Monday, 19 November 2012

Weekly assignment 3: Supernatural ambassadors of agency

If last week was about players and their interpretations of games, this week is all about interacting with game characters. Just as last week, the focus is still on players engaging with games, but this time we'll concentrate on a specific part of that engagement: In the very centre of studying games and human interaction is the dilemma of the player character as something that is part of the game and part of the player.

Bob Rehak has eloquently summarized the weird binary role game characters have between the game and the player:
"[The avatar's] behaviour is tied to the player's through an interface: its literal motion, as well as its figurative triumphs and defeats, result from the player's actions. At the same time, avatars are unequivocally other. Both limited and freed by difference from the place, they can accomplish more than the player alone; they are supernatural ambassadors of agency." (Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar, 2003)
And indeed, it's difficult to say how much of our actions in games are dictated by the rules and limitations imposed on us by our characters. But it's just as difficult to say to what extent our characters are independent from us, instead of being merely our representations and tools in a digital world.

For example, the original Super Mario never spoke, thus emphasising action instead of dialogue, so you might argue that Mario encouraged the player towards an action-oriented approach to the game. Yet I remember several occasions when players abandoned the action in favour of a more relaxed and action-free exploration to see what the creatures of Mushroom Kingdom were doing, making Mario more of a laid-back pacifist than anything else. Which is the real Mario, and does it even matter?

In his article Telepresence, cinema, role-playing. The structure of player identity in 3D action-adventure games [PDF] Rune Klevjer sketches a theory of three kinds of identities at play in action-adventure games. Likewise, In his book My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games Zach Waggoner posits a three-point identity model for digital role-playing games, based on the work of James Gee. [PDF] (Read the little chapter titled Gee's Virtual, Real-World and Projective Identities)

Read both texts and compare the models and, naturally, feel free to comment on the other points raised especially by Klevjer. Which of the models do you think explains the interaction between the player and the character better, or do you think they complement each other? The models are for specific genres of games, but do you think they are applicable to other games as well?

If you wish to ponder about your relationship to game characters in practical terms, you can try One Chance, a game about what choices you would make if the world was ending, and see how you relate to the protagonist. Or you can draw from your experience with Passage. They're not ideal platforms for this topic (these short games rarely allow much characterization), but they might give you some ideas anyway.

And though I hope it's obvious, I'll nevertheless state it here: I expect no knowledge of games or of game-related theories from you. I'm interested in what you get from the two aforementioend texts, and how that relates to what you already know of games, regardless of the depth of that knowledge. So, read the texts and tell me what thoughts they raised.

As you already know, stay somewhere around 500 words and email your answers to me by 26.11.

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