Those Virtual Lyin' Eyes

A new game challenges Netizens to mask their identities and strip others' online masks away. In the Turing Game, a takeoff on the 1970s game show To Tell the Truth, a virtual audience grills panelists to uncover who's lying. Sociologists are monitoring the show, hoping to extract some useful data, and at least one computer scientist is trying to get a Ph.D. thesis out of it.

The game is named in honor of the late mathematician Alan Turing, one of the first people to recognize that the definition of "intelligence" changes due to the underlying assumption that "intelligence is whatever humans can do that computers can't." If a computer fools a human questioner into thinking it is human, it should be called intelligent, Turing posited. Although no one is claiming that a female impersonator who fools a virtual audience is, by definition, a female, online personas are raising questions about identity just as computers have raised questions about intelligence.

Contestants in the game, launched last month, have explored themes ranging from race and religion to politics and sex. The only time people are supposed to be honest is at the end of a game, when participants reveal whether they had assumed a false identity, says the game's creator, Joshua Berman, a computer science grad student at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

Berman is collaborating with social scientists and rhetoricians to analyze the game logs and characterize how people construct an online identity. Some of the most telling exchanges, he says, come from "moments of surprise and moments of learning." For instance, when an honest female panelist's audience is convinced she's a man and then learns the opposite, "it gets you asking, 'Are you just closed-minded? Were you looking for something specific? Why is this [other panelist] more of a woman than I am?' "