Lesson 4: Identity
C&I 675: Researching Virtual Worlds
Dr. Constance Steinkuehler
Assignment Due: Who is your avatar? What is the relationship between your avatar and your self? Use the readings to explore this relationship.
Analyzing World of Warcraft’s Notion of Identity via a Close Reading of Turkle, S. (1997). Aspects of the self; Tinysex and gender trouble. Life on the Screen: Identity in the age of the Internet (pp. 177-232). New York: Touchstone.
Writes Turkle: “…for him, a favorite MUD afforded an escape valve for anxiety and anger that felt too dangerous to exercise in real life. Julee’s role playing provided an environment for working on important personal issues.”
Ventilation and/or Therapy
This notion of video games as ventilation and/or therapy reminds me of several things at once. On the one hand I think of the intensely visceral experience I have had playing Grand Theft Auto IV as Niko Bellic (more so than the detached experience I have had playing my WoW avatar, ZZ Blackstone). And on the other, I think of the violence in video games controversy—in particular, the debate after Columbine as to whether Klebold and Harris were influenced to commit atrocities by their experiences playing Doom and Wolfenstein. Turkle’s point, written in 1995—fourteen years before GTA IV came out in 2009—remains relevant to this ongoing debate.
Niko, the Homicidal Terrorist
Niko is not the ideal, rugged handsome hero like Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Christian Bale as Batman, or Daniel Craig as James Bond 007. Rather, he’s a scumbag. More aptly, he has a scumbag-quality that plays on a video game screen as it never could in a feature film, which is a passive representation, a narrative that unfolds without any interaction from the audience. Important to note: there’s never been a GTA film adaptation despite huge sales of the franchise. Niko goes so far over the edge—in his role as avatar, controlled by us, the gamers—that he’s not even a charismatic anti-hero, he’s a homicidal terrorist.
Or, perhaps more to the point, he makes us into homicidal terrorists.
When I play as Niko, am I “working through”? Playing as Niko in GTA, more so than in any other gaming franchise—including WoW, Assassin’s Creed, or even Hitman—there’s a sometimes scary sense of crossing the line, going too far. Massacring civilians in an ultra hyper realistic New York knock off can definitely give you the creeps. But simultaneously, when that guilty pleasure is at its most raw, that’s when the game is the most impactful, the most fun. As the lead designer of Prototype, Eric Holmes, has said in interviews: players want to behave badly. If there’s a bus full of schoolchildren dangling from a cliff, in an open world action game, such as GTA IV, you better believe most gamers are going to send those kids to their bloody demise. Gamers want to behave badly and games like GTA IV serve players this experience on a macabre, morally ambiguous platter.
Case in point: driving in GTA is truly sociopathic; the gameplay mechanics cause you to smash into everything, killing pedestrians brutally and constantly. The game invites this. It’s almost impossible to drive patiently enough to avoid wreaking carnage—the game play designers expect and encourage you to drive like a maniac. That’s why it’s so easy to replace totaled cars by jacking new ones. Of course, throughout this entire murderous experience, there’s a snarky laughing up your sleeve quality to the whole thing, which perhaps alleviates what might otherwise be a dark rehearsal for a life as a narcissistically delusional mass murderer. Cops are another case in point. Players know they’re being abhorrent when they kill cops. In real life (RL), cops are intimidating. They make a room go silent. They cause us to become self-conscious and evaluate our behavior to make sure we’re acting ‘within the law.’ People have a complicated view of cops. We need them, we respect them, sometimes we like them, sometimes we hate them, sometimes we’re afraid of them. Killing cops in GTA provides a kind of visceral pleasure—we experience guilt intermixed with a sociopathic catharsis.
GTA Designers Smart-Ass Approach to Cops
Importantly, the way the GTA IV designers have written, performed, and recorded the voices of the in-game police reveals their smart-ass approach to the whole thing. GTA cops are extremely aggressive, rude, mean, and foolish—somewhere between Keystone cops, Reno 911, and real life cops caught on YouTube beating civilians. They’re rarely if ever portrayed as 3 dimensional, sympathetic, or heroic. Ironically, being chased by cops actually serves in the game as a way to keep the player in check because evading cops can become a dreary penance for acting too mischievously. The more cops you kill the higher your Star Rating becomes, making it exponentially more difficult to lose the heat. For practical game play purposes, it makes the most tactical sense to kill the least amount of cops possible so you can break free with only 2 or 3 stars. Elevating your star rating to 4-6 is purely recreational, like a survival mode, because you will almost certainly be killed or arrested, wind up back in the hospital or jail, and lose your money or weapons. The designers force you to be somewhat reasonable, (and non-bloodthirsty), if you want to progress through the game’s story. So even in the game—as in life—we are forced to follow the rules, and get in line.
Returning to this idea of “working through,” which Turkle develops in her book: is that in fact what’s happening in violent video games, like GTA IV? Am I “working through” my repressed sociopathic impulses via my identity association with Niko Bellic? Turkle points out that truly successful therapy requires a professional therapist to help you break free of your crazy cycles, of your lack of ability to see beyond the same murky mistakes you make over and over. She makes the point that ventilation is not the same as progressive psychotherapy. In this analysis, the notion that playing Niko Bellic affords the opportunity to heal or clarify issues for troubled youths is a dubious one, because people with problems need more than to exercise/exorcise their violent impulses.
This brings me back to the second part of this thought, which is whether or not Harris and Klebold were damaged by playing violent games, or nudged toward the brink. In my view, these were deeply troubled boys with dark issues of rage inside them. They were denied access to play games during the month leading up to the massacre, which presents evidence that their ventilation of violent impulses through video games had been working on some level, as if they were self-medicating. I personally do not get the impulse to shoot anyone after vicariously inhabiting the body of a psycho like Niko Bellic, and I believe the overwhelming majority of people who play violent video games share this sentiment. On the other hand, young people who have violent impulses will probably continue to be disproportionately attracted to violent video games, but perhaps this is a good thing, since the games will serve as an outlet for this aggression, rather than a primer for real world killing.