How, if at all, do players identify with an avatar? Why does it matter?
It is incontestable that a significant portion of the games industry is dedicated to the development and maintenance of in-game avatars. Whether this is via in-game character customisation as in The Elder Scrolls series, vanity items that are purchasable as micro-transactions in World of Warcraft, or the community created visages of Second Life, it can be demonstrated that the functionality of customisable avatars are a frequently present element in modern games. Equally the empathetic relationship required for players to connect to flight of the protagonist (usually a bespoke avatar) in narrative games such as The Walking Dead is vital.
Yet to what extent a process of identification actually occurs with players requires further consideration. To answer this question three core concepts must be meaningfully defined: namely players, identification, and avatars. Through the process of definition there will be an attempt to bridge these concepts to create a functional understanding of how this is important by drawing from different existing models and a variety of existent genre examples.
Johan Huizinga defines a game as ‘a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being not serious but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly’ (Huizinga, 1938). Whereas Salen & Zimmerman define a game as ‘… a system in which players engage in an artificial conflict, defined by rules that results in a quantifiable outcome’ (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004). These two citations show examples of both early and late thinking on this question within the field of game studies. Yet what unites them is a concept of a player as an agent who engages with the experience of play in a bespoke space with its own dynamics, thus the player therefore is the agent of experience of play itself.
With the 20th century game design as a practice has iterated and become vastly more complex. This has been primarily driven by the invention and expansion of the digital game. Through these shifting practices the player’s integral relationship to the medium of games has increased and this is reflected in Salen & Zimmerman’s increased priortisation of the player in their definition where rather than merely being ‘absorbed’ as by Huizinga they are ‘engaged in conflict.’ This greater dynamic element for the player creates new complexities for the relationship to an avatar. Unlike in a book, cinema or play where upon the audience is expected to merely empathise with the protagonists, games require them to also ‘act’ as and ‘embody’ the protagonist through their experience.
Therefore to define a player of games we need to understand this meaning in a modern context and as someone having a dynamic relationship to the game itself, both through experience and active engagement and interaction.
The concept of identification exists across many differing disciplines but usually settles and converges around the themes of what is known, familiar, relatable and comprehensible. There are multiple specific biological and psychological processes tied to human physiology that can be said to constitute ‘identity.’
Avatar originates from Sanskrit as a concept in Hinduism to refer to the temporary corporeal forms of various deities, it has since been linguistically and conceptually retooled and applied to modern digital culture. To define the concept of the avatar within gaming Laetitia Wilson provides the following:
‘[An avatar is] a virtual, surrogate self that acts as a stand in for our real-space selves, that represents the user. The cyberspace avatar functions as a locus that is multifarious and polymorphous, displaced from the facticity of our real-space selves’ (Waggoner, 2009).
Zach Waggoner also builds upon Wilson’s concepts of ‘creative choice’ to distinguishes between avatars (customizable) and agents (bespoke).
How can these concepts be understood as interlinking critical ideas? Three examples of differing models of player avatar identity that exist within academia are centered around player-avatar identity: discovered identity (Tronstad, 2008), liminal identity (Waggoner, 2009), & hybrid identity (Boudreau, 2012). We can compare Tronstad’s model which suggests a process of avatar identity through iterative process and Waggoner’s model which argues for avatar identity as a conduit/connector between player and avatar based in moments of control i.e. the moment of connection between something performed and felt through the experience of play.
In both of these models the suggestion is that the avatar identity is something that is not a constant or distinct process, but a holistic one. However Boudreau’s model of hybrid identity argues for an identity interconnected with the player and avatar, but that neither derives from or is contained within either. This model implies a dialectic that exists beyond the purely connective models where identity is closer to a synthesis (Waggoner, 2009) or process (Tronstad, ). Hybrid identity is thus ‘… not about the state of the player or the avatar, rather, it is about a non-human-centric identity that develops through the networked process of videogame play which is a separate, often abstract, identity’ (Boudrea, 2012). This is developed through the examples of an identity or role that can exist beyond the example of one game but also on forums and in other interconnected aspects of life outside of the confines of the game itself.
To consider the importance of these concepts we can take a number of examples across differing genres. For example in online games such as Destiny, or Team Fortress 2 should a player be entirely uninterested in their sartorial wear they will likely spend no ingame currency in these games microtransactions, likely leading the company to suffer a financial loss in maintaining the game’s networks. It is simply an economic fundamental that player’s derive visual meaning and pleasure from their ingame avatar’s representation, at the point of expenditure, for many online games to survive. An ‘agent’ or bespoke avatar simply could not exist here, the customisable nature of online gaming could be seen as a method to which players can distinguish themselves from the many other players online engaging in similar tasks. It is through this principle of uniqueness that identity can be more accurately formed.
