Play’s the Thing: Recess on Theatrical and Virtual Playgrounds (Extended Blog Post)

Play. Just that one word can communicate so much. The first image that comes to mind for me personally is that of children playing with each other outside on a sunny day without any other care in the world.

I’m sure we would all agree that this behavior is just fine for kids, but what if all anyone ever did was play? Applied to fully developed adults, the word takes on the connotation of frivolity – a waste of time. So often, this association between irrelevance and play diminishes the importance of everything associated with the word. But do we ever really stop playing? Should we? The two biggest examples of playing for me relate to playing on the stage and playing an online video game. Though from opposite ends of the historical spectrum, both harken back to our desire to play, perform, and to be present with each other, just like outside at recess.

Coming from a theater background, I can’t help but see playing online video games through the lens of performance. In his book Exodus to the Virtual World, Edward Castronova, a Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington, notes how “everything we’ve learned about games and online environments says that people have an almost irrepressible desire to construct little models of people and places and display them as an extension of their own being” (Castronova 51). To me, that’s performance, and that’s play. I think we recognize, from an early age that most of our relationships, to each other and the world, are constructs. Since they exist only because we allow them to, we have no problem constructing new environments and new expressions of ourselves to inhabit them, and in fact, I think we need to. However, since these new models are smaller-scale, and generated by individuals instead of a societal consensus, we call these smaller worlds “play.”

When we’re kids, we’re allowed to fully engage with this world-creating desire that we have, but as we get older, the realms of expression get tighter and more specified. In order to fulfill that need that we think goes away when we “grow up,” many turn to video games. Some turn to theatre.


While there are other places people can turn to, they are limited. I think that these two seemingly distant fields are two of the most open and fulfilling outlets for our incessant need to play and perform. In Digital Performance, academic and actor Steve Dixon explains how “interactive works encourage a playful, childlike fascination for the pleasure of cause and effect, where a simple hand movement or facial grimace causes a domino effect, a ripple through time and space that directly affects and transforms something outside of oneself” (Dixon 598). Our drive to affect the world around us sometimes gets muddied by the restrictions we’ve all “agreed” on, and so we seek out other worlds that we can impact the way that we choose to.

Before I get into the details about the relationships between the theater and video games, it’s important to note their shared vocabulary. While of course there are differences, a seminal link between the two worlds lies in the language. Dixon explains how “theater terminology was freely adopted by game designers, including ‘setting,’ ‘player,’ and ‘character’; …while other emergent acronyms such as IC (in character) and OOC (out of character) were drawn directly from acting and theater practice” (Dixon 601). While this seems like an obvious point to make, marking these linguistic parallels will help in discerning the close ties and sharp deviations between playing onstage and online.

When you boil down theater to its most basic parts, you get a performer and an spectator. Both online video games and theater ask us, as players and observers, to believe fully in the reality of some other world that exists only because we have agreed that it does. Both accomplish this similarly by pushing us to forget the larger world we have agreed exists by drawing us in together. The famous Russian acting theorist, Constantin Stanislavski, explains in his book, An Actor Prepares, how “in order to get away from the auditorium you must be interested in something on the stage” (Stanislavski 70). While, indeed, concentrating on “something” on the stage, or on your computer screen, does help to forget either the auditorium or your bedroom, I would argue that more specifically, full envelopment comes from an interest in the other people in the same space as you.

In a theatre, the most effective actors keep their attention on the other actors onstage. The audience’s attention is on the actors inhabiting another world but in a shared space. Though a video game does not place the actor and spectator in the same room, Dixon argues that “video games are not live in terms of their technological ontology, but they operate responsively in real time and certainly appear live from the perspective of the player-character, arguably far more so than plays or films, since they demand rapt attention and lighting responses” (Dixon 620). While a large debate about the differences between “live” and “mediatized” performance raises interesting questions, the key link between the two mediums lies in their ability to allow us to collectively inhabit new world where we can continue to play throughout our lives.

While online gaming and stage performance offer similar outlets for our need to play, key differences involving the nature of the player herself complicate a clear comparison between the two. Some, like Castronova, believe that:

If we let the horizon stretch out far enough, artificial intelligence agents – robots that control the nonplayer characters in the video game world – will become excellent actors. Sure, they are completely cheesy right now, but soon we can expect acting at a community-theater level…and finally good enough to be cast in the glorious dramatic narrative that your own playing with always be… (Castronova 46)

However, this notion completely ignores the important quality in acting that nearly all theater practitioners have staked their careers on, that the actor must act honestly and be truly present. How could a computer program contain such a complex set of thoughts and emotions that its behavior could truly imitate the experience of interacting with another human being? While graphic quality may improve to the point of indeterminacy from reality, and programmers may enter more and more responses to various inputs, robots can never replace the shared human experience that allows us to create worlds together.

