Online Role-Playing and Human Tradition
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” – Oscar Wilde
Before his death, the late Dr. Timothy Leary was fond of saying that “PCs were the LSD of the ‘90s.” The Divine Doctor was always a man ahead of his time and this quip remains relevant. In fact, this observation is truer now than it was in the 90’s. In many ways, the PC is the LSD of the new 21st Century.
As Dr. Leary (rightly) understood it, LSD peels back the culturally conditioned and neurochemically imprinted habits which anchor us to the mask we wear every day and mistake for our selves. The rise of the Internet does not provide us the same kind of universal solvent, but it does allow us to play with new guises and roles, in a unique way.
Let’s begin with the hallucinogens and ecstatic practices. Yoga, Zen, and various Tantric and Shamanic paths have been designed to achieve a similar state of plasticity, of malleability. Unlike psychedelics, these practices confer more control, and take longer to cultivate. However, there are nevertheless many similarities. In those idioms, this unfettered state has come to be known as “transcendence,” (or Satori, enlightenment, etc. The gist is the same.) Most vividly, it is named “ego death,” in that the semantic illusion of “self” or “identity” is unwound. Bombarded with uninterpretable signals, the mind is shocked free from its robotic cultural programming, resulting in a direct consciousness of the continuity of experience. Undergoing this, some become aware of themselves as a genuine avatar of the very Ground of Being, as a pattern emerging from the static. Perhaps we go “out of our minds,” as Uncle Tim used to say, “and come back to our senses.”
Philosophy, General Semantics, and those few branches of psychology that have demonstrated anything akin to therapeutic treatment, have all unequivocally demonstrated that the vast majority of social and psychological problems are rooted in semantic errors and philosophical misunderstandings. By coming back to our senses, by returning to a biological and somatic awareness of the organism in relation to its environment, we can let go of these erroneous cultural imperatives and double-binds, gaining a more directly experiential gnosis of living. This is the ecstasy and the “peace surpassing understanding,” of which the Saints and Shamans of all time have so lovingly spoken. We are the masks of God.
The arts of ecstasy, of stepping out of one’s “self,” have always been feared by the keepers of the status quo. Those idolatrous individuals who confuse words with what they were intended to signify, who favor the dead letter to the living spirit, have repeatedly attempted to prohibit the means by which humans attempt to seek liberation. The most sudden and drastically effective of these means are typically perceived as the most threatening to the received traditions of culture. They are also the most readily persecuted of approaches.
This is justified, to some extent. LSD, for instance, is not a magic bullet for the secrets of the universe. It does not come with any assurance of wisdom. There are many who have no idea what to do with a temporary liberation, once they’ve achieved it. Doors of perception can be opened, we still must step through them ourselves. Such individuals may well become burdens to society. Likewise, the person addicted to drunkenness is not the same as the Dionysian celebrant whose winebibbing intoxication is an act of sacramental self-transformation.
Some ways of liberation, such as those of the Aghora Tantra sects, even use transgression, taboo breaking and the direct confrontation and exploitation of fears and hang-ups to break the mind free of its Zombified conditioning. These methods, although quite effective, can be dangerous. Worse yet, they are always perceived as a threat by the priggish cults of social conformity. The Yoga of Transgression is the surest road to the gallows, cross or pyre.
Even without the assistance of any of these means, we are experiencing a shift of consciousness. Many people these days now go inside to go outside. The development of the personal computer, and nigh ubiquitous access to the World Wide Web, has given us a means by which to step outside of ourselves and learn to think and experience the world in new ways, all from within the comfort of our own brain.
The web has become a digital psychedelic so prevalent and so thoroughly integrated into our society, its technologies and sciences, that we have no recourse to prohibition. This is not some chemical to be outlawed. People aren’t gathering in secret congregations or underground clubs. McCarthy style Witch Hunts and Inquisitorial torture chambers are of no use. It’s uncertain where this is leading, but one thing is certain: we have grown dependent on this electronic info structure. If we were to somehow shut down the Internet or ban the PC, our society would likely grind to a screeching halt. Lives would end. Economies would crash. Civilization would fall apart overnight.
In the ‘90s, a budding movement of cybernetic shamans took the form of accessing and processing new information. We learned to think digitally and to communicate cross culturally. We discovered we could get to know people, or at least certain parts of their identities, without ever meeting them in person. Entire organizations and companies began to spring up between people who have rarely if ever met in person. (Editors note: We will be exploring some examples of this phenomenon in future Alterati articles.) We became savvy, and realized what has always been true: namely, that the person we meet is little more than a mask, however firmly ingrained in their nature. What we know of them constitutes a mere fraction of their total identity.
Internet predators and mischievous pranksters have shown us to what extent we may be deceived by the words of another. Chat Rooms taught us that words and information can create psychological locations, having no real world existence. Humanity began awakening to the hypnotic effects of words and the distortions created by thought. This too is no magic bullet. Every tool can be used or misused.
More recently, advances in technology have brought the Role Playing Game to the Internet. In this new millennium, we’ve seen people who spend countless hours of their waking life in a mutually created cyber-fantasy, fighting ogres and cyborgs, and interacting socially via deliberately created personalities. As actors, writers, artists, and tribal priests have long known, these adopted identities can take on a reality of their own. If we play a role long enough, we can begin to think in new ways. We adapt our behavior and respond to old situations in new and different fashion.
