As per Andre’s recommendation I dug into Walter Ong a bit recently, specifically “The Writer’s Audience is Always a Fiction,” and I found a lot of the ideas he expresses there really apply to games. Most immediately- what other form of expression fictionalizes its audience, or forces them into a role, more than video games? None. Not opera, not poetry, not graffiti. Maybe performance art, but that varies and I’m pretty sure it doesn’t usually follow you home. A game (to some degree, usually) forces its audience into a role that the player then stays with for hours, days, sometimes months or longer. The player returns again and again to a table set for someone other than themselves— sometimes someone similar to themselves to some degree but always other— and the only way they can eat is to assume another (sometimes obscured) identity. And that’s supposed to be part of the fun. A big part in fact. Some games do this in different ways and a lot of styles of games do this to different degrees. It’s often but not always games designed to be more digestible to children and families that do the most to cast the player (please read: audience, reader) in a prescribed role. When the intro cinematic opens up on almost any Mario game lately, the player is greeted with a brief tale of what darkness has most recently rolled across the idyllic Mushroom Kingdom, and what nefarious deed the villain (usually but not ALWAYS Bowser) has committed that drives the heroes to struggle against him (I think it’s always a him) across dozens of levels and finally banish him from the land or whatever. Another recent Nintendo game called Hyrule Warriors collects a bunch of characters from the Legend of Zelda franchise and sticks them into a story along the same lines as the outline I just… outlined. This game adds the really pleasant voice of a lady narrator who updates the player on what’s happening in the story between playable missions, and I think that’s key as we (read: I) talk about fictionalizing the audience. This lady, whose voice I have to say is really well suited to telling stories, not only tells the player what events have come to pass since the last battle, but also how the characters feel. One of them must put her mission on hold, even though it is desperately important, because she has come upon a village beset by monsters. Another, we are told, is worried about her charge, the princess who has gone missing, and is crossing time and space to find her. And then, when the narration ends and the next mission begins, the player picks up control of those very characters. In this way, the game, or its way of communicating its story to the player, has cast the player in the role of the self sacrificing hero who cannot ignore a plea for help, or the devoted companion who will stop at nothing to rescue her friend. These stances are not negotiable. There is no option to not free the village or rescue the princess. These are gameplay mechanics that are a slightly different topic but also serve to irrevocably cast the player into a role through which she will digest whatever narrative or experience the game has to offer. Hyrule Warriors, from which these examples are taken, was released for the WiiU, successor to the Wii, both of which have long been held to be the family-friendly option in the gaming console market. It is worth repeating that these types of games are generally considered to be more child-friendly, which could be a function of their direct audience-role-casting narrative. These games offer sweeping tableaus and detailed maps and intricate mythologies and backstories that are made available to the player from the outset. These elements serve to further flesh out the game world and serve the function of immersing the player more deeply in that world, thereby deepening her commitment to the role she’s asked to play.
Many other games offer almost none of this, but cast the player in a role nonetheless. Many games begin in the middle of an action sequence or an empty room, with little or no explanation of who the player is supposed to be or why they’re there. Over the course of the game, the player may or may not learn more about the world or the avatar he is inhabiting, but that doesn’t eliminate the need to take on a role other than oneself. The situation of the game, whatever is happening to the player’s avatar or in the game world, is what creates the fictional role of audience, not necessarily directive narrative control. Even in an empty room with no clues the player takes on a role, if for no other reason than because the player is lounging comfortably somewhere in her home surrounded by her things, and not in fact in some desolate chamber. More than that, a game almost never (really never, but I say almost just in case) allows a player to explore the full range of option in game as he or she might in a real life scenario. For example, if I suddenly found myself locked in a blank room devoid of context and with no memory of how I arrived there, I probably wouldn’t calmly walk into each corner of the room at an even pace and search for items. And the kind of thing I would do isn’t necessarily going to be provided for by the designers coding the game. There might not be an option to “hit X to quietly freak out” or “rotate L3 to use a stern voice to trick somebody nearby into coming in here.” This is what really does the role-casting: when a player is forced, through choice, to behave like someone other than themselves in the interest of experiencing the game. And it’s something I’ve never heard anyone talk about before, and it happens in literally every game all the time, no matter what. You think sports games are exempt because they don’t tell stories? Who are you that you are controlling who is and isn’t on this team, and who plays when, and what they do? You’re either some kind of manager or coach, or the god of soccer, or SOMETHING, but the point is you’re not you. Same goes for strategy games, simulators of any kind, tower defense, even mobile phone puzzle games.
The premise that Ong is talking about in different ways throughout applies wholesale to games, as far as I know without exception. So is this something that game designers are aware of? Certainly great amounts of time and resources are (probably) dedicated to character development, and a large part of that work is usually in the player’s avatar. Some games let the player choose most of the characteristics of their avatar, and in those cases the role of the player is still strongly suggested if not dictated, but it is done environmentally or through interactions with other characters rather than learning about the player’s character. Even games like Skyrim, one of the features of which is a big world full of relative freedom of choice (including the choice to create and develop your own character) the player must assume the role of somebody cast into this wild world and forced to choose to take sides in a revolution or ignore that it’s even happening and collect flowers and animal hides instead (which is not a joke, you could actually play Skyrim like that if you wanted). It’s the same principle as the empty room with no clues. You’re now a person thrust intellectually into a situation in which you are not physically taking part and which is at least somewhat at odds with the details of your actually reality. You are not really fighting a dragon. You are not really commanding a Roman legion. You are not really piloting a 787. You’re hanging out at home, or at a friend’s place, or on the subway with a handheld console or your phone, or it would be cool if you were at one of those bars with arcade games in them. So whatever the circumstances, the game you’re playing is asking you to pretend that they’re something else, even if that game lets YOU tell IT who that someone else is going to be. But such a game still tells you a number of things, and thereby kind of subtly funnels its player into a sort of role.
