Reflection and Identity in Interaction Culture

In the wee (not Wii) hours of the morning on Friday, I was preparing notes on the development and motivations of MMOG players. MMOGs, like many previous media, are a means for exploring ones own identity through experimentation with others. MMOG players enjoy a highly interactive form of anonymous, exploratory identity play in the vein of Turkle’s “performance,” Bartle’s “journey,” Caillois’ “mimicry,” and Jenkins’ “safe places.”

What makes identity exploration in MMOGs different from previous media? Like all media immersion and reflection are critical tools for identity exploration. However, in MMOGs the level of immersion and nature of reflection are quite different than the mostly passive medias of television, radio, literature, etc.

Immersion reaches a new level in games. As noted by Aphra Kerr, “Players do not passively identify with an avatar like the lead in a film, they are [emphasis added] the avatar.” In no previous media have consumers been given such opportunity to directly control what they see, do, hear, feel, etc. All outcomes are under the control of the player. In fact, the very decision to have outcomes and a story is subject to the desires of the player.

All medias serve as grounds for reflection. How often have you read a great novel and engaged in a meaningful, internal discussion of why the protagonist did what they did? How often (outside of Goosebumbs choose-your-own-adventure series) have you been given the opportunity to go back to the book and change the outcome of the novel? In games, players are given the benefit of reflection in and on action. For the benefit of those without I501 this year, here’s a brief summary of learning through reflection.

Reflection-in-action is the immediate recursive thought given towards the current action “during which we can still make a difference to the situation at hand–our thinking serves to reshape what we are doing while we are doing it.”

Reflection-on-action is the process of “thinking back on what we have done in order to discover how our knowing-in-action may have contributed to an unexpected outcome.”

Games are almost explicitly built on the principles of reflection in and on action. The heightened levels of experimentation, trial and error and surprise outcomes make games an amazing platform for identity exploration.

So, how does this relate to interaction culture? In 2002, James Newman wrote in his paper In search of the video game player: The lives of Mario that “videogame representation is indicative of an industry in its immaturity still struggling to understand itself.” Up to this point, the nature of games and MMOGs to support identity exploration has happened largely by circumstance and luck. As media converge and as a whole become more interactive and immersive, they universally suffer from the same lack of understanding about how they support exploration and representation of their users.

Does anyone have a critical language of interaction design to help us formulate a shared discussion on identity in the media of our new interaction culture?


  1. chmbrigg

    One thing to consider is the extent to which games also foster skills in “Reflection-pre-action” – or strategic (design?) thinking. I’ve wondered recently if playing WOW as a guild leader online might prepare a person to be a better strategic leader in RL.

  2. davidroyer

    Tyler, I am loving this post. Almost as much as I love Donny Schon himself.

    I agree that many aspects of games make them an ideal medium for identity exploration. I would like to add that identities are also effectively explored through other digital products. Facebook and MySpace seem like prime examples.

    One key difference is that in these mediums, their online profile/avatar is directly viewed by a large amount of their ‘real-life’ friends. I am curious how this affects their identity exploration and how it varies from MMOGs.

  3. Tyler Pace

    @Christian: IBM believes being a guild leader teachers RL management and leadership skills. They’re setting the tone and many other companies are following.

    @Dave: It’s no secret that MMOGs and social networks are merging. Some might go so far as to claim MMOGs are just social networks with 3D graphics. The foundations of the mediums are strikingly similar. For many players, virtual friends are just as important to the maintenance of their mental well being and identity as real life friends. It would be very interesting to observe differences in that regard between the two platforms.

  4. houssian

    @tyler “Some might go so far as to claim MMOGs are just social networks with 3D graphics”
    Bartle has as much as said this as well as others. Speaking of Bartle he talks about an engaging game as one that allows for a “Hero’s Journey,” Which is essentially an exploration of identity.

    “Up to this point, the nature of games and MMOGs to support identity exploration has happened largely by circumstance and luck.”

    James Paul Gee in Why Video Games are Good for your Soul talks about 3 kinds of stories in a game. The designer’s story, i.e. the story elements that are programmed into the game, and the virtual-real story, that of the blended person (avatar/player) making his own personal trajectory through the game. The third only exists in games in which the blended player gains professional skills and knowledge, and that story could be called your career.
    So where am I going with this? What I am saying is just like what Newman said (Not THAT Newman… oh I know the chunky that ate those Chunkys) exploration of identity is happening, but it’s all happenstance. It just comes about. To come full circle, we don’t have the critical language in place to talk about and design these kinds of things in virtual spaces.

  5. Tyler Pace

    @houssian: You had to bring out the Bartle, didn’t you! 🙂

    There has been a lot of venture capital activity in social network + MMOG space lately. Cuse Gaming and Conduit Labs received several million dollars each to create social networking and games spaces.

  6. thismarty

    Do any of you people play games that aren’t MMOG’s? 😉

    Casual games? Twitch games? Action? Arcade? Retrogames?

    Just curious.

  7. Tyler Pace

    Yes to all of the above!

    Bioshock and Metroid Prime 3 are my current favorite non-MMOGs. In fact, I’m on an MMOG sabbatical, unless you count the two betas I’m participating in …

  8. thismarty

    @houssain: I agree. Things like Habbo, IMVU and SL are pretty much just MMOG’s without the G. If there’s no goal, it’s not a “game”.

    @Tyler: Glad to hear there’s someone out there who can play a game that doesn’t require selecting an avatar first. 😉


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