Finding the “I” in Player-Avatar Identity

by ~hellfire~

In a search for writing about the player-avatar relationship I stumbled across the 2011 Philosophy of Computer Games conference. A lot of the papers are pretty good.What follows are brief and simplified summaries of some of them, along with my reactions.

Eric Olson, The Metaphysics of Avatars and Their Relations to Players

  • There are no concrete, active computer game characters distinct from players.
  • Identities in games are similar to pretending to be or acting as someone. Distinctions between being someone and pretending to be someone are familiar to us; at the very least, they aren’t specific to videogames.
  • The avatar on the screen represents two different things: the player and the character. It’s the same in a puppet show.

Peter Day, Darn it, “I” Keep Dying! The Metaphysical Self in Computer Games

[This is a good follow-up to Olson. As said above, Olson thinks that videogame characters are two different things, the player and character. But he doesn’t say how or why. Day tries to give us a clear picture of what’s going on.]

  • Day thinks that games have two languages: representation and input. The world of representations has the language of movies or books. Input is another language entirely. These dual languages create a dual self in the game.
  • Day gives us two different modes of “I”. He builds off Wittgenstein’s Tractatus. Here’s a verysimplified version of what Day proposes:
    • Meaning requires a self for whom things mean.
    • Games communicate meaning in two different forms, or languages.
    • There are two different selves, or “I”’s in a game, for which things mean.
    • One “I” in games is the “I” of representation. The other is the “I” of input. The former is what we get from the images, sounds, cut-scenes, stories, etc. The latter is what we get from understanding that “w” translates to “go forward”. These are two different modes of meaning making, creating two different senses of self.

Rune Klevjer, Telepresence and Diegesis in the Action-Adventure

[While Day and Olson seem to be compatible, Klevjer’s approach is different. He claims the main property of the player-avatar relation is prosthetic telepresence. He also thinks that avatars are different from puppets, computers roleplays for us, and games have no diegesis.]

  • The first aspect of player-avatar relations is prosthetic telepresence. Like a prosthesis, the avatar reacts to our input. It’s an extension of us. But the relation to the character is not just prosthetic.  We are telepresent in the game. Telepresence is not just a function of input; it results from the avatar belonging in the game world. A mouse cursor is a sort of prosthesis, but it is not a presence or avatar. For something to be telepresent, it has to be an object among objects; it must both affect and be affected by its environment. The avatar is both subject (of the game) an object (in the game).
  • Klevjer claims that avatar control in games is different from puppetry—during play an avatar has “no will, no intention”. It is “an empty shell”. It seems he thinks that during puppetry a puppet is imbued with will and intention by the puppeteer. The avatar, on the other hand, is lifeless until some sort of scripted event gives it that will or intention.
  • The computer often roleplays the character, not us. We don’t come up with what Nico would do or want in GTAIV. The computer fills that in for us.
  • There is no diegesis in the game world. Game worlds are real spaces and the experiences we have in them are real. There is no such thing as having an embodied presence in an imagined world; think of a cutscene v.s. gameplay.
  • We don’t need to “ponder the presumed lack of synchronization between how the telepresent player is experiencing his role in the game world, and what we are told that playable character is experiencing. The two exist on separate ontological planes.”
  • We sometimes feel a tie between our own and our character’s experiences—but during play there is an unbridgable ontological gap. The player and the character are entirely different entities.

Me, My Reaction 

Each writer here differs on the details in player-avatar relations. But there’s an important commonality between them: the player and the character are separate, irreconcilable identities. Each writer doesn’t think it’s useful to ask whether the player and the character overlap as selves. They (the player and character) don’t. They can’t. For Olson, without the player pretending to be the character, the character isn’t active—but the character is still separate from the player. For Day, two different identities are made from the two different languages: the character, and the player. For Klevjer, the character is roleplayed by the computer—but there is no diegesis that the player inhabits, so while play happens, the character doesn’t really exist.

I like what Day says. But I also think that the line between the two “I”’s a game creates is not as distinct as he claims. Can we really pull input apart from the representations? To answer this, it’s helpful to think of the game avatar as Klevjer’s “telepresent prosthesis”. It’s a good phrase, one that Klevjer doesn’t really follow through with it. As he says, the avatar is not just a prosthesis. Nor is the player just telepresent. The player-avatar is both simultaneously.  If there’s a distinct separation between the two, we have binaries and can analyze games according to one and not the other. This is silly. It harkens back to the old ludology/narratology “debate”. And if there’s an ontological gap between diegesis and play, then each has to be taken into account with a different ontology. Which leaves games in a funny place where we have to talk about representations in one way and “play” in another. As if they can’t actually overlap. I don’t like that. Because it’s not right.

The representations (environment in which we’re telepresent) and the input (the functions of the prosthesis) being present at the same time are what makes a game a specific game. So two games could have exactly the same input functions but different representations, or vice versa, and they would be totally different games. Pulling the prosthesis from the telepresence—taking the input from the representations, the player from the diegesis, the agency from the environment—betrays the whole purpose of the phrase “prosthetic telepresence”. With just one of those things you don’t capture a specific game. In Day’s terminology, to talk about one of the senses of “I” in game without having to talk about the other ignores what’s going on in the game.

In a way, I guess these dual “I”’s might be considered units of the larger operation—but they seem to overlap in ways that makes me reluctant to read them as units.

I’ll have more on this later. But before that, I’ll be on an 8-hour bus ride from NYC to Pittsburgh tonight where I’ll try to write something about Morrowind.

 [Edit: Due to some technology-to-megabus integration issues I didn’t finish the Morrowind post. It’s now 2am so that’s not happening. But I have a lot of notes written. So something should be up tomorrow. It will also hopefully clarify some of today’s post. Now I am going to go do this: