The Conflict and Bond Between Player and Character
The role a character plays within video games differs from the role a character plays within other narrative mediums, and it is for that reason the concept of the character, what it should accomplish within the game’s story, and the player’s relationship with the character are all so hotly debated by video game theorists. Not only does the element of interactivity (as always) confuse the debate, but characters are no longer only tools to further the narrative. Their purpose, if they have one, must always be harmonious with the purpose that is decided by the player. It is for this reason that many games feel the need to take the player on a ride as opposed to the player themselves deciding what the character “wants.”
Because these linear, decided stories must often feature a protagonist that agrees, in concept, with the narrative, this can often pose a dilemma for game designers. How will they be sensitive to the various identifying traits of a character if they themselves lack the traits of the character, and how will they be sensitive to the portrayal of a story that they have never experienced? This is the issue brought up in Kat Brewster’s article “The Pitfalls of Trying to Tell Stories Outside Your Own Experience.” Brewster says of game developers “They must demonstrate that they are conscious of the lived experiences of the groups they claim to represent, they must address and subvert stereotype” (Brewster p. 41). The point of this article is that to accurately represent experiences outside of cisgendered white men, the gaming industry must make a better effort to include historically silenced voices in the writing process itself. While I agree that the strenuous effort of trying to represent these groups can and should be alleviated with crew diversity, the attempt to tell stories and write characters outside of lived experience will never go away, for better or worse, and has been part of literary history since time began.
There are many arguments that defend these notions, and some others that offer solutions. Ian Bogost of the Atlantic writes in his article “Video Games are Better Without Characters” questions “why have we assumed that the only or primary path to video-game diversity and sophistication lies in its representation of individuals as opposed to systems and circumstances?” (Bogost p. 19) In his opinion, complex systems of management seen in citybuilders such as SimCity offer a new way of thinking about the world: one that can plot the relationships between all things within a larger system. Misplace or forget one piece and the entire whole can collapse. As someone who adores citybuilders and the strategy behind making everything work, I agree completely that citybuilders help us recognize a vast system in a model, where everything is interdependent. This interdependent system could be anything from a single neuron in a mouse’s brain to an empire of planets because this is how the world around us operates, even within a simplistic model. More attempts at such simulations should be made for people like Bogost and I, however, to suggest the entire populus should abandon their characters and just play Tropico or Civilization all day is unrealistic.
Players share a kinetic bond with characters on a screen that transcends personal identifiers. From the first moments in learning how the game functions and controls, the player is immediately establishing a mutual movement between fingers on a controller or keyboard and what the character can say and do. Although this is subverted in games without a character, a city or empire can be personalized in the same sense of control. The failures and successes are all a shared experience, and this is very telling in how gamers refer to their experiences within the game: in the first person. Seldom will you hear “Link finally defeated Ganon” or “Crash Bandicoot fell off a cliff.” Instead they will say “I finally defeated Ganon, I fell off a cliff” or even an exasperated “F*ck, I died!” I would like to redirect this to a well known concept in the field of psychology known as “body transfer illusion,” demonstrated primarily in experiments with the mutilation of a rubber hand. When one can first establish a sensory bond by affecting the movement and action and/or sharing a visual or tactical experience with something, the line between player and character is obscured. This takeover happens very quickly, and though the concept of body transfer is usually reserved for sufferers of phantom limbs, I believe the premise is fairly similar regardless of how a character operates.
I agree with Bogost when he says “Let’s resist the assumption that social inclusivity entails absolute inclusivity, such that all ideas are utterly fungible, one as good as any other in any context, such that doing what feels right or pleasurable or comforting is what’s best” (Bogost p. 26). He mentions that inclusivity is ultimately an impossible goal. Human experience and diversity is far too broad and far-reaching to ever fully be captured. While it is important to pay credence to and represent the experiences of oppressed social groups, the obsession with clutching at an impossible ideal where everyone is covered is fruitless. No game will ever cover the vastless of life.
However, instead of Bogost’s suggestion of doing away with characters and gaming with simulations entirely, why not make more attempts to have games where players can design and identify their character exactly the way they want? Instead of pressuring game designers to pussyfoot around sensitive topics and resist the telling of stories of other people within this vastless of diversity, wouldn’t it make more sense to allow players to engage with the identity of their character and their interaction with the story on their own terms? Of course the telling of a specific story with a specific character is valuable, representation of minorities is valuable, and minorities ought to be more included in the development of these games and the telling of these stories.
I believe that more attempts to capture diversity within character creation will grant the most opportunities to the highest amount of people. Games will always be exclusionary in some way, so why not make do with what we have? Gamers love the act of creation (perhaps more than they love the act of destruction), and to design games within our current technological limitations to allow a gamer to explore the uniqueness of identity on their own, and kinetically bond with the product of their own creation offers an experience that will encompass humanity without the strife.
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Bogost, I. (2017, April 25). Video Games Are Better Without Stories. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/04/video-games-stories/524148/
Brewster, K. (2017, May 22). “The Pitfalls of Trying to Tell Stories Outside Your Own Experience”. Retrieved September 25, 2017, from https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/9k9vw5/the-pitfalls-of-trying-to-tell-stories-outside-your-own-experience