamer
A massive multyplayer role game
Maybe someone still doesn't know what an online multiplayer role-playing game is (MMORPG: Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game): it is an adventure in which the player creates on the computer his own character (avatar) who participates in the game interacting (and fighting) with the avatars of thousands of other players participating in the same game. Through a system of rewards, the avatar gains points that are used to level him/her up, increasing certain characteristics or giving him/her new resources, and can discover objects that improve his offensive and defensive abilities. Other online games, such as Second Life, despite being multiplayer, are not role-playing in a strict sense, as the interactions between the avatars are limited to social activities and chatting exchanges. The success of this genre of games is given by the fact that, in some aspects, they imitate real life conditions and situations: the most interesting element is represented by the presence and interaction of a plurality of players, each with their operational autonomy, so in the course of the game there is always a surprise factor, and it is possible to enter into alliances and pursue common goals, as well as to confront in a competitive way, up to fighting each other, alone or in a group.
Moreover, each player creates their own avatar, in the initial phase of the game, giving it some features that differentiate it, to some extent, from the others, and as the game goes on, the avatar is further developed on the basis of the player's decisions, assuming more and more an autonomous and differentiated personality, as far as possible, with respect to the avatars of the other gamers. This process implies that the avatar can present both some typical characteristics of the player in real life, as well as some features that the player does not have, but that she/he would like to have: not infrequently, for example, the avatar's gender is different from that of its gamer. It is evident that the fundamental element of these MMOG (online multiplayer games) is the program, which makes possible everything that can happen in the course of the game, and prevents the development of those effects that sometimes the gamers would like to get. The program is developed and updated by a team of programmers, who can take into account the suggestions, wishes and proposals of the gamers, to the extent that the responsible for development believe it can contribute to the game's success. We have thus identified the key figures involved in the development of these games: the Programmer, the Gamer and the Avatar.
After these premises, I now want to propose a mental game based on intelligence and intuition, in which everyone can freely take part, coming to the conclusions that will seem more convincing, more interesting and, why not, more fascinating: this game consists in comparing human life – considered as real – with an MMOG, to verify what is similar and what is substantially different. It is clear that if the MMOGs of the various genres are very successful, given that the global number of players in the world is hundreds of millions, this depends on the fact that the gamer's psyche feels attracted by the possibility of engaging, through an avatar, in a virtual reality that shows more advantageous aspects of novelty and opportunities than the daily reality of human life, otherwise one would not see the reason why a person should invest her/his time and mental energies in an activity of this kind. So I begin to examine some aspects of the topic that seem to me particularly stimulating from a mental point of view.
The role of the Programmer
The programmer has a fundamental role in the operational application of the choices and possibilities decided by the game developer. Usually, in the MMOGs there is a team of developers who work in close collaboration with a team of programmers, but from the player's point of view we can consider the programmer as a unitary figure – even if formed by a plurality of people – since only what has actually been translated into the program has an effect on the functioning of the game. In computer games, both the programmer and the gamer are human beings: in most cases the gamers do not have the knowledge and information necessary to understand the program, but nothing prevents them, if they want, from acquiring through study a sufficient competence to decipher various aspects of programming, if they manage to overcome the possible blocks that could prevent a program's clearly reading. Like any other specialized activity, even that of the programmer requires a long training, but it is anyway within the reach of any person with sufficient logical-mathematical intelligence. A player who is also a skilled programmer can insert in the game, taking advantage of the gaps present in the program, alien elements that spread online, in contrast with the will of the programmers: a process similar to that of the viruses that can infect our computers.
In real life, instead, humans – whose role as avatars or gamers we will try to decipher better later – cannot be considered at the same level as programmers, since the natural game of evolution of life on Earth far precedes, over time, the development of human consciousness and intelligence necessary to translate into knowledge a part – a minimal part – of the programmatic factors on the basis of which the process developed. Only recently have humans begun to acquire elements of information on some aspects of the program, interpreting them on the basis of their intellectual resources and using them in function of what they consider their interests or advantages, as individuals or societies. Although the acquisition of elements of knowledge by humans leads to creative actions that interfere with the program, modifying some aspects of it, the lack of direct communication with unknown programmers does not allow humans to know how the program will react to their actions: human activities can lead to the creation of weapons of mass destruction, to substantial alterations in environmental conditions or to the accelerated consumption of non-renewable resources, and there is always the possibility that the program will react by eliminating a substantial part of humanity. Just in these days the spread of a new virus is drastically changing the living conditions of billions of people.
