Back in 2003, photographer Robbie Cooper photographed dozens of portraits of online gameplayers alongside their avatars for a book called ALTER EGO. The book is an incredible illustration of the ways that digital platforms have transformed fixed physical characteristics into a virtual wardrobe that can be donned or dismissed with a few clicks of a button. This phenomenon might be trivial if online identity were all "just a game"—but the truth is, the line between online and offline identity has increasingly blurred. Writing about a study he conducted exploring gender identity among MMO participants, researcher Lukas Blinka wrote in the journal Cyberpsychology in 2008 that “the data...shows that younger players tend to identify with — i.e. not to distinguish from — their avatars, and the younger the respondents were, the stronger the phenomenon." What are the implications for traditional aspects of identity in a context where they can be so freely and fluidly altered? What does the ability to hide or disguise identity mean in particular for the experience of race — and racism — online? This panel will debate whether digital platforms can enhance racial engagement and understanding, or simply encourage conscienceless and consequence-free acts of hatred and abuse — and explore how online identity is forcing us to confront new ways of thinking about race, ethnicity and gender.
Lisa Nakamura is the Director of the Asian American Studies Program, Professor in the Institute of Communication Research and Media Studies and Cinema Studies Department and Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. She is the author of Digitizing Race: Visual Cultures of the Internet (University of Minnesota Press, 2008), Cybertypes: Race, Ethnicity and Identity on the Internet (Routledge, 2002) and co-editor of Race in Cyberspace (Routledge, 2000) and Race After the Internet (Routledge, forthcoming 2011).
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