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Performed, controlled and spoken: A tripartite view of the player-character

Traditional theory has been focused on the relationships between the player and the character while ignoring an increasingly important third part: in-game player representation through text and voice.

Game Developer, Staff

May 27, 2012

7 Min Read

In trying to understand the dynamics between the player and the character performed in the game, attention has been placed on the communication across the fourth wall and in how the player might control what she sees. This approach, while useful in thinking about the design and interaction aspects of a game, neglects an increasingly important element to the play of more online and social enabled games: the player as represented in text and voice.

The common dichotomy of understanding play in a video game is that there is an entity controlled on a screen and there an additional entity controlling it. The object on-screen, when there is some story involved in the understanding of the mechanics of the game, is called a character and that which controls it is called a player. These are terms are well known and used to express the interaction between the two. The player makes a choice, presses a button and the character reacts in some way according to the rules of the game and those choices already made by the player. Games can be thought of as a series of these interactions, one leading to the next as a session continues. This transactional understanding of this cycle between game and player can be used to analyze most game sessions as broken into units of interaction between the two.

As story-based information increases within a game setting, the understanding of the relationship between both player and character might even turn to the performativity aspects of the role-play and adoption or even rejections of the ideals of a world; as part of interpretation the events, the player may choose to accept the rationalizations of the fiction through an extended suspension of disbelief or even ignore portions through a reading of events that may offer insight into the role as played and role as presented by the game. This approach, often used in examining personal narrative in contrast to game-presented story, however, still maintains the traditional connection between player and character. While a greater emphasis is placed on what the player understands and interprets from what they see and experience both as part of the game and in understanding tied to external sources, such analysis maintains the duality of player and character.

It is within this traditional paradigm, even with performance related extensions, that an important part of online play that involves more than rules and a singular player is ignored. For as much as a player might perform and thus reinforce their ideal of what a character might be thinking and doing through acts that manifest in the fictional world of a story-based game, this presentation of self can be contradicted by how a player represents themselves through messages between characters, in forum posts and other forms of in-game communication between players. The character, as controlled by the player, might present themselves in the language of the game, through the available interactions between verbs and nouns, yet such a presentation might be contradicted by the representation of what the player is saying in a chat window of even thinking in reality. This is the true tripartite view of the player-character: presented in game, represented in text and projected from reality.

The textual self of the player-character is made up of interaction between parties composed as speech acts that bridge both the fictional world and the player reality. Such communication though is one sided: only the player, and not the character, has access to the information processed, reported and responded to through this channel. The character is not aware they are being controlled nor of the secondary meta-narrative level that exists above the fictional world, yet inexorably tied to the mechanics that allow it. In-game communication, through both text and voice, represents the player in connection to the character being played, or even previous characters played, through messages shown in both real time and in correspondence between players. This textual self, however, exists only as representative of the player within the meta-narrative of both fictional game world and actual reality of the player.

This representative self might be thought of, then, as an additional performance, one that may both contradict the performance as character in the game world or reinforce it as necessary. Trade messages, common to many online games would fit into the contradiction category. Such communication on this topic exists within the game, yet is not from any one character but between the servers to players themselves. Any messages of this variety, those that address the game as fictional such as technical information for example, also serve more of the meta-narrative quality than other exchanges between characters based in player expectations.

Those messages that reinforce the character as performed are most commonly associated with servers that are labeled role-play and carry the expectation that interaction between characters will be based within the fictional world of the game; messages come from, in this context, not from the players, but the characters as controlled. The performance as seen and read is supposed to be united in its both presentation and representation of the character; the player is submerged into the fictional elements of the game and is only recognized as a support for the mask worn in the performance of characters. The language of the world is seen not as coming from the player, but the character herself. Any reality that exists outside of the session is ignored and the fiction, even when interrupted, is paramount to the experience.

Even stepping back from role-playing and technical messages on either extreme, the voice of the player is an ever increasing part of the experience of online play, not just through text but of speech itself. Such a medium of expression, that of the player's voice, carries an even greater meta-narrative aspect as the player must take on a persona in speaking that is composed of terminology that is tied to the game as experienced; it is not just speaking normally, but is composed of keywords that may not carry meaning outside of the context of the experience. Thus, the performance quality of this channel is linked to knowledge not only of the game itself, but of how to properly speak the language unique in trying to communicate both fictional and reality based information to other players.

It is this third category that is most common. The player is projected, yet transformed partially by the very communication, as a voice distinct from, yet a part of the character as performed. It is recognized that the player is controlling the character in communication, is presenting a self through a fictional world, and yet is tied to how the player represents themselves in speech and text as well. The voice of the player is not the voice of the character, it is connected to the meta-narrative self that is both a role played and of a technical nature; players message each other through characters with knowledge that other players are at the other end. Such a representation of the player presents itself as both performed and as projected in turn according to the context of the moment and the will of the player.

Online games that have a social aspect provide the opportunity to see the third part of the player-character, which arises as communicated by the player, yet is based in the game. It is messages about the game without being part of the actual mechanics; a model of interaction that uses text and voice as a series of speech acts both as and through a character. It is not just the player projected into the world of a character manifested as a function of choices and actions, but is disconnected from this when needed. It can be a secondary layer of performance when necessary, or even a channel to deliver information the player needs about the connection to the game itself; a part of the meta-narrative, it fluctuates in importance according to context and the expectations of the player. At any moment, it can rise to be the primary mode of communication, yet also ignored completely as part of a gaming experience, much as either the player or character importance can as well.

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