Dark City: Avatar Identity
For those who have not encountered Dark City, it is a 1998 detective thriller film, with a very unusual premise. It takes place in what is ultimately revealed to be a synthetic world; a worldlet hanging in space, surrounded by nothingness, and whose fabric of reality is subject to continuous change at the whim of its administrators, called Strangers. The lives of the populace of this worldlet unfold purely at the Strangers' whim, with memories and matter just as easily manipulated.
This memory manipulation is fascinating, for two reasons. One, the question of identity in a world where memories can be interchanged, lost and grafted like swapping cards, will be addressed in another article.
The other reason, is the flipside of the first: A world in which the face you see one day, the avatar, may be housing a completely different mind, the next.
This is an issue already seen in some virtual environments. In particular the ones who perhaps do not have the ability to offer fully personalised avatars, but only have a number of defaults, or a set, finite number of construction pieces to choose from. The very real possibility then exists that the 'person' you interacted with this morning, won't be the person you interact with this afternoon, even though they look identical.
In Dark City, every 24 hours, all the inhabitants of the city under the Stranger's control - almost all of them - are sent to sleep, no matter what they are doing. Then their conscious minds are probed, memories erased, personality traits changed, new memories implanted. None of them have any memory of who they were before the change; only of their current lives.
Yet, for those who weren't changed - the players if you will, what they see is people who look exactly like people they know, but dress, think, talk and walk differently. Additionally, these people have no names above their heads, telling you who they are. As a result, every visual identifier of personality is broken. It becomes impossible to identify an individual by facial features alone, or height or body shape, because the next time someone with all of those parameters exactly matching is met, it might well be a completely different person.
This is why, in the film, and in other films that explore similar concepts, those directly involved often go slowly mad, as it is all but impossible to pin down a sense of identity from the avatar alone.
In chat venues that use a limited selection of 3D avatars to choose from, many users have reported they enlarge the chat window completely over the 3D view, as they bond better with the individuals when they only see a name - the avatar actually makes it harder when there are a host of other, identical avatars wandering about. Seeing such forms confuses the identity issue when seen from a 3rd party, and actually hinders interaction.
If you are going to have a virtual environment, effort needs to be spared on the avatar creation and customisation process to ensure it is possible for every individual to have a unique avatar. Only then, can social dynamics involving virtual forms, function as they should.