As previously mentioned it is also of significant importance in narrative based games that the player associates meaning and motive behind their in-game avatar. Tim Schafer describes this as games ‘… having to provide the character with motivation and [providing] the player with motivation. Because the character will care about things the player will not necessarily care about” (Waggoner, 2008).
The ways in which designers impact on how a character relates to their avatar is significant. But this process can also be seen to be contradictory in several instances. Games such as Final Fantasy IX and The Sims: Medieval have the player switch avatars mid-way through the experience that are locked in direct competition. e.g. In Final Fantasy IX the player may one moment be playing the thief Zidane evading the authorities, and the next as Steiner the knight chasing Zidane. Yet to progress the narrative the game requires one to engage with this role reversal and the player is expected to do this willingly and to reverse their win/lose state to meet the new character they are associated with. Therefore the suggestion is that player control of an avatar (rather than simply through characterisation) and the inescapability of an avatar creates a significant process of providing the player with association and drive.
Similar processes exist within interactive dramas that offer a further more contradictory and dynamic testing ground for models of identity. In LA Noire there is a strong sense of providing the player with how they wish to interpret Detective Phelps. However there is no free reign over the character and many players responded negatively when they found that their avatar would not respond to the actions as intended (e.g. where upon the player verb ‘accuse of lieing’ could lead to radically different outcomes from insulting, to yelling to pleading).
Frequently in this genre players are asked to inhibit a role and make differing choices to the performance of this avatar in the various cinematic scenes of the game. Interactive dramas will often ask the player to enact ethical decision making, players may either seek to make such a decision based on their own morality, an assumed ‘roleplay’ of their avatar or opt to find a negotiation of the two.
While the general scene by scene direction of the story is largely bespoke, the specific content of these scenes as well as the style of character portrayed is highly dynamic. This experience for players could be combined to a performative aspect as seen in theatre, where upon an actor would interpret the performance of a script, here players must interpret the role of a character and the story improvisationally (not knowing what will happen in later scenes). In interactive dramas the role can also not be escaped, there is no way to play these games against the grain of the role entirely and thus there is merely different aspects and shades of a bespoke character that can be expressed.
In the genre of interactive dramas like the model of hybrid identity there is something which exists outside of the player and protagonist character, that of an identity that is neither player nor avatar but a hybrid engagement with a role. There is also a sense of discovered identity, where upon as the player learns more of their character they will have a better sense as to whom they are making decisions on behalf of. The liminal model will most likely apply on the basis that the player connects to the motivations of the character and their ability to express them, this therefore lies then, not so much in the physical movements of their avatar but their ability to express themselves narratively via dialogue and other actions.
The concept of an avatar in games remains one highly contested and fraught with complexities. To understand these ideas means the pursuit of differing models across disciplines in psychology and philosophy to determine wherein identity is formulated. Moreover this needs to be applied to the fast changing digital world of play. As these analyses deal with complex ontological questions the process show’s no signs of simplification or easy formalisation.
Identity itself in the world of gaming remains a vital means commercially for online games to derive a consumer based connection to their avatar. Identity in the world of single player narrative games exists as a central means in modern storytelling to imbue concepts with association, meaning and empathy.
The importance of this remains high not just for commercial and artistic purposes but also for an ability for critiscm and academia to pursue greater questioning of the basis of our understanding of our own place in history. To question the role of the avatar and identity in many ways is to question the role of reality itself which could be considered a radical act. Sherry Turkle defines roleplaying games in a way that could be considered true of wider interactive experiences in general:
‘Role-playing games can serve in [an] evocative capacity because they stand betwixt and between the unreal and the real; they are a game and something more.’ (Waggoner, 2009)
Boudreau, K. (2012). Between Play and Design : The Emergence of Hybrid-Identity in Single-Player Videogames. Ph.D. Université de Montréal.
Tronstad, R. (2008). Character identification in World of Warcraft: The relationship between capacity and appearance. In Hilde G. Corneliussen & Jill Walker Rettberg (Eds.), Digital culture, play, and identity: A World of Warcraft reader (pp 249-264). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press
Gee, J. (n.d.). What video games have to teach us about learning and literacy. 1st ed. Palgrave Macmillan.
Huizinga, J. (1980). Homo ludens : a study of the play-element in culture. 1st ed. Routledge & K. Paul, London, p.13.
Waggoner, Z. (2009). My avatar, my self: identity in video role-playing games 1st ed. Jefferson, NC [u.a.]: McFarland.
Zimmerman, E. & Salen, K. (2003). Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. MIT Press, p 96.