I’m a wee bit busy this weekend, boys and girls, finalising a paper I’m giving on virtual identities, World of Warcraft, and choosing to play ‘monstrous’ characters over humans. I’ve also done something startlingly painful to my ankle – as in “I can’t currently walk unaided” – and so producing a blog post is going to be a tiny wee bit beyond me. In lieu of such a thing, have a short extract from my presentation for Being Non/Human instead.
What piques my curiosity about this is the strange reluctance on the part of many players to create a human character. When I last rolled a male human, the choice was derided by my in-game friends as ‘boring’ (albeit lauded by one as making the most narrative sense for the class I’d chosen). Given the argument that is heard time and again that computer game characters are self-insertion personas, I find intriguing that the most direct self-insertion I could achieve (albeit as eldritch, winter-hearted unliving vengeance machine rather than mild-mannered academic who’s sort-of-okay-at-fencing) was deemed scarcely worth bothering with. And this set me off asking the question – why do we so readily choose to be non-human?
Answering this question involves establishing what exactly it means to ‘be’ your character; the extent to which the virtual avatar is embodied, occupied, personified and otherwise inhabited by the player. Miriam Eladhari identifies the function of the avatar in massively multiplayer online role playing games (hence MMORPG) as ‘both the focus and the focalisation point’. This is easier to say than to explain. As focus, the avatar is the device by which the player interacts with the game world, which happens to include the avatars of other players. As focalisation point, it is the device by which other players interact with them, and by which the player derives their sense of the fictional world’s social norms and architecture.
There are layers to the fictional world which is interacted with, too; there is the layer of conventional text, the world-in-the-game which has its constructed and represented fictitious societies. Alongside this, permeating it, dependent upon it and yet existing autonomously from it, there is the layer of player-to-player interactions, undertaken via avatars. Within the game’s story, my blood elf and a friend’s night elf are framed as enemies; within the experienced world of the game as played, it is possible for us to interact socially, with or without assuming the personas of our characters, and even to co-operate on aspects of gameplay to a certain extent. There is a distinction between the world in the game and the world of the game which needs to be carefully borne in mind.
This distinction similarly exists in terms of characterisation. Johnny Kilhefner defines two poles between which the characterisation of computer game avatars exists – the ‘doll’, a blank slate onto which the player projects a persona, and the ‘character’, a realised narrative figure who the player merely guides through a determined narrative. A World of Warcraft avatar is somewhere in between. It is constructed from a series of developer-defined classifications and moving through a narrative framed by the developers. At the same time, it is mixing and matching among those options, experiencing aspects of the game’s environment and narrative, being contextualised not just by the game’s story but by the stories shared among players – “remember that time the five of us killed the Lich King” is very much a blank-slate narrative, a version of the game event made unique by the participation of the players involved.
I bring this up to indicate the extent to which a player’s avatar, the ‘person they are’ in World of Warcraft, is a complex characterisation drawn in part from the game’s semiotic and narrative codes, and in part from the experiences of the player, the choices they make and the particular approaches they take to gameplay. Zach Waggoner suggests that even for experienced gamers and die-hard roleplayers who create whole parallel life storys and personalities for their characters, entering a new virtual world involves drawing on both past experiences with other games and the real world identity and experience of the player. This can and should be cross-referenced with JoAnn Griffin’s 2007 assertion that ‘video games’ ability to shape real-world identities based upon the overlap (not the differences) in the virtual self and the real-world self’ – essentially that games do not need to be a place where people create an alternative personality; games can be a place where people’s personalities can shine through.
There are certainly types of people who gravitate to particular aspects of World of Warcraft in terms of gameplay – on the most basic levels, players interested in competitive gameplay tend to drift into the player-versus-player arena mode, while natural co-operators might find themselves establishing a regular raid group for player-versus-environment play. What is of particular interest here, however, is the choice of race and, to a lesser extent, class for avatars. Why, for instance, did I gravitate to an undead warlock? Given the choice, why did I choose to ‘be’ a cannibalistic zombie who dabbles in black magic and is framed by the game’s narrative as being untrusted by allies and despised by enemies?