More Avatars: Playing with Gender in Simulation and Narrative

by Hap Aziz

In considering the “classic” definition of the term “avatar” of vessel for God on Earth, we are immediately put into the frame of mind of a one-way relationship or control, much like a puppet-master and marionette: the one pulling the strings while the other gives expression to direction received. However, in the play environment, we find that there is a more sophisticated relationship between gamer and character. When the gamer becomes immersed in the simulation environment and the narrative unfolds, he or she sees events from the perspective of the avatar. It is as though these events exist for the avatar’s life, separate from the gamer… and as though the events would continue even without the gamer’s participation.

Steven Poole argues that gamers learn to care for their characters to the point of feeling grief at their loss. This may be driven by the fact that gamers see events through their characters’ perspective most often (Poole, 2000). This phenomenon is not limited to computer games; Gary Fine found that table-top role playing gamers became very invested in the “lives” of their characters to the point of cheating to protect the favorites (Fine, 1983).

So we see that there is a relationship that changes or affects the gamer in potentially significant ways. This becomes even more interesting when we consider the willingness of many male gamers to “try on” female forms in the games they play. Carol Clover considers this process a way to play with pronouns, so to speak, during the course of a narrative (Clover, 1992). And we do see this quite frequently: the Tomb Raider series of games features a female character, while the Virtua Fighter series is nearly half female characters — and both games are played predominantly by males.

Yet there is a disconnect between the simulation and the narrative where the willingness to swap genders ends.  In considering the original Battlestar Galactica versus the remake, we see counter-example: a large number of males who were unwilling to accept the Battlestar Galactica remake cite that the characters Starbuck and Boomer were originally males as reason for their reticence.

Gonzalo Frasca argues that “unlike traditional media, video games are not just based on representation,” and that, “even if simulations and narratives do share some common elements,” they are essentially different (pp. 221-222). This is a key distinction, and one that explains why while a boy might play as Lara Croft in Tomb Raider, he likely would not want to play with a Lara Croft doll. There is some difference, it would seem, in the way gender is considered in simulation versus narrative.

Which leads me to the question: What are the boundaries of those differences, and how might we leverage that knowledge in utilizing avatars to educate and promote awareness of gender roles in the real world?

References:

Clover, C. (1992). Men, women, and chain saws: Gender in the modern horror film. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Fine, G. (1983). Shared fantasy: Role-playing games as social worlds. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Frasca, G. (2003). “Simulation versus narrative.” In Wolf, M. & Perron, B. (Eds.), The video game theory reader (pp. 221-235). New York: Routledge.

Poole, S. (2000). Trigger happy: The inner life of video games. London: Fourth Estate.

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Filed under avatars, games, gender roles, narrative, simulation

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