Friday, June 11, 2010

Avatars. Video Games. All that Jazz.

This afternoon my professor Gideon Burton suggested that I take a look at a book called My Avatar, My Self: Identity in Video Role-Playing Games by Zach Waggoner. I took a look at Chapter 2 today, which is all about identity theory in new media.

Waggoner first differentiates between Modernist and Postmodernist theories of identity. Basically, modernists believe that there can be singular identity, or a sense of identity "continuity over time and space." Identity is integrated; it is not fragmented.


But most video game scholars are apparently Postmodernists. I've never had much patience for Postmoderists. They always seemed to me to be a bunch of scholars groaning about the absolute total lack of meaning in a horribly coreless world.... That kind of pessimism seems a bit juvenile to me, actually. But in this context, their claims are interesting and valid. One Postmodernist theorist states that "the knowing self is...NEVER finished, whole, simply there and original..." Hm. That doesn't really match up with my theories on this. But, then, lo and behold, Waggoner states that this same scholar goes on to describe "self-identity as consisting of many distinct and unique parts (division) that nevertheless share enough (merger) to be able to join together." It is absolutely crucial to the formation of identity that "these different aspects of the self" are "able to 'see' each other."

Now Back to My Thesis
Hey! Guess what! That's what I've been arguing! This is like Born Digital, a text I've used before, where Palfrey claims that the online world allows our multiplicites of identity to be easily seen by others, and therefore more easily reconcilable into one complete whole.

How do Video Games Relate?
Not all of the scholars in this book agree on what identity is, which is fairly common enough. But video games do tend to fall toward a Postmodern theory of identity. For example, avatars in a game can be recreated, or can "rise again" after they have already died once. New games can be started. Video game levels allow players to attain a sense of accomplishment while also having more possibilities of identity formation in the future. And because a video game is like a story that players can actually create rather than just consume, identity is better able to be created than just sort of assumed (I blogged more about identity creation here). All of these things add up to support a Postmodernist theory of Identity, where identity is multiple.

Back to My Thesis...Again
But, these multiple identities lead to the creation of an identity that is "capable of fluid transformations but is grounded in coherence and a moral outlook. It is multiple but integrated." Postmodernists insist that this kind of identity cannot be called "unitary" by any means. Well, if that's what they want to say, that's fine with me. "Integrated" and "coherent" are enough to support my original thesis that mutliple identities online, such as those formed in playing video games, can be all contained within something of a semblance to a singular identity.


  1. In reading this post, I really like how you have framed two perspectives that seem difficult to reconcile: a single, "unitary" identity, verses one that is scattered, fragmented, and "never finished." You describe one as not matching up with your theories, suggesting a sort of "this or that," "black and white" perspective. But as I read your well-researched musings and summaries, I really get the sense that they can and should be integrated - that the ambiguity of identity is one that involves both perspectives - the difficulty of the way we all differentiate ourselves from others, but can't always say why...

    It's kind of like the old "nature vs. nurture" argument - which is true? To some extent, probably both. And I think it must be similar with identity - the reason it is so intriguing to study is that it can be two things at once: unfinished and fragmented, and also discrete and differentiated from other identities. Perhaps another analogy could be the way light behaves - in certain circumstances, it could behave like a wave, and in others, like a particle...a seeming paradox, but also a reality as far as we can tell. And that's partly what makes it so interesting to study.

  2. This concept of the unfinished identity with multiple parts reminds me of a very brief piece by Borges that I really think you should read:
    He tries to separate Borges, the author, from his private self, but the relationship between the two aspects of his identity is complex, and ultimately, ambiguous.