Avatars and Character: a glimpse at acting vs. gaming

This may be a little preview of what’s to come in the extended blog post from myself and Evan. As a theatre student, what really strikes me as fascinating is the connection between gaming and acting. Our representative characters and concepts of self are strikingly similar in both occasions. The avatar is, to me, just another word for character. We assume so many roles in our daily life, I don’t see a reason why play should differ.

On a daily basis, a twenty-something year old college student could easily “play” as the student, boyfriend/girlfriend, roommate, employee, son/daughter, friend, etc. (This is often a topic of discussion in the Theatre Arts classes: i.e. “what is theatre?” It often leads to rather frustrating vague conversations about what is or isn’t art and what is or isn’t performance.) My point here, is that we are frequently taking on the traits to fit the relationship we are attempting to have. This is in its own way, a form of performance. And furthermore, how is playing a character in a game any different from any of that? Coleman may argue that an avatar walk the line between the virtual and the real (and may not be either), but I would like to state that if avatars don’t have a classification, perhaps actors playing characters don’t either. Which would be a travesty. Yes, I am biased, seeing as acting is the foolish career that I am hoping to pursue. But I admit to my biases and will continue to argue in their favor.


(aha a silly image to intrigue you!)

Back to my point. An avatar is another way to communicate, to tell a story, to play. I don’t really care if it is or isn’t real to anyone else. It might lack the presence of beings communicating in a space, but the same is true of telephones, texting, and skype. Theatre may even lack the authenticity of a true conversation generated in real time. However, as an actor, it my job and the job of my peers to feel truthfully even in imaginary circumstances. If the emotion is real, I don’t see how that makes the experience any less real in any situation. I don’t see how this is any different than getting really into a game of D&D or cosplaying. You are telling a story, you are having an experience, it is real to you even if it was imaginary. I may not be a gamer, but as an actor, I rest my case.


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6 Responses to Avatars and Character: a glimpse at acting vs. gaming

  1. evanmarshall3 says:

    Here are a couple things to think about regarding the subject of this blog post and Colman’s reading: Colman might take issue with the idea of an avatar as a “character” as we might classically think of it in acting. For Colman and perhaps even more so for others, an avatar is not so much a different persona as it is an extension of the person. Colman’s X-reality implies that what one does as an avatar one does in real life as well, but simply by a different mechanism. An avatar may perhaps have traits that a person does not exhibit in the physical world, for example, perhaps “David”, a shy middle aged white man, creates a skinny Asian girl avatar named Kimiko who interacts with others rather confidently. Now some would argue that David has chosen to become Kimiko entirely in this virtual space and perhaps David himself believes this. And such a belief has a whole range of implications good or bad depending on your perspective. But Colman I think would argue that David has not in fact become the avatar Kimiko or that Kimiko is somehow separate from David, but rather that Kimiko is simply an extension of David’s traits that we do not often get to see in the “real” world, yet in X-reality both exist.

    In acting we see this same conflict. Some acting theorists believe that the actor must become the character they play and truly believe they are the character. Other theorists, such as Sanford Meisner believe that this is impossible and that character is simply “a pair of glasses that the actor puts on”. In this way, the stage space and the real world can be seen as this same kind of X-reality. Regardless of whether or not you believe you are the character, every good actor strives for an authentic “doing” in that you are actually saying the words and are actually feeling the emotions, not simply performing them. Just as the avatars in Second Life are DOING actual things not simply performing virtual actions. What is occurring is REAL even if it is virtual. What is between both the avatars and the actors is perhaps no less authentic that what is between two people interacting face to face. In my course work this connection is often referred to as the “invisible thread”, present only between two or more actors who are truly reacting to each other in a spontaneous, unplanned way. Though the plot may be scripted, the action will never occur in the same way. From this perspective a “real” interaction can take place between people through the lens of character or the lens of avatar. But just as many do not believe that a truthful interaction can take place between avatars, not all acting theorists believe that “real” interaction is necessary or even possible between actors. Renowned playwright and theorist David Mamet is a well known detractor from this viewpoint.

