In terms of computer games, much of my interests lie in the relationships that players have with their avatars, as I am of the belief that these relationships can be of educational benefit in a number of areas including remediation and tutoring. Some time ago I observed that players are willing to learn a great deal of information so that their avatars might succeed in virtual environments, while those same players have a much more difficult time learning material for their own success in real (school) environments. So I want to focus on that player-avatar relationship, with the thought that students may have greater success in educational environments if they are responsible for the success of their chosen avatars.
While avatar-based computer game characters have been around for nearly 30 years in some form or other, research on avatars—even agreement on a precise definition of avatars upon which to base research—has really just started to develop in the past decade. One thing that I find encouraging is that more of the recent research demonstrates collaboration between the education/research community and the professional game development community. This should drive innovative thinking moving forward.
In his research, Zachary Waggoner cites an interview with Tim Schafer, a LucasArts game designer who suggests that the relationship between player and avatar change during the course of the game; in the early stages, the character “cares about” things that the player has yet to see as important, so the player needs motivation. As the game play progresses, the player will come to care about these same things, and that’s a process that Schafer terms “ego-investing” that “implies a reciprocal relationship between user and avatar” (pp. 11-12).
This notion of “ego-investing” rings true to me, and I find that it is an accurate representation of the game-playing learning curve that accompanies more complex simulation and role-playing games. Waggoner goes on to assert that the ego-investing process is related to the concept of identity and he asks the question of whether or not game-play can have an effect on the formation of a person’s identity. I would argue that the player’s identity can be impacted based on the emotional investment the player has in his or her avatar, and that is, in turn, related (at least in part) to the depth of the narrative. The significance to the simulation or role-playing game as a vehicle for the development of ego-investment is that these forms of games allow a wide variety of player choices in an equally wide variety of conditions and scenarios. Additionally, the amount of time a player spends in a sim or RPG environment is much greater than that of other game genres, and time is required in the development of the player-avatar relationship.
At this point, one of my new questions is “how deep does ego-investing go?” I hope to explore further whether or not this is a universal phenomenon or it is an artifact of a particular kind of player being thrust into a particular type of play scenario. If there are definable boundaries to this type of relationship, we can start to understand how to foster it in the pursuit of improved educational experiences.
Waggoner, Z. C. (2007). Passage to Morrowind: (Dis)locating virtual and “real” identities in video role-playing games. Ph.D. dissertation, Arizona State University, United States — Arizona. Retrieved March 29, 2009, from Dissertations & Theses: Full Text database. (Publication No. AAT 3258183).