‘Proteus, that God of Shapes’: Nick Yee’s Proteus Paradox (2013)


By Kristin Bezio

Nick Yee, the mastermind behind the Daedalus Project, mixes pop culture and social psychology in The Proteus Paradox: How Online Games and Virtual Worlds Change Us – And How They Don’t, a study that examines several general social concerns and how they change – or don’t – when engaged with in online games and virtual communities. Yee’s work as a researcher spans both social and technological science, and his facility with games suggests that he is also a frequent denizen of the digital realms he studies.

Yee’s book is a broad sweep across a variety of relationships – love, friendship, leadership – and social concerns – gender, sexuality, identity. He does so with surprising depth given the breadth of the book, and manages to remain both objective and poignant when dealing with politically and socially sensitive topics – such as gender and romance.

These were my two favorite chapters in the book, one for academic reasons, the other because of the amusing (and somewhat sappy) anecdotes recounted of people who met their husband/wife/SO in online gameplay. But maybe that’s just my personal bias showing.

Yee’s discussion of why and how people choose their avatars is interesting, but it consists largely of statistical reporting and contains less analysis and explanation than some of his other sections, especially that on gender, where he manages to sound neither defensive nor preachy (which is amazingly difficult given the often heated nature of the discussion). He points out that there are a certain set of assumptions made about players-presumed-to-be-female, holdovers from the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the player base for most online and even offline games was statistically much more likely to be young and male.

These holdovers – that female players are less experienced, don’t like violence, can’t strategize, and spend less time playing than their male counterparts – are harmful not only to the female players, Yee notes, in a variety of ways, but also to the male players with whom they play. Assumptions of incompetence, in particular, can hurt a Guild or team in cooperative play, and create a general atmosphere of hostility for everyone involved in the exchange.

But what the book ultimately concludes is that despite the utopian rhetoric we bandy about that claims that people can be anything they want online, we as players and members of the gaming community bring all our psychological, social, and political baggage with us, whether we’re wearing avatars that look like us or avatars with wings, green skin, pointy ears, fur, or tusks. We pick up on cues about a player’s origins, gender, sexuality, and age, and we judge them for those cues – whether or not we’re right about them (and certainly we are not right to do so).

The Proteus Effect is the idea that we believe that our IRL (in real life) identity ceases to matter when we cross over the virtual barrier of digital games, but, as a matter of fact, it often matters even more online than it does off. Online we don’t have bodies that can easily communicate our intelligence, our attitudes, our emotions. Online, all we have are the macrocues of names, word choice, voicechat, and IP address, and those can produce highly misleading and potentially harmful stereotypes about our race, gender, sexuality, and age – whether they are correct or not.

We believe ourselves Protean gods, capable of shifting who and what we are at the click of a mouse or press of a controller button, but, Yee argues, we aren’t. We radiate, even in virtual space, our politics, our beliefs, our education, and our social identity in ways we most likely do not even realize. And those cues (mis)lead others into judgments about us – just as they lead us into (mis)judgments about them.

Comments (1)

[…] My review of Nick Yee’s recent book, The Proteus Paradox, is up over on TLF. Bonus points to anyone who can identify the reference in the article title. […]

Leave a comment