My Avatar, My Not-Self: Narrative Worlds Within Video Games

By E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman

Identity and identification is a constantly recurring topic in discussions of video games—perhaps particularly in discussions of massively multiplayer online games (MMOGs), where players have an unusual degree of control over the characters they maneuver through the game environment. It also comes up in most discussions of gender and gaming, and, of course, any argument about the effects of game play on the out-of-game behavior of game players (e.g. Grand Theft Auto/Wolfenstein 3D [1]/Dungeons and Dragons will make you kill your mom). Sherry Turkle's seminal work Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet focused on internet use in general as a vehicle for identity play, providing users with opportunities to try out new and different identities in an environment isolated from their everyday social worlds; given the shift in internet use from interaction with strangers (Usenet) to interaction with already trusted-to-some-degree networks (MySpace), games may be one of the few virtual environments left where this argument could be broadly made.

I have always maintained that most arguments about player identification with avatars drastically overstate the case. In my work with members of the City of Heroes community on LiveJournal, I found that over and over again, players referred to characters in the third person. To have multiple characters that one plays in different situations seems to be the norm, and while players may identify one or two as "main" characters, they refer to those characters, like the rest, in the third person. Linguistically, the character is treated as a tool: "I made level 42 with Andromeda Sparks." Most players don't seem to fuse themselves with their characters; even in MMOGs where role-playing (RP) may be a secondary "game" within the structured game interface, one sees large quantities of out-of-character (OOC) talk, marked in various ways [2], in areas where players gather for virtually face-to-face socialization.

And yet. Obviously, some characters are more important than others; it isn't surprising that the important ones should be the ones that we play the most, but Andromeda certainly displays other markers of personal meaning for me.[3] You may notice some superficial similarity in our physical appearances. Andromeda Sparks happens to be not only my main character, but also the first character that I ever created for CoH, and thus she embodies many of what you might call my personal aesthetic bulletproof kinks: she is bright, she is pink, she is relatively small, and she has seriously aggressive hair. I've made lots of other characters since, playing with various opportunities that CoH's character creation engine makes available—of current MMOGs, CoH offers by far the most options for character appearance, which is one of the aspects of the game that I really like—I've made characters that play with female comic character stereotypes, I've made twins with my friend Travis (with whom I frequently team up), I've made a hero/villain physics pun,[4] I've made an evil cousin for Andromeda Sparks.[5] I love them all, but I have to admit that Andromeda is special to me.

Since Andromeda is a high-level toon, obviously I have more time invested in her, but I also have more opportunities to flesh her out. As a character advances in CoH, it becomes possible to unlock additional costume slots, so that the player can change between multiple outfits for the character. This seems particularly apropos for a comic hero-themed game, and in fact the first alternate costume I ever created was a secret identity costume for Andromeda, but I rarely used it. Here, however, you can see Andromeda Sparks: Tragic Anti-Heroine. I originally created the costume for the Doom-themed costume party at the CoH Halloween event, but as it happened, I was also undergoing some personal problems at the time. I wrote up a little section for Andromeda's bio on the tragic turn her love life had recently taken, depriving her of an eye and most of her sanity. I played her almost exclusively in that costume for several months. Then I felt a little better and started playing her pink again, her bio adjusted accordingly (but with attention to continuity: now she has a CYBORG eye).

This totally sounds like identification, right? Who do I think I'm fooling? But I maintain my position. I did shape Andromeda Sparks in response to my own experiences and emotions, but I did it in ways that were attractive specifically because they were closed off to me as an ordinary person inhabiting a non-super-powered world. I don't think that people identify with these characters in the way that a lot of theorists argue—but I don't think that makes them meaningless, either. These characters are not us. These characters are characters, and they occupy narratives. They are tools, but they aren't just tools for playing a game, although we should never discount their value in that respect. They are also tools for telling a story. As Henry Jenkins has pointed out, games can be a medium for narrative, and in particular any game with avatars is probably automatically disposed towards narrative—people tell stories about people, even when those people are anthropomorphic cats.

Most people tend to think of storytelling in very linear action terms, and to associate game narrative with clumsy exposition, like cut scenes, but this is not the only kind of narrative possible. Jenkins discusses how game worlds can be embedded with information, like Myst, so that players are gradually uncovering a story as they move through the world; this is an approach that CoH has taken to some degree with plaques around the city describing the actions of established, sometimes fallen, heroes and villains. Game worlds are also worlds, providing an overarching narrative framework: World of Warcraft is your standard pseudo-Tolkien fantasy (actual copyrighted Tolkien fantasy coming soon); City of Heroes is comics and all the norms and tropes contained therein.

The game world is a structure through which characters can be imagined by players. I didn't choose CoH at random; I specifically wanted to play a game based on superhero comics, which I devoured as a teenager, because that world is meaningful to me. Upon reflection, I think that King's Quest III was my favorite of the King's Quest series not just because it incorporated my beloved Medusa, but because its underlying narrative was about the Mistreated but Secretly Very Important Orphan, and what 9-year-old doesn't find that appealing? Some worlds, like the formless suburban plane of the Sims, are powerful because they are so open-ended that players are free to make an extremely wide range of interpretations. One of the best things that the Sims ever did, in addition to its finely detailed character creation and encouragement of player-created content (especially avatar skins), was SimSpeak. You know—those crazy kids babbling in pictures and incoherent syllables while waving their arms. The game creates a very strong sense of communication and interaction between characters while leaving its content almost entirely in the minds of the players.

