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?