Monday, November 22, 2010

Here's Looking at You: Reexamining the Relationship of Player, Character, and Game

[Today I am heading out to QUT to attend "Games & HCI: A Long Romance", a workshop looking broadly at the topic of game interfaces as part of this year's OzCHI conference. I'm not sure if I will be talking there or not, but I'm looking forward to the discussions either way. For the workshop, I prepared the following academicish paper. 
As I have mentioned previously, I am interested in exploring the relationship between player and character next year when I begin writing my Honours dissertation (ed: which I have now written and you can find here!). Recently, I have started reading about Actor-Network Theory and have grown increasingly excited about how it may be useful for my studies. This paper, while very general and broad, gives a simplified account of how I am interesting in using Actor-Network Theory to look at this relationship. I feel I must stress that I am in no way an expert on Actor-Network Theory. I guess it is best read as a kind of hypothesis of what I believe I can show in the future, not of what I have already shown. Anyway, I am quite happy with how this has turned out, so hopefully you find it interesting.]

“In games more than any other medium often the problem is just you” – L.B. Jeffries.

When we discuss the ways in which players interact with games, in both everyday and academic discussion, it is not uncommon to discuss interactions in terms of ‘you’. In Grand Theft Auto IV ‘you’ explore Liberty City; in Mass Effect ‘you’ save the galaxy; in BioShock ‘you’ decide if the Little Sisters live or die. Text adventures and tabletop roleplaying games, meanwhile, use the second person construction explicitly: ‘you’ are in a dark room; there is a door to ‘your’ right; ‘you’ are likely to be eaten by a grue. ‘You’ is a necessary construct to talk about the hybridisation between player and game, but just what ‘you’ consists of has never been adequately accounted for. Who, or what, is ‘you’? The instinctive answer to this question is also the most problematic. ‘You’ is not the player. Or, more specifically, ‘you’ is not just the player.

Consider Hemisphere Games’s 2009 title Osmos. When the game first begins, the playable character, a single-cell organism called a mote, is in the centre of the screen above a line of text that addresses the player: ”This is you.” ‘You’ (that is, the mote controlled by the player) exists in a plane of other motes of various sizes. The player propels their mote around the screen, absorbing motes smaller than themselves to grow larger while avoiding being consumed by larger motes. In order to move, the player’s mote must expel mass that re-enters the level as more motes. Put simply, the mote controlled by the player—‘you’—is not just a single actor but a hybrid of many smaller connected actors. This simplest of examples shows that ‘you’ encompasses more than just the player. ‘You’ is a complex network of actors mediating and affecting the actions of each other through their own agency. One of these actors is the player.

Conflating the role of the player to the entire role of ‘you’ is problematic and prevents us from properly understanding the player’s relationship to the game and the interface through which they interact. Through the work of Bruno Latour and Actor-Network Theory, the full network of actors within ‘you’ may be rendered visible and the full cost of the player’s interaction with the game may be accounted for.

To assume that ‘you’ is the player conflates and privileges the role of the player’s agency within the game at the expense of hiding and dismissing a multitude of other agencies that are also present. This privileged understanding of player agency sees the other actors within ‘you’ as simple intermediary objects—mere tools—that transport the player’s input pure and unchanged into the game-world. The player says jump and the character, supposedly, does not even ask “How high?” This sees the relationship between player and character as not merely unproblematic and simple, but nonexistent—the character is the player, and the player is ‘you’. In Osmos, all the other motes consumed by you no loner exist. Such an understanding of you is useful to talk about the player and the game as two separate spheres, but is unable to demonstrate how the two relate and interact.  Such an understanding renders the game interface invisible and untraceable.

However, if the player’s agency is examined through the lens of Actor-Network Theory (abbreviated to ANT), the complex web of agencies, both human and nonhuman, actual and virtual, that are in play every time ‘you’ acts are exposed and able to be properly examined. ANT demonstrates how all objects mediate and alter action with their own agency, and shows that the relationship between player, character, and game is anything but straightforward and unproblematic. ANT is able to challenge the popular construction of ‘you’ as being equal to ‘the player’ and can expose the myriad actors who mediate and are mediated by the player’s agency, the actors that are forgotten in our haste to place the player on an all-powerful pedestal of agency. In Osmos, the agency of the mote controlled by the player is utterly dependent on the motes that it has absorbed and the motes that it expels. ‘You’s ability to act is directly connected to these other actors and their mediation of the playable mote’s actions and intentions.

