Identification or Desire?

Taking the Player-Avatar Relationship to the Next Level

Essay - IdentificationDesire

Gerald Voorhees (Ph.D., The University of Iowa, 2008) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Drama and Speech Communication at the University of Waterloo. His research focuses on games and new media as sites for the construction and contestation of identity and culture. Gerald is co-editor of Bloomsbury’s Approaches to Game Studies book series.

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Bringing queer theory and game studies into conversation with each other, I will argue here that queer desire is the fundamental structure of the player-avatar relationship so often mischaracterized by the notion of identification.

If we are to accept the argument sketched out below, that sexual attraction is a motivating factor in like-sex player-avatar relationships, then we must also accept that a great deal of digital gameplay is motivated by queer desire.

This means that queer sexualities are not simply invited into gameplay and gamespace, but rather that they already occupy, covertly, a critical position within games and game cultures that enables the possible subversion and transgression of the masculinity and heteronormativity that overtly characterize games and gaming.

Moreover, increasingly common game conventions — the greater customization of character creation and development, the integration of moral and ethical parameters, and the effort to add gravity to player choices — have opened fissures in the heterocentric veneer of digital games that hold the promise of laying bare the queer foundations of gameplay.

I recognize that my claims are counterintuitive. Digital games — with their abysmal record for objectifying women (Ivory, 2006; Williams, Martin, Consalvo and Ivory 2009) and history of either exclusion or denigration of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender sexualities (Shaw 2009) — have done stellar work as a bastion of patriarchal heterosexism. As evidenced by vitriolic responses to recent gestures of inclusiveness exhibited by several game franchises (e.g. the Sims, Fable, Dragon Age, Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect,) hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity are cultural values entrenched in digital games and gaming.

But then, is this not, according to Althusser, how ideology functions? As the imaginary relationship of individuals (the specter of an unabashedly heterosexist, patriarchal world) to their real conditions of existence (the fundamentally queer structure of the player-avatar relationship)?

The rest of this essay is divided into three areas. The first outlines conceptualizations of player-character identification and disidentification operative in game studies. The second lays out the theoretical backbone of my argument by looking to some basic propositions of queer theory. The third portion examines the ludic structure and feedback systems in Lionhead’s Fable III (2010) and Bioware’s Mass Effect 2 (2010) as exemplary cases in which the queer desire integral to player-character relationships is pushed to the surface.

Identification and Desire

The avatar is a well-researched element of digital games and within avatar studies player-avatar identification is a topic of paramount concern.

This is especially the case in the value-neutral study of game design and development, in which cartoonist Scott McLeod’s (1994) work is an oft-cited foundation of the dominant paradigm. McLeod argues that a certain level of abstraction in character representation is a means for the player to invest his/her self in the characters. Informed by Lacanian psychoanalysis, Rehak (2003) extends this line of analysis and argues that the player’s misrecognition of the character for the self allows players to feel immersed in the game experience.

Against this grain [foot]For a more extensive but by no means comprehensive discussion of the importance of identification in FPS games, see Voorhees, Call and Whitlock (2012, p. 8-11).[/foot], there is another current of works looking at the dis-identification of player and avatar. This differentiation has been looked at as a vehicle for minstrelsy that contains the ambivalence between racism and desire (Leonard 2005) but is more often examined as grounds for acting out the ambivalence between misogyny and sexual desire. Yee’s (2001) work on gender bending in RPGS starts from the fact that little over half of all female avatars in MMOs are played by male players. Analyzing a series of surveys, Yee explains that only 6 percent of males playing female characters express any desire to explore the world from the point of view of another gender. However, 30 percent of respondents claim to do so for the visual pleasure of viewing the female form, and as Yee argues, for the pleasure of controlling, puppeteering and thus dominating a powerful female figure that otherwise represents a threat to masculine privilege.

Kennedy (2002) provides a similar assessment of the pleasure of playing the Tomb Raider series’ Lara Croft, the preeminent videogame male fantasy object and puppet. However, Kennedy’s analysis also points to the emergence of queer play. Kennedy argues that when the predominantly male players of Tomb Raider control the character of Lara Croft they are performing as transgender and creating a “kind of queer embodiment, the merger of the flesh of the (male) player with Lara’s elaborated feminine body of pure information.”

