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A World Gamified – Pt. 2: Virtual Identity

March 20, 2012

Read Pt.1: Introduction

Video games are a strange and unique medium. Unlike film, which is a form of passive participation, or literature, which requires empathy and imagination, video games immerse the player directly into the story. The player is the character and his decisions affect that character’s fate. Because of this, video games create an even greater sense of virtual self-hood than other digital mediums.

In part 2 of this series, we’ll explore how video games affect our sense of personal identity and contribute to the growing phenomenon of the virtual self.

Identification Through Immersion

Modern video games offer players new unique stories with multiple, branching story-lines. An example of this is the popular Mass Effect series. In these games, players control a central character, Commander Shepard (Shepard can be either male or female). The story-line changes and develops differently depending on the dialogue choices of the player and that player’s performance in the game environment. At some point though, the challenge that this poses to the game designers resembles a dilemma that Salman Rushdie has identified. Rushdie thinks of these new types of interactive stories like the Borges story “The Garden of Forking Paths”. The character in that work tries to design a story with every possible variation of every possible moment, but he soon discovers that the possibilities are infinite.

While this new type of story-telling poses all kinds of problems to video game writers, developers, and producers, such story-telling also changes the ways that players interact with the games. The games take on the narrative qualities of a Choose Your Own Adventure story. The protagonist is a tabula rasa, upon which the player stamps his own unique identity through choice. A friend of mine described this to me when discussing Mass Effect. “I identify with the character in such a way that I find it weird.” What troubles him is how much he’s invested in the Shepard character; in other words, what happens to the Shepard character also, in a strange way, happens to him. He pointed me to this Gamestop commercial. While watching it, he told me his initial reaction was: “that’s my character!” When he stepped back, he realized that of course it wasn’t, but because the character in the commercial is helmeted, he experienced this initial moment of recognition. He saw his own version of the character. He saw himself.

Commander Shepard: hero of a thousand identities - and one could be yours!

This leads us to the thorny problem of identification. What do I mean by identification? Freud’s definition of identification suggests that the player assimilates the ideal traits of the protagonist that he controls. I argue something quite different (something more akin to what Slavoj Zizek discusses in his work). Video game players imbue their protagonists with qualities that they’d like to have, while also making them wholly like themselves. Returning to the example of Mass Effect, this form of identification may explain why so many players transform their character into a dynamic and sexually powerful leader.  Identification in video games means that there is a delicate balance between reality and fantasy; the character possesses many traits of the player’s own personality, but the character also possesses traits that the player idealizes for himself.

This identification arises from total immersion in the artificial environment of the game. This means that the player must be free to make choices that affect the personality of his virtual character and control that character’s destiny. Without these options, identification of the kind described above becomes impossible in a standard single-player environment. In the perfect game environment though, there is no longer a need to imagine; the character is the player and the player is the character.

Multiplayer games take this discussion of virtual identities into more confusing and troubling territory.

Two Worlds: Multiplayer Gaming

Multiplayer role-playing games (often called Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games or MMORPG) are a fairly recent phenomenon. While predecessors have existed since the late 1970s, it wasn’t until the late 90s and games like Ultima Online and Everquest that the genre reached its tipping point. The industry today has grown so large that when the world’s most successful MMORPG, World of Warcraft, suffered a subscription slump to 10.2 million active users (subscriptions peaked at 12 million in 2010), it made international headlines. This means that there are tens, possibly hundreds of millions of people around the world acting out digital lives through their MMORPG of choice.

Let's get married...virtually!

At the heart of all multiplayer games is fantasy. The Multiplayer universe Second Life explains itself this way: “Enter a world with infinite possibilities and live a life without boundaries, guided only by your imagination. Do what you love, with the people you love, from anywhere in the world.” Fantasy doesn’t necessarily mean fantastic, like World of Warcraft or Star Wars. Games like Second Life and The Sims are also fantasy role-playing games. In these, players create characters in their own image (whatever that image may be) and then live out “second lives” in other universes. In some of these universes, it’s permitted for characters to marry. In Star Wars: The Old Republic, there’s even a special server where players must remain in character at all times.

These multiplayer universes allow players to live as their own idealized selves. Shy or socially inept players practice conversation in the low-risk environment that the game provides. Other players transform into the leaders they’ve always imagined themselves to be. There emerges a real disconnect between the vulnerable, real self and the idealized, virtual self.  Unlike Freudian identification, players in the real world do not appear to adopt the idealized traits of their characters in the virtual. Instead there appear two distinct personalities in two separate worlds.

While multiplayer gaming threatens to define the personality of the individual player, it also offers challenges to real-world communities. As Sherry Turkle has pointed out, the word community literally means “to give among each other.”1 While multiplayer aficionados would probably argue that their universes are filled with “communities,” they’d be hard pressed to argue that they truly “give among each other.” In the environment of the game, perhaps they do help one another out, but this only further demonstrates that people are unwilling or unable to separate their real-life and their virtual identities. Players withdraw from the real-life communities around them (church, school, work, or family) into these new, virtual “communities.”

The Virtual Self

At the beginning of this month, I wrote:

In our attempt to become masters of our own images, we create two selves; there is our true self and there is a virtual self. More and more we “become” our virtual self. Not in the sense that our true self becomes like our virtual self, but that we withdraw deeper and deeper into our virtual identity. At some point, our true self becomes unrecognizable. (link)

Where is the divide between the real self and the virtual self? Are video games taking us further down this frightening path?

Video games offer players a chance to be the character they’ve always wanted to be. Games offer players control over their virtual identity in ways that Facebook can’t match. The video game character is no mere approximation of the player, but a virtual embodiment of who that character would like to be. The character lives in a universe of infinite possibility far unlike our own messy world. Perhaps though, these characters are not simply who we’d like to be. Perhaps they are how we imagine ourselves as we really are.

Next – Pt. 3: Virtual Reality

1 Taken from Turkle’s book Alone Together.


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