This is more than an act of semantics. Removing the player from the privileged position of an actor ‘over’ the game and instead understanding the player as just one more mediator in the game renders the full network of actors and their relationships traceable. This is crucial if the game’s interface is to be properly located as the connections between these actors, the interactions between player and nonplayer actors are the game interface. If the game interface is to be properly situated, ‘you’ must be opened up and understood as neither player nor game but as a hybrid of player and game relating to each other. “Agency is continually redefined within the hybrid occupying the spatial environment of the game even as there is an overall meta-negotiation within the hybrid triumvirate comprising the player, the code and the hardware” (Veale 38).

As we are used to dealing with ‘the player’ and ‘the game’ as two distinct entities, this sounds counter-intuitive to the way we typically think about how we interact with games. Should not the aim of game studies be to strengthen the player’s agency and to further immerse the player in the game-world? Of course. Thus, should we not be focusing on how to equip the player with more freedom, with more meaningful choices? Again, of course. But then why would we want to tie the player down to all these other nonplayer objects? Because, as Latour says so beautifully, you do not free a puppet by cutting the strings. “The only way to liberate the puppet is for the puppeteer to be a good puppeteer […] The more strings the marionettes are allowed to have, the more articulated they become” (Latour, 2005 216). Just as the puppet’s freedom is in the quality of its connections to the puppeteer, so is the player’s freedom in the quality of their connections with the game. The agency of the player is dependent on the agency of other actors within the game and their ability to mediate and relate to each other. The player does not need to be set free from the game, but rather they must be better connected.

To do this, the role of other objects that would normally be ignored in such account must be acknowledged as mediating actors that translate and alter the player’s intentions. For ANT, no object is an intermediary, merely outputting the same effect input by an actor. Instead, all objects are mediators that transform, translate, distort, or otherwise modify the meaning they are supposed to carry (Latour, Reassembling 38). An action, then, is never ours alone, but a combination of ours and a myriad of other mediators that the action passes and is changed through. This translation of an action does not relate a human actor to a nonhuman intermediary, “but induces two mediators into coexisting” (Latour, Reassembling 108).

Instead of seeing the player’s agency as a linear, directed agency leading outwards from the player into the game via an intermediary interface that passes the action on unchanged, an ANT description reveals the network of actors expressing their own agency back and forth through mediated interactions. When the player says jump, the character does not only ask “How high?” but plays a part in determining how high. A game’s strength is not in the player’s ability to act, but to interact, and any given interaction “overflows with elements which are already in the situation coming from some other time, some other place, and generated by some other agency” (Latour, Reassembling 166; original emphasis).

At present, as ‘you’ is often treated not as a hybrid but simply as ‘the player’, all the actors interacting within ‘you’ are often not accounted for and we are unable to account for all the instability and dissonance within ‘you’. However, if these interactions are traced, if the price is paid for the translation of an action through all the mediating actors, ‘you’ is exposed for the actor-network that it is. “Stretch any given inter-action and, sure enough, it becomes an actor-network (Latour, Reassembling 202). If the full cost of translation is paid for, if all the actors within ‘you’ are accounted for, ‘you’ can be understood as existing as a hybrid where the spheres of ‘player’ and ‘game’ overlap.

Veale succinctly describes the concept of the hybrid with his example of the humancar hybrid:

Humans are not allowed on to the motorway on foot. Cars are not allowed to be parked on the motorway. A human in a car (humancar) is allowed on to the motorway. The human’ s agency is redefined by this association, in that the human is capable of actions which would not be otherwise possible, such as speed. On the other hand, the human’ s agency is at the same time constrained as the humancar, since the humancar cannot do things which humans can. For example, the humancar cannot explore sights of interest on a whim and must proceed at a set pace without slowing down to savour the view. During the exchange, the human and the car have effectively disappeared and will not return until the agency of the humancar is abandoned (Veale 11).

Similarly, ‘you’ is not a distinct player interacting with a distinct game, but a ‘playergame’ hybrid that exists where the two overlap. If we look at both player and game as existing in the one actor-network,  “we may be able to accommodate the hybrids and give them a place, a name, a home, a philosophy, an ontology” (Latour, Modern 51).