To continue using Skyrim as an example, when the game informs you of the civil war between occupying (but legally reigning) Imperials and the (racist and also maybe murderous) rebel Stormcloaks, it sets the player up to make one of a few choices, not just about what to do in the game, but who he is going to be in the game world. In the game’s very first scene the player has been captured and faces execution by the Imperials, who are executing known Stormcloaks and other undesirables. Your avatar’s impending execution is fortuitously interrupted, to the disbelief of everyone, by a dragon attacking the town, bringing chaos and fire and devastation. This scene sets up the two major narrative conflicts in the game. In the province of Skyrim there is a civil war on, and an ancient prophesy is coming to pass about the return of in indomitable race of dragons and the advent of the (you guessed it) one hero who was born to defeat them. SO, what we have here, immediately, is a set of choices. In the first place, the Imperials tried to kill you, so you must decide whether to take revenge on them or not. If you do, it’s an easy choice to join the Stormcloaks faction and tear down the whole wretched establishment in retribution for their wrongdoing. On the other hand, once you escape, you could decide that the Stormcloaks aren’t such a legitimate organization after all, and you forgive the Imperials well enough that you’ll join them and crush this silly uprising and restore law and order to the region, which sorely needs it. HOWEVER, the dragon attack from the beginning of the game occurred right in the middle of this partisan squabbling, which strongly suggests that at least from the developers’ point of view, the threat posed by the dragons should supersede any squalid politic dealings between humans. The player is free to agree, and (spoilers) pursue her destiny to be the one to rid the land of dragons forever. The player could even do this while working with one of the factions. OR, the player could decide he’s not interested in the civil war, nor is he interested in singlehandedly taking on the ancient scourge of the dragons, and that he’d rather just, F off, and make potions or something. Why is the relevant? Because. Yes, the game asks you to choose how strong your character’s sword arm is, and how good he or she or it is at public speaking. But from the very outset it also asks you to choose what kind of person you want to be in this world. Are you a vengeful killing machine, a solemn keeper of laws, a legendary hero? Or are you uninterested in grandeur of any kind, and prefer quieter pursuits like magic, or murder, or getting married? Because of the nature of the game i.e. slaying dragons and casting spells in a world with almost no irreversible consequences, these questions aren’t really about who the player is as a person as much as they are who they player would like to play as in the game world. THUS with a subtle hand does this game and others like it necessitate the acceptance of a fictionalized self on the part of the player as a prerequisite to participating in the game.
The earlier question was, “to what extent are game designers aware of this?” I think they must be acutely aware of it, although they might or might not be familiar with Walter Ong. An essay in Tom Bissel’s Extra Lives talks about one iteration of the incredibly popular Call of Duty franchise wherein the player is asked, as part of a mission during which her avatar is under cover, to essentially participate in a terrorist attack (I’m gonna put a link in here but I have to find the one I want). The game offers an out, warning of disturbing material and allowing the player to skip the level if she chooses, which only underscores how deliberately the designers chose to put the player in a position that they knew would be uncomfortable if not fully reprehensible. This decision to force the player to bear witness, as a participant rather than a rescuing hero, to a scene bereft of glory or honor has had and will likely continue to have its merits and shortcomings debated for some time, and that’s not what I’m talking about here so I’m going to skip it. For now. What I mean to point out is the level of attention paid to the exact topic I’ve been scrawling about all this time: the role that the game imposes on the player. The move by this team to manipulate the player this way, so overtly, was controversial of course, but that was at least in part, in my estimation, due to the fact that this was an experiment. And a bold one at that, though perhaps misguided and maybe inhuman. Like psychopathic? Or bereft of empathy, I don’t know. But it was an experiment. Messing with the player’s role, drawing attention to it like that and switching it up, that isn’t something that happens often. Sure players can be made to use different avatars, but the player’s role remains the same. This was different, and I think part of the reason for the high energy of the backlash was that this was such a new attempt, and I believe it indicates kind of an unsophisticated understanding of this phenomenon. Not really on the part of the audience and the bloggers and the parents and congress and all that, but more on the part of the design team who waded into these waters. Though they may have bungled it a bit, they came across something pretty new, and shed light on an element of gaming that is pretty ubiquitous but I think inelegantly understood. So I think maybe that’s my point, the one I’ve been looking for for a couple thousand words now, that the fictionalization of the audience(reader/player) is something that is accepted in gaming completely, but it is only barely understood on a surface level. It’s understanding, and certainly its execution and employment, lack nuance, and perhaps this is one great untapped component of gaming that could revolutionize gameplay if it could be better understood and incorporated into the experience.