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Players and Avatars: Against Identification


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Much study of MMOGs as well as other videogames presumes an affinity between players and their avatars. Gee has developed the concept of 'projective identity' and Bailensen, Yee and others have done …

Much study of MMOGs as well as other videogames presumes an affinity between players and their avatars. Gee has developed the concept of 'projective identity' and Bailensen, Yee and others have done extensive work exploring the Proteus effect, which suggests humans are deeply influenced by the avatars they choose, and likewise how such avatars become extensions of themselves in games and virtual spaces. Some of my own past work has explored how women strongly identify with female avatars, 'gender-swapping' at rates much lower than similar male players. Yet what of games that don't employ avatars, or rely on multiple or non-human avatars for players to employ? What of players who simply do not characterize game avatars as extensions of themselves? How can we speak of identification such instances? Is it still a useful concept to investigate?

This talk reviews some of my past research about players, identity and avatars, to offer a starting point for argument. But the heart of the talk explores instances of games where avatar presentation and use depart from our traditional conceptualizations --either by their absence or their opposition to humanoid facsimiles. By doing so this talk challenges game studies' easy reliance on avatars as proxies for identity in games, and asks what happens when players fail to use or access such embodiments in their gameplay. It suggests alternative ways to understand player agency and identification in games, and moves beyond avatars as the principle means for doing so.

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  • My past work on players- some has dealt with avatars and identification specifically, other work has not. I’m re-examining it here for this talk, to see what can be learned from a meta-analysis of sorts. My ideas about identification- Althusser and interpellation- hailed as a subject, always/already; as well as Butler’s notion of performativity and the subject- bodies that come to matter over time- we call ourselves into being through our actions.
  • And the structures of the games are important as well– they shape what we can do; although we still have freedom (to an extent) within those bounds. Sim to Foucault- thanks Felan!- and technologies of the self. We can play within the boundaries, find what works for ourselves.
  • My earliest work focused on women gamers- 10 years ago a somewhat rare species. Talk today looks at two different sets of female players, separated by only several years, but seemingly light years apart in terms of how the market perceives them. Some commonalities between them as well as some differences.
  • Anecdotal evidence as well as other research that women prefer female avatars; Virtual census study- female playable characters in top selling games is less than 20%; MMOGs- used to be a high point of female players; now not so much; but we wanted to get a baseline of how female – adult- players felt about their avatars and gear. Gear is functional in MMOGs, although it is also aesthetic; how did women react to gear- not just chain mail bikinis but all kinds of gear.
  • Main is the central avatar; the one a woman plays the most; alts were more varied; experimenting with different race/class combinations; starting stories; mule accounts; in WoW race/class are fixed (note that FFXI does NOT have fixed job system for avatars- leads to greater persistence of avatar use; also a sep charge for each avatar used- again a system constraint) Women tend to have more avatars than male players; hardest of the hardcore; most loyal to the game (least likely to report planning to quit)
  • Living ‘through’- for some women, such avatars tended to ‘take on a life of their own’ and developed personalities that they had not planned, or felt that they were not entirely responsible for. It could be a race thing, or a class thing, or some undefined essence; but several women mentioned their avatars having distinct personalities- even if they weren’t explicit role players.
  • Even though women didn’t see a problem playing a fantasy race, or imaginary class- such as mage- they still had a drive to create characters that reflected their gender.
  • Identity not the issue- rather it is design that is the problem.
  • Sexual dimorphism was mentioned by a couple of women; and has gained attention in games media. Interestingly, male blood elves were changed from original design to be more bulky/masculine- had been read as too ‘gay’ initially.
  • LOTRO had clothing that can be put “over” gear and is decorative, allowing players to “wear” something visually more pleasing to them while still maintaining the stats boost of particular pieces of (ugly) gear.
  • Raiders in particular saw gear as “work clothes” that, even if ugly, were appropriate to wear in particular situations. “off duty’ time- they could wear what they wanted.
  • Took pride in having/earning particular gear; as well as being able to craft certain items.
  • SL- even less gender switching than in MMOGs- our study found only 8% of women used a male avatar;
  • And SL avatars are hypersexualized, by both men and women, even though you can be ‘anything you want’ in the VW- even non humanoid.
