Monday, April 11, 2011

A Draft of a Thesis Abstract

[This year I am completing a Communication and Cultural Studies Honours as both a capstone of my undergraduate studies and, most probably, a stepping stone into several more years of postgraduate study. In addition to some coursework, Honours largely consists of writing a 15,000 word dissertation by the end of Semester 2 (late October). As such, I will be doing less freelance writing and even less blogging this year as I work on my thesis. However, to make up for this, I might try to update here with my thesis-in-progress, both to keep the blog alive and to get some valuable feedback. While the academics in my school (in particularly my supervisor) are able to give me excellent structural and theoretical advice, few of them play videogames and even fewer engage with videogame academia. By placing my work-in-progress here, perhaps my arguments will become a little more watertight.

For now, here is an early draft of an abstract of my thesis. It gives a decent oversight about what I plan to write about this year. Needless to say, there is a very high chance that this will change in the coming months as I do more research, get more feedback, and actually start writing. But for now, this is my topic as it currently stands:]

 Partners in Crime: The Mediating Effects of the Playable Character on the Videogame Player

Through a textual analysis of Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar North 2007), this thesis aims to complicate and complement videogame studies’ current understanding of the playable character’s role in shaping the player’s experience. Just as the player may define certain actions and characteristics of the character, so too do the character’s actions and characteristics helps to shape the player’s experience.

The videogame player interacts with the videogame text as a hybrid of navigable spaces: a procedural space defined by processes that the player must comprehend; a possibility space defined by affordances that the player must act within the confines of; a fictional space defined as an audiovisual world that the player must interpret and exist in. While most videogame scholars acknowledge the role of the playable character as a vessel through which the player navigates these spaces, rarely is its mediating effect on the player fully recognised. Many texts will use the terms ‘player’ and ‘character’ interchangeably when discussing the agent that acts within the videogame space. This uncertainty as to just who is acting highlights a gap in the existing literature on playable characters and their role in mediating the player’s experience.

Engaging with actor-network theory and cyborg theory to account for the existence of the playable character’s nonhuman agency independent of the player, this thesis explores how the agencies of both actors—player and character—intertwine and mediate each other to form a hybrid actor, the player-character, which is the actual actor that navigates the videogame space.

Grand Theft Auto IV and its episodic expansions “The Lost and the Damned” and “The Ballad of Gay Tony” engage the player with three distinct playable characters while the game’s spaces and mechanics remain more-or-less unchanged. An analysis of these titles will thus allow this thesis to explore the effects of the playable character’s agency on the player-character hybrid and, subsequently, on the player’s experience.


James Hayton said...

sounds interesting!In a game like GTA, the character does things the player would never do in real life... I wonder if the choice of characters can affect what people will do in a game environment?

Good luck with the research!


Fraser Allison said...

Good luck! You should have a lot to write about - the tonal shift between GTAIV and the expansions is pretty fascinating. I don't know how much changed mechanically between the games except for the bike handling overhaul in Lost and Damned, but I found that just the different walk animations made me want to play the characters a whole different way.

Keep throwing out your thoughts and questions, and if I've accumulated any wisdom from going through the process last year (doubtful) I'll chime in, as I'm sure plenty of other people will.

I found it useful to start by mining other people's papers for their reference lists, so here's mine.

This could be useful to you in talking about gameplay experience:
It presents a three-part model of gameplay experience that doesn't quite match up with your hybrid space model. See page 8 for a diagram.
Possibility space --> Challenge-based immersion
Fictional space --> Imaginative immersion
Procedural space --> ?
? --> Sensory immersion

I'd be interested to see if you don't end up collapsing the border between Procedural Space and Possibility Space. In my mind the latter is an emergent property of the former as perceived by the player, especially in a sandbox game. Of course, we all tend to conceptualise these things slightly differently.

Unknown said...

Truth be told, I was having a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around everything you said. But! I'm going to chalk that up to being tired.

It sounds like a very solid thesis. At first I was a little worried that you were limiting yourself to using GTA IV as your example but, upon further thought, I think there is a wealth of knowledge that you could draw from it.

As a cursory thought, I'd imagine that a game with a third-person perspective (such as with GTA IV) might have a different effect on the development of the "player-character" role than one with a first-person perspective (say... Halo, or the like). I'd be interested to see if you have any thoughts on that topic.

All in all, it sounds pretty solid thus far. I look forward to seeing what other thoughts you have on this topic.


Adam Ruch said...

Hey Brendan, I've snooped at your blog a few times in the past but thought I shouldn't pass up this opportunity to comment.

Good luck on the thesis, in these early days. I'd be really curious to hear what you have to say, throughout your research on this topic. The difference between player-in-the-world and player-as-a-character-in-the-world should be pretty intriguing. I wrote a very bloggy piece for Kotaku on this topic, and precisely what Nick above me here has said. Take a look and feel free to shoot me an email sometime.

Kizzy Kent said...

Have you already completed your thesis, Brendan? Well, from the looks of it, your thesis abstract is really amazing. Your thesis writing skills is really remarkable. Well, with an abstract like that, I can tell that the whole paper is worth reading, especially that I love computer games. :)