Many thanks to those that made it to the third Keywords for Video Game Studies graduate interest group session, which focused on the slippery term “avatar.”  Because the term now serves as an umbrella for a number of digital, textual, and representational formations, pinning down “what” an avatar is (or is not) became less useful than “how” does an avatar mediate a gaming experience or “why” might thinking about avatars help us explore and interrogate the intersections and overlaps of video games and culture.

The conversation opened with discussion about creating an avatar, about role-playing (or not) as your avatar, about customization (the fun or perils of being able to do too much, see video below on Eve Online), and about how certain avatar design choices can communicate or signal more than just appearance (see Natascha Karlova’s guest blog post on the work being done by the UW’s Virtual Information Behavior Environment (VIBE) team):

The discussion identified an important tension between digital games or environments that allowed avatar selection and customization (and to what extent that customizability afforded the player) and games that required players to play a single or set group of avatars, which led to thinking about identification with avatars and avatars as extensions or prostheses of the self, particularly in the different contexts of single-player, first-person, and massively-multiplayer games.  Does a game invite identification?  How does identification affected game play and game mechanics?  What happens if that identification is refused?  For example, in a first person game like Bioshock, the player never gets to see what “he” looks like in game (no reflection, no body, only the FPS hands and voice) but does that mean the game fails at creating that identification?  The challenge here was, for lack of a better phrase, to analyze how serious to take the relationship between player and avatar, between avatar-to-avatar, and the intentions and expectations of the game.  World of Warcraft and Second Life became touchstones for the kinds of avatars available, the choices made by players, and the range of “identity tourism” (referencing Lisa Nakamura) allowed by avatars:

Concerns about race, gender, sexuality, and other cultural logics were then raised.  In particular, for example, in the shorthanding of “real world” race in the ostensibly fantasy world of World of Warcraft.  Or, as Alexander Galloway once posed, “[T]he world is still waiting for an explanation for why World of Warcraft’s troll race speaks with a Jamaican accent” (“Starcraft” 94).  Or, for instance, as discussed by Bonnie Nardi in her chapter on “Gender” in My Life as a Night Elf Priest, the overwhelming problem of gendered (or sexist) attitudes toward women players, female avatars, and the “boys’ tree house” or “locker room” spaces of game play and game chat.

The session concluded with Raph Koster’s “A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars.”  In particular, the discussion focused on the issue of who “owns” the avatar, of gaming companies and end-user license agreements, of intellectual and emotional property, and the labor involved in creating, playing, leveling-up a character.

Overall, the discussion was rich and ranging.  The central threads that came out of the conversation, the readings, and the sample games focused on:

  • avatar creation, customization, persona and personality, and identification
  • the distinctions between window dressing and whether avatars affect game play or game mechanics (e.g. RPG race/class bonuses and penalties)
  • avatar “bodies” matter
  • context of play (e.g. for business in Second Life or team play or single player)
  • protection and persistence (or not) of avatars

Once again, thanks to everyone for your continued support, contribution, and insights.  We look forward to the next Keyword session on “Power/Control” on Wednesday, February 16, 3:30 PM, in Communication 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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