This chapter will examine the literature that researches the creation of one’s identity, and how it evolves when presented with the possibility of having a virtual avatar.
Before a discussion about people’s identification to others, especially, video game avatars can begin, there must be a clear definition of what it means to have an identity. The etymology of the term identity originates from the Late Latin words idem and identitas – meaning ‘the same, sameness’ in context to somebody else (Etymonline.com, 2018). A simple dictionary definition of identity reads as follows: ‘ The distinguishing character or personality of an individual. The set of qualities and beliefs that make one person or group different from others.’ (Merriam-webster.com, 2018). This explanation of identity is quite simple and easily understood, however, the process of developing one’s individualism is a much more complex matter.
The creation of identity is a necessary component of human life. People are shaped by their exposure to other individuals, their social and racial backgrounds. The subject of becoming an individual has been thoroughly examined by scholars and artists alike. S. Freud theorised that identification is based on ‘an emotional tie with an object’, which is most often the parent figure (Bronfenbrenner, 1960). In this case, the creation of an individual is attributed to being heavily connected with other people, typically one’s predecessors. On the contrary, O. Wilde, a well-known poet and playwright, praises individualism and the development of one’s identity through introspection (Wilde, 1891). There are many views regarding the topic of character creation, the majority of those views are valid and could be closely discussed in their own right, however, this dissertation will bring attention to S. Hall’s theory of three concepts of identity (Hall and Du Gay, 1996). S. Hall makes a point that identification is a construction that can never be completed, it is an eternal process (Hall and Du Gay, 1996), and suggests that the concept of forming a character can be categorized in three different ways. These concepts regarding the creation of identity are summarized below:
1. The Enlightenment subject – a person, who is unified within themselves, whose ‘core’ emerged when the subject was born and remained the same. The essence of this subject and their identity is individualism.
2. The Sociological subject – a less autonomous person, someone who is formed by their relationship to other individuals. This way, identity is built by interacting with society.
3. The Post-modern subject – a person that has no essential or permanent identity. ‘The subject assumes different identities at times, identities which are not unified around a coherent ‘self’.’ (Hall and Du Gay, 1996:277).
The post-modern subject is especially interesting since it argues against a consistent, steady identity. People, who are post-modern subjects, tend to shape themselves and assume roles depending on the situation they find themselves in, it is very similar to the way individuals often adopt a mask of somebody else when performing a role in a play, a film, or simply, when they are playing as a character in a video game. Janet. H. Murray, a professor in the School of Literature, considers video games to be an extension of narrative itself, the next step in a user – story interaction (Murray, 1997). As the world progresses and the ways to represent ourselves multiply, we are confronted with a multiplicity of identities, any one of which could be identified with – at least for a time (Hall and Du Gay, 1996). It is a simple thing to imagine how a video game, in which a player can freely construct their ‘self’, could become a perfect situation for a post-modern human. This dissertation will discuss the connection between a post-modern subject and video games, specifically, MMORPGs (Massively multiplayer online role-playing games), in-depth in a later chapter.
So, what does it mean for a person to identify with a fictional character, and who does it benefit? This part of the literature review will examine the video game industry and its audience, it will also argue why it is important for the main character of a game to be easy to identify with. Furthermore, it will also consider the meaning behind the player-avatar relationship, and what can identification convey to a more diverse group of video game players.
The computer has become the defining technology of this age, it let us explore a subjective world and reproduce ourselves digitally (Bolter, 1986). When most people think about video games and the type of individuals such a platform of entertainment attracts, it is not unusual to picture a ‘generic’ first-person shooter game being played by a man, who appears to be somewhere in his twenties. While that statement is not untrue, the video game consumer has begun to change quite a lot in recent years. These days 44% of European women play video games (Mena and Cookman, 2017), and people over the age of 18 represent more than 70% of gamers, those around the age of thirty being the largest age demographic (The Entertainment Software Association, 2018). Although young men are the leading group of people that play video games, these statistics show that gamers are not a simple, homogenous group. The general summary of what a video game is can be described as ‘an electronic game in which players control images on a video screen’ (Merriam-webster.com, 2018). A type of media that allows a person to take control instead of just being a passive viewer (i.e film viewing) of a situation is bound to attract a large group of diverse individuals. Electronic games give people the opportunity to assume and interact with a digital body that serves as a platform for the player in a narrative experience.
