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Rikke Toft Nørgård

The Joy of Doing: The Corporeal Connection in Player-Avatar Identity

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  • Department of Information and Media Studies
When game researchers have explored the player-avatar relationship, the assumptions regarding the nature of the ‘avatarian connection’ has been manifold. The avatarian connection has stereotypically been understood as primarily:
• dramaturgic; e.g. concerning fictional characters (Sandvik 2006, Tronstad 2008), masks (Murray 1997, Filiciak 2003), actors on a stage (Laurel 1991), or role-play (Sandvik 2006)
• social; e.g. concerning self-representation (Yee & Bailenson 2007), identity-play (Filiciak 2003), social roles (Linderoth 2005), or self-image construction (Hutchinson 2007),
• visual; e.g. concerning appearance (Yee & Bailenson 2007, Tronstad 2008), customization (Hutchinson 2007), mirror images (Rehak 2003, Cleland 2010), or specular bodies (Perron 2009),
• cognitive; e.g. concerning projected intentionality (Gee 2008, Gregersen & Grodal 2009), mental absorption (McMahan 2003), or strategic thinking (Taylor 2003),
• or as embodied; e.g. concerning puppets (Burn 2006, Ducheneaut et al 2009), surrogate/prosthetic bodies (Lahti 2003, Gee 2008), vehicles (Newman 2002), instruments (Jørgensen 2009), extensions (Cleland 2010), or capacities (Newman 2002).
Unlike the above traditional framings of player-avatar identity, which can be said to understand the avatarian connection in accordance with the phenomenological notions of ‘body image’ (dramaturgic, social, visual representation) or ‘tool-use’ (cognitive transmission from player to tool or the tool as prosthetic extension), this paper tries to take another route.

Instead of applying e.g. philosophy of mind, embodied cognition or representation in appreciation of the player-avatar relationship, a ‘philosophy of body’ is employed. By grounding the avatarian connection in the phenomenological notion of ‘body schema’ (schéma corporel), the ‘corporeal’ theories of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Maxine Sheets-Johnstone, Richard Sennett, Mark B.N. Hansen, and Susan A.J. Stuart among others, as well as game research with a clear ‘bodily’ focus such as Graeme Kirkpatrick and Bryan G. Behrenshausen, an alternative to the generally approved understanding of the avatar as ‘the graphical representation of the player’ is presented. This is done by introducing the concepts of ‘corporeal digitality’ (offscreen doing) and ‘digital corporeality’ (onscreen doing) which are evolved to grasp the intimate, interdependent, and inherent bodily relationship that exists between player and avatar.

Thus, the paper breaks with the traditional understanding of the player-avatar relationship as based on unidirectional ‘transportation’ or ‘transmission’: Examples on such views are the ‘cognitive stance’ which understands the player-avatar relationship as being about transmitting, projecting, or introjecting the player’s intentionality, cognition, or mind to the avatar, and the ‘embodiment stance’ which understands the player-avatar relationship as being about transportation to, immersion in, or inhabitation of the avatar. While the first stance sees the player as a puppeteer orchestrating the avatar, the second stance views the player as an operator embodied in the avatar.
Accordingly, the player-avatar relationship is instead seen as a dynamic, bidirectional flow, entailing that the player-avatar relationship is contained within the same body schema, making gaming a corporeally engaging in-bodies-experience. Thus, rather than being an embodiment or representation of the gamer, the avatar provides the player’s body with an extra dimension. In-game interaction comprises the fusion of offscreen corporeal digitality with onscreen digital corporeality, which taken together constitutes the player-as-avatar and the avatar-as-player. That is why the player unproblematic proclaims “that’s me” or “I died” when gaming – because in the gaming situation he is the avatar as the avatar is him.

Furthermore, the framework also facilitate a new understanding of the dramaturgic, visual, cognitive, and social elements in the player-avatar relationship, in that corporeal digitality and digital corporeality constitutes the foundation which all of the abovementioned views build upon. In this way, the player’s ‘self’ is not as much about self-construction or self-representation as self-being and self-doing. Likewise, player-avatar identity is no longer, in this context, grounded in the game’s visual ‘perspective’ (Cleland 2010, Jørgensen 2009, Lahti 2003) but in the player’s corporeal engagement, and ‘presence’ is not about the visual illusion of non-mediation in first-person-shooters (McMahan 2003) but about corporeal presence.

The presented understanding of player-avatar identity is explicated through consistent inclusion of empirical data consisting of various onscreen/offscreen gaming sessions of Borderlands, World of Warcraft and Playstation Move: Start the Party, showing how the joy of doing can be said to describe the ‘natural attitude’ or ‘default position’ in player-avatar identity.
Translated title of the contributionGlæden ved at gøre: Den kropslige forbindelse i spiller-avatar identitet
Original languageEnglish
Publication year6 Mar 2011
Number of pages15
Publication statusPublished - 6 Mar 2011
EventPhilosophy of Computer Games 2011 - Athen, Greece
Duration: 6 Apr 20119 Apr 2011


ConferencePhilosophy of Computer Games 2011

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