Like Kennedy’s analysis of Lara Croft, this essay explores queerness in digital games at the interplay of identification, disidentification and desire. However, unlike Kennedy’s analysis, where transgender performance is an effect produced by sexism and hetrosexual desire, this essay holds that the player’s relationship with their avatar is fundamentally and inalienably queer.

Queer Beginnings

The theoretical basis of this argument lies in Adrienne Rich’s critique of compulsory heterosexuality and Eve Sedgwick’s conceptualization of male homosocial desire, both of which are essential underpinnings of queer theory that postulate a substantial degree of ambiguity and ambivalence is woven into the entire spectrum of like-gender social relationships.

Rich (1980) used the term “lesbian continuum” to challenge the supposed mutual exclusivity of either social or sexual desire. She posits that “through each woman’s life and throughout history” women experience a spectrum of queer sexuality ranging from the pleasure of sharing a rich inner life to identifying as lesbian.

Sedgwick discusses male “homosocial desire” as way of conceptualizing the range of potentially (but not necessarily) erotic relations between men. The term is a deliberately awkward construction, combining the heteronormatively accepted notion of “homosocial” fraternal bonds with “desire” in order to draw attention to the fluid, potentially ambivalent and always ambiguous nature of male relationships[foot]The distinction between “male homosocial desire” and male homosociality generally cannot be emphasized enough. As Warner explains, homosociality is a pillar of heteronormativity that buttresses patriarchy and exists as a result of the marginalization of homosexuality (1991, p. 8).[/foot]. Notably, Sedgwick theorizes male homosocial desire not as an affective, or emotional, state but as the “affective or social force, the glue… that shapes an important relationship” [emphasis added] (1995, p. 2).

I argue that this is the shape of the player-avatar relationship.

Sedgwick’s male homosocial desire and Rich’s lesbian continuum allow a rethinking of the current conversation about the player-avatar relationship that escapes the myopic framework theorizing player identification with like-sex avatars and dis-identification with different-sex avatars. Rather, we can reconceptualize the player-avatar relationship as queer, as a thoroughly fluid, ambivalent connection that exists on a spectrum from social to sexual.

However, this is obscured by many aspects of digital games and game cultures. The objectification of female bodies, denigration of queer sexuality and celebration of hegemonic masculinity are surely part of this operation. So too is the erotic triangle, a narrative trope that masks the affinity between two males through conflict over a woman’s affections (Sedgwick, p. 707-708).

Consalvo (2002) applies the concept of the erotic triangle to explain how, in games that involve romantic relationships, male players’ desire for male characters is sublimated into desire for the female love interest pursued by the character. In this way, Consalvo argues, male homosocial desire between the player and avatar is channeled into the fraternal bond — essentially a relationship of identification — between romantic rivals. In short, just as compulsory heterosexuality is deployed to erase the lesbian continuum, with the erotic triangle a queer desire is repressed and covered over with a heteronormative narrative.

Like Consalvo’s analysis, the essay is concerned with how games make use of homosocial desire to structure player-avatar relationships. However, unlike Consalvo’s analysis, in which the erotic triangle obfuscates male homosocial desire, this paper focuses on a recent trend in which game features/feedback structures work to push homosocial desire into the open.

Saving Face

The remainder of the paper analyzes the blockbuster games Fable III and Mass Effect 2 to illustrate one way in which the queer structure of the player-avatar relationship can engage the toxic levels of heterosexism and homophobia in digital gaming cultures. Specifically, both of these games feature a form of feedback that alters the avatar’s appearance based on how well the player performs and, by foregrounding the player’s investment in the avatar’s attractiveness, push the valence of male homosocial desire up the spectrum towards the erotic.

Both Fable and Mass Effect series consistently refuse to affirm a heteronormative worldview.

The first iteration of the Mass Effectseries is notable for the controversy sparked due to the player’s ability, as a female Shepard, to have a sexual relationship with Liara, an ungendered but nevertheless feminine alien. Mass Effect 2 both allows a similar relationship (with a different character of the same alien race) and enables players to engage in a lesbian relationship between a female Shepard and crewmember Kelly, though it is more difficult to pursue than straight relationships with members of the squad. Mass Effect 3 includes multiple options for gay and lesbian relationships[foot]However, Meghan Blythe Adams’ analysis in Take Me to Your Breeder demonstrates that heterosexual romance is still privileged.[/foot].

