The Ghost and the Shell: Human/Cyborg Relations In Games 5

When Shigeru Miyamoto chris­tened the tiny elf that the play­er would con­trol in The Legend of Zelda, he chose the name “Link” because the char­ac­ter was designed to be the link between the play­er and the game. Since that time, the con­cept of the play­er char­ac­ter, or “PC”, has evolved a great deal. Now, instead of being a mere square pixel or a plumber or elf of unknown ori­gin, char­ac­ters have become seri­ous busi­ness.

In the cur­rent age of gam­ing, we love us some char­ac­ter cus­tomiza­tion. We like to take own­er­ship of our in-game avatars; we dress them up with lit­tle hats and sun­glass­es that, even though hun­dreds of other play­ers are wear­ing the exact same lit­tle hats and sun­glass­es, make them unique­ly ours. Why, though? If any­thing, a giant yel­low hat with a feath­er in it would make, say, the Scout in Team Fortress 2 an eas­i­er tar­get. But we don’t care. If there is a funny hat or alter­nate skin (or gun­horse) avail­able to spice up the play­er char­ac­ters, rest assured, some­body will glad­ly pay for it.

In think­ing about con­tem­po­rary gam­ing, I’ve iden­ti­fied three dif­fer­ent kinds of PCs: There are Characters, Conveyers, and Containers. These three types are delin­eat­ed by the amount of con­trol the play­er exerts over the in-game avatar, and a spe­cif­ic rela­tion­ship to the play­er exists for each. For Characters, we are the Audience, for Conveyers, we are Actuators, and for Containers we are the Animus. The specifics of which game falls into what cri­te­ria can vary, and are indeed debat­able, but for the most part each game that I’ve encoun­tered fea­tures main char­ac­ters that fall into one of these three.

In games fea­tur­ing Characters, the play­er takes con­trol of a per­son that already exists in the world. This per­son has friends, a back­sto­ry, and (ulti­mate­ly) a set des­tiny (read: the end of the game). Though the play­er has some rudi­men­ta­ry choic­es over the life of, say, Cloud Strife, ulti­mate­ly Cloud’s path is script­ed, and his life must reach the same con­clu­sion when­ev­er it is played out (so to speak).

Characters are used most often when game design­ers want to focus on telling a story, and we as play­ers are brought along for the ride. Player choice mat­ters lit­tle, as the char­ac­ter’s choic­es aren’t the cen­tral focus of the nar­ra­tive. Such games (see Red Dead Redemption, the Final Fantasy, Metal Gear, and Halo series, as well as the first Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic game have, from a story per­spec­tive, a pre-determined play­er expe­ri­ence, much like the con­ceived plot of a film or novel. Going through this expe­ri­ence, con­trol­ling this char­ac­ter as he or she inter­acts with the world and moves from plot point to plot point, is the game. We are the Audience in this brand of inter­ac­tive fic­tion.

I believe Conveyers com­pose the major­i­ty of games avail­able. Conveyers are those char­ac­ters to whom an at-most lim­it­ed per­son­al­i­ty is ascribed, and whose adven­tures are less direct­ly impact­ful on the larg­er game world. The pur­pose of these char­ac­ters is to pro­vide a tab­u­la rasa onto which the play­er may project him- or her­self to a more super­fi­cial degree than Containers (whom we shall address present­ly). Put more sim­ply, Conveyers are stand-ins for the play­er, and the actions of the play­er, as well as his or her desires (gen­er­al­ly for may­hem and tom­fool­ery), are con­veyed into the game world through them.

Most sand­box games, how­ev­er story-driven they may be, gen­er­al­ly fall into this cat­e­go­ry. The pro­tag­o­nist of the Saints Row series is a prime exam­ple. Ze1is a blank can­vas; the play­er may dress hir up in all man­ner of silly cos­tumes and run over all the old ladies the play­er’s heart desires while hijack­ing a sewage truck and spray­ing shit over all and sundry. Great fun is to be had when the only shit given is the one described above.

