Identity parade

Professor Mark Griffiths explores why people choose their online screen names and what it really says about them

Recently, I was involved in a survey of 2,000 people on poker names for an online poker site. The results revealed that around 45% of men and women were using (or would use) alternative names when playing online poker to give them an advantage. I found these results somewhat predictable as (a) many people use alternative names in online activities, and (b) most will adopt strategies if they feel it has a material advantage for them. As online poker grows, more people will use bluff tactics, such as changing their gender online, which they couldn’t do in an offline gambling environment.

There are many parallels between playing online poker and other online gaming activities such as computer gaming. However, online role-playing computer gamers take on different social personas by definition. In online activities, personas are created purely by what’s typed on screen. These are known as ‘text-based virtual realities’ and the name under which a person chooses to play is just one strategy that people can adopt when playing against opponents if they believe it offers them an advantage.

The survey found that 11% of men and 25% of women would use a name that suggested they were a member of the opposite sex in order to give themselves an advantage. In most online arenas, women are more likely to change their gender or use masculine versions of their real name, such as Chris instead of Christine. There are good reasons for this. In male-dominated chat rooms, it’s usual for women to receive lots of male attention the moment they log on. Many women adopt male personas as a way of avoiding unwanted male attention.

In online game-playing arenas, women often adopt male personas, as they usually experience less psychological intimidation and/or alienation by doing so. Our own research has also shown that women have more positive attitudes toward online gambling because the internet is a gender-neutral environment, unlike the more male-dominated offline environments such as betting shops and casinos.

Online poker permits players to create a false identity. For others, it allows anonymity. As a player, you could adopt the facade of being a young, attractive, novice, female player when in fact you’re actually a very experienced, recognised pro.On a psychological level, the key to a ‘hustle’ or manipulating other players in poker is by projecting a character and hiding your identity. Essentially, it’s about keeping up a facade, whether it’s for one hand or the whole of the game. While playing poker online, a player can adopt any ‘character’ they wish to suit any game in which they engage. For instance, if you’re playing with novices, it may be profitable to come across as an experienced professional to intimidate players into submission.

Using the chat facility provided, it’s easier for online poker players to develop their persona(s). The tone and pitch of what a player ‘says’ isn’t revealed in the text on the screen. At a fundamental level, all players are acting with their most unemotional ‘poker face’. In these situations, players can exude confidence as they go all-in on a psychological bluff, when in reality they may be shaking and sweating like a pig. The key to winning on a psychological level is inducing emotional reactions from other players, so with knowledge of the opponent, it’s possible to ‘tailor’ interactions in order to induce the desired response.

Image has become all-important in the commercial arena and for some online poker players it’s no different.One of the most important things about poker names is that they may help players define their self image and who they are – at least on some psychological level. For some people, this ‘personal branding’ may be more important than their social identities within a playing community. What you gamble on and what name you choose can be an extension of this. At the very least, names are important in initial impressions. However, whether they have any longer-lasting effect remains open to debate.

Some people do clearly think about the name they use and the image it projects. For instance, one player well known to our research unit at Nottingham Trent University goes under the online name ‘Dostoyevsky’ – the famous Russian novelist who wrote the semi-autobiographical book The Gambler based on his own experiences. The use of the online name suggests an air of intellectuality and knowingness. Whether it actually makes any difference to the playing behaviour of Dostoyevsky’s opponents is highly questionable.

What’s more, our own research suggests the names people choose have a minimal effect online. They seem to be given more credence by amateur players. Experienced players say that because of the micro-limits and mass of novices, the bluff of name change and/or image makes little difference to their playing behaviour.

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