Of course, only a very small minority of Online Roleplayers are exploiting these innovations consciously, with an eye to creating new and beneficial changes in their daily lives and personalities. Nevertheless, the potential looms in the background, and the subconscious effect is real. A member of a tribe’s False Face Society, or some mummer, guiser or Punch and Judy Professor needn’t have set out to attain liberation from socio-semantic Maya, or even to create definitive changes in their own natures in order to experience startling moments in which they actually become the alter-ego which they portray. So too, the enthusiastic gamer may find him or herself responding from their character’s nature rather than their own. Or they may find themselves having genuine emotional and psychosomatic responses to digital game events occurring only within the rules of play and having no reality beyond the ones and zeros of binary cyberspace. If it wasn’t for this, how could booming virtual sex trades exist within worlds such as Second Life, where various sex acts are performed between the virtual avatars of people, oftentimes paying USD for the honor? Along with this virtual version of the one-night-stand, many people develop complex and very real relationships with people in these virtual worlds, which may even spill into our physical lives, for better or worse.
One friend relates a story of how, upon pressing the wrong key while fumbling around in Second Life, he accidentally begun massaging another player’s “avatar.” The other gamer reacted quite emotionally to a perceived invasion of her personal space and to this unwanted touching. She felt genuinely violated by this digital non-event. My friend, of course, became apologetic and defensive, as would any person whose accidental action had been so thoroughly misconstrued.
Since most of life’s problems and societies ills are the result of philosophical error and semantic dissonance, a massively multi-person online confrontation of the nature of self and the conditions of reality may provide people the psychic distance to work these things out. It matters little if, at first, this is attained only through play-acting. Real wealth becomes, more and more, replaced by information systems involving credits and debits. Fantasy world purchases cost real “money,” while genuine economic and social structures develop between fantasy personalities in a nonexistent game world. Meta-structures develop in which “real world” references exist in game reality, and some people even set up role-playing game communities within game worlds so that their characters in their MMOG of choice get together and, rather than going off on some adventure, hang out in cyberspace and play Dungeons & Dragons ™ or some other role-playing game. Children learn a great deal about the world through play-acting. Who is to say adults do not as well?
This Shakespearian layering of plays within plays, games within games, has the many levels of a Russian nesting doll, the complexity of a Chinese puzzle box, and the surreal dynamism of a Led Zeppelin Laser Show at the local Planetarium. It not only boggles the mind, but forces us to reexamine our lives and our preconceptions. Certainly, Socrates was right when he suggested that “an unexamined life is not worth living.” More to the point, however, an unexamined metaphysical presumption is dangerous and can lead to social and psychological damage, physical ailments, and even widespread ecological disaster. Unexamined metaphysics are unconscious metaphysics, and unconscious metaphysics are toxic.
Modern society has become largely desacralized, due to the inability and unwillingness of traditional spiritual culture to reexamine its fundamental preconceptions and keep up with the changing circumstances and moral necessities of the times. Thus we are forced to invent our own games, to create new characters, to experiment with new socials structures and to don masks of our own device. This is somewhat different than the method of the Shaman or Saint whose role-playing transformations involve culturally received characters and game-rules and for whom innovation comes directly from visionary experiences and moments of liberation. Even Uncle Tim’s LSD analogy isn’t quite right.
LSD directly suspends the conditionings and imprints, for a few hours. It permits not only moments of transcendent clarity, but also the direct formation of new neurochemical imprints. With Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, and the related wonders of PCs and World Wide Web, we are not lifted out of our cultural conditioning and semantic illusions. We don’t experience a direct transcendence or ego-death experience. With the Internet we are increasingly confronted with and involved in the illusions and game-rules of others. We are seduced into many different points of view. It becomes hard to trust information without investigating it thoroughly, and at some point we have to pull back and admit defeat in our search for absolute truth and undeniable fact. Truth becomes secondary to the reality of ones psychological needs and emotions. The MMORPGs give us the added advantage of adopting new personas, playing new games, and engaging in multi-layered perception. We aren’t suspending Maya, but shifting it around so much that we begin to perceive the cracks in the walls.
Under these conditions, it becomes obvious that under each mask is just another mask, and so on, until we come to the abyssal Void itself. This Ground of Being exists, as the Buddhists say, beyond namarupa (beyond “name and form”). We learn that our game rules, social presumptions, and perceived realities are as much a virtual construct as anything in cyberspace.
As the world stage and its play-acting become more obvious to more people, the jaded ennui and existential depression will eventually be faced, accepted, and understood. It will fall away as it too is rooted, not in the revelation of the truth beyond name and form, but in fearful attachment to the roles we play.
Inevitably, the Internet’s MTV montage approach to reality selection will have far reaching results. First, no doubt, we will experience this liberation process as a plague, like some alchemical poison released just before the dross of life is transmuted into philosophic gold. This is to be expected when we learn to integrate a new level of perception. In time, however, we may reap the rewards of this digital revelation and role-playing may teach us how to swim in the deep waters of ecstasy, how to navigate the formless truth.
By day, Brian Corra is project manager and game producer for High Adventure Games Designs, Inc. When not engaged in the production and development of their new Fantasy MMORPG, Tahana™: Out of Ruin™, he is best known for his work as a lay folklorist and student of anthropology, literature, comparative mythology, and religious studies. For the past 16 years, he has studied yoga, folklore and the Hermetic Sciences under the inimitable guidance of his longtime friend and mentor Endymion St.Cyr.