With Conveyers, the goal for the play­er is a cer­tain level of detach­ment through cus­tomiza­tion, which affords a greater level of vic­ar­i­ous enjoy­ment or wish-fulfillment. Hence the play­er func­tions as Actuator, trans­mit­ting his or her desires into the game world and hav­ing them actu­al­ized by the char­ac­ter. The Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, for exam­ple, allowed the play­er (in the guise of an up-and-coming skate­board leg­end) to pull off insane tricks and com­bos that by no rights could ever hap­pen in real life to even the great­est of skaters. Yet the skat­ing laity (myself chief among them, though I was quite good at the games in ques­tion) were allowed a chance to see what this world of being a kick-ass skater was about (or at least feel like we could see what it was about). This level of vic­ar­i­ous enjoy­ment is achieved through either direct cus­tomiza­tion (as in the Saints Row or Tony Hawk games), or through a muted pro­tag­o­nist.

When deal­ing with Conveyers, the focus is not on the char­ac­ter hir­self, but on what the play­er does. For a very loose exam­ple, in the Civilization series you choose a peo­ple to lead rather than a great world ruler, and your actions are those of a devel­op­ing nation rather than its leader. The leader you choose affords spe­cif­ic bonus­es, but at no point do you assume direct con­trol of him or her. Unless you choose to role-play as the spe­cif­ic his­tor­i­cal fig­ure (and if you do, can I join a game with you?), it makes lit­tle dif­fer­ence whether you, the leader of, say, America, are given the des­ig­na­tion of Washington or Lincoln in the grand scheme (apart from the fact that you are play­ing a dif­fer­ent Civ game, of course).

Though he has an estab­lished back­sto­ry, and his games fea­ture a cohe­sive nar­ra­tive, I would argue that Agent 47, of the Hitman series, is a Conveyer. His char­ac­ter design is blank, devoid of iden­ti­fy­ing marks, save a bar­code that is mys­te­ri­ous­ly never men­tioned in eye­wit­ness reports. The play­er is meant to project him- or her­self onto 47, who is a lit­er­al blank slate. Link, as described ear­li­er, was intend­ed to be the same, although he has since evolved into more of a Character. Mario, too, I would sub­mit, was sim­i­lar­ly intend­ed, as story has never been a focus in  the Mario series (“Tonight, on a very spe­cial Mario…”). These games do not focus on a rich, com­pelling nar­ra­tive, so much as fun game­play, plac­ing empha­sis on the expe­ri­ence of the play­er, rather than the PC.

A com­mon tagline of the Elder Scrolls expe­ri­ence is “Be who­ev­er you want to be.”  This is achieved by min­i­miz­ing the character’s story; the three things that are cer­tain in any of the main Elder Scrolls games, story-wise, are that you did some­thing bad, got caught, and that your moth­er was right when she told you that you were spe­cial. Further, the game allows you to define your char­ac­ter how­ev­er you see fit.  Consequently, these games, at least in my expe­ri­ence, do not facil­i­tate easy role-playing.  Any role-playing must be pro­ject­ed onto the char­ac­ter (Actuated). The game itself nei­ther man­dates nor asks what kind of char­ac­ter you are play­ing, and some­times direct­ly under­mines your role-playing efforts, as it did when I attempt­ed to play a Shadowscale, that is, an Argonian Assassin born under the sign of the Shadow. These are the only require­ments to be a Shadowscale, and though I select­ed them at char­ac­ter cre­ation, I was told point-blank that I was not a Shadowscale. So, despite my choic­es, I was unable to impact the game world in a mean­ing­ful way, even though it sure felt like sweet revenge when I mur­dered the smug lizard­ly bas­tard who said I could­n’t join his stu­pid secret club.