Sorry Data…

Although robots may not fill that role, other humans putting on new costumes in a virtual environment may just fit the bill. Arguing against Castronova’s assumptive trajectory for digital performance, Nick Montfort, an associate professor of digital media at MIT, differentiates between the actor and the “interactor” who plays a video game. He argues that “the interactor actually is not playing a character in any usual way. That is, it is not at all useful to consider that the player character is played by the interactor in any literal, typical sense of play: not in the dramatic sense, not in the gaming sense” (Montfort 139). He explains how in a game like Monopoly we think about playing the game and not playing as the little metal piece.

I really feel like I WAS the thimble!

When applied to video games, the person has little control of what the player character does, and so operates within the constraints of the character that the game designers have decided. Instead of merging ourselves and experiences with a pre-written script to produce a living character, Montfort claims that “The interactor does little more than steer and sense. The author, not the player, is the one who decides when the player character will cry” (Montfort 141). But doesn’t this somewhat apply to theater as well? Like a game with a preplanned course of events, an actor on stage cannot deviate from the words and actions dictated by the script. However, it is true that a video game does not require you as a player to become emotionally invested like on stage, in that Montfort is correct. However, while not a requirement, a digital stage does maintain the potential for much of the same investment that allows us to play in our created worlds in a theater.

The acclaimed actor and acting teacher/theorist, Sanford Meisner, developed an acting technique rooted in real action. As he put it, “the foundation of acting is the reality of doing” (Meisner 16). This necessitates a synthesis between what is really happening for the human being in the space and the role they are playing. Instead of simply pretending to “do” the instructions of a script, the actor must really do them, allowing him to fully inhabit the character and the world. As the gamer, this would mean “doing” the actions that your “player character” performs. The obvious limitation here lies in the game player’s inability to actually “do” many physical things required for the in-game character. In her study of the use of digitally created personas, or avatars, Beth Coleman an Assistant Professor of Writing and New Media at MIT proposes that “the primary purpose of using an avatar is to conjure presence. They mark our sense of being there together when we are physically apart” (Coleman 117). This notion allows the possibility of Meisner’s real action even when not physically present. If we reorient our understanding of “doing” to interpret moving, speaking, and listening as clicking, typing, and reading, then we can begin to understand how applicable acting techniques like this become in terms of how online games allow for total envelopment and play.

Such a work out.

It is important to distinguish between a predominantly narrative or mission style video game, where a player may not become as emotionally invested in the world, and a more socially constructed environment. Montfort’s ideas about simply steering the character applies much more readily to a single-player game where the protagonist is clearly defined and controlled by the game dynamics. Instead he suggests that “creating a good player character within an interactive fiction world involves putting this character in a situation that is motivating for the interactor – but not giving the interactor an actual dramatic script or a role to play” (Montfort 140). In the case of social online games like massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs), the ability to share the fabricated space with other humans and observe their behavior operates more like what Montfort describes, but in so doing, departs from a commonly held requirement of theater – the script.

We don’t need this…

While continuing to play within the confines of the game’s code, open form games like World of Warcraft or EverQuest allow each player an amount of agency as opposed to following a pre-planned plot. The difference between a narrative game and an open, social game is much like the difference between a scripted play, and one that allows for improvisation. Keith Johnstone, a noted acting instructor concentrating on improv, expresses how “in a normal education, everything is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it” (Johnstone 15). His methods allow for a complete openness to what is happening in the moment – always saying “yes” and accepting what you are given in a scenario. This is much like a video game. Though you are rarely given the chance to say no in a game, most players would say yes regardless, because if they did not, why play? Whether finding reality in the freedom to write your own story as we socially play or by recognizing our co-presence with others inside a virtual or created environment, our ability to fully inhabit these worlds rests on our agreement to construct new playgrounds together.

As I touched on briefly earlier, the audience represents a major aspect of theater and performance. It’s easier to compare the playing of an actor and of a gamer when limited to just the stage – thinking only about what that the actors do. However, the audience plays an essential role by imbuing the performance with the vitality of immediate contiguity. Canadian dramatist Roy Mitchell, in his book on Creative Theatre, that “the audience shares a play in its making. The theatre lives in its moment of consumption. It has no life before or after…It is never a living thing until it is shared” (Mitchell 5). Again, the idea of the shared exchange between us, whether that be between two actors, an actor and an audience, or a gamer interacting with another gamer through avatars, underlines the importance of community to the existence of theatrical and digital worlds. Castronova notes that “the big difference here is not that people feel very immersed, it is that they feel immersed together” (Castronova 36). Instead of simply existing in an imaginary land by yourself, the presence of other human beings validating that experience by interacting with you affirms space in the same way socialization affirms our “real” world every day. The other actors on stage and the spectators watching from their seats all reinforce the actor’s presence in this reality.

