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From Whose Eyes Do We Watch? on Game and Player
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From Whose Eyes Do We Watch?

Michael Ubaldi  //  December 4, 2008


Can escapism become alteration?

T

he other night, Ed Kirchgessner and I briefly discussed academia's eventual turn to video games for thesis subjects. It should come twenty-five years after Western civilization determined nothing pernicious in Pac-Man, fifteen years after gaming established itself as financially entertainment, several years after the pastime's culture was plainly recognized, and two weeks after Jeremy Steeves forwarded me "Identification with the Player Character as Determinant of Video Game Enjoyment," by two gentlemen and a lady representing the University of Hanover and the University of Amsterdam.

Interest in video games for their value to psychology and sociology, write the authors, is nascent. Scholars analyze the medium within the context of its dramatic and electronic forebears but won't, they argue, usefully comprehend it as long as theories "rely on the fundamental assumption that media users experience themselves and the media persona as two distinct social entities." Why? Video games remain idle until activated and manipulated; once engaged, they commit to a player's control "one specific character" or "a social role represented in the game world." With deference to "current theories" positing the sense of self as "malleable," the authors hold that players insinuate qualities of characters they like into their own behavior.

The conditional triad for identification: interactivity, appeal and competence.Calling the relationship between object and aspirant "monadic identification," the authors define its conditional triad: interactivity, appeal and opportunities for competence. Interactivity — taken care of. Appeal is both easily explained (people seek attributes they appreciate) and demonstrated (protagonists in first-person shooters offer male adolescents a chance for machismo without consequences). Competence validates and reinforces appeal: "a good performance . . . will prompt the player to occupy the role continuously."

So far, couldn't the authors have been writing about designees of parts cast for a play, spots in a band, or positions in team sports? Remove the abstractions, and similar emotional processes compel, since players need only look to an exemplar, or, for that matter, anybody who's better, for inspiration. What is a technique, or a lifestyle associated with the activity, if it isn't imitation?

Moreover, vicariousness has a threshold beyond which usually lies psychosis. Escapism is imputed to the attraction of "changes to users' self-concept." But — escapism as alteration? You can train to dominate the court like Michael Jordan, brood like Clint Eastwood. Mimic the superstar to a fault and people will whisper; impersonate well enough, and his estate may sue over infringement on personality rights. Teenage boys like simulated gunplay, yes. Has anyone in our generation taken up plumbing on account of Shigeru Miyamoto?

Has anyone in our generation taken up plumbing on account of Shigeru Miyamoto?Thirty college-aged men were invited to test the hypothesis. Some were assigned to play Battlefield 2, others to watch a recording of gameplay from the same title. Most had previous experience with first-person shooters. At short intervals, the group responded to survey questions about their mental and emotional states. Results appeared to "confirm the interplay of interactive game use, identification and enjoyment." The correlation, however, is superficial. How exclusive is the reasoning: I can assume this role, I resemble its actor, I am good at it, therefore I want to continue. In one question, an affirmative was phrased "The goals of the character became my own goals." Now, wait. Did those participants go home and, at dawn, charge the neighbors from a salient they had dug the night before? Or begin dressing up in fatigues? If not, the adoption was transient and imagined.

We can't begrudge the authors their conclusion when applied, if it does indeed "support the importance of narrative elements for successful computer games." And pioneers of neurological sciences declare that modern electronics can fix trompe l'oeil to fool us into perceiving a swap of brains. But is what this trio is getting at transport, or is it projection of unforeseen intensity?

Further study will be interesting, though maybe not revelatory. Getting lost in a game seems particular to the individual, so less a feature of media than a property of the agent. Controlling isn't necessarily embodiment; a player might not facilitate incarnation but intimate direction. I strictly distinguish between my character and myself, unless he's a thin, thirtyish man tensely leaning forward in a chair.





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