Alt! Who Goes There? An Essay by Extropia DaSilva


In ‘Virals And Definitives In SL’ and other essays, I discussed the concept of the ‘Pairson’: A character in an online world that is controlled by two or more people in RL. This lead to various questions, not least of which was ‘to what extent does the character remain the same, if the person behind it has changed’?

A more common challenge to personal identity is to do things that other way around. That is, two or more avatars that are controlled by one RL individual. ‘Alts’, as they are commonly known. Broadly speaking, alts fall into two categories which I shall label ‘Actives’ and ‘Dolls’. Those who have watched Joss Whedon’s TV series ‘Dollhouse’ will recall that an ‘active’ is a person imprinted with a personality that is not their own. An ‘active’ alt, then, is one used for identity exploration. The type of roleplay that gets discussed the most seems to be gender-based: swapping between male and female avatars. But one can also explore alternate political outlooks, social classes, religious beliefs…anything society uses to categories a person as ‘this’ rather than ‘that’.

When they were not actives, the characters in ‘Dollhouse’ were kept in a ‘doll’ state. In this state they had virtually no personality or sense of individuality to speak of. In SL there are many reasons to use alts that do not necessarily involve identity exploration. With more than one avatar at your disposal, you can attend several events going on simultaneously across the grid. Another reason to have a doll alt is privacy. Some residents are very well-known and can be overloaded with IMs from friends, associates, clients etc. Such people sometimes create an alternate identity, tell nobody else who is behind it, and enjoy the peace and quiet anonymity can bring. Scarp Godenot pointed out yet another reason to use a doll alt:

“An alt is a good way to go to a live review of your art and hear the truth”.


It could be argued that dolls and actives are not distinct from each other, but are actually part of a spectrum. Sometimes, Gwyn Llewelen attends events while Gwyn Llewelyn is elsewhere on the grid, attending to business.  ‘Gwyn’ acts, and is treated, almost exactly the same regardless of which account her primary is using. It is the same person in two separate avatar presences.

But what about alts created for reasons of privacy? In RL, it is sometimes the case that an individual will acquire behaviour patterns at work that are quite different to how he or she behaves in private life. So, perhaps it is also the case that a person using an anonymous alt in order to escape the attention their well-known avatar attracts, comes to emphasise aspects of their personality that are harder to express while logged-in as their more famous avatar?

“When I feel like exploring BDSM”, commented Scarletta Ember, “I go to a different av”. Here, we have moved further along the spectrum. Actively seeking out a markedly different experience, perhaps often enough to develop a personae that suits that social group, arguably results in a greater identity divergence than the anonymity a private alt offers. From here, one can imagine the alt becoming increasingly distinct as aspects like gender, age, social class, race, etc, are played around with.

So, at one end of the spectrum, the personality remains virtually unchanged. As we move alone, different sides to the personality start to manifest themselves, growing more and more distinct until we reach the opposite end of the spectrum, where ‘active’ alts look and act very differently, maybe to the extent where nobody else would ever suspect the same person is behind it.


Bring up ‘active’ alts in a discussion, and arguments tend to focus on two questions. One is: “Why do people find alts disturbing”? When I held a Thinkers discussion about alts, the majority of comments about active alts were negative. People used words like ‘deceit’, ‘abuse of trust’, even ‘fear’. Typical examples would include Scarp Godenot’s comment:

“It is a violation of friendship to not be trustworthy about who you appear”.

Also, Grog Waydelich’s observation:

“Alts are weird because you know the person is deliberately misleading you”.

It is by no means the case that everyone sees actives as a bad thing. Indeed, some have argued that identity exploration can be beneficial. “If you want to know who you really are”, suggested Wagner James Au in ‘The Making of Second Life’, “try on a role that’s decidedly not you”. He interviewed several immersionists, including Belee Baysklef who “really feels a connection to her core identity by being a furry”.

This brings us to the other Big Question regarding actives: “To what extent is an alternate identity somebody other than the personality driving the main avatar”? The common belief is: Not very different. This follows the conventional view that, yes, people act differently in different situations, but in doing so they are merely showing different sides of the same self. Au’s choice of words, “core identity” and “who you really are” are very much consistent with the idea that people can change on the surface, but deep down there is a solid, unchanging core. Pavig Writer spoke for the majority when she said:

“Frankly, I don’t believe in multiple selves – perhaps multiple aspects of self – but to separate them from one’s actual unity seems absurd”. You can call this the common-sense view of personal identity.

The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard once said, “Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the ‘real’ country, all of America, that is Disneyland”. The psychologist Sherry Turkle interpreted this in the following way: “Baudrillard means that once we experience the recreations of Disneyland, LA will strike us as real”. Turkle, among others, have gone on to suggest that online worlds and MMORPGs similarly affect us. We log off from an artificial online environment collaboratively constructed over a period of months and years, find ourselves in towns, cities, maybe farmlands- which are all artificial environments collaboratively constructed over decades and centuries- and what do we call such places? ‘Real Life’. But, if RL is just as artificial as SL, and common sense nothing more than convenient rules and guidelines invented to help find one’s way in these artificial places, perhaps the common-sense view of the self as a unitary identity has no basis beyond a convenient fiction that suits some societies?

That is the conclusion reached by philosophy, psychology and social theory. Certainly, from the 19th century onwards, Western philosophy has treated the self as essentially decentred. Neuroscience, too, as gathered more and more evidence that the unitary self is not the universal truth many seem to think it is. To really understand alts, then, we need to look beyond roleplaying in online worlds and look at such things as the relationships we build with everyday objects, what cognitive sciences have learned about the workings of the mind, and philosophical investigations into personal identity. It is that latter point that the next essay will focus on.

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