Note: This was written as a research paper for a class that focused on new media and video games. Consider this a rough-draft for a larger paper I would like to write on the concept of agency and gameplay.
The individual is confronted with two types of video games, games that allow avatar customization, and games that do not. In the early years of game design, programmers were forced to rely on abstract representations of self to provide a significant level of agency in game; that preference for abstraction persists. The popularity of old games such as Pac-Man and Battlezone, and more contemporary games such as Minecraft and Super Meat Boy is a testament to the ability of abstract games to explore themes,
“of a greater inner unrest inspired in man by phenomena of the outside world.” (15)
For a player, “being” a spaceship, tank, or even a ping-pong paddle can provide a person with a sense of agency.
“In a specifically agential sense, [these] avatars reduplicate and render in visible form their player’s actions — they complete an arc of desire.” (16)
Abstract games provide agency to run when being chased, to fight when being attacked, and to rescue that which has been lost. Contemporary games borrow from this principle; they allow for players to explore representations of identity in increasingly greater detail.
While current in-game representations of the player are imperfect, games that simulate
“first-person perspectives, graphically sophisticated bodies, and camera movement suggesting corporeal presence [underscore] an obsessive concern with the avatar’s function as acting stand-in for the player.” (17)
Of the many boundaries that exist within games, the relationship between player and avatar has the largest effect on a player’s ability to reconstruct her identity in a game. (18) Abstraction aside, the individual longs for a sense of immersion and engagement — of deep play — to experience presence in her alternate reality. (19) The more closely an avatar resembles the player, the easier it is for players to subconsciously transfer concealed emotions to fictitious characters;
“While using an electronic medium in which subject and object, what is real and imagined, are not clearly separated, the player loses his identity, projecting himself inward, becoming the ‘other,’ and identifies with the character in the game.” (20)
The more we feel that we are our avatars, the more control we have over the game play. We are given rules and perimeters to follow; we are given objectives, and subsequently rewarded for completing them — this kind of agency gives us a semblance of control unobtainable IRL.21 To the individual,
“…avatars are not an escape from [the] ’self,’ they are, rather, a longed-for chance of expressing ourselves beyond physical limitations, they are a post-modern dream being materialized.” (22)
Avatars can more readily provide a reaffirmation of the self in ways that activities and exploration IRL might easily fall short. By extension, the exploration of the self in solitary game play allows the individual to explore themes and aspects of identity unavailable in either virtual or IRL social spaces,
“Online video games promoting widespread social play generate strict social hierarchies with strong normative guidelines, often only peripherally related to game goals. These hierarchical groups—guilds, fellowships, kin- ships, etc.—tend to restrict video game object-value relationships much as simulations do, and, as a result, either protect or prevent (depending on your point of view) individual players from fully accessing a video game aesthetic. If so, then the primary function of video game social play is to control and deny the experience of self.” (23)
Instead, the social extension of identity reaffirmation is best found repopulated online in the form of online game communities.
Online and offline, in game-specific communities, the individual can seek refuge (or experience rejection) with her avatar, that through play connects her to others who have share similar game experiences. How the game stimulates each player is inherently different (and ultimately, unimportant (24)), but this only helps create a more diverse online community. Ultimately, all communities are brought together through like-minded ideologies, shared interests or shared spaces; game communities function similarly. These communities manifest in many ways, including (but not limited to) online forums, wikis, IRL conventions, and collaborative blogs. (25) Online, the individual can be safely reaffirmed in her alternate identity, or she can extend her presence from the virtual world to the real one. If she meets others offline (IRL) she is affirmed more intensely, as her body and mind experience a merge of virtual and IRL identities. (26) Alternately, it is possible for her alternate identity to be rejected. Unfortunately, these experiences IRL are not frequently studied in psychological or sociological texts.
