Experience Points: Identity Construction In Gaming
Foreword: This article has been adapted from work that I have examined and written on during my academic tenure as a Masters student. Much of this, has been topical academic meanderings that never made their way into the final draft of my thesis. Largely due to time constraints, coherency and focus for the final draft I submitted. Ultimately, I thought it apt to include some of what I had written in a column.
Initially when I was writing about gaming culture, I read a vast selection of literature to obtain a perspective of the field of “Game Studies”, which in itself is an emergent academic field. It is a field which not many South Africans, let alone international students, were inquiring into. Thus began the process where I started a think tank with some of my good friends and colleagues, notably Marco Bozza and Timothy Biggar. We were interested in videogames as sites for academic study, writing and analysis. When attempting to research games and gaming in the most broadest sense, you find that your sources are limited with very few readers, books and academics taking on the subject. This has changed drastically over the last few years, from when I started pursuing this line of academic study, but when I began there were some general studies about videogames and violence, education with videogames. It was just a select few texts on gaming culture and a couple of academics willing to take on such topics. The biggest inspiration for me was the work being done at the NYU (New York University) Game Center. If research could be done at a major well-funded university, why not at my local university with meager funding and my own passion to fuel my ambitions. I think I have succeeded in setting out to do what I wanted, and for that I am grateful.
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However, one of the elements of gaming culture that I couldn’t fully explore was identity construction in videogames and gaming. In this week’s column, I wanted to present some different perspectives on identity and identity construction (the way in which individuals create their own identities) within gaming, and videogames.
One such academic who deals exclusively with identity construction within videogame playing practices is Jos de Mul (2005). Mul’s work in game studies deals with the narrative and ludic (play) notions of videogames, and how the identities of gamers are affected in the process. Concepts and theories surrounding identity construction are always essential to understanding the formation of cultural groupings, and are specifically important to any type of subculture. Mul tackles the issue of ‘what’ makes gamers unique in their consumption of videogames.
Mul’s argument proposes that:
Human identity is not a self-contained identity, hidden in the depths of our inner self, but is actively constructed in a social world with the aid of various expressions, such as social roles, rituals, clothes, music and (life) stories. These expressions not only mediate between us and our world (referentiality) and between us and our fellow man (communicability), but also between us and ourselves (self-understanding). Consequently, changes in these mediating structures reflect changes in the relationship between us and our world, in our social relationships, and in our self-conception.
Mul argues that in recent decades the “domains of expressions” of self-identity (basically your own process of identity construction) have been extended by the emergence of videogames. He views videogames as a new tool of identity formation. His focus is consolidating the concept of narrative identity with that of his own concept of ‘ludic identity’. Mul builds on the notion of narrative identity pioneered by Paul Ricouer (1985), where identity is not a mere object of substance and consciousness as in the typical Cartesian view (the separation of mind and body), but is developed through the narratives to which we are exposed. We articulate ourselves through the narratives we tell others. Mul argues that Ricouer’s understanding of narrative identity informs an understanding of multiple selves created through many different ‘narratives’ we use in our daily lives. He then points out that videogames differ from traditional ideas of narrative by actively engaging participants through interaction with characters and a chain of events caused by player actions within videogames, and have a higher depth of “multilinearity” (diverging points with variables). Mul’s answer to how to conceptualise the effect of a videgame on identity formation is the concept of the “Ludic Identity”. Identity is formed through the interaction of the player with videogames, through the action of ‘play’, illustrating the importance of ‘play’ as a cultural definer of what is distinctive in the identity construction process, resulting from interaction with videogames. The popularity of examining the concept of ‘play’ as a factor within videogames, as a cultural system, is one of the two clear trends in the field of game studies
The two trends of popular research which are narratology (narrative) and ludology (play theory) persistently categorise the types of research carried out in game studies. Narratology argues that videogames can be studied through “recourse to existing literary and humanities methods of understanding texts” and be understood as narratives. Ludology argues that since videogames are not conventional texts they should be viewed as an activity “akin to play or sport”. The re-appropriation of ludology (play theory) is an attempt by academics to try and reassess videogames by addressing their prominent feature: “interactivity” . Interactivity in videogames configures the interface of the ‘virtual’ experience of the videogame into a ‘real’ and social experience. Games can thus be understood not as “static media texts” but as activities, and therefore active sites of identity construction.
Games can be defined as “ludic activities” which draw people into emotional connections with the medium. This is a noteworthy aspect of videogames that piques academic interest, which is the status of videogames as ‘evocative’ objects’, objects which draw upon emotional connections through play, as evidenced by the research of Sherry Turkle (2005). It is in this understanding that videogames ascend the confines of earlier understanding of videogames. This understanding was that videogames were limited in reception to arcades, the pocket money of children and young teenagers. It was the norm to perceive videogames as one-dimensional experiences until the breakthrough of home videogame consoles, and the evolution of the personal computer. A change had started to occur.
Sherry Turkle (2005) addresses such an issue in her article on “Computer Games as Evocative Objects”. Drawing on much of her past work (1984, 1995, 1997, 2005) her argument acknowledges that gamers have a strong emotional connection to videogames because they distinctively rely on the player’s actions to progress in the world a videogame constructs. Turkle (2005) explains this by saying:
We are continually shaped by our hands-on engagement with computational objects, among these the objects of the computer “games” culture that have come to include the landscapes of online role-playing and simulation worlds as well as robotic pets and digital creatures. We relate to such objects as psychological machines, not only because so many of these new objects might be said to have primitive technologies, but because they cause us to reflect upon our own.