The player does not lose agency when they are connected to other actors, without connection to other actors the player has no agency. Rather, the player loses agency when they are connected badly. Just as the puppet’s agency is increased with more strings, so it can be held in bondage by the same strings connected poorly. If we wish to increase the agency of the player and create more immersive, more meaningful experiences, the solution is not to liberate the player from the game, but to pull them closer together with more connections, to increase the overlap between player and game that is the playergame hybrid. If we wish to truly locate the game interface and understand what it is doing to our interactions, we must account for the agency of other actors.

Jeffries, L.B. “On Design-Centric Game Criticism.” Popmatters. 2010. Web. 18 Nov. 2010.
Latour, Bruno. We Have Never Been Modern. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 1993. Print.
Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Veale, Kevin. “The Amniotic Sac: Intersubjectivity and Affect in Computer Games” MArts Thesis. U of Auckland, 2005. ResearchSpace. Web. 18 Nov. 2010


Pippin said...

Hi there - I enjoyed reading this, as I'm not overly familiar with Latour and ANT, though it does, of course, get bandied around a whole lot in day-to-day life!

My major comment at present is that this piece of writing, and the thinking generally, could use a whole lot more examples. When you talk at this level of abstraction, it borders on the impossible to tell what you mean by what you say without some concrete demonstrations. The Osmos example is useful, but there need to be more, particularly from other genres where the "dependency network" concept is perhaps slightly more oblique.

Thanks for this.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hi Pippin.

Thanks for the feedback. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

You are absolutely correct that I need more concrete examples. I have thoughts on how this is (and often isn't) applied to many games, I have not yet written too much on the matter.

It's not quite finished, but I've been working with Adrian Forest to try to put together a paper that discusses the player/character hybrid of Bioshock as a well constructed hybrid where the restrictions and agency of the player and the character overlap nicely to form a stable hybrid--until the player becomes explicitly aware of the hybrid and it becomes unstable for the second half of the game. That game is thus both a great example of a stable player/character hybrid and an unstable one.

For my Honours next year, I am considering discussing Red Dead Redemption. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening there where the player doesn't necessarily do what they would do in the situation, but what they think John Marsden would do. I also think it gets interesting when you introduce horse riding, which explicitly adds a third actor to the 'you' hybrid. Also, the end of that game has important repercussions for the player/character relationship that I won't go into in case you have not played it yet :).

But yes, you are right that I need more oblique examples.

Thanks again for stopping by!

Brendan Keogh said...

Oh, and when I said 'Adrian Forest' I meant to say 'Adrian Forest'.

Ben Abraham said...

First, a comment on your comment:

"...I am considering discussing Red Dead Redemption. There is a lot of interesting stuff happening there where the player doesn't necessarily do what they would do in the situation, but what they think John Marsden would do."

Did you notice that you just used the same "you" short-cut here (in the third-person 'they form') that you seem to be excoriating in this piece? ;-)

So about the actual article - it's really interesting! However! I have serious reservations about Veale's thesis (from the first 1/3rd or so of it that I read), and I think my problem is this: Veale's location of the boundaries of the "player-game hybrid" are arbitrary. And any boundary in ANT will be however what I think separates the good accounts from the bad is explaining (or justifying) why you chose to set the boundaries where you did.

The same issue applies to your analysis here - you are going to need to justify why you restrict your focus to the association of the "interface" and the "player". What's the 'black box' in these instances?

Also, it seems like there is a whole untapped realm of 'stuff' that could be included in an analysis of this type. When players lean their physical bodies when trying to turn sharp corners in driving games, aren't their WHOLE bodies in association with the turning mechanics? If you asked them why they did it, they might even tell you that "It helps me turn". And if that's what they say, it helps them turn. It's not them "pretending" or "projecting" or being "swept up in the immersive simulation" it is their bodies helping them turn.

So yeah, examples! Show me the money! Show me the associations! =D

Ben Abraham said...

Double post for subscribing to comments. It wouldn't let me before.

Brendan Keogh said...

Hey Ben.

Guilty as charged! To be semantic, I think I did indeed mean 'the player' in that sentence, but certainly I am as guilty of using 'you' without tracing the associations as much as anybody. It is something I am trying to consciously not do but still manage to unconsciously do very often.

Also having not given Veale's the close reading I need to, I agree with your criticisms, and it will probably be one of the bigger hurdles for me to overcome if I continue to use ANT to look at this stuff.

While I was writing an early draft of this article, a friend with no prior knowledge of ANT came over and I explained to her what I was trying to write. Straight away she asked "so what is outside of 'you' then?" and I was completely stumped. I guess that is the danger of ANT. When everything is connected, talking about something without talking about everything becomes a lot more complicated.