The fact that programmers remain unknown means that humans can attribute all sorts of powers and intentions to them, or even deny their same existence: however the program exists, and we move within it, making choices and acting to the extent in which we are allowed, for the limited time of our life. In fact, one of the fundamental aspects of the program is constituted by time, by its unilaterally flowing in one direction, and by the temporary existence of each avatar – as a living organism – within the program. Although the program is too complex for an avatar to understand it, an avatar can acquire – due to the fact that it is immersed in the program – a certain amount of information that reveals some aspects of it, which can be interpreted – as we will see – in the light of the gamer's resources. Obviously, in the event that each avatar – none excluded – were nothing more than a product of the program, limited to its temporariness and destined to be removed and replaced by new avatars after interpreting its role, we would be faced with an unfathomable dynamic, of which only some unknown programmers could perhaps know the meaning.
Our identification with the Avatar
In an MMOG the conscious subject – the one who makes decisions and acts on the keyboard or mouse – is always the gamer, with respect to whom the avatar is a character created through the program, which allows her/him to interact with the virtual world, with others characters played by the program's artificial intelligence, or with the avatars of other players. Each player knows that behind each avatar met by his/her own, beyond its appearance, clothing and behavior, another gamer in flesh and blood acts, whose appearance and whose real personality remain unknown, unless the gamer wants to contact him/her in real life. In human life, instead, the avatar is our body, which is created in accordance with the rules established by the program, with or without the conscious intent of other avatars (the parents) already active. The new avatar, just born, is weak and defenseless, and its growth and development depend on the environment in which it is bred and the care it receives from other avatars. Over time, consciousness arises and consolidates, and the avatar begins to act intentionally, in the sense that certain behaviors and actions are prefigured and conceived in her/his mind which, implemented through the body, should produce – or attempt to produce – the expected results. The success or failure of these actions then involves an emotional reward or punishment, according to the program's rules. We would be tempted, at this point, to identify the body with the avatar and the mind with the gamer, but things are more complex and enigmatic.
In a role-playing game, the gamer creates the avatar and gives it some characteristics of his/her choice: the initial possibilities are the same for everyone, and the program offers each player the opportunity to customize their avatar according to their preferences, giving each player the same set of opportunities offered to other players. In real life things are not like that at all: avatars are born and develop in very different environmental conditions, the same physical requirements differentiate one avatar from another, including the computer-brain and the mental programs that are transmitted to it by the cultural system in which the avatar is brought up. This means that the mental functioning – which determines the evaluation of circumstances, the arising of desires and emotions, and the same choices that are made and translated into actions – is normally intrinsic to the avatar, and can differ, even in a very pronounced way, from one avatar to another. Thus the avatar – who can also identify with the gamer, since nothing prevents him/her – turns out to be actually a product of the program, without the gamer's role being assumed by a figure distinct from the same program.
An MMOG player has an autonomy with respect to the avatar through which she/he acts in the game's virtual world, and also has his/her own consciousness and a life distinct from that of the avatar, who – always within the program in which it virtually acts – can even die. Therefore, if we want to imagine the existence of a figure similar to that of the gamer even in real life, we must give up our complete identification with the avatar, in order to search the consciousness of the latter for any traces that could lead to an alien influence, independent from the program of life. In fact, as long as the conscious Ego fully identifies with the avatar by which the experience of human life is lived, it is not possible to recognize the existence of any external figure temporarily involved in that singular game in which the avatar is a character. In a role-playing game the avatar is in itself inert, unconscious, incapable of decision-making and action choices: it is a puppet whose threads are moved by the program or by the player. In real life, on the other hand, avatars interact directly with the program, introducing new programming elements that modify it.
Looking for the Gamer
The program at the base of the game of life can be interpreted as a kind of collective hallucination, variable in time and space – based on the changes that occur in the socio-cultural systems of which the individual avatars become part – as had been already suggested by Mary Rose Barrington (1926-2020), lawyer and parapsychologist, President of the Oxford University SPR and Vice-President of the SPR since 1995, in her book Talking about Psychical Research (2019). The mind of each avatar is influenced by the other minds with which it comes into contact, consciously or unconsciously (and sometimes even telepathically), developing individual features – different for each of us – which manifest themselves in behavior, creative processing and inner self-perception by the conscious Ego. Over the years, in the course of the life cycle, the individual mind, after reaching a maximum of efficiency, begins a progressive decline, until it completely turns off. The effects of this dynamic process are experienced by the conscious Ego, but only to the extent that it is granted to it by the functioning of the mind itself. In fact, these effects – as perceptual, intellectual, emotional and sentimental dynamics – are affected by the characteristics and resources of the mind, due to how it formed and developed in its cultural environment, and how it changed in consequence of life experiences.
