Digital Gaming: MMORPGS and Player Identity — CCCC 2009 — Session F25

  • Katie Retzinger, “Immediacy, Desire, and the Other: MMORPGS and Constructions of Identity”
  • Mathew S.S. Johnson “The World is Subject: Gamers as Potential for Change”
  • Phill Alexander: “Running with the Bulls: The Race Rhetoric of the Tauren in World of Warcraft”

The study of games and composition have long overlapped in the areas of popular culture and identity studies have long been areas of overlap.  I didn’t detect a shred of defensiveness in the approach these scholars took, which has not always been the case at games-related CCCC events.  The idea of presenting games as an avenue for social change sounds like another potential growth area, in which the study of composition can turn games into a tool of inquiry and challenge, in much the same way that composition teachers often posit their role as preparing future citizens of a literate society.  I wanted just a bit more of the “How my thesis applies to college composition and communication” bullet point, simply because one expects that in a talk at this venue, but all three held up as explorations of issues relevant to both games studies and identity politics.

What follows are my own rough notes, lightly edited, with my own comments inserted in square brackets.


Katie Retzinger, “Immediacy, Desire, and the Other: MMORPGS and Constructions of Identity”

Case study of two players. How is “immediacy” achieved for gamers in MMORPG WoW? How does Immediacy impact the way the gamer plays and makes sense of the game they are playing.

Four starting points — definitions of immediacy (being sucked into something)

From social psychology – “The relationship between the speaker and the objects he communicates about… or the communication itself”

Anderson, from communication: “Covering each verbal message with affective meaning…” (approach behaviors, signal the availability for communication, increase sensory stimulation, communicate interpersonal warmth and closeness) takes place in face-to-face communication between speakers (proximity to speakers, tone of voice, facial expressions)

New media: style of visual representation whose goal is to make the viewer forget the presence of the medium. The person is “in the presence of the objects of representation”

Communicative behaviors that reduce the psychological distance, fostering affiliation.

Retzinger’s synthesis: Immediacy is contextually constructed uses of language and symbols, players moving back and forth between real world personas and in-game characters – immediacy is not static or fixed.

A source called “Player 1″ did not play on the day observed, but filled R in on the details.

Player 2 played while R observed (level 70, at the time highest).  They played with people they knew in real life and those whom they did not know.  Knowing your guild members in real life helps you to coordinate complex in-game tasks that require up to 25 players to complete.

Found five specific categories of immediacy: real-life camaraderie as a form of immediacy (teamwork, peer-peer trust); proximity between players’ avatars (typechat vs. voicechat?); using symbols vs not using symbols (group leaders can mark objects in the game with symbols that have an agreed-upon meaning within the group); interface manipulation (ability for player to use keyboard or in-game controls to move through the environment; Player 2 had a keyboard with specific controls for this game)

What compromised immediacy was real-life distractions (I found it amusing that she listed some of these – getting food or drink, smoking outside, using the bathroom).  Sometimes too much is happening on the screen to keep track of, which impacts your ability to make decisions and keep track of your teammates. Player 2 had a huge screen, which actually made it too distracting.

How does voicechat/typechat, guild/solo; differentiating among immediacy/flow/immersion? Player relationship with avatar?

Mathew S.S. Johnson “The World is Subject: Gamers as Potential for Change”

The claim “you can do anything in the game” or “you can be anything” in a game is often used by gamers, but if you don’t follow the quest storyline, see if you can kneel or break a window or pick up a fork.  It is possible to do some of those things in different games, but we have vastly greater freedom and more consequence in the real world; games necessary limit the potential with absolute rules.  Gamers have to remain more faithful to the game world’s rules than even the most stringent fundamentalists to their God’s commands.

Games allow us to see the presence of paradox – the power dynamics of stand-alone compute games enact the contradiction of “subject” – we are simultaneously controlling the avatar and controlled by the game environment.

Not an excessive focus on the self, but generates an attitude based on the assumption of achievability. The game world presumes that more effort leads to greater achievements. “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.” (a Back to the Future reference).

Taking into account detailed outcomes and motivations – there may be many answers to a problem posted by the game. Beck and Wade concentrate on the game, not on the act of playing it.  (Wolfgang Iser.)  Tug of war between the satisfaction of accomplishment (which signals the end of gameplay) and the joy of the play.  