    Though I believe the comparison is a valid one it is by no means perfect. David would almost certainly never be cast to play the character of Kimiko and his identity could not possibly include the socio-political experience of an Asian woman. But regardless, with acting as a point of reference, I do believe there is truth to Colman’s contention that truthful interaction can occur in a virtual setting.

  2. kjjohnson52 says:

    Not a lengthy response, but I just wanted to say I liked your post and your writing style! My blog post was similar in nature, and I think you have a really good point about acting and role-playing being similar (or even the same). Anyway, just thought this was a really good post!

  3. vhsieh11 says:

    I don’t want to be obnoxious but instead of us picking up traits to fulfill different relationships, could it be that each relationship brings out these traits in us? But of course not in all cases. There are some cases that I couldn’t agree more that we groom that relationship to how we would like it to be.

    Anyways I couldn’t agree with you more in the last paragraph of your post.

  4. cstabile says:

    Great thread. I think that both M. and E. raise some interesting points — it’s interesting to consider why there isn’t more literature from theater being applied to avatar creation and issues of performance because I think that the analogy between the two might be instructive. Could it be because of the way in which notions of authenticity still haunt game studies and that to describe interaction in terms of acting is to imply that it’s somehow artificial?

  5. coleg2013 says:

    I think that both you and Evan bring up some interesting points about the relationship between avatars and play in a theatrical sense. Particularly when it comes to avatars being extensions of the self.
    One thing that I have been thinking about with regard to avatars and online interaction is the potential relationship with the remix. Generally speaking much of our culture is produced through appropriation of existing ideas. Hip-hop functions as one of the strongest examples of expressing oneself through the re-arrangement and sampling of various sounds, beats, and whatnot to create something new. I think that avatars function in much the same way, it is a means through which people find a way to express themselves that utilizes bits and pieces that already exist elsewhere or as part of something else.
    Simply put, the avatar is something of a remix of the self, utilizing an array of pop-culture references, skins, loot, lore, etc.
    Do you feel, or have you experience character creation in similar manner? I think that the concept of the remix is ripe for application in almost every facet of modern life, and while my knowledge of theater and the theory surrounding acting is admittedly lacking, I can’t help but see parallels. Expression relies so heavily on universal references that can express ideas more efficiently than spelling an idea out. Prof. Stabile’s comments about the Ox-like avatars in WOW come to mind in this instance. These characters bring to the table certain characteristics regarding strength and masculinity that when paired with a certain sex, name, and dress can work together to somewhat accurately express or play with gender in a manner that might match the individual owners own feelings or identity rather closely. This level of accuracy with regards to self-expression would lend itself to a richer and more fulfilling interaction with the virtual world. Based on what I read of Evan’s comment, this sort of fulfillment or truth in expression would help when acting out a character.
    With regards to interaction between avatars, if the avatar is an extension of the self, or a remixed, expression of the self, there then can be genuine interaction. The avatar, as another form of the self offers an opportunity to express more efficiently aspects of the self that can easily be hidden or are difficult to fully express in RL. Evan’s comments about the potential impediments of genuine interaction between avatars/actors, at least in my eyes, would be negated by the genuine nature of the emotional impact of said interactions. Two avatars that are efficiently expressing the selves that created them or two actors that are genuinely expressing their characters have the potential to exchange and share meaningful, and impactful dialogue that would benefit or at least affect the parties involved.
    A slightly silly example might be that (spoiler alert), Santa Claus is not real. This did not change the fact that you felt joy on Christmas morning and that whoever acted as the gift giver felt the impact of said joy, and at the end of the day, real or not, Santa still got a present.

    Blog Response One

    • I love the idea of the avatar as a form of remixing, which strikes me as being a much more rich and accurate description, given its blending of the IRL and the digital. It may be that the word “techne” would be a helpful addition to our vocabulary here, since it might allow us to get at the deliberateness of remixing (techne as craft or art, like acting). While we might adapt our performances IRL unconsciously, when it comes to avatars, we can’t help but understand our avatars as intentional identities.

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