Video Game Avatars and Our Relationship with Them
Blaugust founder Belghast tweeted the following question last night along. “There is a discussion happening elsewhere so I'm curious. For me all of my game characters are just cosmetic shells for the digital "me". Getting the impression I am deeply in the minority here”. Obviously, he’d had encountered at interesting debate about our relationship with the characters we create and utilise to play video games and wanted to explore it further. So I and several others tweeted back our thoughts on the matter, which made for interesting reading. However, even as I was doing so, it became apparent that such a subject needed a blog post for an adequate response. It’s a big subject. Fellow bloggers Rakuno and Shadowz have already posted their take on this weighty topic. I suspect that this will be a very popular subject to explore because it is very personal and subjective.
I mainly play games from the RPG and MMORPG genre for their narratives. I like lore rich stories, especially those that are linked to licensed intellectual properties. What games such as The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, The Lord of the Rings Online and The Elder Scrolls online offer me is the opportunity to experience a story and have a degree of influence over the outcome. The games are an enhanced form of reading. Instead of visualising realms and characters in my mind, I get to see them first-hand and move freely among them. They speak to me and react to my choices (within the confines of the game). My avatar is the means through which I navigate this environment. Although I may spend time creating a character, giving thought to their appearance and their name, ultimately, they are merely a conduit. A means to experience the story. I do not see them as an extension of myself or imbued with elements of my personality. They have no true agency. Games are not sufficiently sophisticated enough at present, that we can supply our own responses to questions and the NPCs act on them.
Now I’m sure for gamers who embrace roleplay, their relationship with their MMO character is much more complex. Your avatar becomes more than just a three-dimensional, mobile interface with the story. It becomes a part that needs to be acted. A separate dramatic entity. It may be similar to yourself with regard to ethics and morality. But roleplay also offers the scope to explore personalities that are contrary to your own. Then there are those players who like to create a backstory for their character. They may reflect traits that the player does not have themselves. Their avatar may also be radically different from the player. There is the option to play as a different ethnicity or gender. Thus the character can provide both a sense of change as well as empowerment. I can certainly see the appeal of this and how it enhances the escapism that games can offer. However, I am not a trained psychologist so I won’t speculate too much in matters that I’m not qualified to do so. I will leave it to others to discuss projection and such concepts as the “imago”.
Although character creation in an MMO is restricted by the parameters of the game, it is still an act of creation, subject to our personal preferences. We further stamp our likes and dislikes upon it by giving it a name. Names are an intrinsic aspect of identity. Yet the real deciding factor is how we relate to our avatars. Is it merely a functional tool to experience the game or is it a facet of our self? When you play an RPG or MMO are you merely passively observing the narrative or do you see yourself as a protagonist in a play? A method actor who reacts to NPC interactions as if they were as tangible as a real-world experience? I think this is the core of the distinction. Naturally, those who approach gaming with the latter in mind are going to have a far more complex relationship with their avatar. Where gamers who favour the former approach will see things in more practical terms. Like a “bicycle that you are fond of” as Rakuno stated. The emotional connection comes from the fact it facilitated such enjoyable experiences.
I suspect as video games advance and MMOs incorporate ever better AI technology, we may well find ourselves playing games with more complex forms of communication and interaction. At that point your character may well cease to be just a factotum and become something more nuanced. Imagine an MMO where if you behaved poorly, wantonly destroying things and attacking NPCs, the game adapted to your virtual personality. What if it wasn’t just your actions in game that determined this but the way you spoke and the manner in which your character conducted themselves. I suspect such player/character relationships would be far more complex and an absolute field day for “Shrinks”. But for the present, my Argonian Necromancer, Jubal the Questionable, in The Elder Scrolls Online is simply an avatar in the traditional gaming sense. There’s not that much of me there, apart from my love of words and writing which accounts for the dramatic name. Plus I don’t have a tail or a penchant for staying moist.