The Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group’s (GIG) first event of the Winter Quarter is on Wednesday, January 19, 3:30-5:30 PM, in Communication 202.  This is our third public reading group/workshop of the year and will focus on the gaming term “Avatar.”

The Keywords for Video Game Studies working group, in collaboration with the Critical Gaming Project at the University of Washington and the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC), is supported by the Simpson Center for the Humanities.

What to Expect

Those who came to the previous sessions on “PLAY” and “IMMERSION/INTERACTIVITY” can expect a similar format.  Read, play, gather, discuss.  (And share in some refreshments.)  Though our immediate audience is graduate students, our goal is to bring together people from a variety of fields and from all different points in their academic careers who have an interest in video game studies.  The reading group/workshop format allows us to frame the discussion with a handful of short essays, a few key games, and the rest is up to participants to tease out the issues and angles related to the day’s key word.

What to Read

We hope everyone can read and come prepared to discuss the following essays:

  • Lisa Nakamura, “Cyberrace,” PMLA
  • Bonnie Nardi, “Gender,” Ch. 8 of My Life as a Night Elf Priest
  • Raph Koster “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars
  • Maureen McHugh, “Virtual Love” & “A Coney Island of the Mind”

If you have a UWNetID, you can find copies of each essay on e-reserve (held by the Keywords CHID 496 class).  If you do not have access to UW e-reserves, please contact us and we’ll work something out.

What to Play

Though we will undoubtedly talk about many different games, we have selected the following games to serve as common points of reference for our discussion:
World of Warcraft (See character creation videos like and avatar dances like
Second Life (see the Second Life trailer
Nintendo Wii’s Miis
XBox LIVE’s Avatars

What to Discuss

The Oxford English Dictionary defines the original meaning of “avatar” as “the descent of a deity to the earth in an incarnate form” from the Sanskrit avatāra meaning “descent.”  More recently, with the advent of computers, the term means “a graphical representation of a person or character in a computer-generated environment, esp. one which represents a user in an interactive game or other setting, and which can move about in its surroundings and interact with other characters.”  The Wikipedia page on “avatars” extends the definition to include “a two-dimensional icon (picture) used on Internet forums and other communities.  It can also refer to a text construct found on early systems such as MUDs [Multi-User Dungeons].  It is an object representing the user.  The term ‘avatar’ can also refer to the personality connected with the screen name, or handle, of an Internet user.”  Ironically, the literal, physical sense of “incarnation” is lost when translated to digital games.  However, the relationship between user and avatar, player and representation still retains traces of and connection to embodiment and marks the tensions and troubles over digital disembodiment.

For example, Julian Dibbell’s oft cited “A Rape In Cyberspace” explores the “dissonant gap” between users and their digital incarnations.  ”A Rape in Cyberspace” is the account of a text-based, chat-based, online, social world called LambdaMOO and an incident where one user/avatar assaults and attacks other users/avatars.  Given that LambdaMOO is only text, only the scroll of descriptions and narrations and that “no bodies touched” in the online assault, what happens when a virtual world produces “a lucid illusion of presence,” a convincingly ambivalent experience that is “neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but nonetheless profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally true?”  Step forward a few years to the advent of graphical representations of players (and computer characters) and the issues and concerns are compounded by the visual and by increasingly sophisticated sound, voice, and animation technologies.  The resonances and dissonances between player and avatar continue to confound and complicate notions of identity, identification, interactivity, narrative, and action.  On the one hand, avatars are dress up fantasy, a techno-utopian call to be anything you want to be, an extension or rarification of the self.  Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design and lead designer of Ultima Online, and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, argues this side in his polemical “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars” saying avatars are “the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space.”  On the other hand, avatars reflect and further render cultural norms, stereotypes, and logics, from “identity tourism” to digital blackface.  Lisa Nakamura, who coined the term “cybertypes” to demonstrate how racial, gendered, and sexualized stereotypes and norms are ported from “real life” into “virtual life,” argues recently in PMLA that technologies like digital games “incessantly [recruit] its users to generate content in the form of profiles, avatars, favorites, comments, pictures, wiki postings, and blog entries.  Cyberrace has gone the way of the Cybershot, cybercommuting, and cyberspace, and for much the same reason: racialization has become a digital process, just as visual-imaging practices, labor, and social discourse have.”

Clearly there is a range of experiences, performances, problems, and possibilities when unpacking the term “avatar.”  How might we use these ideas and concerns as jumping off point to think about the mediating forms and functions of video game avatars?

  • How might we interrogate avatars as extensions, prostheses of the player(s)?
  • Are avatars just fantasy and window dressing, immune to social, cultural, and “real life” critiques and analyses?  What happens in the leaky intertwingling of VR and RL?
  • What happens to race, gender, sexuality, and identity/embodiment when routed through avatars?
  • How do avatars function diegetically and non-diegetically?  How do they affect and mediate point of view, action, and identification?
  • What about non-player avatars?

Feel free to comment on these here or add your own questions. Either way, immerse yourself in these topics then come interact in our discussion Wednesday, January 19, 3:30-5:30 PM in Communication (CMU) 202.

Edmond Chang
Edmond Y. Chang is a newly arrived Assistant Professor of English at Drew University. His areas of interest include technoculture, gender and sexuality, cultural studies, video games, popular culture, and contemporary American literature. He earned his Ph.D. from University of Washington and his dissertation is entitled “Technoqueer: Re/con/figuring Posthuman Narratives.” He has extensive teaching experience at the university level and won the K. Patricia Cross Future Leaders Award in 2011 and the UW Excellence in Teaching Award in 2009. He has taught classes on re-reading high school novels, science fiction, Harry Potter, technology and identity, even live-action role-playing games. He has published an article “Gaming as Writing, Or, World of Warcraft as World of Wordcraft” in the Fall 2008 Computers & Composition Online Special Issue on “Reading Games” and an article on queering cyberpunk and an article on Alan Turing are in progress. He has a cat named Groosalugg.

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