'Alter Ego': Portraits of Gamers Next to Their Avatars

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Unexpected and often moving human faces sit behind their fantastical digital bodies

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In 2003, British photographer Robbie Cooper was shooting the divorced CEO of a company, who shared that he used virtual world games to play with his children, a meeting them every evening in Everquest, where they would play and chat about mundane things like school and their mother. It was a way for him to connect with his kids, to whom he had little access after the divorce. Cooper recalls:

His description of the banal but emotionally important exchange, taking place in the vivid fantasy of the game, got me thinking about the nature of the game itself; it's a world of surface appearances and symbols. Within that, their interaction had been reduced to text; it was a technological extension of psychological models -- the imaginary, and the symbolic structure of language.

(Cue in yesterday's fascinating peek at iconic writers' thoughts on symbolism.)

So Cooper spent the next three years traveling the world, from France and Germany to Korea and China, to photograph virtual world players, placing their portraits next to their avatars. The results -- poignant, powerful, remarkably eye-opening -- are gathered in Alter Ego, a fascinating and, at its core, profoundly human glimpse of our quest for selfhood, identity, and social belonging. Micro-essays by each gamer offer a layered look at how we assemble our personas in a way that transcends the physicality of our bodies, our genetics, and our circumstances.

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Equal parts provocative and humbling, Alter Ego offers a timely meditation on the construction of our social and personal identities in an age when the line between the real and the virtual is, increasingly, not nearly as simple as the distinction between atoms and bits.

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This post appears courtesy of Brain Pickings, an Atlantic partner site.

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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