But how does audience play into an online video game? In a game, the player is both the actor and the audience. As Dixon states, “the audience is the participant, the participant is the player, the player is the character” (Dixon 601). Because the avatar representing the player exists separately – visible to the player as he navigates the space – the character is constantly a subject of observation, as well as action. In her study of cyber sociality, Lori Kendall claims that “people participating in online communication usually have less information available about the composition of their audience than people in face-to-face interactions have” (Kendall 126). This may be true from a social perspective if the “audience” members are understood to be the other people online. However, in the context of a game, the other players behave more like the other actors in a play, meaning that the only real spectator of the gamer’s performance is also the player herself. Thus, the gamer utilizes “online communication” to act out her part with the other players, but actually has an infinitely better understanding of herself as an audience than actors performing to a hall of faceless silhouettes.

From the moment we let ourselves believe that we are too old to play like children, we instantly find other ways of playing – more adult, appropriate, and contained. We try to say that it’s for the sake of art, or to blow off steam from work, or that it’s not play at all, and should be considered hard work. I think it should be considered hard work, but that doesn’t mean we are not playing. When we call everything outside of our “mutually” understood world “frivolous,” and try so hard to hide our need to interact with each other and perceive our world on our own terms, I think it’s time we fixed something. Maybe it’s okay to ring the bell every once in a while and go out to recess.


Boellstorff, Tom. Coming of Age in Second Life: An Anthropologist Explores the Virtually Human. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008. Print.

Castronova, Edward. Exodus to the Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

Coleman, Beth. Hello Avatar: Rise of the Networked Generation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011. Print.

Dixon, Steve, and Barry Smith. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2007. Print.

Downes, Daniel M. Interactive Realism: The Poetics of Cyberspace. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005. Print.

Johnstone, Keith. Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre. New York: Theatre Arts Book, 1979. Print.

Kendall, Lori. Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002. Print.

Meisner, Sanford, and Dennis Longwell. Sanford Meisner on Acting. New York: Vintage Books, 1987. Print.

Mitchell, Roy. Creative Theatre. New York: John Day Company, 1929. Print.

Montfort, Nick, Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Pat Harrigan. Second Person: Role-playing and Story in Games and Playable Media. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2010. Print.

Nardi, Bonnie A. My Life As a Night Elf Priest: An Anthropological Account of World of Warcraft. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2010. Print.

Stanislavski, Constantin. An Actor Prepares. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1979. Print.

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Extended Blog – Teaching Ecological Concepts Through Video Games

As ever more younger generations begin to immerse themselves (if they haven’t already) in the virtual world of video games, it comes as no surprise then that various educational institutions are now attempting to incorporate video games into their curriculum.  Already, numerous games have been developed that teach a wide range of subjects, from art to science, aimed at various age groups or education levels.  This alternative mode of education, also referred to as “edugaming,” provides an engaging and interactive learning environment that not only encourages active participation, but also adds a dose of entertainment that sustains student interest.  Edugaming allows players to learn at their own pace (unlike lectures) and the “multiple visual and auditory modes … capitalize on different learning styles.” (Mayo 2009)  These games often provide information in fixed quantities, allowing the player to master the basics of a subject before delving into its complexities.  Edugaming also can reinforce information learned through lectures or through the games themselves by providing continuous and immediate feedback.  Every button tap or mouse click yields responses in the game and a steady stream of rewards is offered for even the smallest success.

Among the subjects that are being taught through video games are STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) courses.  These fields of study are becoming increasingly digitized and networked over the recent years and will no doubt continue to do so.  The incorporation of video games into STEM education will enable students to become more technology-savvy and prevent them from falling significantly behind in these subjects (as they are amongst the academic disciplines critical for success in the 21st century) (Education 2010).  These games focus primarily on teaching elementary- to college-level students problem solving, analytical thinking, multitasking, and strategizing skills.  Although these video games are still in their “embryonic stages” with respect to thorough integration into educational curriculums, a lot of organizations are still going on ahead and developing these STEM-related games.  For example, NASA recently released a free online video game, Moonbase Alpha, where users can play the role of an exploration group that works in a futuristic 3-D lunar environment.  A multitude of other video games aimed at STEM education have been developed by small and large organizations alike.  Even a multi-year competition, The National STEM Video Game Challenge, has been created to motivate interest in STEM-learning by encouraging students to submit their own STEM game designs.

Having introduced you to STEM edugaming, what we would like to highlight now are those video games and simulations aimed at teaching students the scientific concept of ecology.  Ecology, briefly, is a branch of science concerned with the interrelationship of organisms and their environments (Merriam Webster).  Video games that serve as educational mediums for ecology focus on various levels of it, including populations, communities, and ecosystems.  Within these levels of ecology, these games may concentrate on a particular facet or combinations of these, such as niches, biodiversity, sustainability, and restoration.  Game to game, players may discover varying degrees of complexity with respect to game play, and many introduce a large degree of realism through graphics or mechanics.  While some games are not entirely successful in portraying an ecological concept properly, many do manage to nail down the basics. Even games entirely not intended for teaching these STEM concepts may possess them nonetheless, contributing to the basic understanding of ecology by the average player.