The subjection of the world to the gamer results in a turn outwards towards exploration, not an expectation that all will fall easily into one’s lap.

Fallout 3:  PC encounters Roy Phillips, ghoul; disfigured post-humans who are nevertheless civilized; re-enactment of government-sanctioned racial segregation. Tenpenny security guard offers a reward for killing the ghoul; you can help the ghoul enter the tower to kill all the residents; or you can make a diplomatic choice to get the humans and ghouls living together in harmony. (Later we learn that a “misunderstanding” leads to the slaughter of all the humans; peace was not possible.)

While you do always know that there is “an answer,” the game world perpetually throws you curveballs. The moments when the game escapes the control of the player is most engaging; the frustration leads to fun. It is the consistent failure of tackling challenges that leads to its engagement. Iser describes achieving victory as the establishment of meaning, but also recognizes the need to keep an open ending.

A game w/o some semblance of failure has no element of challenge. Contrary to the stereotypical adolescent expectation that success can be achieved as a “gift”, gamers realize that success is taken through action.  Seeing the world unfold as a result of acting appropriately in it and upon it.

As subject, the PC picks the lock and opens the door, but as the subject, the PC is provided the lock and the door and some goal that makes getting through the door desirable.

Agency in a constant state of flux; interplay between gamer and game, shifting border between subject and subjective. Reaction to moments when players react to challenges – Beck and Wade refer to a young manager who refers to reassessing strategy. (In games, re-strategizing inevitably leads to success.)

In composition, we aim to develop agency. Can we envision the essay as the field on which the author and reader “battle” (keeping the “winning of the goal” as persuasion).  But “winning” is not the only goal of “the writing game”. It is often the struggle itself that leads to value, in both writing and gaming.  

[Hm... I see the act of changing strategies based on feedback as having more to do with drafting than reading, which places the battle between the author and the evaluator.]

Phill Alexander: “Running with the Bulls: The Race Rhetoric of the Tauren in World of Warcraft”

Alexander identified himself as half-Cherokee. Showed a video that illustrates the WoW minority group Tauren, a fictional race of bull-like humans in World of Warcraft, drawing from Native American tropes.  Is it “just a game” to play “just an Indian”?  Alexander noted that American history includes many examples of colonizing Indian culture [As a child, I longed to join a pre-scouting activity called the "Indian Guides"].  The slideshow articulated the offensive nature of creating a hybrid of a Native American stereotype and a bull is offensive.  The in-game backstory presents the Tauren with elements of history that borrows from Native American history, so it’s not just visual.  Tauren from Warcraft III were mindless grunt. In-game captures show “teepee-esque” details, dream-catcher hangings.

Indigenous cultural rhetoric: Third space vs colonizer/colonized; the original colonized and the original colonizers no longer exist, but we all live in Third Space.  

Tradition and History: The culture that we live in doesn’t fall off when you enter into the game space. Inside the game world, players develop traditions of gameplay; the trolls are somewhat like Jamaicans; goblins act somewhat like the Mafia; the game world borrows from existing tr

aditions to make the world seem more real. As indigenous traditions die, histories are erased. As traditions are co-opted and lampooned, history dies.

Playing Indian, “identity tourism”.  Children play cowboys and Indians in a good/evil binary.

 Research questions:

  1. If popular culture has so consumed NA history, so that it is part of the lived American experience, is it not “fair game”?  (Can we lampoon the Holocaust, 9/11, Pearl Harbor?)
  2. If a racist tree falls in a virtual forest, and no one’s soundcard is pinged by this activity, does it modulate a sound?
  3. If one’s aim is to “de-colonize,” how does one begin to approach a system – like a video game – that so obviously shows the result of colonization? (What would have happened if an indigenous culture had created video games?)
  4. Is race not addressed by gaming studies because it has become “invisible,” does it dilute work on racial identity?
  5. What impact DOES something like the Tauren race have on gamers? (All gamers… we clearly see “Hey, that troll is talking like a Jamaican,” but does the typical gamer notice that?)

Where does such an inquiry belong? What discipline would it call home? Why?

Attempting to look at how gaming studies look at games, and how indigenous scholars look at research. (Mentions Bogost’s Unit Operations.)

Alexander created a dark Elf character who ran to the Tauren start area as a level 1 character, and announced that he wanted to grow up as a Tauren.