Role-Playing Gamers Let Photographer Behind Their Online Mask

'Alter Ego' project documents players alongside their avatars.

If you play games, Robbie Cooper wants to know what you look like.

As a photojournalist, Cooper has covered conflicts in Somalia, Angola and Afghanistan, but for the last two years he's traveled the world to see what gamers look like. Cooper has focused on people who play massively multiplayer online games (MMOs), collecting photographic evidence of what the Jedis of "Star Wars Galaxies," the pinups of "Second Life" and the knights of "Lineage" look like in the flesh.

He pairs photos of the real people with photos of their characters for a project called "Alter Ego." The exhibition opened in England last year, travels to Amsterdam this month and will hit American cities, including New York and Atlanta, next week. [An exhibition schedule is available at www.alterego.net].

"The first thing you think, doing something like this, is someone playing in an online environment would want to keep their identity secret, but that turned out to not be the case at all," Cooper told MTV News.

From the U.S. to Korea, Cooper found gamers willing to show the faces behind their digital masks. Working with writer/researcher Tracy Spaight, he found Yoon Yae, a TV agent who is also the stressed-out king of one of the 33 realms in "Lineage," a game played by millions of Koreans. Cooper also discovered a Danish player named Kim who is married to one woman in real life and another — a California gamer — online.

In Texas he found Jason, a gamer whose muscular dystrophy has restricted him to the point that he can only move his thumb. Online he is a mighty warrior in "Star Wars Galaxies." "His avatar was kind of heroic," Cooper said. "The whole experience for him wasn't trying to be something different. It was also trying to win respect of his peers in the game."

Cooper met an unassuming mom whose sultry avatar posed as the first pinup in an online magazine in the MMO "Second Life." And he met a gamer named April, whose low self-esteem led her to look and act as different from her real self as possible when she played online. After discovering that people reacted better to her when she behaved like her real self, April slowly morphed her character to more closely resemble what she really looks like.

 

Check out Robbie Cooper's Alter Ego photos.


The photographer himself played games nonstop during a phase in his 20s, but that had ended by the time he met an executive who was keeping in touch with his kids through an MMO. The executive was divorced and stayed in contact with the distant children through a game, which became the place where they could discuss "doing homework, what mommy said, what happened at school and stuff like that."

That inspired Cooper to discover more of the faces and stories behind online gamers. "There's this huge culture that's growing and growing, and no one's really covering it in a documentary way," he remembered thinking. "The first thing that I realized was that pictures of people sitting in front of computers or consoles or whatever is boring, and it doesn't explain at all what's happening, the excitement you feel. It would be like trying to document the film industry by photographing rows of people sitting in the cinema."

Cooper said his work has been well-received, though he said there has been some pressure from members of the art world to photograph only those gamers who conformed to stereotype. "I've been advised to only do people who look like geeks and do avatars that are more expressive than the human," he said. "Sometimes people want you to cater to a prejudice, which I find just dull."

While he has been photographing and exhibiting his work since last year, it was only in 2005 that he made his way to Asia, where massively multiplayer online games are the most popular. "There were quite a few people where it was actually really hard to tear them away from the screen," Cooper said of his trip. During some interviews, the gamers never looked away from the game.

Cooper spent a month traveling through Korea and China with Spaight, tracking down clans of Korean gamers who assemble 600-strong to defend their castle. He found a male professor who plays online as a little girl, hoping to use pixie charm to woo better items from fellow gamers. And he found hustlers, clever gamers who accumulate in-game valuables (or hire others to do so) and sell them back for profit.

He became fascinated by Koreans who make a living from gaming. "You've got pro gamers who are advertising mainstream products like mobile phones," he said. "I went to a pro-gaming tournament and these guys had bouncers, and I thought this was a bit of posturing. But then I saw them going down the street, and they were getting absolutely mobbed. ... There were girls chasing them down the street and stuff."

Cooper is planning a more in-depth photo project on pro gamers for the next stage of his work. And while he's at it, he's ready to brush up on his own avatar. Covering the gaming scene has brought him back into the game world and has required him to figure out how he'd like to look online. He first went for what he termed a "cheesy" look, but now he's thinking of something a bit different. "I might want to get a Pac-Man type avatar," he explained. "I've just realized how nostalgic I am for games — much more so than movies."