It is worth mentioning as a temporary aside that identity rejection in virtual spaces is more frequently experienced by females and racial minorities by means of discriminatory acts and hate speech, in-game. Such instances are just now being documented by web blogs such as fatuglyorslutty.com and Gambit, a project initiated by students at MIT. (27) In addition, the rejection of Jared Laughner, the man behind the recent shooting massacre in Tuscan, AZ, in online game communities was well documented by the Wall Street Journal and other game community members. (28) In terms of how identity rejection affects immersion, presence and agency in games, no definitive analysis has qualitatively tackled this. However, it is expressly obvious to this researcher, by means of watching videos and reading written accounts by players targeted by perpetrators of bias, that these interactions in game at the very least negatively affect the self-esteem of the player IRL.
Jane McGonigal’s recent book, Reality is Broken, attributes a lack of agency for the individual to an unsatisfactory reality; we feel disconnected because we are disconnected. However, she confines her understanding of experienced agency to the shortfalls of the industrial complex, and attributes the powers of agency in games to social gaming, or “games that do good.” This analysis of agency in creating happiness IRL is ultimately short-sighted. McGonigal’s poster game for social play, World of Warcraft, has both social and solitary play built into its framework. (29) Any analysis of game play that ignores or invalidates solitary play is ultimately ignoring the reality for many gamers: the individual can be pleasured in game without human interaction. To write off individual play as strictly entertainment, that might be classified much like reading a book or watching a film, also ignores the various levels of agency granted to the wary adventurer, looking in games for self-fulfillment, individual accomplishment, and identity exploration.
(15) Worringer, Wilhelm. 1953. Abstraction and empathy; a contribution to the psychology of style. New York: International Universities Press, 15.
(16) Bob Rehak, “Playing at Being,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003), 104.
(17) Alison McMahan, “A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games,” 69.
(18) Bob Rehak, “Playing at Being,” 104.
(19) Alison McMahan, “A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games,” 69.
(20) Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” 91.
(21) McGonigal, Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world, 49-50.
(22) Miroslaw Filiciack, “Hyperidentities,” 100.
(23) David Myers, “The Video Game Aesthetic,” in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2009), 57.
(24) Clive Fencott, “Presence and the content of Virtual Environments,” (1999). Available online at <http://web.onyxnet.co.uk/Fencott-onyxnet.co.uk/pres99/pres99.htm>.
(25) Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between worlds: exploring online game culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
(26) Taylor, Play between worlds: exploring online game culture, 1-20.
(27) Gambit. Gambit Hate Speech Project. http://gambit.mit.edu/projects/hatespeech.php.
(28) Alexandra Berzon, Jon R. Emshwiller, and Robert A. Guth, WSJ Online, “Postings of a Troubled Mind,” http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703791904576075851892478080.html (Janurary 11, 2011).
(29) I recommend checking out an analysis of how time is spent in WOW: Nicolas Ducheneaut, Terra Nova, “‘Alone Together’ in World of Warcraft?” http://terranova.blogs.com/terra_nova/2006/02/alone_together_.html.
Fencott, Clive. “Presence and the content of Virtual Environments,” (1999). Available online at <http://web.onyxnet.co.uk/Fencott-onyxnet.co.uk/pres99/pres99.htm>.
Filiciack, Miroslaw. “Hyperidentities,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003).
GAMBIT. Gambit Hate Speech Project. http://gambit.mit.edu/projects/hatespeech.php.
Grodal, Torben. “Stories for Eye, Ear, and Muscles: Video Games, Media, and Embodied Experiences,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf andBernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003).
McGonigal, Jane. 2011. Reality is broken: why games make us better and how they can change the world. New York: Penguin Press.
McMahan, Alison. “A Method for Analyzing 3-D Video Games,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Myers, David. “The Video Game Aesthetic,” in The Video Game Theory Reader 2, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2009).
Rehak, Bob. “Playing at Being,” in The Video Game Theory Reader, ed. Mark J.P. Wolf and Bernard Perron (New York: Routledge, 2003).
Stearns, Peter N. 2001. Consumerism in world history: the global transformation of desire. London: Routledge.
Taylor, T. L. 2006. Play between worlds: exploring online game culture. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Turkle, Sherry. 2011. Alone together: why we expect more from technology and less from each other. New York: Basic Books.
Worringer, Wilhelm. 1953. Abstraction and empathy; a contribution to the psychology of style. New York: International Universities Press.