The bewildered audience
The worst fear that is often associated with video games is that the player will lose the ability to distinguish themselves from the characters they play. Examples include players who play Grand Theft Auto getting the urge to steal cars, Call of Duty players becoming obsessed with firearms and killing sprees, or World of Warcraft players dedicating more time to the development of their online persona than their real world self.
In my 5 part series on Binge gaming, I explored the challenges gamers face when describing their passion to those who don’t play games, and the difficulties non-gamers can have with understanding the difference between immersion and dedication versus escapism and abuse. Within it I mentioned that it is difficult to appreciate the value of gameplay when watching someone play a game due to the nature of games not being meant for the enjoyment of an audience but for the enjoyment of the player.
The core element which distinguishes games from any other medium is choice. Without actively participating, an audience is essentially watching a person make decisions; which, can be as spectacular as the choice of when to time a sneak attack on a boss to take them down, or something as boring as reorganizing their inventory before they go to market.
Who’s choice was it?
When gamers speak about their experiences, the line between speaking in first person and speaking in third person can become blurred. This is often due to the fact that games are split into sequences which have the character under direct control, and story points, cutscenes, or backstory segments within which the character is enacting their own will.
In my article Educational games: content vs creator, I wrote about the power of games to impart experiential knowledge since the player is an active participant in the learning process. I speak to the power of associating in-game victories and discoveries with a personalized narrative “then I climbed through the rubble and found my partner, I bandaged them up and got them to safety”, “I infiltrated a slaver’s base of operations discovered the locations of the rest of their camps and took down their leader”.
While the above mentioned examples show a player applying their gameplay to experiences where they did something good, the narrative can go the other way as well. As I discussed in my article Moral choice: does allowing immoral choice in games impact real world behavior?, I believe it is important for players to explore the darker sides of choice, so that they can learn from the consequences of immoral behavior in a simulated environment. I argue that if a player commits immoral actions in a game and then commits them in real life, those actions were always an expression of the player’s character, and not a symptom of their time spent in a game.
The importance of roleplaying and disassociation
In my personal experience, when discussing a game I often associate myself with the actions and choices I take directly, and apply the character to actions they take free from my influence, or the story they have developed on their own, or the backstory I have developed for them which dictates their motivations and perspective.
When we are given a rich character, whose motivations, morality, and history are clearly defined, we can assume their identity via the act of roleplaying. When we roleplay we are disconnecting ourselves from our own desires and adhering to those of our character, much in the same way an actor assumes the mannerisms of the character they play.
It is important to understand this concept since it allows us to see that gamers, as active participants within a story, must take the actions in-line with their character, if we are given a goody two shoes character we probably aren’t going to go around stealing items, if we are given a thief character then we’re going to see the player thoroughly enjoying the finer points of kleptomania.
(The Sly Cooper franchise focused on a story where the player plays as a master thief who steals from criminals)
One of the most memorable melding of story points came at the end of Grand Theft Auto IV (SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t played it yet GTA IV is one of my favorite games of all time, I highly recommend it), in which the player is faced with an impossible choice, lose the love of his life or lose his cousin. The decision becomes even more challenging when, if you go down the path that would save the woman that you love, she loses respect for you and ends up leaving you anyway.
In this case as a player I decided to save Roman since at least he would still be around after the dust settled. Niko would probably not see losing Kate as a problem if she was still alive, however, I as a player was simply calculating the fact that two of my favorite NPCs were in jeopardy, in one scenario I would lose one, in the other I would lose both. So I chose to save Roman, and Niko got revenge worthy of a climactic ending to his story.
How do you think of gameplay, do you always describe it in first person or third person? Do you switch between the two consciously or more typically as a way of highlighting choice versus character? Have you ever been confronted by someone who didn’t understand why you felt so closely associated to your character in game? I’d love to hear what you think about this topic, if you have experiences of your own you wish to share please do so in the comments below, or write in to firstname.lastname@example.org.