To elaborate on this type of edugaming, we’ll explain how various video games teach specific ecological concepts …

An ecological niche is the ecological role of an organism in a community, especially in regard to its food consumption.  It essentially describes how populations affect and are affected by resources and predator/prey quantities.  In many video games, the role of an avatar is also largely determined by the surrounding environment and its associated conditions.  In turn, these conditions can be altered by that individual.  In Spore, the organism you create can initially become a carnivore or an herbivore, and eventually an omnivore.  As a carnivore, a player may hunt other organisms or scavenge, or eliminate other groups of organisms to the point of extinction.  As an herbivore, the player may only consume fruit, but can either ally other herbivorous or omnivorous organism or eliminate them as a defensive measure.  Although not authentic with respect to organism interaction, the player is still given a role that cannot be changed once given.  The player may choose what role to start off with in the “creature stage”, but they must play that role throughout the game (as they are not given the option to change between herbivorous, carnivorous, or omnivorous organism).

WolfQuest does a better job of highlighting the niche of the player’s avatar, as opposed to the game Spore.  Developed by the Minnesota Zoo and game developer company Eduweb, the free 3D simulation video game is aimed at helping players understand wolves and the roles they play in the environment.  It does this by allowing players to take on the life of a wolf and to play out its role in a virtual Yellowstone National Park.  Players must hunt/scavenge elk and hares, avoid grizzlies and other wolves, form a pack by finding a mate, finding a den, and raising pups.  WolfQuest also offers an online forum where players may ask questions for wolf experts, post tips & strategies, share artwork & stories, etc.  It is a game that tries to include as much realism as possible through graphics and content (i.e. geography, behavior, and weather), given its highly limited funding.  It teaches players the importance of predator-prey interactions, life-death experiences, and diverse wolf behaviors through simple interactions that are surprising interactive yet relatively easy to grasp an understanding of.

Biodiversity and species extinctions are yet another set of concepts that is sometimes taught through ecological STEM games.  Biodiversity is the biological diversity in an environment as indicated by numbers of different species of plants and animals.  (Merriam Webster)  This ties in with species extinctions, as a large number of species extinctions lowers the overall biodiversity of an environment.  This set of ecological concepts is often reflected in video games through the variety of organisms seen an area, providing a sense of authenticity to the player.  Video games unrelated to STEM education often utilizes biodiversity without even realizing it, providing an ever-changing game environment to make the player feel as if it’s they’re in the real world (or an alien one).  For example, in Spore, the player runs into numerous other organism of every shape and size possible.  This is further expanded by connecting the game online, enabling other players’ creations to appear in the player’s game and expanding the biodiversity of the game environment.  Because the player can continually create new organisms on new planets, there’s a high probability that past creations can appear in another run through of the game.  The player may also choose to eliminate other groups of organisms during game play, thereby lowering the biodiversity in surrounding area.  This makes the environment of Spore ever-changing and exciting.

Another video game, Eco Detective 2, was developed by Canada’s Ministry for Agriculture and Agri-Foods in order to teach players about species at risk in Ontario’s Carolinian Forest.  Specifically, it elaborates on species diversity, threats to habitat, invasive species, and extinctions.  The goal of the game is to discover why certain species within Carolinian Forest are disappearing, which is accomplished by interviewing various species that are at risk of extinction.  Although a relatively short game (at 30 min.), it encourages players to use analytical and deductive skills to determine the cause behind particular species extinctions.   Unfortunately, the game has been taken down recently, but a host of related games have popped up across the Internet.

The tragedy of the commons is a fairly simple concept to grasp.  Essentially, it is an economic theory that states that independent action by individuals working in their own self-interest will result in a depletion of resources, despite knowledge that this is contrary to the common good.  This is a fairly terrifying prospect in reality.  It can result in a depletion of natural resources, from oil to food to water.  It is not, however, a worrying prospect in the vast majority of video games.  Video games, on the whole, tend to have an unlimited amount of resources (Chang 2011).  Games like Spore have an unlimited amount of resources for the player to use.  Then there is no way of a lack of resources to become a confounding factor in the game play.  This simplifies the game to a great degree, but betrays the very core of video games somewhat.  Video games are all about coming up with creative and efficient solutions to the problems that face the player.  By stripping away a variable (and an important one at that) the players are robbed of an opportunity to see how creative they can be.  Games like Mass Effect 2 have mining and resource hunting as an important part of their game play, but there is no consequence of robbing a planet of all of its resources.  The resources are used for currency, to purchase upgrades, armor and weapons, but the amount is almost unlimited, making it quite easy to get all the upgrades the player will ever need.  Resource management is therefore completely unnecessary.

