Identity and Video-Games
“When something ‘arrives’, in a popular culture sense,” writes Luke Plunkett, a journalist for Kotaku, “it’s never to the tune of trumpets and a standing ovation. Nothing can ever be that spontaneous. Instead, you just wake up one day and realise that something which used to exist around the fringes, which people may have been aware of but were never that into, is suddenly there. In your face.”
Much has been written on the topic of video-games in recent years, which, somewhere between 2006 and 2012, expanded rapidly from a niche interest indulged by “kids and nerds” into a multi-billion dollar industry that can reach just about anyone on the planet with a half-capable piece of technology in their house – or even their hands (Plunkett 2012, p.1).
Concurrently, academic interest expanded too, especially in relation to education, literacy, meaning-making, and youth culture (for instance Apperley and Beavis 2013; Beavis 2012, 2013, 2014; Burwell 2017; King 2015). Of particular interest to many is the embodied experience, the affect, of the video-game.
“Video-games are good for your soul,” James Gee (2005, p.1) declares, “when you play them with thought, reflection, and engagement with the world around you.” A 70-year-old professor of linguistics isn’t someone you might associate with video-games, but there it is. He sees the medium as being unlike the books, films, and television programmes they are often compared to, due to their incorporation of player agency and the need for co-construction between player and game, which makes the experience of game-playing a different one for each player. As a tool for learning, he posits, video-games are valuable in the sense that, unlike more traditional outlets of learning (like schools), failing to engage their learners is not an option; even the most niche of video-games has to be engaging to as broad an audience as possible, or else the developers won’t eat. This correlates with other researchers’ findings, which suggest that the experience of the video-game is iterative, embodied, and subjective, and, while governed by the algorithms and narrative structures set out by their creators, “differs from player to player, from occasion to occasion, and as players progress through set stages” (Beavis 2012, p.60).
When Lacan theorised the ‘mirror phase’, it highlighted to us the inherent disconnect between ourselves and the world; the ‘others’ we find ourselves surrounded with are isolated from truly understanding us, capable only of knowing the relatively static and expressionless self we see in the mirror, not the protean, rhizomic, multiplicitous mass of experiences, thoughts and feelings that form our inner self (Lacan 1977). But in storytelling, we may share in a character’s inner monologue and ‘know’ their thoughts, feelings and emotions, a connection we may never truly make with real people, even the ones we know well.
Video-games, and in particular the role-playing video-game, I would contest, has the capacity to take this connection one step further. While the player is ‘playing’ the character, according to the narrative of the story and/or the rules of the game world, the character is also ‘playing’ the player, being directly influenced and controlled by the player’s inner thoughts. As such, with this in mind, I do not feel overly melodramatic in expressing that, in a way, the player and the character become one, both indelibly marked by the realities of the other.
This is not entirely inconsistent with human experience before the arrival of the medium of the video-game; Goffman (1990) discussed a dramaturgical perspective on everyday life, insofar that people may perform different identities (or don different masks), either sincerely or cynically, in the context of any number of social stages. Further to this, Goffman draws on Park (1950, p.249), and states that:
It is probably no mere historical accident that the word person, in its first meaning, is a mask. It is rather a recognition of the fact that everyone is always and everywhere, more or less consciously, playing a role… It is in these roles that we know each other; it is in these roles that we know ourselves.
Why not in the video game? Here, as mentioned, the player plays the character according to the narrative of the story, and the character ‘plays’ the player according to the player’s inner thoughts, both bound by the rules of the game’s virtual world.
Gee (2003) describes video-games as being semiotic domains of their own, or “little universes of meaning” (Beavis 2012, p.58), and further contends that managing gameplay requires users to be critical and reflective: “Learning involves active and critical thinking about the relationships of the semiotic domain being learned to other semiotic domains” (Gee 2003, p.50). In understanding how this distinct digital space can affect the real, he hypothesises the projective identity, a negotiated middle-ground between character and player, constituted of elements of both. Waggoner (2009) builds on this to understand projective identity as a type of liminal space, a bridge between the two semiotic domains where the player is “suspended between one realm of experience and another” (Flynn 2003, p.2), and through which cross “codes and assumptions about what does and does not constitute a legitimate interface with reality – virtual or otherwise” (Rehak 2003, p.123).
Noting Rehak’s use of the word, I hesitate to use ‘virtual’ to describe video-game space on the advice of Massumi (2002, p.137), who offers that “equating the digital with the virtual… reduces it to simulation. This forgets intensity, brackets potential, and… bypasses the move through sensation, the actual envelopment of the virtual”. Massumi here understands virtual after the fashion of Deleuze and Guattari, to be a virtue of becoming, of emotion and affect, which has little to do with digital technology in and of itself (Cremin 2016); considering the work of Boellstorff (2008, p.249), who, in the conclusion of his ethnographic study of Second Life (an online digital world) asserts that humans have always been “already virtual” through culture, I do not see this as a contradiction in terms.