A reflection of the Gamer can be seen in that part of ourselves that observes the behavior and functioning of the avatar and, by studying the various aspects of this process, tries to reach an understanding of some dynamics of the program. The essential points of these dynamics are constituted by the temporal existence of the avatar – conditioned by its inclusion within the program – and by the transformations that the avatar and its mind undergo in the course of human life. It could be said that the Gamer examines from the outside, independently, what the avatar lives as an experience conditioned and bound by the program. The Gamer can also actively intervene, determining some aspects of the avatar's action and its own way of functioning: these interventions can be intuited by the avatar's consciousness, even if its mind – as a rule – is unable to tune into that of the Gamer. In fact, being inserted into the program from the early stages of its formation, the avatar's mind is invaded by a huge amount of psychic elements, taken from those that have accumulated and stratified in the program during the various phases of its evolution. With respect to this disordered and confused radiation, the control and – if we prefer – the defense capabilities of the mind are limited, and depend on certain characteristics (which could also be genetic, in relation to the development and resources of the brain) that can not be determined by the avatar.
In an MMOG the gamers, while identifying more or less intensely in their avatars, are aware of their own autonomous existence, and knos that life continues even when they exit the game and turn the computer off. Indeed, if they are not completely addicted to the game, they do not hesitate to recognize the existence of a real life distinct from the virtual one. Furthermore, however much he/she identifies with his/her avatar, especially in the interaction with other avatars, the gamer trusts in his own consciousness and intellect, because he/she knows that the avatar, left to itself, is devoid of both: the avatar exists and acts only if it is animated by the gamer. In real life, however, the situation is more complex: it is as if there was a player inside the avatar (the conscious Ego inside the brain), inextricably connected to it, who participates in the game (that is, interacts with the program) based on her/his conscious inner experience; but there are also behaviors and actions of the body (and the mind) which escape the control of the conscious Ego, and which depend on the functioning of the body and the brain as a reaction to certain events determined by the program. In fact, as previously mentioned, the body, the brain, and most of the mental programs that determine our behavior and actions are produced by the program.
It may happen, however, that as the game progresses, the player senses or perceives the existence of an external figure, a Gamer, who shows a certain interest in the game, but whose existence is not limited to that of the avatar. Here I would like to open a brief parenthesis, to explain that when we play a certain computer game, we do it because that game captures – for one reason or another – our interest. It can also happen that a game disappoints us, because it does not correspond to our expectations, and at that point we stop playing it and dedicate ourselves to something else; or, in some cases, that we insist on playing until we complete it, even if we don't like it, because we feel compelled to do so. In real life too things are more or less in these terms: every conscious Ego – as the game of their life goes on – can give an evaluation of the interest that this game arouses in them, in relation to their own expectations. But while in a computer game the gamer can cut off the game to do something else – possibly starting another game that seems more interesting to him – in real life the Gamer could also take no interest in the game, without getting worried in the least, while the player can stop playing only by eliminating the avatar he/she identifies with: more or less, that's what suicides do.
The interest in the game of life usually fades over time, in old age, when the deteriorating conditions of the avatar make the mental elaboration of new experiences more difficult, and the amount of experiences already assimilated depletes the available resources of neural circuits. Old age brings a tiredness towards life, which can result in a lucid detachment as long as the mind still works well enough: otherwise it ends up in the mists of one of the various forms of progressive senile dementia. Obviously, many people will object that life is not a game, but a trial, a commitment, a school based on dedication, solidarity and a spirit of sacrifice: all of this can certainly be true, but it falls within the scope of the program, and involves the player and the avatar. Our intent, however, was to compare computer games with real life, to identify analogies and differences. If we go in search of the Gamer also with regard to real life, we must necessarily identify a figure distinct from the program, who feels an interest in the game, even for what the game can teach him. Even a computer game can put the player to trial, forcing him/her to make choices, to adopt strategies, and in some cases to solve rather complex puzzles. In addition, players may be interested in evaluating how the game program was developed, in relation to the possibilities that are offered to them and the stimuli that keep their interest in the game alive.
If we want to give the Gamer an independent existence, we must also recognize her/him the freedom to express a judgment on the experience of life, free from the condition of subordination to the rules and the needs of the program in which his avatar finds itself. The limits to which the avatar is subject are given – as I've already said – by the duration of human life, by the physical and mental resources it has and by the variations to which these resources are subject with the passing of time. In the game of life, as long as the players completely identify with the avatar, they will remain subject to all the constraints imposed by the program, and will passively accept all the cultural conditionings that ensnare their minds, convincing them of the fact that their existence is limited to that of their avatar, without which their conscious Ego is lost. It may be that the Gamer accepts these conditions of the game because they make the experience of life more intense, but it may also be that he cares little about a game in which his possibilities of intervention are limited, to the point of not even being recognized as an independent reference figure.