So defining that scope and still acknowledging the myriad tendrils of association leaving its (arbitrary) borders is something I'm going to need to be very careful about... and that will probably require me reading a lot more ANT literature first! :)

Ben Abraham said...

So here's another reluctance I have with Veale's "hybrid" - if it's truly an actor itself... what is it in relation to? Actors are, after all, only defined by what they're in relation to...

In response to your friend, what is outside "you" depends on your frame of reference. It depends on what "you" is in relation to. Between the "me" and the "you" that is Ben and Brendan there's two bodies, there's also two enlightenment-esque ideas of the human individual, there's also two personalities, and there's also the two "virtual" "yous" that exist only through appearances online. None is any more 'real' or 'virtual' than any other though, since every object is only and completely defined by it's associations.

Perhaps Veale goes on later to talk about what the "hybrid" is in relation to, but the usefulness (reality?) of it as an object in itself is, to my mind, questionable. What does "you" associate itself with (you've answered this somewhat)? What does "the hybrid" associate with? Very little, it seems...

Brendan Keogh said...

Well I have to admit to being even less confident with hybrids than I am with ANT in general. I only know what I have read in Veale's thesis and the opening chapters of We Have Never Been Modern. Still, I think it comes back to the whole "an actor is its relations" thing which, swapped around, implies that relations are actors. I can't recall where, but I remember Latour stressing that an Actor-Network is not a 'network' in the sense of there being distinct nodes connected with distinct lines. In my head (and this is not something I have seen Latour say, mind you), it is like a big, messy Venn Diagram of overlapping circles. The actors connect where they overlap, and the overlapping areas are hybrid actors. That is probably a really problematic way of thinking about it, but for me it means the hybrid is an actor that is the relationship between other actors. So if the relationship of the actors changes (if the circles shift) then the shape of the hybrid changes (or perhaps more accurately, a new hybrid is formed).

So I think the 'hybrid' is just a way of talking about the relation as an actor. It isn't a object in itself as it can't exist without the overlapping circles of other actors.

Now a black box, however, would cut out that overlapping area and put it aside by itself as an actor of itself. But a hybrid pays the cost of transportation and acknowledges the actors that give it shape. A hybrid is stable exactly because it is not treated like a object in itself but an object that is a combination of (a relation between) other objects.

This is useful for me as I don't want to talk about how 'the player' controls the game and I don't want to talk about how 'John Marsden' controls the game, I want to talk about how the relationship between the player and John Marsden acts in the game. There are aspects of the player outside of John Marsden, and there are aspects of John Marsden outside of the player. Both of these contribute to the shape of the relationship of the player and John Marsden. So seeing that relationship as an actor itself (as long as you see it as an actor defined by those other actors) is useful.

Just like all objects, a hybrid is both an actor and a network. 'You' is indeed an actor that acts in the game, but it is also a network of player, character, and many other things. As an object in itself, it wouldn't be a hybrid but just a black box whose constituent actors and associations have not been taken into account (which is where I feel 'you' currently generally presides).

This comment took a long time to write and probably hasn't addressed your questions at all. Sorry for the rambling mess!

Adrian Forest said...

The way hybrids work in terms of ANT is that they're combinations of actors who have certain agency into new actors that have agency that is different from that of the constituent actors separately. The humancar example is the best I've found, which is why I insisted that Brendan use it. :)

The other thing about hybrids, which I can't remember if Veale spells out, is that hybrids are 'sticky' or internally coherent. They can be considered as a single actor-network until some part of the network breaks down: your computer is 'a computer' until the video card breaks, which is when it starts being an assemblage of its constituent parts.

Also, it's worth pointing out that the hybrid concept isn't Veale's, he just explains it in a good way, and applies it to the player-game relationship. The hybrid concept comes from discussions between Burnett and Latour, which Veale references.

mark said...

Great post!
I used ANT in my dissertation on WoW players. If you need more resources that specifically use ANT and games to look at the hybrid:

Giddens, S. (2007). Playing with nonhumans: Digital games as technocultural form. In _Worlds in play_ (pp 115-118).

Taylor, N.T. (2009). Power play: Digital gaming goes pro (Doctoral dissertation, York University, 2009).

Taylor, N.

mark said...

er... sorry that post got formatted weird. :)

Brendan Keogh said...

Thanks, Mark! I really do need to read more game-related ANT stuff so these are great.

michael said...