  • BFG folks saw my paper, contacted me; we talked about me doing some research for them; this study was borne; work on with Jason Begy- another caveat– another perspective can help you see things you’d overlook.
  • Caveats: I dislike playing this game! Painfully boring :p
  • FS Refugees
  • From FFXI to Faunasphere to Farmville/Frontierville?
  • How much are friends worth? 25 diamonds!
  • Farmville before I got going, but note the relative simplicity: plant crops; decorate farm; acquire animals and trees
  • FameTown: when friends visit, they increase the rating of any movie currently in production Cityville franchises allow for friends’ personalization efforts to persist across their friends’ spaces
  • It Girl, Big City Life allow challenges that test players based on stats, items, cliques, and so on BCL allowed voting on hottest outfits, across friends and strangers
  • Ethical decision making games (mass effect, dragon age, fable, infamous, kotor, etc) How to players choose a path? How can ethical theories help us understand the choices we make as players?
  • Avatar as extension of their own ethical selfhood– closely linked in terms of gameplay choices; can’t really separate- this is a different person/character who can try this or that– maybe on SECOND playthrough- similar to cheating behaviors after having finished game ‘once through on my own first’
  • How are we seeing what we want to see/
  • Transcript

    • 1. Players and Avatars: Against Identification Mia Consalvo MIT
    • 2. okay maybe not against all identification
    • 3. but game fiction plays an important role in nudging players towards or away from different kinds of identification, with and without avatars
    • 4.  
    • 5. Story 1: Women in World of Warcraft (and Age of Conan)
    • 6. How do women reflect on their avatars and gear?
    • 7. Methodologically speaking…
      • Female players of WoW and Age of Conan
      • 14 players interviewed
      • Age range 20-45 years old
      • Playtime averaged 8-15 hours a week
    • 8. Women MMO players
      • WoW & AoC players: all had a female ‘main’
        • Clara “I really identify more with them [female characters] than with males.”
    • 9. Women MMO players
        • Kyouran “If I’m able to choose the gender and appearance of the character I’ll be living through vicariously, it might as well be one that I would actually like to embody in one way or another.”
    • 10. Women MMO players
        • Noelove “I picked a Tauren after looking at all the other characters, because I found her body style to be incredibly similar to my own. … I’m very curvaceous, I’m tall … I thought she kind of represented me best.”
    • 11. Male characters?
      • Designs described as:
        • Odd
        • Horrible
        • Too beefy
        • Ugly
        • Too comic book stereotypical
    • 12.  
    • 13. Desire for greater customization options in WoW
      • Barbershop a start
      • Not extensive enough to make a real difference
      • Body type changes—relative to class choice
      • Also desire shift over life of the avatar
    • 14. But players not willing to switch games just for greater avatar choices
    • 15. the issue of gear (or its lack)
    • 16. Audri “it’s a high fantasy game, and if you look at high-fantasy art and you know anything about it, the women are always skimpily dressed. That’s just how it is. It’s never bothered me.”
    • 17. Raven “I sort of feel like it should bother me. But it doesn’t.”
    • 18.
      • Itsy Bitsy “There are times when I’ve just endlessly bitched and moaned about things that looked horrible … but I’m not going to wear something that’s going to be statistically and performance-wise inferior to something else … It’s like wearing gym clothes to the gym and work clothes to work.”
    • 19.
      • Louise “I take … satisfaction in wearing something that I was able to make or obtain through some amazing feat of skill.”
    • 20.  
    • 21.  
    • 22. Women and Avatars
      • Functional as well as aesthetic considerations
      • Representationally, conflicting views
      • Some level of identification is going on– we bring our own interests and demands to our avatars, which helps shape them as well
    • 23. Story 2 The Caretakers of Faunasphere
    • 24. A “Casual” MMO Game
      • Big Fish Games/Faunasphere
      • Gender, age, gameplay, beta/new players
      • Fiction and player activities
    • 25.  
    • 26.  
