Online Masks and Masquerades

The author describes online role-playing forums (MUDs), where people overtly and deliberately play a character other than themselves, and how the character, over time, begins to morph to something closer than the real person.

She also indicates that people will do this in places where it is not invited: they will present themselves as someone else, either to appear to be more interesting than they really are, or in an attempt to mask their true personality.

Some form of deception - from exaggeration and omission to outright lying - is part of human interaction in all its forms. We present a slightly different version of ourselves in different situations, to accomplish different goals.

EN: The phenomenon of text RPGs in which people assumed the personas of characters is an interesting concept for a sociological and psychological perspective, but my sense is it's an isolated phenomenon that was popular among ... well ... socially inept nerds who were into card- and dice-based RPGs well before the Internet came along. I don't beleive the fad was ever popular among the general public, not even the general Internet population.


Role play is common among children, in "pretend" games. Much like a stage play, it follows certain rules: to stay in character, to help others do the same, and to perpetuate the pretense by staying within the fictional environment. If an exit has to be made to the real-world, the player must find a way to justify his exit in the pretense before resuming normal life.

Not only does this maintain the integrity of the pretense, but it creates a boundary that prevents "leakage" into the outside world.

There are areas of the Internet in which role play is expected: but even then, there are "danger" areas that push the bounds of tolerance. Gender-switching is a taboo in some forums. Pretending to be a person of a specific race, or a disabled person, or aught, is often considered to be out of bounds by other players. Much of this is subjective, but specific patterns of tolerance have emerged.

It is also questionable as to which forums are fodders for role play. There are certain forums where people are expected to be "themselves" rather than assuming a character, and assuming a character is considered to be bad form - especially by the individuals who are duped into believing the persona.


The author cites experience where individuals who are supposed to be keen at detecting deception (police officers, customs agents) fail to do so with any accuracy. The distance of the Internet - having only typed text and not visual or auditory cues, makes it even more difficult to detect deceit. Add to that the fact that the deceiver gains experience and learns to cover his "tells," and deceit is extremely difficult to detect.

She refers to the "dance" between deceit and suspicion as a quality of the Internet. Anyone we "meet" online may be lying about their identity - or they may not. Do we accept the lies of the deceivers as well as the honest personas, or do we distrust the latter because of the former.

The danger zone, she says, is that there is no frame between the imaginary and the actual, and role-play is no longer a consensual arrangement in limited environments.