In 2003 I was photographing the CEO of a company, when he told me that he used virtual world games to play with his children. He was divorced and had bad access to them, so he would meet them every evening in “Everquest”, where they would play and chat. I asked him, what did they talk about? He told me that they discussed things like homework, school, their mother; the normal stuff of humdrum reality.
His description of this 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.
Reading the work of the economist Edward Castronova, it was already obvious that these surface appearances were rapidly achieving significant real world value, as items for sale between players. Castronova’s 2001 paper “Virtual Worlds: A First Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier” now seems quaint in how far it underestimated the rate of growth in this secondary market. But the level of demand was already climbing at an extraordinary rate.
I spent the next three years, on and off, travelling to places like Korea, China, France and Germany to photograph people who use virtual world games. By recording the appearance of the real person, alongside that of their avatar, I wanted to compare each person with the identity that they’d created to interact with others online. At the same time I assembled texts written by each person with the help of Tracy Spaight, and Bruno Ceschel. Alter Ego was published as a book in 2007, by Chris Boot Ltd.