    • 27. Data
      • 671 survey responses
      • Usage data from BFG
      • Interview with Community Manager
      • Forum post collection
      • Player base primarily USA & Canada, but also UK, Australia, some Western Europe and South America
    • 28. Who Played
      • Gender: 93% female
      • Age: 26% 45-54
      • 22% 55-64
      • 21% 35-44
      • Education: 31% Some college
      • 20% Bachelor’s degree
    • 29. Prior Experience
      • Prior MMO experience: 61% No prior exp.
      • Of those with experience:
        • 39% have tried/still play World of Warcraft
        • 32% have tried/still play Second Life
        • Smattering of heavy players of other MMOs, other choices such as Runescape, Travian, Free Realms
    • 30. Not so casual
      • Playtime:
        • 41% play several times a day
        • 37% play daily
        • 14% play several times a week
      • Playtime per session:
        • 51% play for more than 2 hours at a time
        • 27% play 1-2 hours per session
        • 11% play 41-60 minutes per session
    • 31. Against typical player types?
      • Favorite activities in game:
        • #1: Completing goals [quests]
        • #2: Breeding Fauna
        • #3: Leveling up Fauna
        • #4: Decorating Faunasphere
        • #5: Interacting with friends
    • 32. Gaming Fiction/ Categories of Analysis
      • Player activities tied to a game’s fiction
      • Our categories also tied to fiction
      • What happens in a game with a different fiction?
      • Caretakers, powerful avatars, and issues of identification
    • 33.  
    • 34.  
    • 35.  
    • 36. Caretakers, not avatars
      • “ I spent the last hour with my Fauna, watching them play and feeding and denning them and saying “goodbye.”
      • “ I spent a little time with each of them. I had them all do their tricks for me and fed them well and made them as happy as I could.”
      • “ During the last 5 minutes I started throwing all my food from inventory on the ground (did not want anyone to starve) lol and I cried.”
    • 37. Player Reactions
      • “ Your fauna weren’t simply a bunch of pixels, they were your children. You gave ‘birth’ to them (hatching), you fed them, you cared for them (dens), you taught them things, you shared their foibles with friends as well as their eggs.”
      • “ It was heartbreaking, sort of like when you have to put a pet to sleep.”
    • 38. Player Reactions
      • “… look at the premise of the game, it’s about naming and raising pets. In the real world, a good person would never just walk away and abandon their pet, and that’s what BFG made us do. They gave us creatures to love (even if they are only pixels) and then told us they were taking them away from us.”
    • 39.  
    • 40. From avatar to caretaker
      • The fiction of the game pushed players to “see themselves” as the disembodied care giver
      • Avatars not positioned as source of identification for players
      • Players still highly invested in avatars/pets, and the game
    • 41.  
    • 42.  
    • 43. Story 3: Social games: Or, how invested am I in my Facebook avatar while I’m busy using my friends?
    • 44. The project: what’s social about social games?
    • 45. The researchers
    • 46. The Challenge
      • Test as many social games as possible to identify major mechanics, as well as unusual/interesting additions
    • 47. 80+ games/50 FB for Charts
    • 48. What do I mean by “social”?
      • Opportunities for interaction(s) by players
          • Types of interactions
          • Quality (meaningfulness) of interactions
          • Opportunities to communicate
          • NPC interactions offered
          • Importance of interactions to overall gameplay
          • Cooperative/Competitive styles
          • Facilitated for pre-existing “friends” and/or “strangers”
    • 49. Types of Interactions Found
      • Friend bar lends silent presence of friends/family
      • Gifting’s different roles
      • Visiting
      • Challenge & competition
      • Communication
    • 50. Surrounded by your friends
      • Majority of games displayed your friends as a part of your interface, usually at the bottom of your screen
        • Pictures of your friends/neighbors greet you as you start the game
        • There’s always a slot to invite another friend to join you
        • Many games now auto-populate the interface with friends already playing the game
          • Less tedious than having to invite friends, wait for them to accept, install game, make progress
    • 51. Surrounded by your friends
      • Friends are ranked, and you are ranked amongst your friends
        • You can see how your friends are advancing (or not)
        • You can check your progress relative to your friends
          • Encourages more casual as well as intense/overt competitiveness, particularly as friends get started, or as levels become tougher to achieve (the TL Effect)
        • Streamlines how to visit friends/gift friends
    • 52. Surrounded by your friends
      • Many games include a ‘starter friend’ that is initially more advanced than the player
        • A goal for the player to aspire to
        • One possible way to develop in the game
        • In games with fewer real friends, can be a valuable resource
    • 53.  
