Evan Marshall and Madeleine Weatherhead
As two Theatre Arts students, throughout our study of videogames and their impact on culture and identity, we have noticed several similarities between acting and gaming. There is a relationship between an actor and their character that in our research we found to be similar to the relationship between a gamer and their avatar. Stories in any medium (be it in novels, videogames, plays, films, or otherwise) share the commonality of having a storyteller and an audience. While the actor is only the storyteller, the gamer (along with the game developers) is the storyteller and the audience. Although there might be minor differences, there is a plethora of similarities in the ways the player (read as actor AND gamer) represents themselves through the simulation of character. Furthermore, we found that simulating an experience in theatre or in a game does not make that experience any less authentic to both the actor and the gamer. Real action and expression of identity can exist in virtual space. A parallel example of this principle is observable in acting and we can use acting to understand this concept.
The two of us study a specific acting technique called the Meisner technique developed by famed acting teacher and theorist Sanford Meisner. We will be using this technique as the primary reference point within the study of acting to narrow our discussion as it relates to gaming theory. As a brief explanation for those unfamiliar with the study of acting, there are several different methods that provide actors with a variety of tools to help them make the character’s situations more real to them. Perhaps a few of you have heard of “Method” actors who immerse themselves fully into the life of their character. Method actors have no separation between what is true for themselves and what is true for the character, and in doing so, the simulation of character is broken. Thus, Method actors strive to make themselves believe that they in fact are the character they portray rather than just pretending. It is the likeness between character and actor that makes their acting authentic and true. The technique is an effective one and many famous Method actors have used it to great success including Marlon Brando, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Dustin Hoffman. The problem with Method acting, at least for the two of us, is that it can be a dangerous practice. Recalling traumatic memories in order to harness their emotion for performance can be extremely harmful to the actor and many have strayed away from the Method for precisely this reason. As an example of it’s danger: famed actor Daniel Day Lewis became so immersed in the character of Hamlet, that he believed he was really seeing the ghost of his father and walked offstage mid-performance, never to return to theatre again. The Method, along with similar techniques, puts the actor at risk psychologically and at times physically. It focuses too much on the real trauma of the actor, and in doing so, in our opinion, it creates authenticity but in exchange for the wellbeing of the storyteller.
The Meisner technique, is different because it centers itself on the imaginary over the real. While Method acting shares its similarities to gaming as well, Meisner acting is better suited for our comparisons as the imaginary in crucial to believing in the circumstances of a game. When simplified, the Meisner technique can be reduced down to this one idea: an actor can live truthfully under imaginary circumstances. If an actor builds up imaginary circumstances that they can believe in and that are specific and meaningful to them, they can feel and experience real things even though the details were made up. A character, as taught to us in our Meisner classes, is just “a pair of prescription glasses,” a set of circumstances that the actor “looks” through (Schmor). The person behind the glasses, behind the videogame controller and the script, just believes in the circumstances of the world of the game or of the play. From this perspective, a “real” interaction can take place between people through the lens of character or the lens of avatar. Another key aspect to the Meisner technique is what Sanford Meisner refers to as “the reality of doing” (Meisner 16). There are options to playing a character (for whatever medium). You can do the tasks required of the character and not just perform them. Sanford Meisner, in his course, would ask his students to listen out the window for how many cars they could hear passing their building. You could perform the task as a student or as an actor, but if you were really doing the task, you are just being yourself under the circumstances (Meisner 18-19). 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 player of an avatar in a game is doing actual things not simply performing virtual actions. Though the plot of both the game and the play may be scripted, the action will never occur in the same way.
The perspective of the player shifts in response to the circumstances they are looking through.
In Huizinga’s article, Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon within Salen and Zimmerman’s The Game Design Reader, he describes play in a way that relates to both Meisner acting and gaming. He states, “[The] individual ‘plays’ another part, another being. He is another being…transported beyond himself to such an extent that he almost believes he actually is such and such a thing, without, however, wholly losing consciousness of ‘ordinary reality’. His representation is not so much a sham-reality as a realization in appearance: ‘imagination’ in the original sense of the world.” (Salen 107). The imagination of the player is crucial, as their suspension of disbelief in tandem with their faith in the imaginary creates the authentic experience they have with the story. In Meisner acting, we are taught that “the imaginary is always more convincing than the real” (Schmor). In order to believe in difficult circumstances, the actor takes a “single element of truth” from their own life. For example, if you were to play a character who loses a loved one in an accident, you create circumstances in which you can imagine the specific details involved for losing a loved one of your own. The imaginary circumstances that you would have developed are not true in any way, shape, or form. The element of truth for you is that you love someone dearly and it would be difficult to lose them. Huizinga states that “Consciousness of play being ‘only a pretend’ does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome ‘only’ feeling…The inferiority of Play is continually being offset by the corresponding superiority of it’s seriousness” (Salen 103). This snippet of text shows the parallel between playing and believing. If the imaginary circumstances are strong enough to commit yourself into the role of the character, the experiences you will have in the simulation of a play or a game are going to have real emotional responses.
