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The Virtual Self

January 13, 2012

That's me on the right...

The relationship between memory and identity is one of the main themes of my novel Mindjammer. Even now, we base our sense of self on what we can remember about our pasts – but it’s becoming increasingly clear that our memories of our own pasts are less than stable, and that in fact they’re subject to a constant process of “re-remembering”, and even editing and modification based on how we regard them. If we are the sum total of our experiences, and our memories of those experiences can change from year to year, day to day, then what does that say about the stability of our own identities?

In Mindjammer, it’s possible to remember not just your own memories, but those of other people – gestalts of memory engrams uploaded to the interstellar mindlinked internet known as the Mindscape. The more advanced artificial intelligences have their very personalities based on the compound stored memories – known as exomemories – of dead individuals. Imagine you can remember pretty much every memory that Napoleon, or Lincoln, or Hitler, ever had, but that you’re none of those people, but someone else, someone new – what kind of person does that make you? That theme is one of the most crucial of the Mindjammer setting, and one I never seem to get tired of exploring.

There’s a great article in today’s Guardian discussing this very topic – the instability and indeed variability of memory as a foundation of our own identities. Reading it today, my mind began to wander over a territory I still have to explore one day in much more detail: the memories and identities of roleplaying gamers. I’ve been a gamer for over 30 years, and some of my fondest “memories” are of events which never ever happened. I remember when I embarked upon an expedition to the Demonweb Pits and slew the evil goddess Lolth when I was about 12 years old; I remember when Tryfan Ironsword returned from the Hero Plane with God-Cleaver, the Unbreakable Sword, and thereby became the new son of Humakt, God of War, incarnate. And I remember the first time we encountered the insidious alien device known as the Uranawaltzer on the war-torn world of Amida, occupied by the nefarious Venu.

None of these things happened, of course. Or, rather, they happened as part of role-playing games, where I played the role of a fictional hero in a mutually created story. But, in some way, they are my memories, they’re part of what I remember of my life and they go some way to explaining who I am. I’m sure any role-player out there will understand what I mean.

It strikes me therefore that roleplaying games are very powerful tools. They can actually affect our memories, who we are. Maybe, almost 40 years after their invention, we’re only now beginning to realise their importance in the construction of our virtual selves. Especially as video roleplaying games become ever more realistic, and they too begin to create memories of things which never happened in the “real” world. Let me tell you of some of my adventures in Skyrim…

What do you think, folks? Has your sense of self been affected by being a gamer? Do you have memories from roleplaying games you treasure as if they’d happened to you yourself?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nathaniel permalink
    January 13, 2012 4:37 pm

    This actually leads to another question, Say-rah: do video games really cater to that same sort of personal resonance that a TTRPG provides? Do you, for example, fondly remember your time as Super Mario or does it exist less a a personal experience and more of a ‘game I played?’

    I certainly don’t recall my time as James Bond, Odd-Job or any of a dozen other characters from Golden-Eye on the 64 as anything more than a blur of time spent with friends running around shooting things, while my memories of my first ever trip through the Keep on the Borderlands as a bold Halfling Thief are burned into my memory as a personal tale. I question whether video games, which are by their nature either limited in scope, duplicate the experiences of everyone else and/or constantly talked about from everyone’s point of view on the intertubes can truly ever reach the level of ‘exo-memory’ that TTRPGs do. Even my time as Gordon from Half-Life, a very gripping video game tale, doesn’t resonate as a personal experience for me like my time as that scruffy and rather accident prone thief.

    MMO’s come close, as you can still make your own unique character, but there is still that obvious meta-game layer of grinding instances instead of going on a personal quests, camping spawn points instead of exploring personalized adventures, delineating roles by function like ‘Tank’ or ‘Ranged DPS’ instead of character concepts like ‘holy warrior’ or ‘cunning thief’ that makes them feel more like a game than a personal story in my mind. And that probably explains why 4E never worked for me, either, as it’s focus seemed to be more on gaming the game rather than being the character of my own personal novel, as I felt the very first time I struck out from that lonely border keep 30 some odd years ago…

  2. Corone permalink
    January 13, 2012 2:53 pm

    I’m looking forward to when we all get a little old and senile,
    and start thinking we actually were wizards and heroes in fantasy worlds when we were younger.

    Mind you, if we have large print books and the GM doesn’t mind regular naps during play I suspect we’ll still be gaming.

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