    • 54. Gifting
    • 55. Gifts
      • Gifts function in two central ways
        • Potlatch
        • Reciprocation
    • 56. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Impressing Your Friends
        • Games let players show off their status, (large) bank accounts, advanced levels through gifting
    • 57. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Zoo Kingdom lets player gift some of her actual inventory (this can be dangerous if she doesn’t know she’s actually giving away her own stuff)
    • 58. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Mafia Wars allows higher leveled players to send more advanced/powerful gifts
    • 59. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Mafia Wars also lets player give gifts from their own inventory
    • 60. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Cupcake Corner
    • 61. Gifts as Potlatch
      • Frontierville lets player send items she has crafted to other players who have wished for them
    • 62. Gifts as Potlatch
        • Frequent gifters, or those who respond immediately to requests, can become more valued friends
    • 63. Gifts as reciprocation/barter
      • If I send you a Ribbon, won’t you send me one back??
        • Zynga has automated with their toolbar, making process more streamlined
    • 64. Gifts as reciprocation/barter
        • Gifts can be 1-1 (sending a coffee gets a coffee in return) or gifts-for-coins (although returns are normally not that large)
    • 65. Gifts as reciprocation/barter
        • Cityville: Chris offered to serve as Librarian in my Library, so I’ll be sure to return the favor the next time he builds a community structure
    • 66. Gifts as attacks?
      • Gifts as attacks?
        • None found! Problem: you must always ‘accept’ gifts, so who would accept an attack? Perhaps send a very valuable gift offer that comes with a potential downside.
        • Would that still be a gift?
    • 67. Peripheral Gifting
      • Many/most games offer the ability to send decorative items that players can use, with no real bonus or advantage, or very little, built in
    • 68. City of Wonder
    • 69. Coffee Bar
    • 70. Critical Gifting
      • Gifts can be essential to completing quests in games
    • 71. Critical Gifting
      • Gifts might be the only way to acquire particular items (useful or simply decorative)
        • Recipe elements in Café World
    • 72. Is friendship only about trading stuff?
      • The less importance the game places on acquiring gifts from friends, the more the game functions as a solo experience (apart from competitive games)
    • 73. Is friendship only about trading stuff?
      • Is forced gifting the only way to encourage sociality?
    • 74. Visiting
      • Nearly as ubiquitous as gifting
      • More variations emerging
      • Balancing act of letting friends interact in other spaces with controlling access
      • Most visits assume asynchronicity
    • 75. Won’t you be my neighbor?
      • Most common trope: Show up, get stuff
    • 76. Ravenwood Fair
    • 77. Chocolatier: Sweet Society
    • 78. Personalized Spaces
    • 79. Taking actions is variable
      • Actions leave no trace
      • Actions can add new existing elements
      • Actions can improve existing elements
      • Possibility to ‘interact’ with friend while visiting
    • 80. Act on existing world
      • Fantasy Kingdoms asks the player to tend magical crops, clean up ruins, remove ogre footprints, etc
    • 81. Act on existing world
          • Pet Society lets you interact with friends’ pets
    • 82. But usually leave no trace
    • 83. Change the existing world
      • My Vineyard: taste friends’ wine, rate it to increase its value
    • 84. Change the existing world
      • Stores to sell creations
    • 85. Cityville franchises
    • 86. Fish World
    • 87. Improve on the existing world
      • Cityville watering crops makes them ripen faster, or can revive withered crops
    • 88. Improve on existing world
    • 89. Improve on the existing world
          • City of Wonder requires friends to contribute to building of ‘world wonders’
    • 90. Interactions with friends’ avatars
      • Clean a pet
      • Go to friend/stranger’s FB Profile
      • Take pictures of avatars together
      • Kiss, dance with, hug (other) pet avatars
      • Brush their horse
      • YoVille used to allow dancing, joking, hugging, etc
      • Interactions more likely when avatars are pets
    • 91. Challenges & Competitions
      • Tournaments & Matches
        • Predominant in sports games, strategy games
          • FIFA Superstars; PGA Golf, ESPNU
    • 92. NBA Legend
    • 93. Texas HoldEm Poker
    • 94. Real Time 2 player challenges
      • Miscrits lets the player challenge strangers in real time
    • 95. Asynchronous challenges
      • Crazy Caravans, City of Wonder let players challenge strangers as they travel (stat based challenges)
    • 96. Fashion & Popularity Contests
    • 97. Competition & Glory
      • A few games give glory/fame but no actual achievements/advancements for rising to the top
        • Isle of Tune allows viewers to rate up/down various island submissions (anonymously on both sides)
        • ?
