Identity Play Suzanne Gibbs Howard

People’s confidence with ambiguity leads to increased flirtation with multiple personalities

Identity Play can be a deep or shallow experience. It can be a personal revelation. A one-night holiday from your 9-5 personality. Or a new look created on a whim in front of the bathroom mirror.

It can happen with an impulsive decision, like ordering an herb-infused cocktail or renting an exotic sports car at the airport. Or it can become a regular part of someone’s life, such as logging in nightly to a virtual world.

In whatever way it happens, Identity Play allows people to explore a wider variety of experiences and enjoy a more fluid sense of self.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

The rockstar lifestyle comes standard at the Standard

Forget pillow menus and fresh-baked cookies. What draws guests to the LA Downtown Standard is the hotel’s ability to transform an ordinary businessman into the frontman of an indie rock band.

A seat at the rooftop bar puts guests in the midst of what feels like an exclusive industry party. Starlet-wannabes in knee socks serve cocktails to the pretty people lounging on vibrating waterbed pods next to the infinity pool. Edgy movies project against the building next door. And everyone is scanning the crowd for star-power.

On a visit to LA, guests eschew their normal choice of Westin or Marriott for a place that, just for a night, helps them crank their personality up to 11. Of course, none of this happens by chance. Hotel designers know exactly what effect they’re creating, right down to the vomiting stick-figure illustrations decorating guestroom trash cans.

Image credit: Daquella Manera

Redefining beauty is a daily routine

For Elisha, 22, her morning beauty routine is an opportunity to define herself for the day. Surrounded by a myriad of products and potions, she can decide on a whim to straighten her hair, wear it wavy or add product to mimic perfect bed-head. By wearing different scents or switching lipsticks, Elisha has no shortage of options. For her, this morning ritual lets her make a variety of small choices about who she wants to be that day.

Transitional identities reside in Second Life

Virtual world pixie robot or stay-at-home mom? Second Life makes it possible to be both. Not content to accept the limiting perceptions others have of her in daily life, Hungarian mother Franciska chooses to express her wilder side in a unique environment where reality is loosely defined.

And while her own avatar closely resembles her true self, many people push their alternate identities to more extreme levels. Opposite genders. Mythical creatures. Some even take the form of their own dream partner.

Through Second Life, Franciska has been able to nurture deep relationships across the globe, even going so far as to vacation in the “real world” with fellow Second Life residents. She says she prefers these friendships because they allow her to engage as the person she believes herself to be rather than the one society assumes she is.

Image credit: Cosmic Kitty

Growing into your looks

Walking away from a high-powered job to travel the world says something about a person. So does sporting a moustache. When Michael left Austin to indulge his wanderlust, he soon decided to forgo the razor and shaving cream. When he came back, instead of cleaning up and returning to his former life, he decided to keep his facial hair as an expression of the new person he’d become. His original beard was groomed into various goatees, moustaches, and soul patches as he tried out different ways of being.

Gen Y manipulates identity across age and ethnicity

Time travel and teleportation are typical themes in science fiction, but now Gen Y is pushing these boundaries in their daily lives. Caucasian Carrie celebrates Mexican culture in her home and loves retro video games that were high-tech before she was born. And while we all go through processes of identity formation when we’re young, with today’s wider array of options, it’s possible to play with a variety of cultures across the globe and throughout time.

Imaginary friends are no match for the virtual kind

When kids can lead alternative lives online, who needs imaginary friends? New York Times author, Michelle Slatalla recently wrote an article about her 10-year-old daughter’s assortment of virtual playrooms. Club Penguin. Planet Cazmo. Dizzyworld. In the first half of 2008, there were over 100 virtual worlds for tweens. Slatalla’s daughter plays online Scrabble and tells opponents she is a French single mother of twins (Jacques and Pierre) who has moved to the States to improve her English.

