The Learner with a Thousand Identities

One of my pet interests is that of identity. Gee not only devotes a whole chapter on idenity (and learning), but also another chapter that looks at identity (and culture). Gee suggests that learning that takes place within, what he describes as “semiotic domains”, or as he puts it more plainly: “an area or set of activities where people think, act and value in certain ways” (2007, p. 19) requires the learner to create and take on new identities as well as “forming bridges” between the learner’s old identities to their new one (2007, p. 45).

These “semiotic domains” could be a science laboratory, so the learner “thinks and acts” as a scientist; or a kitchen, so the learner “thinks and acts” as a chef. In the realm of the video game, the player either has to construct their character from scratch if it is a role playing game (RPG) or they adopt the identity of the game’s main protagonist, be it Mario, Sonic the Hedgehog, Max Payne or Lara Croft; so the “semiotic domains” become a fantastical and improbable world; the rain strewn streets of New York; or an archaeological dig somewhere in the mountains of Peru.

This is where Gee (2007, pp. 48-51) presents his fascinating “tripartite” perspective to identity where three complex and interrelating identities are at play:?“real-world” (as “played by” the individual themselves and are imbued with a variety of competing/complementary identities); “virtual” (as “played out” by the individual’s alter-ego or “avatar” which can be seen as aspirational identities that befit a particular role); and “projective” (as “played towards” being a certain type of person / role based upon the individual’s own dispositions). Gee articulates this “tripartite” of identities in the following way:

  • student as scientist (real-world identity)
  • student as scientist (virtual identity)
  • student as scientist (projective identity)

Gee introduces another concept, that of the?”psychosocial moratorium” (2007, p, 59), which was first introduced by psychologist Erik Erickson,  which has been used to describe the suspension of responsibility and accountability that allows players to explore alternate identities without the repercussions and dangers that one might face in real life; i.e. a player as a neurosurgeon performing brain surgery.

Gee (2007, pp. 53-54) suggests that the relationship of “player as virtual character” is a powerful one as it:

…transcends identification with characters in novels or movies, for instance, because it is both active (the player actually does things) and reflexive, in the sense that once the player has made some choices about the virtual character, the virtual character is now developed in a way that sets certain parameters about what the player can now do.

The above statement reminds me of “The Hero with a Thousand Faces“; Campbell’s (1993) seminal work featuring the journey of the archetypal hero that can be found in most world mythologies and has been a device adopted by many storytellers including J.R.R. Tolkien‘s “The Lord of the Rings” triology and George Lucas‘ “Star Wars” franchise. Each deals with a “rite of passage” – for the learner, this could be interpreted as a “learning footprint” or “learning trajectory” – that would ultimately result in some kind of sacrifice – for the learner, this could mean supplanting previously held beliefs or knowledge or letting go of some kind of redundant idenity – that would lead to some kind of transformation – again, for the learner, this could mean the assimilation of new beliefs or knowledge or acquiring a new identity.

Blinka (2008) offers an interesting insight between the relationship of the player and their avatar; Blinka’s (2008) paper seems to suggest that the younger the player, the more they identify themselves as the?avatar and that for all age groups daydreaming and emotional feelings towards their avatar, was found to be important.

In the “Cultural Models” chapter, Gee introduces the idea that players can also play the “bad guy” as well as the “good guy” which means adopting the identity of the “other“; this shadowy arch-nemesis. He states (Gee, 2007, p. 158) that:

…far more interactively that you could in any novel or movie, you would have experienced the ‘other‘ from the inside …? since the cultural models built?into the game are not yours, you would be able to reflect on them?in a more overtly conscious way…

Depending on the role of the “other”, for?some of us, this role-reversal may actually be a real eye opener or may take us down very uncomfortable and threatening avenues of inquiry and experience. Uncomfortable questions may be asked of our identities – a real “looking glass” moment that is reflected back to us in all of its most uncomfortable, uncompromising and unflinching reality.


Blinka, L. (2008). The Relationship of Players to Their Avatars in MMORPGs: Differences between Adolescents, Emerging Adults and Adults. Cyberpsychology: Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace. 2(1). [online]. Available at: [Accessed 19 March 2009].

Campbell, J. (1993). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Fontana Press.

Gee, J.P. (2007). What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy (Revised and Updated Edition). New York, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

Suler, J. (2002). Identity Management in Cyberspace. The Psychology of Cyberspace. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 19 March 2009].

Suler, J. (2004). Personality Types in Cyberspace. The Psychology of Cyberspace. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 19 March 2009].

Suler, J. (2007). The Psychology of Avatars and Graphical Space in Multimedia Chat Communities. The Psychology of Cyberspace. [online]. Available at: [Accessed 19 March 2009].