The Fable series goes even further. Since the first title in the series, it has allowed players to pursue relationships, including marriage, with like-sex non-player characters (NPCs). More significantly, gay and lesbian NPCs are not represented stereotypically, but can be found in varied trades and social circles and in this manner are indistinguishable from other villagers and nobles. Moreover, once certain thresholds of liking are reached, both gay and straight NPCs regularly remark on the player character’s appearance and express either revulsion or desire to take their friendship to the next level[foot]As Adrienne Shaw convincingly argues in The Lost Queer Potential of Fable, despite the Fables series’ acknowledgement of queer sexualities, it’s representation of queerness is nevertheless quite limiting.[/foot].

In these regards, both Mass Effect 2 and Fable 3 are rife with acknowledgement of queer existence.

Still, it is the features that effect the player’s avatar’s appearance that make them important sites where the homosocial desire inherent in digital games might intervene in gaming cultures. Both games offer players a wide array of customization features so that players may create avatars to their specifications. And more importantly, both games link the avatar’s attractiveness to the player’s gameplay, such that the avatar’s physical attractiveness is an index of the game’s assessment of the player’s performance.

In Fable 3 the avatar’s appearance is linked to the performance of combat. Each time the player is killed their avatar receives a scar. The scars are deep, bloody red at first and over time fade to a dark pink, though they never go away completely. In this way they are a permanent record of the players’ failure to adhere to the standard of good gameplay.

The linkage of gameplay and appearance is a bit less obvious in Mass Effect 2 but there nonetheless. Mass Effect 2 is premised on the narrative conceit that a near-lifeless Commander Shepard — the player’s character — is rescued from a shipwreck and as a result of this near-death experience Shepard’s face is criss-crossed with bright pink scars. Rather than simply fading over the course of the game, the scars either heal or deepen depending on the player’s responses to certain dialogue options and actions in different situations. If the player has Shepard act as a paragon of good the scars fade into nothingness, but if Shepard is played as a Renegade the scars deepen and grow more vivid.

In both of these games, by tying the player’s performance to the appearance of their avatar, homosocial desire is integral to motivating players to play well. Actually, as I have argued, like-sex desire is integral to all player-avatar relationships. But Fable 3 and Mass Effect 2 contain enough elements — between their refusal to model a heteronormative world and their feedback systems linking assessment of gameplay to the avatar’s physical attractiveness — to fissure the otherwise dense armor of heterosexism and hegemonic masculinity that blankets gaming cultures. They do this by foregrounding the player’s construction and maintenance of a romantically desirable avatar.

Conclusion

While it is important to be able to reinterpret heteronormative stories and characters through queer reading practices, I hope it is clear that I am not arguing for recovering queer readings of games. Nor am I arguing for further inclusion of GLBTQ characters or players in games or game culture, (not that this would be a bad thing). Rather, my claim is that the player-avatar relationship is inherently queer. I have tried to make the case that games which encourage players to attend to and safeguard the physical appearance of their avatars push the nature of the player-avatar relationship, bound by the force of homosocial desire, toward the libidinal side of the spectrum.

Moving forward, the question is: what may come of this new understanding? Given that the player’s use of an avatar to navigate and act within a virtual 3D space is central to contemporary digital game aesthetics (Mayra 2008), apprehending the queer structure of the player-avatar bond radically re-writes the possibility space of digital gameplay. But how to seize that possibility and to what end?

In regards to scholarly inquiry and criticism, I hope this insight becomes an integral part of the frameworks we apply to study avatars, displacing identification as the go-to conceptual starting point. Perhaps it is warranted to review the conclusions generated by existing work in avatar studies and see what alternative conclusions we reach when queerness is treated not as an anomaly but a norm?

But what of designers and developers? How will they use or abuse these insights? Will performance-appearance feedback systems wither or bloom? These questions bring us to confront the dangers of criticism. Consalvo’s work on the erotic triangle and Yee and Kennedy’s examination of puppeteering bring to the surface and name techniques of domination that largely operated at the cultural level, under the radar of conscious design. They can now be more readily deployed intentionally as techniques of domination.

As I am not a developer or designer I can only hope that the queer character of the player-avatar relationship becomes a tool for prying open the hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity of games and gaming culture, and that more creative minds than mine will innovate new game mechanic to do so.


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Discussant’s Reply

Adrienne Shaw is an Assistant Professor in Temple University’s Department of Media Studies and Production. Her research and teaching focus on: popular culture, representations of gender & sexuality, cultural production and qualitative audience research, video games & gaming culture, and identity and community construction via media consumption.