An Under(rated/researched) Medium
This particular area desperately needs further research; how the lived experience of the video-game weaves itself in and out of the fabric of everyday life, how the embodied experience of video-gaming interfaces with, and may bear influence upon, the embodied experiences of the real world, and what this can result in, is an under-explored area. This would be important and useful on several counts.
Firstly, existing models for understanding the medium are predominantly representational (IE they understand video games in terms of other media/concepts such as narrative, rhetoric, physical play etc) and non-representational models – that is, models which understand video-games as video-games – are still in their infancy (Cremin’s  affective theory of form is, to my knowledge, the first and only attempt at a full model).
Secondly, beyond the interest in video games as a technology in itself, this would have implications for their use in education. Video games are becoming increasingly normalised in society, to the point where their potential value has been noted by educators and institutions of schooling, yet the predominant concern has been how the medium might be applied to existing curricula to enhance formal subject teaching – which stands almost diametrically at odds with their prevailing position as a largely informal and interest-driven activity. Considering the works of earlier progressive and democratic educators and theorists (such as A. S. Neill, Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire), this apparent disinterest in the use of video games ‘in the wild’ could be said to ignore the educative potential of free choice and passionate obsession (Sanchez 2017) for the sake of other, more ideological institutional goals, such as the maintenance of power structures (IE the hidden curriculum).
Learning in the Wild
On the discussion of that second point, let’s just think about learning for a moment or two. The teacher in me has always objected to video games. I play them, as do most people my age, and I know their addictive rush. I know they can be worse than TV for stealing homework time. They’re a fantasy; there’s an underlying risk that, instead of being the heroes of their own lives, their players fall into a slot prepared for them by consumer culture.
But, risks aside, just look at that slot. Video games have a rich, underlying culture. The themes and images draw on ancient and recent mythology, from the Greeks to Tolkien. They provide a connection with the past that most teens get nowhere else. Also, video games provide structure. Video games have rules. They require intense concentration and lots of memorization. They offer diverse options and interactivity. They encourage risk, because exploring is a necessary part of most games. Every time you make a wrong move and get eliminated, you’re automatically resurrected – that is, video games give immediate feedback and satisfaction. They’re exciting and fun.
Compare the organization of the school. Its artificial structures do not build inner discipline. There’s a laziness about giving your will over to bells and desks and someone else’s voice. The bodies show up, but not the minds and hearts. Coaches know this. Sports, music, drama, dance – the kids who come out for voluntary extracurricular bring their whole being to the task. They naturally display a passion and commitment that I seldom find in a year six algebra introduction or a Hamlet lesson for one of my beleaguered tutees.
For many, the original ideological impetus behind structured school has not failed. They think we just have to order the kids to do their work and all will be well. They like the 19th-century model. Perhaps our present crisis is, ironically, related to the innovations of recent years. Many of us have tried to invigorate our teaching through cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, tribes, and other sincere, thoughtful theories and techniques. It seems to me these methods have not worked. They have not convinced parents, politicians or bureaucrats that we, as professional educators, know what we’re doing. Worse, we have not convinced students that school is worthwhile. We can’t reclaim the schools, I think, because the basic lesson of school is still school: sit in rows and let the teacher tell you what you have to do and where you belong in the class/intellect hierarchy. And the bright kids, of course, reject this – they go off and play video games; because they’re engaging and fun, and because failing to engage is not an option for video game developers in the same way it is for schools.
Perhaps the school system could learn something from that.
Apperley, T., and Beavis, C. (2013) A Model for Critical Games Literacy. E-Learning and Digital Media 10(1): 1-12.
Beavis, C. (2012) Multiliteracies in the Wild: Learning from Computer Games. In Merchant, G., Gillen, J., Marsh, J., and Davies, J. (eds.) Virtual Literacies: Interactive Spaces for Children and Young People. London: Routledge
Beavis, C. (2013) Young People, New Media and Education: Participation and Possibilities. Social Alternatives 32(2): 39-44
Beavis, C. (2014) Games as Text, Games as Action: Video Games in the English Classroom. Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 57(6): 433-439.
Boellstorff, T. (2008) Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton, NJ and Oxford: Princeton University Press.
Burwell, C. (2017) Game Changers: Making New Meanings and New Media with Video Games. English Journal 106(6): 41-47.
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Rehak, B. (2003) Playing at Being: Psychoanalysis and the Avatar. In Wolf, M. J. P., and Perron, B. (Eds.). The Video Game Theory Reader (pp. 103-127). New York: Routledge.
Sanchez, D. (2017) Obsession is the Ultimate Skill. FEE. Retrieved from https://fee.org/articles/obsession-is-the-ultimate-skill/?utm_source=FEE+Email+Subscriber+List&utm_campaign=d010f02649-MC_FEE_DAILY_2017_09_15&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_84cc8d089b-d010f02649-108394529
Waggoner, Z. (2009) My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company Inc.