If we buy a computer game – or we pay to take part in it – it is because we think (or hope) that that game can be interesting and stimulating for us. If the game is given to us as a gift, we play to try it and to see if we like it and we are interested in it. We would hardly be willing to play a game we don't like and that we think is ugly and badly programmed (unless our job is to review computer games). The conditions of human life are such that not infrequently, as players bound to our avatar, we do not feel at all satisfied with the way the game is played and has been programmed. Thus, all sorts of strange ideas and theories were created, and some also became a part of the program, with the aim of giving us account of the right reasons why we were put into this world and we must live this life: in most cases it is mere propaganda! But, beyond our point of view of small players, involved in a game even too crowded and with insufficient resources for everybody, it would be interesting to know what our Gamer, who often seems to abandon us to our destiny, regardless of our fate in a game that maybe bores him, thinks about it. For this purpose it is necessary that the player, freeing her/himself from the complete identification with their avatar, is able to establish a contact with the Gamer.
Who is the Gamer?
Many clues have been given on this site that suggest that the existence of the Gamer is possible – if not even probable. In considering the experience of human life, we started from the intellectual and cognitive resources available to the conscious Ego – considered as our main subject – to immediately have to take into account the plurality of the conscious Egos, and the fragmentation of the human psyche in a vast range of mental experiences of which each conscious Ego experiences only a small part in his life. The psychophysical resources of which a human being is endowed, the environment in which he/she is born and brought up and the environmental conditions in which her/his life takes place, are as many aspects of the program that determines the destiny of each of us on this planet. Since the choices made by the avatar-players are determined by the intellectual and volitional resources available to them (and therefore by their psychophysical features) and by the environmental and socio-cultural conditions in which they find themselves, the whole vital process can be considered in the context of development of the program itself, and each player-avatar represents only a temporal fragment produced by the program. But this is nothing more than a mental interpretation of reality.
The Gamer is not the conscious Ego of the avatar-player, but can make its existence perceived by the conscious Ego: one often has the impression that the Gamer is not very involved in a game that easily becomes boring and repetitive, or that it is more committed to discovering some aspects of the program than to keep alive an avatar, of which, after all, it cares little. The inner experiences of the conscious Ego often show the clues of psychic conflicts resulting from the Gamer's dissatisfaction with the program that determines the various aspects of human life. Sometimes the Gamer's interest is stimulated by some particular aspects of the program, which induce it to defend the existence of the avatar as far as possible, to continue investigating the functioning of the program, but the deterioration of the avatar's resources – which occurs with the passing of time – causes the involvement of the Gamer to decrease more and more: in the end, it may only show a residual interest in the experience of death. The Gamer, in fact, has its own autonomous and distinct existence not only with respect to that of the avatar-player, but with respect to the same program on which human life is based, a program to which the avatar-player is instead bound.
The Gamer also acts within a wide program, in which, however, it can move independently and freely, experiencing the effects of its decisions. It may be that human life is a subroutine in which the Gamer was involved almost by chance: something that it activated more or less consciously – perhaps by taking something similar to a drug – determined a trance state in which the experience of human life (or rather: of one human life) is achieved around the figure of a player-avatar enclosed in the subroutine, isolated and forgetful of the existence of the Gamer. Thus, as long as the Gamer does not awaken, human life remains for it as a more or less pleasant or dark dream, the development of which is beyond its conscious control. But if the Gamer is not completely asleep, it will be able to exert a partial control over the dream, trying to send the avatar some signs indicative of its existence. From the influence of the Gamer on our nervous system can arise that feeling of longing-nostalgia for a form of freedom that is precluded to us in this life, which some human beings perceive so intensely.
I hope nobody at this point demands an experimental demonstration of the existence of the Gamer, or thinks that these mental elaborations claim to be what they are not, that is, an irrefutable proof. I want to remind you that we started from an experiment consisting of comparing the key figures involved in an MMOG with the possible parallel figures involved in the experience of human life, to highlight similarities and differences. But some irrefutable facts must be kept in mind: for example, the temporal duration of the player-avatar, the progressive loss of their resources in the final part of life experience, the program's features that determine so many individual fragmented experiences, so different and often in conflict with each other. These facts give rise to mental elaborations, some of which are then assimilated within the program, which thus increases its operational complexity in function of a goal whose knowledge is precluded to us: every effect produced by the program derives from the fact that the player-avatar, once created by the program itself, either improves its position according to the rules set by the program, or worsens it, until it deteriorates and is destroyed. But even those who improve (at least apparently) their condition, are intended to be eliminated in the final part of life, or even before, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly and painfully. So, in any case, the condition of each human being is managed by the program, and the overall results are there for all to see, as they are reported in our times' chronicles and in historical documents.