In the article, she refers to videogames as modern forms of ‘bricolage’ through which gamers use videogames and the culture around them to develop and assimilate ideas into their own cultural capital (forms of knowledge or a level of knowledge). ‘Bricolage’ would mean, for example, a videogame permeating into the popular culture of gamers, and the public, breeding social controversy, with games like Grand Theft Auto, or creating a wider fan culture whose object, the videogame, becomes a central point for fan fiction, artwork and films. In turn, Turkle investigates how videogames have served as a ‘reflection’ of computation (computerised technology) in wider culture. She traces the beginnings of early computer technology and the transparency (learning and understanding the underlying mechanisms of the computers over time) to the point where users are now involved in relationships with videogames.
Transparency in early 1970s computer technology was written for the interface systems of the technology being utilised, with no true graphical user interface (or GUI), and so teenagers and children could delve into the depths of coded language and programming. From this point on a contingent of early videogame developers developed a relationship with the technology, from an intrinsic understanding of the underlying basic mechanisms behind the technology they used. However, with the shift towards graphical user interfaces with the release of the iconic Macintosh computer in 1984 and the realisation of the real world application of a visually defined desktop, with icons and a superficial surface to which the user could interact with, transparency within the relationship between user and computer fell away.
As a result, computers became more accessible and everything was understood at the level of the interface. This became the seductive factor of both computing and videogames, the simulation itself, which Turkle elaborates upon by saying that, “the dynamic, layered display gives me the comforting sense that I write in conversation with the computer”. Computers no longer required intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the machines, and by extension this applied to videogames and broader computerised technology. Only surface understandings of how to use the graphical interface in order to make the computer perform a certain task were necessary. In other words, the process had been reduced to merely clicking icons and pushing a few keys on the keyboard. The intimate connection that early computer enthusiast experienced was no longer possible. The visual simulation that lay before the eyes of the user had become the trump card for increasing the popularity of computers and computerised technology.
This same love affair with simulations, as experienced in the domain of computing, was relative to videogames in which the simulation had become an extension of one’s self. In relation to this, Turkle speaks of the early 1990s when users partook in networked game software known as MUDs (Multi User Domains) and joined together in online virtual communities. Windows on the computer display, and within virtual communities online such as in videogames, link up to a “distributed self” which is propelled by the nature of such communities that allow the user the ability to create multiple personas for virtual exploration of the self. For many, online life is a process of “self reflection”. It is from this development in the relationship between computer technology and people that videogames can be seen as “evocative objects” that we develop relationships with, be it for escapism or social anonymity. Yet Turkle remarks that the depth of these relationships does not forgo the importance of true physical social interaction. Where there may be benefits with the technology, the same technology can also “reinforce dangerous habits of the mind”, such as anti-social behaviour, due to the “closed system” nature of the internet, online communities and those who play multiplayer online videogames. This process points to the eventual evolution of videogames into an object of cultural importance for media users across a global scale, as the spread of computer technology intensified. Attaining the level of “evocative objects”, videogames have thus far led to the development of a culture surrounding the medium.
Adding to this, it is important to consider videogames as cultural catalysts, as according to Constance A. Steinkuehler (2006) early academic discussions about videogames primarily fell back on the tired debate involving the ‘dichotomy’ between narratology and ludology which she argues is a ‘red herring’ in the field of game studies. Videogames, she argues, require greater understanding as games are “designed experiences” which rely on a the full range of human practices for players to inhabit the world of rules and texts that is videogames, and without such focus rendering meaning from research would be pointless. As such, Steinkuehler elaborates upon the nature of videogames as “designed experiences” by saying:
Games are a “mangle” of production and consumption—of human intentions (with designers and players in conversation with one another), material constraints and affordances, evolving sociocultural practices, and brute chance.
Steinkuehler also attributes a simultaneous functioning to videogames as culture and a cultural object. For her, they are “microcosms” for studying the emergence, maintenance, transformation and collapse of online “affinity” groups in the online context of gaming, with her particular interest in MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games). She sees them as social simulations where we can understand how different structures shape behaviour online within videogames, as well as how cultures evolve and devolve. The potential is boundless with the applications for research studies in game studies, and the exploration of broader social issues could be possible as well. Finding that in the process, videogames are indeed cultural catalysts in the consumer practices of gamers, forming and shaping their cultural identity.
The reality of which is undeniably that videogames are directly influential on our own perceptions of self-identity. Gamers create many different personas and identities as gamers, and find the tools within the videogame landscape to do so. It is a vast field of possibilities and studying a select few examples of identity construction within gaming could evolve the medium even further. Herein lies a great opportunity for both academics and developers.
- Dovey, J. and Kennedy, H. 2006. Games Cultures: Computer Games As New Media. Glasgow: Open University Press. 22-25.
- Mul, J. de 2005. The Game of Life: Narrative and Ludic Identitiy Formation in Computer Games. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (eds.). Handbook of Computer Game Studies. London: MIT Press. 251-259.
- Steinkuehler, Constance A. 2006. Why Game (Culture) Studies Now?. Games and Culture 1, 1: 97-100.
- Turkle, S. 2005. Computer Games as Evocative Objects: From Projective Screens to Relational Artifacts. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (eds.). Handbook of Computer Game Studies. London: MIT Press. 267-278.