The role of such a digital body cannot be downplayed. Most folktales, films, video games, stories in general, have somebody, who assumes the role of a protagonist. A type of character who is made to be a stand-in for audience’s eyes. V. Propp, a Soviet folklorist and scholar, states that ‘functions of characters serve as stable, constant elements in a tale, independent of how and by whom they are fulfilled. They constitute the fundamental components of a tale.’ (Propp, Wagner and Scott, 1969). A story will usually be experienced through its characters, and video games tend to place great importance on that. B. Jedruszczak (2016), argues that the protagonist of a video game becomes the point of reference when critically viewing the game. Therefore, the identification with the protagonist affects the overall perception of the presented fictional story (Jedruszczak, 2016). K. Stuart echoes the same idea, adding that oftentimes the player becomes so immersed in the role they are filling out, while playing the game that their sense of self over-powers the fictional character (Stuart, 2014). This is especially prevalent in first person games since the placement of the camera directly stimulates the audience’s viewpoint. It helps the players to project onto the protagonist, therefore, making the video game more memorable. This is partially why games such as Portal (Valve Corporation, 2007) and Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft, 2012) are so critically acclaimed (Stuart, 2014).
So, what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the player and their avatar? Typically, the answer is to identify with the character that is portrayed on screen. French cinema researcher J. Mayne, as well as, most screen theories, agree to that statement, describing the onscreen character as the representative figure for the audience (Mayne, 1993). This idea perfectly applies to video games. As previously pointed out by the video game consumer statistics, the majority of people who play video games are male. Therefore, most video game creators make their projects keeping that core audience in mind (Isbister, 2006). It might prove difficult to build a connection with a designated player’s avatar when one does not fit the normative ideas regarding gender and/or sexuality (e.g heterosexual women and homosexual players), leaving those, who do not fit the ‘audience standard’ feeling disruptive or uncared for (Crane and Farmer, 2001). There have been many ideas discussed regarding the appearance of a character that is meant to be relatable to the viewer/player.
S. McCloud, an American cartoonist and comics’ theorist, claims that creating characters without any distinct features, stimulates the viewer to place themselves in said character’s role (McCloud, 2008). An image that has no defined individuality is ‘a vacuum into which our identity and awareness are pulled… We don’t just observe [it], we become it’ (McCloud, 2008).
Moreover, the subject of identification with video game characters and the player’s projection onto them has been researched and proved to be correct (Christoph, Dorothée and Peter, 2009). The experiment of having a group of participants play a first-person shooter game, while a different group played a racing game, demonstrated that the two groups started associating themselves with their specific game’s concepts.
Following the traditional definition, it is hard to oppose the idea of video games being a form of art. However, there have been many valid arguments made against that very notion. One such argument, proposed by Ebert Roger reads “One obvious difference between art and games is that you can win a game. […] game without points or rules […] it ceases to be a game and becomes a representation of a story, a novel, a play, dance, a film. Those are things you cannot win; you can only experience them. “(Roger, 2010). It
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Hall, S. and Du Gay, P. (1996). Questions of cultural identity. p.2.
Stuart, K. (2014). The identity paradox: why game characters are not us, but should be. [online] the Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2014/apr/24/the-identity-paradox-why-game-characters-are-not-but-should-be [Accessed 30 Oct. 2018].
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Propp, V., Wagner, L. and Scott, L. (1969). Morphology of the folk tale. 2nd ed. Austin, Tex.: University of Texas Press.
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The Entertainment Software Association. (2018). Essential Facts About The Computer and Video Game Industry 2018 – The Entertainment Software Association. [online] Available at: http://www.theesa.com/article/essential-facts-computer-video-game-industry-2018/ [Accessed 29 Oct. 2018].
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Wilde, O. (1891). Oscar Wilde. The Soul of Man under Socialism. [online] Marxists.org. Available at: https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/wilde-oscar/soul-man/ [Accessed 24 Oct. 2018].
It can be agreed upon that it is possible to define identity as a subject with three primary components:
More broadly, however, identity can also be observed in major societal shifts, whether in the transformation from tribal societies to empires, or later from empires to nation-states. While tribal identities were constructed mainly by the socioeconomic realities of the tribe as a collection of clans with some configuration of family blood ties, identities in empires, and later in nation-states, reflect interactions shaped by geographical, political, and economic factors and settings.
Kellner, D. (1992). Popular culture and the construction of postmodern identities. In L. Friedman (Ed.), Modernity and identity (pp. 141177). Oxford: Blackwell.