These games, obviously, do nothing to teach people about resource management.  If a billion cows can be farmed with no consequences, why wouldn’t the player farm a billion cows?  There are games that have turned this idea on its head, and made the very purpose of the game recourse management. Minecraft, for example, is an unbelievable educational tool in this way. There is almost no limit as to what can be built, and the number of mods (modifications) that can be used is unbelievable (Short 2012).  Instead of allowing for an unlimited amount of resources to be had, Minecraft has a set amount of each individual block in the world.  The world is massive and there are a plethora of biomes, ranging from desert to swampland to taiga, so it would be hard to run out, but it is certainly possible (Short 2012).  Trees and wood are some of the rarest resources in the game, and if they are not carefully managed, can be used until the supply is exhausted.  This would be disastrous, as every tool in the game has some component that is made of wood. Playing solo it would take quite some time to destroy all the trees on a map, but it is very easy to do so in a small area.  Anybody who has played the game can attest to the frustration of having to run halfway across the map to find some wood so a pickaxe can be made.  In a multiplayer server, Harding’s principles become even clearer.  The resources in the world must be shared and partitioned if the players are to work together and advance together.  Running around and using up all the wood and diamond will quickly result in a loss of these resources.

Video games are often about destruction; tearing something down, killing the animals, mining away so a house can be built.  Even The Oregon Trail, a staple of educational video games played by children everywhere, was used more as a way to hunt animals than as an educational tool.  There are exceptions to the rule, however, especially in educational gaming.  For example, an educational game called Build-A-Prairie was designed to teach people about restoration principles in a devastated prairie habitat.  The game is simple.  A player chooses which type of prairie they would like to restore, the types of plants that they are going to use to restore it, and the types of animals that they think should populate it.  Some plants and animals are more desirable than others, and clicking on a species will inform the player of its importance in the ecosystem.

There is a problem with Build-A-Prairie, one that plagues many educational games.  It is absolutely, completely, stunningly boring to play.  Initially, each species will be investigated, but it soon becomes apparent that there is no penalty for guessing an incorrect species, and the game devolves into selecting species as quickly as possible.  This is only one such problem that plagues educational games.  They are often cheaply made from funding by grants, which will not pay for things such as marketing and distribution.  These games are then relegated to only the Web site or shelf of whoever makes it (Mayo 2009).  Larger games, such as Minecraft, Flower, and Spore are much more widely distributed, but typically have problems of their own.

Spore is an ingenious game where a player is essentially given control of the evolution of an aquatic microorganism from space, and oversees its development as it grows into a human-like species with society and culture (Bohannon 2010).  It is a fun game that does have some grounding in scientific fact.  There are theories that the first ever microorganisms on earth came from space (though they are not widely accepted), and it helps convey the underlying theory of evolution (Bohannon 2010).  Unfortunately, it varies significantly from fact in many instances.  The microorganism that the player controls can be chosen to be either a carnivore or an herbivore, which is a nonsensical idea when it comes to early life on Earth, where cells would have been chemosynthetic or photosynthetic (Bohannon 2010).  Evolution also takes place on a direct path, allowing for no deviation by the player.  The organism must evolve onto land (Bohannon 2010).  There is no mutation or variation between species, no natural selection, no hosts or parasites, the list goes on and on (Bohannon 2010).  Spore’s main goal is to be entertaining as well as informative, and it has to make sacrifices on the information side to allow it to be entertaining.  Not much would be more boring that playing as a photosynthetic cell, regardless of how informative the game is.

Educational gaming is going to be an enormous tool for education once the games can be made well and be captivating, but there are some pitfalls to take into account.  Spore’s habit sacrificing information to be fun is one.  It would be nearly impossible to account for every single thing that is involved in the evolution of a species, but there can be more room for direction of evolution than what Spore provides, and significantly more room for fact.  In dumbing down the process of evolution, Spore missed an important milestone that could have shown game companies how well true educational games could sell.  Other issues that plague the games industry as a whole include what Richard Louv termed “nature-deficit disorder” (Chang 2011).  There is concern that children are already tied enough to games and technology, and having educational games is just one more reason that they would have to stop going outside and interacting in the real world.  This may or may not be a legitimate concern.  Ideally, educational games could replace the non-educational games in a child’s life, instead of adding to them.

Educational videogames are an important and under-utilized tool.  Done properly, educational video games can be captivating, fun, and informative.  Humans tend to play a lot harder than we work, and there is no reason that the time we spend playing cannot also be time spent learning.  Clearly videogames can help to teach ecological concepts, and have been used to do so.  Minecraft can be used to instruct about the tragedy of the commons, Spore teaches evolution, WolfQuest biological niches, and Build-A-Prairie shows concepts of ecological restoration.  These games are not always scientifically correct, or always fun, but they are a step in the right direction.  Once these games can become fun as well as informative, and don’t need to sacrifice information for fun, they will become a staple of education.

