You might remember my first longform article “Player and Character as One: Why uncensored games are the most impactful storytelling medium” about how players can be more intimate with their characters in a mature setting if the game employs more explicit storytelling. You also might have listened to the Trust Sircle podcast episode where we discuss the explicit storytelling mechanic in further detail! I’m here now to conclude the trilogy via an interview with Chapman University’s Harrison Gish about the intricacies of the the relationship between player and avatar, and whether they really are or can be one!
Harrison Gish is a professor for Dodge College in Chapman University and primarily teaches the “History of Film” classes. Outside of that, he is currently a PhD candidate for UCLA’s Cinema and Media Studies doctorate program studying the relationship mechanics between players and their avatars within video games.
When you say “player avatars”, what does that mean? Does this include a broad spectrum all the way from players choosing from a series of pre-set pictures to players fully customizing what their characters look like?
It could be a picture. But we should keep in mind what technology allows. In avatars from the 1990s for example, we get a fundamentally different understanding of what an avatar can be versus our definition in the present moment. It is all based on what technology allows. An early example I can think of–both relating to Super Mario Brothers–is Super Mario Brothers 2, where you can pick between Mario, Luigi, Princess Toadstool, and Toad at the beginning. That is a fundamental choice that you will then reap the benefits and the negatives of throughout the rest of the game. Luigi can jump higher and stay in the air longer, which can be detrimental for some parts of the game while Princess Toadstool can float. They are all different. It is an avatarial choice that happens once and you are making a determination for how you will be represented and how you will interact with the game, but it is a choice that is singular unless you restart the game and try again.
But if we look at Super Mario Brothers 3, which is a fundamentally different game, even though we have fewer options, this is a game that allows a great deal of avatarial choice albeit simplistically by today’s standards. Because as you collect things and beat missions, you have a database at the bottom of the screen that changes how you look and simultaneously how you interact with the larger world. As a player, you determine how that change is made. These are important early iterations of avatars and these are what technology allowed. Compare this to World of Warcraft, the numbered options available to you are seemingly unending. All of these iterations throughout gaming can be considered avatars. They are informed by technology and its capabilities, but on the other hand, they also informed by genre (MMORPGs vs. multiplayer combat games) so in my dissertation, I want to move away from the conception that something is simply an avatar or not an avatar. There is what I’m calling a “spectrum of avatariality” where certain agents or surrogates display more deeply customizable aspects of avatars than others. As avatars become more deeply customizable, games become less focused on character. This is very general, but it is important to think of avatars with flexibility as opposed to doing so through strict dichotomies.
So is there a line between character and avatar?
Yes, certainly. If we are talking about the narrative that needs to be completed and what needs to be done, we are discussing character. But in regards to a player’s particular relationship with how their surrogate is represented onscreen and what they can adjust in terms of functionality, we move into the terrain of avatar.
So can an avatar be extended to how a player chooses to customize a pre-determined character, like Geralt in The Witcher series?
Absolutely! The same thing is true of Commander Shepard. Interestingly, in Mass Effect, narrative becomes an avatarial choice. In the first game for example, you are tasked with giving yourself a backstory and it is fascinating to me how that choice plays out within the rest of the game.
How are avatar mechanics different in single-player and multiplayer games?
It depends on perspective. In World of Warcraft, you are constantly being reminded of how your avatar looks and how they can function within the world and how they are perceived in the world vs. Call of Duty where your choices are comparatively limited. You don’t perceive the avatar while playing those games, as you are seeing through the eyes of your avatar. Whereas in the single-player Mass Effect, you do still have the customization that many MMORPGs offer yet without the outside perception of other people, or other avatars. And I think that does influence how you make choices and what groups you affiliate with within both the single-player and multiplayer experiences. My focus is more on single player avatars, but the mechanic of other people’s and group’s perceptions of an avatar is still very important to me across both single and multiplayer games.
What have you found to be one of the most influencing factors in avatar design? Does a player’s preferences stay consistent even in different genres or narratives?
No, I haven’t found players’ preferences to stay consistent though I think identity is something to consider in player avatar design. Issues of genre and narrative frequently limit how you represent yourself onscreen. I think of Grand Theft Auto V and you can change so much of the avatars you play as, but the narrative attempts to retain its dominance in certain ways, influencing how the avatars look. They are meant to be particular people from particular places. Trevor, for example, has to wear the scars of drug addiction as evidence of drug trafficking. You can change his clothes and change his hair, but you cannot change the narrative materialization on the actual body of the avatar. The element of even playing with gender can dynamically relate to greater degrees of choice.
There is an excellent book called Gaming at the Edge by Adrienne Shaw which is about intersectional identities and representation in games and all about how challenging identity as a singular thing and identity as a dynamic relationship between many affiliations. It challenges the notion that people want to see exclusively themselves represented in games. Like, who wants to play as me? No one! Not even me! So there is a great amount of fluidity that allows for a greater degree of manipulation. In the early days of message boards for example, some people feel more comfortable in a virtual skin vs. their own — they want to play something other than themselves. This idea that people want to play as exclusively themselves or the same thing is problematic to say the least. I’ve just found that the idea that we always play as ourselves is not true when it comes to a great deal of the gaming populace. They are far more diverse than what Twitter trolls might have you believe, especially when we consider the level of customization games allow and how deep it goes.
