Criticism of Character Identification

From Ch. 12 of WoW Reader.

In her essay ‘Character Identification in World of Warcraft’, Ragnhild Tronstad examines the relationship between character appearance and capabilities, as well as this relationship’s effect on the player’s identification with the character and experience of gameplay. Tronstad defines the term ‘flow’ as an aesthetic experience in which the player is fully immersed in gameplay, without the conscious mind interfering. Her main focus in this chapter is to display how a flow experience is obtained through the player’s emotional attachment to the character.

Tronstad introduces the ‘continuum of empathetic experiences’ (from the writings of Margrethe Bruun Vaage) in four parts. Emotional contagion is the replication of others’ emotions without understanding. Perspective taking is detached understanding of anothers’ emotions. Embodied empathy and narrative empathy are the middle ground, composed of some degree of the two. The continuum takes this form:

<–Emotional Contagion–Embodied Empathy–Narrative Empathy–Perspective Taking–>

These experiences are vital to understanding the relationship between character, player, and flow.

The bulk of Tronstad’s chapter examines character identification in regular (standard) gameplay and role-playing gameplay. She explains that in doing the repetitive, menial tasks of regular gameplay, such as repeated killing of computer-controlled creatures, the character “turns transparent”, and the capacity (skillset) of the character greatly overcomes the appearance. Therefore, in regular gameplay, the character’s capacities are much more vital to the players identification with it, and therefore a flow experience in gameplay. On the contrary, in role-playing gameplay, the identity of the character is shifted towards appearance, as each character is expected to behave in character, and not as an external player controlling the character. However, Tronstad argues that this extends the distance between player and character, as the player must distinguish the character as an entity completely separate from oneself. Therefore, it is required that the player is completely fluent with both controls and narrative to achieve a flowing gameplay experience, which in turn places focus on the player’s capacities, rather than those of the character.

Trostad builds her argument not on excerpts of Warcraft gameplay, but on comparisons to the way we experience media, references to culture, and most notably previous academic works (the continuum for example). While this may detract from the detail of her argument, it does not discredit it, as her argument is reinforced by the work of others. This allows those with a more general experience of videogames to comment on and understand the argument she makes.

In reading this chapter, I found myself both agreeing with the author’s arguments as well as trying to remember my experience and interaction with the game. The most thought provoking aspect of the essay was the concept of flow and empathy as they relate to the game. In my experience with Warcraft, and videogames in general, a successful experience is one that is immersive, one that has flow. As Tronstad explained, an embodied empathy state can be reached in which the player feels the emotions that his/her character would, such as frustration, anger or excitement. This type of empathetic experience is the most successful playing experience for myself. While one obviously wishes to be victorious during play, I would argue (and I think Tronstad would as well) that failure is equally as important to an empathetic experience. Frustration during gameplay not only enhances the feeling of success when it is finally achieved, but also shortens the distance between player and character. The player’s shortcomings are the character’s, and vice-versa. This creates an attachment to the character that strengthens with each failure and success.

One area I think Tronstad may have overlooked is the possibility for stronger relationship in role-playing gameplay. Being casted to a particular role does initially separate the player and character. This shifts the experience towards a narrative empathy, as the setting and world play a greater role in player experience than emotional attachment. However, once the player becomes fully competent in his understanding of narrative, I think that the relationship between character and player can be stronger than it would in standard gameplay. The compliance to a certain role forces the player to take on a persona, and when one is accustomed enough to gameplay this persona becomes more reflex and less thought. When a player becomes so immersed in a role, he becomes his character, and his character becomes an expression of himself. This allows for a tighter bond between player and character than Tronstad would argue. However, overall I agreed with almost everything stated by Tronstad, and thought that her essay was successful in that it provoked thought and forced me to think more deeply on my experience with the game.

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2 Responses to Criticism of Character Identification

  1. devilzadv0k8 says:

    I wonder to what degree Tronstad attributes our “emotional attachment” to our characters to the fact that they are avatars for us. Is the frustration I feel when my character fails at something because of “emotional contagion,” or is it that I know I am the one responsible for her failure? I don’t see how “emotional contagion,” “perspective taking,” “embodied empathy” or “narrative empathy,” can exist between player and character when the character is the player’s avatar. It seems that this continuum would be more applicable to characters and beings we don’t control.

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    • plorei says:

      I would argue that the attachment is what causes a reaction on our part. I find that when I’m playing I don’t refer to my character by name or as “my character”, but as myself. While I understand that technically you can’t empathize with yourself, I think this is what Tronstad is getting after. If we are immersed to the point where we consider the character an extension of ourselves, then that would indicate a pretty strong connection between player and character.

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