Ashley Nelson
RJ Howey


“2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge.” 2013. Accessed March 18.

Bohannon, John, T. Ryan Gregory, Niles Eldredge, and William Sims Bainbridge. “Spore: Assessment of the Science in an Evolution-Oriented Game.” In Online Worlds: Convergence of the Real and the Virtual, edited by William Sims Bainbridge, 71–85. Human-Computer Interaction Series. Springer London, 2010.

Chang, Alenda Y. “Games as Environmental Texts.” Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences 19, no. 2 (2011): 57–84.

Chang, Alenda Y. “Playing the Environment: Games as Virtual Ecologies” (December 12, 2009).

Education, Committee on Science Learning: Computer Games, Simulations, and, and National Research Council. Learning Science Through Computer Games and Simulations. National Academies Press, 2010.

Mayo, Merrilea J. “Video Games: A Route to Large-Scale STEM Education?” Science 323, no. 5910 (1–2, 2009): 79–82. doi:10.1126/science.1166900.

“Serious Games | Moonbase Alpha | NASA STEM Learning | Virtual Heroes.” 2013. Accessed March 18.

Short, Daniel. “Teaching Scientific Concepts Using a Virtual World – Minecraft.” Teaching Science: The Journal of the Australian Science Teachers Association 58, no. 3 (September 2012): 55–58.

“Wolfquest.” District Administration 46, no. 8 (September 2010): 85–85.

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Actor, Gamer, Character, Avatar: The Similarities Between Acting and Gaming

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.

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FBP—Exploration: Competition and Hegemonic Masculinity on Wall St.

dogs-playing-poker-arrestedIn Sept. 1998 [1], Arthur Levitt, then chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, called for a cultural change on Wall Street in response to risky business behavior he observed in the practice of earnings management. Continue reading

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Middle and High School and the Beasts that Inhabit those Ecosystems (Blog Post 4)

First off, I know that this post is late, but after several days of intense effort culminating in the replacement of my computer’s hard drive I have got the machine to work, and I never want it to scare me like that again.  Also, I know that the class in which this topic was discussed has passed; I wanted to wait to see how I felt about the rest of the material before I decided what I would write about.

Have you ever had an experience where you were required to go somewhere you really did not want to go, and when you got there you realized that no one else was comfortable there either.  The sort of discomfort that feeds off of itself until all interactions are tainted by it and it is just shy of impossible to find enjoyment?  The answer is yes (assuming you grew up somewhere where the school district split grades six through eight into their own brutal hell-scape called middle school).  I know that Pascoe article focuses on high school and I will not dispute the fact that much of the abusive and aggressive interactions that were discussed both in class and in the article takes place in high school, I will admit to seeing these sort of behaviors acted out in high school, but in my personal experience (which I know does not mean it is a universal fact) much of the activity discussed was more intense in middle school.  One of the most interesting aspects of both the reading and the class discussion on the topic was that it was so clinical.  The individuals involved were treated as subjects that are observed enacting their baser instincts not fully aware of the implications and meanings of their words and interactions.  Having said this in a rather harsh way, I totally agree with it.  Simply put, the individuals and groups in question know on a basic level what the word ‘faggot’ means with regards to the denotation and some connotation.  I think that Pascoe touches on this when she describes how some students use the word and how for many it is simply the worst insult available (they may not know everything about it, but they know it’s a strike against someone’s hetero-normative masculinity and it can hurt much more than other words).  The interactions described in Pascoe’s article and those that live in my memory play themselves out much like the interactions between young animals at play, subtly (and less subtly at times) establishing the pecking order.  The first part of this video detailing how young hyenas will kill each other to advance their status in the pack is eerily similar to the social competition in middle and high school.

On a certain level I have a hard time judging adolescents for their abusive behavior towards one another (I still find it abhorrent).  They are mentally and socially underdeveloped and are lacking in both sympathy and empathy, and are generally not exposed to modern notions surrounding gender and its nuances let alone other such ideas surrounding non hetero-normative sexualities.  To be fair, I feel that the subject of gender and sexuality is moving forward so quickly that the second anyone leaves the university setting they begin to fall behind in their understanding.

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FYI—if you’re not familiar with the “Dickwolves” debacle, here’s a timeline that helped me understand the scope of the “event.”

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Object Woman{}: Reflections on Scratch

I’ve been reflecting on Amanda Lange’s blogpost titled, “Why Can’t We Make Another Shadow of the Colossus?” and our use of Scratch this week. In her post, Lange refers to missteps in games wherein the design elements fail to reach the standard of excellence set by the famous PS2 game, Shadow of the Colossus (SotC). This week, maybe we experienced some of the difficulties designers face in making games from scratch (see what I did there?) that are contributing factors to her perceived problem in the videogame industry. I’ve noticed in my study of film and television, though, that the same kind of problem persists amongst directors who have hit-n-miss titles. Studios aren’t necessarily any better at consistently publishing “good” films either.