While we’ve focused pretty heavily thus far on acting technique, playing a character for an actor is in many ways the same as playing an avatar in a game. Though the actor for the stage is the storyteller and the gamer is the storyteller and the audience, the interactivity of the gamer “[blurs] the distinction between author and audience” (Cover 140). R. Cover notes in his article Audience Inter/Active that interactive technologies such as those in videogames create content that is “affected, resequenced, altered, customized or re-narrated in the interactive process of audiencehood” (Cover 140). The gamer is not simply playing the game, but experiencing it and having their own unique interaction with it. A gamer, using Meisner’s terminology, is truly immersed in the reality of doing. They do not know the outcome (at least the first time), and they are not traditionally performing the game for anyone but themselves. They want to see the way in which the story unfolds, but they are really trying to accomplish their sequence of events to get to the next stage. This creates a participant in the play who is bound to have a high emotional stake in the outcome of the game. They invested their imagination into the circumstances of the game, believed in the world of the game, and therefore the simulation is broken. The reality of playing within the imaginary circumstances creates a reality in the imagination of the gamer. Their response is authentic, even if the circumstances were fake. Do you all remember the fateful day when you needed to incinerate your companion cube? The reaction you felt to the loss of the only friend you had in Portal was a real response to an imaginary event that transpired.
R.I.P. Companion Cube, a quiet friend who protected me. I betrayed you and I am sorry.
Helpful to us in our discussion is Beth Coleman’s concept of X-Reality. “X-reality, [is] an interlacing of virtual and real experiences…an end of the binary logic of virtual and real” (Coleman 20). Coleman argues that virtual networks have become so pervasive that we can no longer think of virtual action as removed from our ‘real’ lives. Our generation generally believes with varying levels of trepidation that telephones and even text messaging can function as ‘real’ forms of communication between people. But the addition of avatars into that X-reality raises some new questions. If a person is using an avatar to assume an identity different from their own for the purpose of a game like Second Life, does their communication remain authentic? Or is it rather simply performed? We would argue that performed communication can still be authentic, for “behind each flashy avatar sits a real person…practicing a mode of face to face communication where the avatars are the form of mediation” (Coleman 23). Avatars may alter a person’s sense of identity more than a phone or text, but nonetheless, the avatar can truly speak through the voice of the player. Just as the character can truly speak through the voice of the actor. The avatar cannot exist without the truth of the player and the character is not properly performed without the truth of the actor.
You may be asking yourself : but how can something be authentic if it’s performed? And if you are trying to be a different person, how can you still be you? These are valid questions, but consider that it is not a wild idea to suggest that there is little a person can express that is not a performance. Indeed, sociologist Marcel Mauss “traced the dominant Western conception of selfhood to the latin term persona, which referred to a mask. Masks originally deindividualized by reducing the wearer to an artificial role, but eventually ‘became synonymous with the true nature of the individual’” (Salen 118). Furthermore, this notion of authenticity in performance dissipates when one considers the Meisner method of portraying a character. When you are truly doing the tasks set out for you in a game or in the theatre, you are not performing. We have already discussed at length the concept of gender as performance in class, this is merely an extension of that idea. Perhaps performance is not merely an authentic form of interpersonal expression but in fact the only form of expression available to us. From this perspective a “real” interaction can take place between people through the lens of character or the lens of avatar. What is occurring is real even if it is performed. 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 our acting coursework 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, just as two or more avatars would in a virtual game space (Schmor). Through the reality of doing, the invisible thread is upheld through cyberspace by truly trying to complete the tasks and by truly paying attention to the other people involved (whether they are sprites, a level boss, another gamer, or another actor).
Tellingly, it is not only the player that affects the avatar but vice versa. As Tom Boellstorf observed in his study of the game Second Life, “[the players’] online lives could make their actual-world selves more ‘real’ in that it could become closer to what they understood to be their true selfhood…common in this regard was the view that virtual world experiences could lead to greater self confidence” (Salen 121). Clearly then, such gameplay is more than just simple performance but real action that affects the life of the player. Boellstorfs’ study abounds with examples of players who have seen the effects of their gameplay change their behavior and perception of themselves. This experience can also be observed in the world of acting. A study published in the Journal of Research in Personality found that as a result of playing a character, “the actor’s self-perceived personality profile would become more similar to the character’s during the rehearsal and production period” (Hannah 277). Now whether this perceived change in personality in both cases is representative of a real one, is debatable. But in both cases an observable change in behavior occurred and this fact alone is significant.
From our research, the discovery we have made affirms the virtual and theatrical experience as a truthful one and one relevant to the real life of the player. As Huizinga submits, play is an end in itself and requires no theory of utility to justify it’s existence: “The feeling of being ‘apart together’ in an exceptional situation, of sharing something important, of mutually withdrawing from the rest of the world and rejecting the usual norms, retains it’s magic beyond the duration of the game” (Salen 106). (The emphasis was ours.) Games are significant to us as human beings. They still contain an element of authenticity, because the effect that they have on the player is truthful. The human experience can be simulated while simultaneously not being a simulation.
Or maybe we’re wrong and Sir Ian McKellen has it all figured out.
Coleman, Beth. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2011. Print.
Cover, R. “Audience Inter/active: Interactive Media, Narrative Control and Reconceiving Audience History.” New Media & Society 8.1 (2006): 139-58. Print.
Hannah, Mo T., George Domino, Richard Hanson, and William Hannah. “Acting and Personality Change: the Measurement of Change in Self-Perceived Personality Characteristics During the Actors Character Development Process.” Journal of Research in Personality. 28.3 (1994): 277-286. Print.
Meisner, Sanford, and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage, 1987. Print.
Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman. The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2006. Print.
Schmor, John B. “Meisner Acting.” Villard, Eugene, Oregon. Lecture.