Ragnhild Tronstad explores the concept of character identity in her essay “Character Identification in World of Warcraft: The Relationship between Capacity and Appearance.” The crucial aspects of this chapter in the book, “Digital Culture, Play, and Identity: A World of Warcraft Reader,” edited by Hilde. G. Corneliussen and Jill Walker Rettberg, is to dissect the relationship between a character’s capacity and appearance and whether they can be separated in a game such as Warcraft. Tronstad builds her argument based on her idea and concept of flow, which she describes as “gaming as a particular aesthetic experience” (p. 250).
Tronstad opens her essay by redefining terms for the audience. She gains momentum for her argument by offering these new definitions, especially for such commonplace words such as “capacity,” “appearance,” “flow,” “character,” and the spectrum of empathy. By offering specific definitions for the readers to apply to the reading, Tronstad engages her readers and opens their minds to critical analyze. An important stake in her overall argument for the relationship between capacity and appearance relies on the empathy continuum that she references from Margrethe Bruun Vaage. There are four benchmarks in the continuum: emotional contagion, embodied empathy, narrative empathy, and perspective taking. Emotional contagion is experiencing another’s emotions without understanding them while Perspective taking is understanding another’s emotions without being able to identify to the emotions. In the middle remains embodied empathy and narrative empathy, both using aspects of either end of the spectrum to create a middle ground. Together, the empathy, capacity, and appearance affect the character-player relationship and ultimately the flow.
The chapter continues on to investigate the difference in player and character identity in both role-playing and regular gaming scenarios. She applies other critics’ work, such as Paul Ricoeur, MacCallum-Stewart, and Parsler, to her own argument for character identity in the World of Warcraft. Even though these other critics work with alternative media, the use of Tronstad’s references allows her critique to be better recognized, respected and worthwhile.
One of the most interesting moments in the essay was when Tronstad explained the distance between a player and a character. She explained that distance is directly related to the type of role a player chooses to play, either role-playing or regular. She states, “In role-playing, our character is clearly separate from ourselves as a character with which we may empathically identify, whereas in nonrole-played or OCC (out-of-character) communication with other players, the function of our character is merely a tool or representing ourselves.” Looking at my own experiences in World of Warcraft, I have to agree that by playing as a OCC player, I feel a unique connection to my character and see her as an extension of myself. I care less about my appearance and instead I care more deeply for my skill level, game level and my collection and knowledge of weapons and armor. I have no need to improve my image because I am simply engaging in quests and instances where my appearance does not relate to my skill level. However, my skill capacity is crucial to my improvement. Interestingly enough, I want to extend Tronstad’s questions whether on appearance and capacity can really be separated. In my very simple and limited personal experiences surrounding Warcraft, I’ve become acutely aware of my character, or “avatars,” appearance. She is in constant transfiguration as I level up, learn new skills, professions, and gain acquirements. In turn, as my appearance as an avatar changes, my skills, and therefore capacity, as a character and as a player grow.
One point I wish Tronstad had expanded on further was on page 259 when she stated, “I believe most player representations in World of Warcraft develop into such characters [a separate identity from ourselves] during play, if they are not consciously constructed as separate identities from the start.” It is rather obvious that even the most involved players are on some level aware that their character is not physically themselves. I wish Tronstad had dug a little deeper to explain the context of her initial interest in this idea. What sparked her to believe that some character’s truly see themselves as the characters. This is purely out of my own interest in the subject; however, I believe it would benefit her overall argument if she had explored the idea of all characters eventually becoming separate from their character a little further.