Aside: By “good” I am referring to stories that are universally revered, and they are not driven by sexist/racist/homophobic content— I’m thinking of movies like Star Wars (1977-1980), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), E.T: The Extra Terrestrial (1982), Seven Samurai (1954), Toy Story (1995), Forest Gump (1994), Bicycle Thieves (1948). Can we say there are many videogames that are credited similarly?
Which games would you put on your list?

It seems that most everyone can recognize good art; few understand why art is good. It’s why the last 3 Star Wars films were so disappointing to many fans of the series; George Lucas didn’t demonstrate that he understand why his first three films were so celebrated when he revisited the project. I refer to this failing in my everyday life as “The Lucas Syndrome,” the inability to recognize why a story resonates with mass audiences.

Lange points out that some videogame designers seem to suffer from a similar ailment (although she provides no terminology for it). The difference between a film and a game, though, is obviously the agency of designers to mitigate what some players consider as missteps in game design. When game aesthetics are not responsive or dynamic, gameplay can suffer. I was thinking that maybe there’s a catchy name I can come up for this ailment, but then I realized that I was just talking about laziness.

Lange shouldn’t feel like the experiencing a game’s open world can only be designed one way. Why not give players the option to define how the game interacts with them? Obviously not all non-dynamic games are inherently “bad,” but that function does present an opportunity for designers to unnecessarily gender a player’s gameplay, something our class has talked about as problematic. Let’s assume—as a thought experiment—though, that not all programmers are lazy, gender policing fucknecks. Are their other obstacles in the way?

When I decided to make a game with Scratch, I initially found it difficult to augment the game with dynamic controls or options. This speaks to, perhaps, the problematic nature of binary programing—something inherent within computer science. Nathan Ensmenger wrote a few years ago about the ways in which different programming languages embodied different social, organizational, and professional agendas in the earlier days of computer programming.

Some of this was a reflection of  particular problem domains — FORTRAN was obviously designed for scientific applications, and COBOL for business use.  But more significantly, many languages were intended to discipline what was seen as a unreliable and recalcitrant labor force. 
(emphasis added)

I wonder if that still applies to computer languages used today?

What about other fields within science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (S.T.E.M.)?I found this really great interview that a software company conducted with one of its female interns on her experience as a woman in the field. A representative of the company asked her, “Is there anything you’d recommend we do in our recruiting process to attract more women?”

As someone who was always encouraged by her father to go into engineering or computer science (but obviously never did), part of her answer resonated with me:

 I went to a talk at Johns Hopkins, hosted by our Women in CS group, by Hanna Wallach on gender imbalance among FLOSS developers. And she said that one of the things that happens is that women don’t even think they’re qualified for something because it’s advertised in competitive language. The language of competition not only doesn’t appeal to many women, it actually puts them off. Google advertises their Summer of Code with very competitive language. In 2006, GNOME received almost two hundred GSoC applicants – all male. When GNOME advertised an identical program for women, but emphasizing the opportunities for mentorship and learning, they received over a hundred highly qualified female applicants for the three spots they were able to fund. Honestly, when you hear the phrase “the world’s best developers,” you see a guy. And, for women, that can be alienating.

I think, though, that I’m going to look to Grace Harper for some amount of inspiration in making strides in my coding education. I mean, she didn’t know what she was doing when she got started with this business, either.

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Blog Post Response 2

To be honest, I had no idea what to expect with Scratch.  All I knew was that there was this thing we were supposed to download, and there was a cat on it.  I downloaded it, opened it, and was immediately baffled.  I couldn’t get the stupid cat to do anything.  It wouldn’t move with arrow keys, WASD, the mouse, nothing.  Not only would it not move when I thought I was telling it to move, but for some reason the geniuses who designed the stupid game had put the cat in a little tiny white box in the upper right hand corner, and there was just a bunch of grey space taking up the rest of the screen.  Clicking in the grey space did nothing, and clicking on the colorful boxes in the upper left corner also did nothing.  So I closed my computer, deciding that the game was stupid and I didn’t like it.

I was mildly surprised in class the next day to discover that Scratch wasn’t actually a game.  It’s a program that a person can use to make games.  Making a videogame, and programming in general, has never interested me very much.  Computers can be intimidating, and when things get technical, I typically feel like I am treading in foreign waters while software sharks swim around me waiting for any sort of mistake to be made. Fortunately for me, though, Scratch’s programming was graphical in nature, making things easier for somebody like me.  By using this software, almost any game could be made by anybody.  Minecraft, for example, was found online, which is just mind blowing. I was having trouble making a simple maze for Jetpack Girl, one of the sprites, but somebody was able to make Minecraft.