Is the relationship between avatar and player similar to the relationship between people and their online personas?
Yes. This is just a guess and it varies by the individual, but the way you might behave in Call of Duty would be different than in a single-play game or MMORPG. You are not rewarded for being nice in Call of Duty for example, and that influences player behavior. This can be applied to online personas as well, as certain website environments’ rewards systems influence how people behave.
On the other hand, there is an effacing quality to interacting with people in a virtual world whether it be the Internet or video games. Twitter is part of our reality now. The division between the virtual and real is far murkier than what one might think. Actions in the virtual world often have consequences in the real world, and the distinction isn’t as defined as it might have used to be. It varies from individual to individual, though.
What have you found to be the relationship between player and avatar?
The relationship is continually in flux. If we think of video games as rule-based systems in the context of these larger virtual worlds, then avatars are a rule based system of their own. They demand certain things of players and allow certain things as well, but they are a result of the amount of effort you put in. They allow for a great deal of potential expression but frequently do not require it. On one hand, it is personal to players on how much they want to invest in the avatarial portion, yet on the other hand there are also examples of avatars showing what can be achieved to create a demand. In Super Mario Brothers 3, you don’t have to use the special powers that you have accumulated in your database and in Grand Theft Auto V you don’t have to change the characters in an avatarial way unless the story demands it of you.
How do you interact with your own video game avatars? Do your preferences change based on the video game or do you find yourself creating consistent avatars?
Grand Theft Auto V is the game I have the most experience with recently and I want to announce myself continually in the game. There’s the three main avatars and without any modification, they will wear what they wear in the canon–Franklin with his hoody, Trevor with bloody sweatpants, Michael in a leather jacket–I don’t want that. I want every character to seem cool in a way that I am not and I want that to be visually represented to myself onscreen. I want to feel as if my own ideas of clothing and announcing myself are present in terms of how I interact with the rest of the game.
Playing as a deeply immoral criminal doesn’t really work for me for example because I always think of what would be the moral choice. Choosing to play otherwise is fundamentally uncomfortable for me. That’s not to say I won’t do the what the game’s missions demand, but if the game offers me a choice, I will always make the most moral one if possible. So, I try to put some of myself in my avatars while relating to the rest of the story’s world.
What has been the most surprising find in your research?
How little my own experience relates to other people’s and how personal video game play is for everyone. I mean, I love cutscenes! I love them! But I know so many people who don’t see the point of them and skip over them. The amount you will give yourself over to game narratives is incredibly personal. You can skip through the entire story world if the gameplay is strictly your goal. Video games are fundamentally personal experiences in their play and analysis and that is one of the great things about them. Players all have different interests and how those manifest themselves independent of your own experience is always surprising to me in the best way.
Why did you decide to study this particular aspect of video games in-depth?
It always appealed to me because avatars were always deeply personal to me. Tony Hawk Pro Skater 2 is the game from my past that stands out the most to me because I wanted to keep playing the game. But since I had already beaten it and experienced everything, I started focusing on creating different avatars based rather embarrassingly on people that I knew. It was a way for me to enliven my personal relationship with the game while at the same time, allowing myself a different relationship with it in terms of functionality with these particular surrogates. Profoundly personal on the one hand and adventurous in a way the game had ceased to be on the other.
Studying avatars also united the other parts of video games that I’m interested in. For example, the space of games and how we experience them or how games construct interfaces and databases in terms of object collection. Even when we consider narrative mechanics, the avatar unites all of these.
What direction do you think avatars are going in?
I can only guess, but I think virtual reality is something to consider either way. I was a naysayer of the virtual reality movement and Oculus Rift because I remember when it was supposed to be the next big thing in the 90s. But having now played on the HTC and Oculus Rift, I was utterly blown away by these experiences and can only imagine the possibilities. It was incredible to lose my balance in a game despite knowing I was in a Sony office squarely on the floor. So considering virtual reality, I’m not sure if avatars will move in a more realistic representation where players will want to represent themselves accurately and comfortably or if it will allow for experimentation that is fundamentally more personal because you can see it written, it seems, on your own body. For the first time, I can put a cat head mask on myself and look in a mirror within a virtual reality space and actually see it on myself. That creates a fundamentally different dynamic than typing on a keyboard and looking at a monitor that is inherently more personal.
Is there anything you would like players to be aware of when they are creating or choosing their avatars? Do you have any challenges in avatar design that we could try?
I don’t want to tell anyone what to do, but in games where you are playing with other people, be aware that there are other people on the other end of the system. Just because something looks like a virtual projection doesn’t mean there isn’t a person behind it. It’s something people are quick to forget even from the days of chatrooms, and the line between the real and the virtual is not a stable one. It is a messy one and the effects you have in whatever virtual world you are playing in have effects in the real world. It’s really easy to forget that these worlds are networks that connect us to other people, and not worlds where your actions have no consequences whatsoever. As George Costanza would say, “We are living in a society!” and even if it is a virtual one, the effects are very real.
Follow Harrison Gish on Twitter to keep up with him and check out one or two of his articles if his research topic interests you! He’s departing Chapman University next semester to continue working on his dissertation, so if you would like to visit him at the university, now is the time!