[Meta Gaming] Being Non/Human

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?

4 thoughts on “[Meta Gaming] Being Non/Human

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  1. That paper sounds really interesting, good luck with it man.

    I agree there’s something strange about the way people choose the species of their PC in RPGs. Definitely something worth talking about for sure. Some people are never human, and people always are. From memory, the reasons I’ve heard from the people who choose non-human PCs tend to be along the lines you mentioned your group giving: being human is somehow boring, or maybe a waste of the fantastical and escapist opportunities the game offers.

    People I know who always play humans tend to say things like “you can never correctly play a non-human, so I’d rather play a human well than a poor Elf or whatever.” This is a problematic argument obviously, as non-humans probably aren’t real anyway so they can never be incorrectly played, either.

    Thinking about myself, and extrapolating a bit from others, I’m thinking maybe that people choose what makes the game more immersive to them. Some people will be distracted by playing a human character, in the sense that they will find it hard to inhabit the character because there are too many points of similarity between it an them. Removing humanity from the equation means that the character is easily and simply different.

    Other people though need more, not less, congruence between themselves and their character to easily play it. To someone like that, an Elf is just too foreign and contrived a template, and it makes it hard for them to forget the difference and inhabit the character. Does that make sense? It’s not a very satisfactory answer in terms of academic discussion as it’s essentially “different psychologies role-play in different ways” but then again most of my accounts devolve into psychology these days.

    Personally I can go either way. I tend to prefer near-human characters actually, so half-elves, half-orcs, people with exotic supernatural ancestries. That way they are kind of a representation of my fantasy self-image: a human being with something special inside.

    1. Interesting stuff, James! I wish I had more time to talk about the practicalities of roleplaying, as I think you’re smack on the money with this; some people need to shuck off the human, the most apparent similarities to their own self, in order to begin performing their character. I think that probably includes me; last time I checked I wasn’t a female elf ninja with a knack for engineering, a weakness for alcohol, and a strong Sapphic tendency, even if elements of my own life – the awkward relationship with parents and the poor self-esteem – inform aspects of Nivienne’s actual -personality-.

      The idea of congruence and incongruence fits into where the paper ended up going, too; into performance and dramatic territory. I guess it could branch out into looking at different acting practices; the character actor vs. the self-performer.

      I think the idea of incorrectly playing a non-human is more down to the sort of argument that begins “but the lore says…” and ends with someone being called an elitist. One of my best RP buddies plays a much more lore-faithful blood elf than I do, on account of operating in a community where a tighter relationship with the game’s background and backstory is expected, but also on account of having explored the culture before creating the character, whereas I rolled first and asked questions as I was going along.

      Half-humans of any sort open up a very exciting kettle of fish which, mercifully, I don’t have to incorporate in a paper about WoW. I hadn’t considered them, but the more I think about it, the more I think that my early CRPG characters were basically ‘me plus fantasy elements’, very much classical self-image fantasy. I didn’t start playing away from home, as it were, until I hit WoW and realised the male avatars looked goofy.

      1. How things look is I think an amazingly powerful influence on character choice in CRPGs. I get so caught up in it – I just keep making characters over and over again, playing them for a little while and then retiring them in favour of a new one. I find the process of tweaking their appearance incredibly satisfying. It’s like dressing up dolls for grown-ups. In fact I find it so important that I dislike games with limited choice in that area.

        So that’s interesting because the characters I make in CRPGs are totally different from the ones I make in trad. RPGs. in the latter they are at best a shadowy visual sense in my minds-eye, and their deeds and history come to the fore. And like I said I tend to pick near-humans or half-humans, and they are predominantly male. In something like Skyrim though the opposite is true. My character is a visual being and the only connection in the RP sense is the make-believe I narrate in my head as she chops up wolves or whatever. And as I just implied my CRPG characters are predominantly female (though still near-human or human). I don’t even want to begin to analyse that

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