In general, the desire to be happy, to live a satisfying life and to improve one's condition is natural in every human being whose mental functioning is regular – even if mental anomalies are still determined by the program – however intentions are not enough to determine the results: today, as in the past, the experience of each individual life is random, and it is not possible to exchange the experience of our own life with that of another person's. It is therefore not even possible to really compare different life experiences, since each conscious Ego is bound to the experience of its own life. If we consider the game of life from the player-avatar point of view, none of us knows the reason why he/she is involved in this game, and many players are fascinated by this puzzle, to solve which they resort to one or the other mental elaboration of psychic origin. But only by exiting the game, thus freeing ourselves from the program that regulates every aspect of it, it will be possible to rise from the reduced perspective of the player-avatar to the wider and autonomous vision of the Gamer. The Gamer, in fact, in its dimension not conditioned by time, has a truly existing personality, while the player-avatar, subject to the transformations determined by time, is a temporary personality whose traces will be erased by time, no matter how important he/she may have been in life.
The experience of the life game
So let's imagine that the Gamer exists, in a different dimension from ours, and that at the end of life our conscious Ego, up to that moment bound to the player-avatar, moves into the consciousness of the Gamer, without worrying about how this could happen. What effect does this attitude have on our mind, as long as our avatar is involved in the experience of human life? It is not easy to find an answer to this question, precisely because, being immersed – and, we could say, imprisoned – in this life game, we seek the answers among those proposed to us by our human mind, which manifests itself in its singular individual appearance. Each of us can ask her/himself this question, and then wait for an answer: it is as if time remained suspended, while around us life continues to flow, until we come back again with our feet on the ground, in our ordinary state conditioned by its needs and recalls. In these conditions, everyone is bound by their own individual experience, more or less standardized, and for the majority of currently living humans, the figure of the Gamer remains distant, absent and alien, while the player-avatar is the only living reality.
But just as there is not a unique standard model of player-avatar, there is probably not a unique model of Gamer. The standard models are socio-cultural creations that aim to produce the necessary conditionings for a mass of people to behave in a sufficiently homogeneous way, but the reality of life always admits of exceptions, starting from the functioning of the psychophysical system: almost all of us, for example, are committed to protecting the existence of our avatar, but there are people who are not afraid of risking their lives, or anyhow control this fear much better than others. It can also be observed how young children can easily perform actions that endanger their lives. Even the fear of taking actions that may have penal consequences, while being effective in most people, does not prevent habitual criminals from acting to the detriment of others, and in certain circumstances it does not work even in people who would not normally commit a crime. Obviously, the program allows for all the variety of human behaviors that can be found in the reality of life.
Our conscious Ego, immersed in this reality precisely as a player-avatar, can then ask itself what induced the Gamer to take part in a game that presents various interesting and fascinating aspects, but also others that are decidedly stupid, not evolved, painful and demeaning. A first superficial answer could be given by the observation that, since in the dish there is a tasty and sweet meal next to another disgusting and indigestible, the smart Gamer will try to separate one from the other, tasting only the morsels of the good one. However, it must be acknowledged that some other Gamer will then be forced to eat the rotten one! And here comes a first distinction between those who focus only on their individual experience, and those who take into account the whole range of the various human experiences. Besides, most humans will have a mix of tasty and bitter morsels, in varying proportions, and everyone will be able to assess – as far as they are concerned – if the juice is worth the squeeze.
But in this way we make the Gamer's evaluations coincide with those of the avatar-player, and this could be a mistake. Strange as it may seem, the Gamer could even be interested in those aspects of life that are indigestible and burdensome to our conscious Ego, while other aspects that seem pleasant to us could leave it indifferent: it is in fact the reaction of our mind to determine what we like and what disturbs us. This really strange situation is difficult to be accepted for the conscious Ego, reduced indeed – at this point – to the role of an avatar which the Gamer seems to care very little of. Is it possible that the Gamer, in its dimension and condition of existence, is not aware of the difficulties in which the conscious Ego finds itself during life? And if the Gamer knows the condition of the conscious Ego, why doesn't intervene to help it during the game? The answer could be that the program prevents direct intervention by the Gamer who, once the game has started, can only take initiatives through its avatar, if it manages to subtract the avatar from the conditionings by which the program controls it. The existence of the game's rules shifts the interest of the conscious Ego to the possible reasons that led the Gamer to participate – through an avatar – in the game of human life.
(to be continued)