    • 98. Communication
      • The majority of games presume an asynchronous experience
        • Leaving messages in the game world for friends to find
        • Posting on wall with standardized messages and possibly personalizing them
        • Dragon Age Legends lets players personalize ‘kill phrase’ which friends will see when they recruit you
        • Friends’ interactions are mainly through gameplay itself, rather than communication about gameplay
    • 99. Synchronous Communication
      • A few games offer real time chat:
          • With friends & strangers (Yoville)
    • 100. Synchronous Communication
      • My Vineyard
    • 101. Synchronous Communication
      • Kingdoms of Camelot
    • 102. How social are social games?
      • Friends are a presence in games, but mostly silent
        • Replicating the ‘bowling alone’ experience of many MMOG players
      • Friends’ help is mostly transaction based. Very few games utilized friends’ skills in helping players with gameplay
      • Skill is mostly evidenced in competitions and the building of stats
    • 103. The illusion of sociality?
      • The more friends you have, the more status you have in a game
      • More friends let you advance, unlock areas, gain access to particular shiny objects
      • Friends can inspire competition, whether reciprocated or not
      • Lapsed friends can be a resource, can signify which of your friends are ‘socially absent’
      • Friends add content to games through the designed system
    • 104. Sociality
      • More friends = better
      • Communication = limited
      • Interactions = largely scripted, innovating somewhat
      • Use of sound for interaction?
      • More creative use of communication?
    • 105. How do avatars fit in?
    • 106.  
    • 107.  
    • 108.  
    • 109.  
    • 110. Social (Network) Games
      • Identity linked more greatly to Facebook profile than avatar
      • Structure of games works against deep investment in avatar identification
        • Time played in short bursts
        • Gifting, visiting, competition as central mechanics
        • Churn rate
        • Avatar often meaningless in terms of gameplay
    • 111. Story 4: Players & ethical limitations
    • 112. Ethical choices, players, and avatar identification
      • Dragon Age; Mass Effect; Fable; Fallout; Elder Scrolls; Knights of the Old Republic
      • Some games allow avatars to visually change based on player choices
      • Most shift storyline but no visual cues
    • 113. Ethical choices, players, and avatar identification
      • Players are allowed to explore different choices, positions, or “identities” with their characters
      • For some players, this choice is already delimited by their own ethical standards
    • 114. How do players play?
      • “ I always seem to go good. I can go evil if I force myself to be evil—I really have to force myself to do it, it never comes naturally to me”
      • “ I generally do good ‘cause it’s easier. ‘Cause that’s how I was raised. Like, for example, it’s easier to be good, ‘cause that’s how you’re trained. ... as a person, but you translate that into gamer world, almost innately.”
    • 115. Evil or just selfish?
      • “ I was trying to do kind of ‘evil-ish’ things, but when I went into ‘game autopilot’ mode, I would naturally make the good guy choices. And I started to get ‘renowned’ back—good guy points, essentially—and I was like ‘no, I don’t want to do this! Stop it!’”
      • “ the good guy always wins, the bad guy never wins. It’s the rules. If it’s Batman versus Joker, Batman always wins.”
    • 116. Breaking a contract
    • 117. Player intent can trump fiction
    • 118. Can even MMOGs posit player identification with avatars?
    • 119. Conclusions
      • Particularly if they can be customized, avatars do matter to players
      • The fiction of each game will shape a player’s relation to it, and it’s avatars
      • And sometimes, players reject that fiction, preferring their own values to those of a different play style
    • 120. thanks!
      • Mia Consalvo
      • MIT
      • Twitter: miaC
      • [email_address]