Gerald, I really commend you for bringing in queer desire into the discussion of the player-avatar relationship. There is as you suggest a lot queer theory can add to the really problematic oversimplifications of gender and sexual identification in game play. For example, a heavy dose of queer theory might help make it clear that the amount of attention scholars have given to playing an avatar with a different gender identity than the player relies on problematic assumptions about gender identity. More than that, there is an assumption that a cisgendered man playing as another cisgendered man is not “interesting” enough to be worthy of analysis. This essay questions that nicely when you ask: “what alternative conclusions we reach when queerness is treated not as an anomaly but a norm?”

Related to what you say, one thing I think we must be wary of in game studies is trying to speak about the avatar/character-player relationship in terms of universals. In my upcoming book I discuss at length the way players’ feelings of identification with game characters varies dramatically with the genre of game. That is to say, game makers play a key role in shaping how and if players identify with the on-screen character in the first place. Added to this it’s important to note that not all on-screen proxies are rightly called avatars (in addition to my book, see the work of Rune Klevjer, Ragnhild Tronstad, and Zach Waggoner). Mass Effect 2 and Fable 3 are both in a very interesting position in relation to this parsing of player character relationships as they involve both customizable and set character features. That is, players can identify both as and with the player-character in these games depending on how they play them. Pushing back a little on what you say, I think we need to acknowledge the role desire plays in identification (though feelings of difference is also key to both desire and identification). At the same time, I think we both agree that scholars must be careful to not assume that identification is always the best lens for analyzing the experience of game play.

Related to this, I think it is fair to say that homosociality is really under-analyzed in game studies. However, it’s important to note that homosociality is not, in Sedgwick, the same as homosexuality. Indeed she notes that in homosocial spaces that are deeply sexualized (locker rooms, military barracks, etc.), the dominance of heterosexuality is often reasserted in the face of slippery social practices. We might think through the ways many of the violences, misogyny, homophobia, etc. of game spaces could be better understood as attempts to correct the slippage from the homosocial to the homoerotic. Moreover, I think it would be worth unpacking how that would work in avatar/character-player relationships. What work goes into unqueering those deeply queer relationships? That may tell us more about how we can pry “open the hegemonic masculinity and heteronormativity of games and gaming culture.”

[Beginning in January 2014, every essay and commentary we publish on FPS will receive a response from a member on our board of discussants. Articles are paired up with a discussant based on subject-matter expertise and availability. The idea is to propagate a critical, constructive conversation that enriches both the author’s and the readers’ engagement with the text.]

Works Cited

Consalvo, M. (2003). Hot Dates and Fairy-Tale Romances: Studying Sexuality in Games. In Wolf, M. J. P. and Perron, B. (Eds.) The Video Game Theory Reader. NYC: Routledge: 171-194.

Ivory, J.D. (2006) Still a man’s game: Gender representation in online reviews of video games. Mass Communication and Society 9(1): 103-114

Kennedy, H. (2002) Lara Croft. Feminist icon or cyber-bimbo? The limits of textual analysis. Game Studies 2(2): http://www.gamestudies.org/0202/kennedy/

Leonard, D.J. (2005) To the white extreme: Conquering athletic space, white manhood, and racing virtual reality. In Garrelts, N. (Ed.) Digital gameplay: Essays on the nexus of game and gamer. Jeffereson, NC: Macfarland: 110-129

Mayra, F. (2008) An introduction to game studies: Games in culture. Los Angeles: Sage. McCloud, S. (1994) Understanding comics: The invisible art. NYC: William Morrow Paperbacks

Rich, A. (1980) Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence. Signs 5(4): 631-660. Sedgwick, E. (1995) Between men: English literature and male homosocial desire. NYC: Columbia University Press.

Shaw, A. (2009) Putting the gay in games: Cultural production and GLBT content in video games. Games and Culture 4(3): 228-253.

Voorhees, G., Call, J. and Whitlock, K., Eds. (2012.)Guns, Grenades and Grunts: First Person-Shooter Games. NYC: Continuum International Publishing. Warner, M. (1991). Introduction: Fear of a Queer Planet. Social Text 29: 3-17.

Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., and Ivory, J.D. (2009) The virtual census: Representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media Society 11: 815-834.