The Player, the Avatar, and the Agency

I don’t like the term ‘immersion’ very much anymore. Immersion seems like the golden calf of gaming – for all of the sacrifices we make to it, it does much more harm than good in many of our games. And it does harm our games, both as critical players and as designers. In our desperate bid for an experience that truly makes us part of the world, we lose the benefit that a lack of immersion can brings to us. 

When we play a game, we as a player interface with the game diegetically through the avatar. This avatar necessarily exists in two worlds; the diegetic-machine interface of reactions, and prescribed movements; and the non-diegetic operator acts of clicking and typing. Immersion is when we hide this dichotomy from the player– concealing the interface behind the distracted attention of the player. In striving for total immersion we emphasize the avatar’s actions as being non-digetic, so that it is only the player which engages diegetically with the game. This causes us to lose sight of the player’s avatar as being an important character within the diegesis of the game, independent of the player. This causes a problem – if it is always the player reacting to a situation, then a game loses its ability to provide the player with directed narrative.

The avatar must be able to exist within the narrative of the game beyond the influence of the player. When we experience the game, we must experience it from a given perspective. Portal from the perspective of GLaDOS is very different from Portal from the perspective of Chel. And experiencing a limited perspective necessarily creates character. It is necessity because the limits on our perspective also define the limits of our interaction with the game space. The options for the player in Call of Duty are different from the options of the player in Command and Conquer, so the experiences are radically distinct, despite both ostentatiously being games about war. This perspective, in being ascribed mechanical methods to allow the player to interact with the diegesis of the game, must also ascribe limitations to that interaction. From these limitations the avatar emerges; a character within the game which the player controls to interact with the story.

When the player is restricted in a game space, it determines the characteristics of the avatar, and grounds them in the digetic narrative of the story. This opens new perspectives to the player, and allows them to experience narratives differently.

Amnesia: The Dark Descent
Thanks, hint text! Now excuse me while I go never sleep again

In Amnesia: The Dark Descent the avatar cannot fight against the monsters that are hunting him, and so convey to the player a sense of terror. Castlevania’s Simon Belfont, meanwhile, can destroy a superhuman number of baddies, allowing the player to inhabit a perspective of power.

Player restriction as avatar characterization is an important lens. It tells us that when we, as players, find ourselves arbitrarily restricted within a game space, we should seek out the purpose of the restriction, rather than simply rejecting it. In Red Shift and Portalmetal we are stopped at the border, and are asked to either ‘run’ or ‘wait’. But the choice has no significant ludic impact on the game, beyond a single altered screen. Here the game actively prioritizes the digetic agency of the avatar as a character over the operator agency on the avatar as the manifestation of the player; the character Roja chooses rather than the player, despite our contrary input. As critical players (or readers) this should not make us reject the game as a whole, but rather signal us that this moment is meaningful, and intentional. In Red Shift, this illusion of choice exists to highlight how trapped the character is in this interaction. It highlights the character’s lack of agency in the world, which we have thus far only experienced through them. Lack of choice at this crossing lets us, as players, experience the perspective of the character.

0 thoughts on “The Player, the Avatar, and the Agency

  1. This was a very good observation, I believe. I admit I hadn’t quite considered the importance of limitations when a player is trying to immerse him/herself completely into the game. I do agree, some degree of distance is important for the narrative’s sake, and for the sake of the game entirely. However, I do believe some level of immersion is important so as to want to continue playing the game, to provide a sense of urgency or need to win. I suppose my question would be, how does one guess how much immersion is necessary to make the game playable and entertaining, and enough to keep players from being completely disconnected from the characters?

    1. I don’t think that urgency or desire to win comes completely, or even mostly, from immersion. While existing within the magic circle can provide the motivation to keep playing, that motivation could also come from the game’s systems.

      I just put up a post that links to Richard Lemarchand’s GDC2012 talk Attention, Not Immersion, which I think does an excellent job of outlining the reasons that we play games.

Leave a Reply