Mrs. Robinson still has the power to seduce

When is a simple glance enough to get the attention of an attractive stranger in a crowded room? When it’s performed by someone with Mrs. Robinson sensibilities. In San Francisco, a group of women draw upon The Graduate’s Mrs. Robinson archetype to express bolder parts of themselves. One initiate says, “Mrs. Robinson is desired by many, though they do not know what necessarily draws them to her. That power is not common. It is channeled. It exudes…To do as Mrs. Robinson does one must find that deep dark energy inside that, with utter control and a ‘balls to the wall’ mentality, permeates from every pore.” -


Peter Bromka

October 22, 2009

There has been much discussion and analysis about the emerging class distinctions between Facebook and Myspace:

I’ve always felt it was about whether Identity Play was of high or low value to the individual.  If you’re a teenager of lower/middle class who sees less inherent value and opportunity in their “authentic identity"on Facebook than it makes sense that the ability to customize and reinvent on MySpace would be crucial.

Are you more powerful as the person others see you as or the person you see yourself as?  I imagine for many people it depends on the context.

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Suzanne Gibbs Howard

October 27, 2009

Hi Peter and Tim,
Thanks for this great discussion. Interesting questions about authenticity and play. My personal take is that for people these days - they don’t need to feel limited to a single sense of self. And one permanent, solid identity. We have greater permission, through a variety of media, to experiment and try out different facets of our selves. Whereas before, society told us we had to have one more precise “self”.

I like what Tim is saying about designs that give people an easy place to try on new IDs. When they are easy to change out if they feel wrong, people will push it further. We’re coming up on Halloween where all sorts of Identity play can take place.

Check out Isabela De Mello’s PATTERN on “Redesigning Masculinity” where she talks about similar things needing to be more available particularly in design for men:

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Greg Sedbrook

November 29, 2009

Hello,  I have been able to lead a dual life for a number of years, Fl in the Winter, Minn. in the Summer- what is always interesting is to see what yo had missed or didn’t about your life each place on returning. Would recommend THE INSANITY OF NORMALITY- Arno Gruen, or THE BOOK - on the taboo of knowing who you are-
Alan Watts .  I used to write a column for a newsletter on Transformation, and find that trying to assimilate another culture is a total reinterpretation of your personality and very awakening. 
Also question what is ego, cultural conditioning, and that real maturity is integration of the self- where you don’t have widely different acts for different people you know/meet. 
And Krishnamurti asks the question “Who is it that is asking these questions to who in you?”  THE VELVETEEN PRINCIPLES is a good book on “being real”.

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Suzanne Gibbs Howard

November 30, 2009

Greg, Thanks so much for your thoughts here. I’m looking forward to reading Gruen’s book and love your connections here to Krishnamurti. Thanks for reading and leaving these additional directions. - Suzanne

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Jack Kinsella

January 6, 2010

Fantastic piece, Suzanne. I’ve had similar ideas myself but could never articulate them as well or as interestingly as you have.

An aside that occurred to me is the growing experience greed in our culture. In a sentence experience greed is identity play taken too far. This greed causes people to adopt many, sometimes incongruent identities. An all too common example is cheating- in identity play terminology cheating is when a man plays husband 99% of the time and then bachelor other 1% of the time. It doesn’t work.

Sure identity play allows people to explore a wider variety of experiences and enjoy a more fluid sense of self, but no, this isn’t necessarily a good thing.

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April 26, 2010

Hi Jack,

This is an excellent point. When does Identity play get taken too far? Although it may have become more “normal” when taken to an extreme, what does it give people “permission” to do? When can it cause harm? What new social norms/rules/etiquette do we need to navigate this modern life and culture?

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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Jennifer Flower, Ph.D

December 21, 2010

I see this initiative a lot in people who now recognize the opportunity to experiment - virtually and actually - along with a competing reluctance to take any public chances due to how very public and persisting the traces are.

The conflict become a serious deterrent to experiment when we think about the business consequences of showing up radical or at least radically different from how we had been seen before.

What’s abroad about you is marketing, inasmuch as it’s what people use to build an impression of you and of what you have to offer in the market.  But if you can make yourself comfortable with building that plasticity into your self-definition it’s a lot easier and more fun to play and play along. 

Your market can’t give you permission.  You have to.

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