It was good for me to try to puzzle out how best to make a game.  I had never really thought about the amount of work that goes into making a videogame, from art and textures, to the background, to the physics of the game itself.  Sort of like how a person who lives in a house doesn’t think about how the house was built, who built it, or all the little things that had to be done to make it habitable. Scratch made me think about these things, albeit in the most rudimentary way possible.  It was actually kind of fun, trying to puzzle out a way to prevent the sprite I was working with from being able to cross over black lines.

Basically, Scratch gave me a whole new appreciation for videogame developers.  Even using a program that was designed to be simple and easy to use, I had a tough time getting my sprites to do what I wanted.  I can’t imagine what it must be like to try to program a game like Pac-Man, much less a game like Skyrim or Mass Effect.  While programming isn’t at all something I would like to do for hours on end, Scratch was educational, and helped me understand how hard game developers work to produce such wonderful games.

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Blog Post Response to Scratch

I went into the scratch session expecting it to be difficult, and knowing that I would not be able to create an awesome game in the span of under an hour and a half. I had still underestimated the task at hand though, and even with these expectations I was surprised (and at times a just a tiny bit frustrated) by how difficult creating even the simplest game can be. I do not think that I had fully comprehended the magnitude of creating an entire virtual world from scratch (no pun intended), including the most minute details and operating rules. My game consisted of a dinosaur chasing a shark, with the player scoring points whenever they caught the shark. I spent much of the period trying to make the shark move swiftly enough to create a challenge, without getting suck in the corners of the frame and flashing between the T-Rex and the border in what I imagine was a state of panic. I tried to introduce a timer, but never quite got it working the way I wanted. Suffice it to say, this experience not only gave me an immense respect for the scope and mechanics of the games I play, but also made me realize that every single aspect of a game, from the way an avatar moves when it walks to the color of the pain on buildings, is an extremely deliberate choice.

This relates back to some of the discussions we have had throughout the term about world-building and “place” in a virtual sense, making the concept a little more tangible. Every aspect of the virtual worlds present in games like Fallout and Call of Duty are constructed for a specific reason or purpose, whether as a reflection of the story being told and the fictional setting of this world, or as a reflection of the person creating this world. I am reminded, then, about the disparity between the number of male and female game developers, and the persisting male-dominated environments of many games. If the majority of game developers are white, heterosexual males, then it stands to reason that the games created are a representation (at least to some extent) of the values and worldview of a white heterosexual male. This accounts for the accusations of racism and sexism in many games throughout the industry, and points again for the need of a demographically diverse group of game developers.

While I definitely have neither the qualifications nor the desire to become a professional game developer, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience I had with Scratch. Working on creating a video game was a very welcome break in the middle of dead week (also known as Mt. Doom), and I plan on fiddling with Scratch some more over spring break. Also, the next time I am playing Skyrim, I might spend a little more time admiring the way things move when I run into them, and the details on the cliff face I am trying to scale.

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A lesson Pascoe has taught me

I know that this is a subject from over a week ago, but a personal experience came to mind that I wanted to share. Names have been changed to protect specific people.
I was at the bar with a friend a number of weeks ago when a conversation about someone we knew happened to come up. My friend and I are members of a fraternity, and conversations about other members and men that we have met over the years who were interested in the fraternity are common. This specific conversation happened to be about two gay men, one who had been a pledge and one who had been a member for a short time.
Our fraternity is very open and progressive about membership selection. We have a number of gay fraternity brothers and it makes no difference to us whether someone who rushes is gay or hetero. We value men who wish to be the best they can be, and represent our fraternity as gentlemen and motivated college students. Yet, despite our open mindset and the fact that there are gay members in our fraternity, there is still a sense that some people fit the culture and others do not.
The two gay guys at the center of our conversation had also been dating at one point. One had pledged in fall term, ‘Chris’, but had dropped out. The other, ‘Mike’, had pledged in winter term, but dropped his membership in late spring. They had not been in the fraternity at the same time.
My friend reminded me that the guy who joined second, Mike, had told us he thought that Chris was a fag. It struck us both that this was a way for Mike to make us feel more comfortable with his sexuality and throw off the negative connotations we might have associated with Chris. Pascoe’s idea that “fag discourse that highlighted the fag not as a static but rather as a fluid identity that boys constantly struggled to avoid” (page 60) was played out in this situation to make us more comfortable with Mike.
Even though I consider my fraternity an open environment where use of the word ‘fag’ is never used (totally honest) I did not realize that the use by one gay guy to describe the other had this deeper intention attached to it.
This makes me consider what people are projecting about themselves online and in video games as well. What are the hidden and unrealized connotations that are used in video games? I know that personal narratives are not supposed to supplement research as a tool for making universal conclusions, but I have to wonder if people project negative images on others that they fear, or believe, are images that others hold of themselves, even in video games. How much of the bad MMO language use could possibly stem from this type of usage?

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