Related Reading

Jenkins, Henry. "Game Design As Narrative Architecture."

Nakamura, Lisa. 2001. "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet." Pp. 226-235 in Reading Digital Cultures. Ed. David Trend. Malden: Blackwell Publishers.

Turkle, Sherry. 1995. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

MMOGs, on the other hand, though they allow varying degrees of personal character customization, are inhabited not only by NPCs but also by characters controlled by other players. It is important to note that the game world imposes constraints from the beginning on the kind of characters that one can imagine in the world—for instance, CoH has "pirate parts" that are available only to male characters: peg legs and hook hands. Female characters have a much greater variety of long hairstyles from which to choose. No character can occupy a wheelchair or carry a cane. Skin color is easily varied, but facial features tend towards a strong Eurasian cast. Female characters may be rendered fairly androgynous by dragging the chest slider to the left and using baggy costume options, but male characters still look ripped even with the body sliders pulled as low as they go. This tells us something about the parameters of the world: no one is strongly marked as disabled in any way; the population is overwhelmingly white with a few fetishized Asians; physical "perfection" is at a particularly high premium for women, physical strength at a high premium for men; men cannot have glam rock hair. One can work to subvert the world at its own game, working with what is possible to create the unintended. Use of the "big afro" hairstyle (it looks like a normal-sized afro to me), attracts comment because it is so rare to see it in use despite its availability; it can code a character as "Black" even without appropriate facial features. I once created a "female" character whose bio explicitly stated her status as a drag queen. However, it is still very difficult to create a character with visibly West African features, and impossible to put that character in a wheelchair.[6] The most insidious aspect of these constraints on character creation is that it may seem to other players like no one wants to imagine a world with scrawny disabled African superheroes in it, because after all, other players are creating those characters and you don't see any, do you? We have to remember the limitations of the overarching narrative framework of the game when we look at the characters that players create.

Of course, it may be an overly rosy view of those players to believe that interface constraints are the only thing holding back diversity in game world populations. As Lisa Nakamura noted in her piece "Race In/For Cyberspace: Identity Tourism and Racial Passing on the Internet," even in text-only environments like MOOs, where theoretically a player could choose to display any race identity he or she chose through their characters, they mostly didn't talk about race in their profiles at all—and when they did, it was usually in extremely stereotypical terms.

Most of those players were white, and I'm not sure "identity" is the right term to use here, either, although one could argue that the players saw it that way. Rather, I would say that the players were presenting, through, for instance, Orientalist geisha girl character descriptions, a narrative about the world—either as they believed it or as they wanted it to be. When CoH players tell me that they make "support" characters like healers female because "healing is girly," they are making a very strong statement about how they believe the world does/should work. An Everquest player blogged about gender-swapping and his experience of playing a female character:

Playing a female character made me a nicer player. I was less inclined to argue, less inclined to shout, less inclined to swear like a pirate, more inclined to help people, and generally, an all around better human being. What I discovered, is that even for a non-role player, there is a certain amount of avatar-personality that rubbed off on me, rather than the other way around. I wasn't placing my personality in my avatar in any intentional RP effort, but my personality was indeed being filtered and tempered by that human female monk, making my in-game personae a bit more tolerant, patient, and kind than I would have been as a male Ogre, Troll, or Drow. . . . In some almost magical way, that girly monk taught me to turn the other cheek, watch my mouth, consider two sides of every story, spend time helping guildies, and be generous with my coin.[7]

There is nothing about a female body, even an actual biological one with blood and everything, that causes this kind of behavior. The blogger presents it, however, as if even a virtual female body overrides his "natural" male psychology: ". . . my personality was indeed being filtered and tempered by that human female monk, making my in-game personae a bit more tolerant, patient, and kind . . ." He argues that the avatar has taught him something about being a woman—but what he's really doing is telling us how he thinks women should or do act.

Although he claims that "that girly monk taught [him] to turn the other cheek," etc., he explicitly denies a fusion of his identity with the female character insofar as he maintains a strong separation between that character's behavior and that of a male character. The female character is different from him, presented here mainly as a function of their genders, but by and large a common outlook: we are not our characters. Our characters might resemble pieces of us, but they are different. They are still important. They mean something. They are not interchangeable. They are the stories that we tell ourselves, embedded in and shaped by the game worlds that we enter, growing with us but not entirely within us. They are what we believe about the world, which can include what we believe about ourselves, but characters are bigger than we.

References

[1] Just out of curiosity, how old does this reference make me sound? You kids get off my lawn! Anyway, my frequent engagement with Wolfenstein when I was in junior high apparently sparked some parental discussions about the appropriateness of its content, in which my father maintained that it was okay because I was shooting Nazis. Obviously, this justification does not escape the identification framework.

[2] Double parentheses are common, e.g. "((brb—bio break))"

[3] On an incredibly meta-level, she represents continuity in my gaming—my first character on Ancient Anguish, the MUD I played obsessively in junior high, was named "Andromeda."

[4] Schrödinger's Catgirl. Good and evil at the same time!

[5] Electra Shocke.

[6] I am aware of the limitations for game designers in how many costume options and accessories can realistically be programmed. Given the focus of CoH on character customization, however, and the large number of customized emote and travel animations already available, not to mention the prominent presence of disabled and non-white characters in the comics worlds on which the game is based, I feel pretty comfortable picking on them.

[7] brent. 23 March 2006. "Why I Play With Girls."


E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman photo

E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.