This presents a prob­lem with games that fea­ture Conveyer PCs. The PC is meant to con­vey the play­er, and the player’s will, into the world, but usu­al­ly these do not have last­ing impact in the world of the game. In most sand­box games, you can go on mur­der­ing ram­pages involv­ing rock­et launch­ers and crash­ing things into other things, and after you leave the area (or maybe after you man­age to hide from the cops for a lit­tle while) every­thing returns to nor­mal. In the Elder Scrolls series, you could mur­der entire town­ships and steal from every­one you meet. Though the town­ships remain ghost town­ships after you move on, nobody ever laments the fate of the fall­en (although news of your con­sid­er­able boun­ty will have mys­te­ri­ous­ly trav­eled to every sin­gle guard in the game, of that you may be sure). This lack of con­se­quence often makes it dif­fi­cult to become immersed in the game world, which usu­al­ly leads to less mem­o­rable gam­ing expe­ri­ences.

Lastly, we have Containers. Containers are designed not as a can­vas upon which the play­er may project, but as a ves­sel into which the play­er may insert him-or-herself. The play­er is pre­sent­ed with a world and is given a means of inter­act­ing with that world that is whol­ly unique, name­ly the PC. The world is defined, and cer­tain para­me­ters (such as class, race, eye color, etc.) are set at char­ac­ter cre­ation, but from there every­thing is direct­ly in your hands. Your actions real­ly do affect not only the world around you, but your spe­cif­ic place with­in it. When the PC func­tions as Container, this leads to a greater own­er­ship of the char­ac­ter, hir actions, and the impact those actions have on the major groups in the game.

Perhaps the best exam­ple of a Container in gam­ing is the PC in a Massively Multiplayer Online game. In World of Warcraft, there are pri­mar­i­ly two games: there is the Player Vs. Environment game, where­in you the play­er take your char­ac­ter from place to place, mur­der­ing X num­ber of pests that are caus­ing the quest-giver so much con­ster­na­tion ze can’t even move, let alone take care of the prob­lem hir­self; and then there is the Social game, where you must inter­act with other play­ers who have prob­a­bly spent so much time hon­ing their craft (or War-craft, if you will) that they have for­got­ten how to type prop­er­ly or behave like not-children.

During my time in Azeroth, I exper­i­ment­ed with both games. While I found them to be very dif­fer­ent in terms of what was expect­ed of me, they were basi­cal­ly iden­ti­cal in terms of the Player/PC rela­tion­ship. Your char­ac­ter is not so much a hero in whose hands lies the future of the world of Warcraft, but one of many trav­el­ers through a vast and dan­ger­ous land­scape where you must either prove your­self use­ful or GTFO. The sys­tem of dun­geons and raids, the upper lev­els of WoW’s Social game, is almost a com­pet­i­tive sport, where­in the entire party must be on its A‑game  or face Leeroy Jenkins-esque lev­els of extinc­tion (or “wip­ing”, as it is called). Ultimately, the PC is a direct rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the play­er, and sinks or swims as the play­er does.

When play­ing with Containers, we the play­ers serve as their Animus. The PC does what the play­er decides for the play­er’s rea­sons, and poor per­for­mance on the part of the Container is direct­ly attrib­uted to its Animus (where­as an Audience would never be crit­i­cized as a n00b for the poor per­for­mance of hir Character, nor could an Actuator just­ly be accused of grief­ing for the antics of hir Conveyer). If your Paladin does­n’t have the nec­es­sary res­ur­rec­tion spells to keep your party afloat in a gru­el­ing dun­geon, the ire of said party will be direct­ed at you for not hav­ing invest­ed enough time or prac­tice the game.

I would also go one step fur­ther and apply the label of Container to the play­er’s avatar in games involv­ing direct com­pe­ti­tion with other play­ers, such as first-person shoot­ers. The Container essen­tial­ly func­tions as our lit­er­al avatar; it embod­ies us direct­ly, rather than sim­ply being a vehi­cle for our play, and is a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the indi­vid­ual play­er. More empha­sis is placed direct­ly on the play­er, who is made respon­si­ble for hir per­for­mance inde­pen­dent of things such as lev­els or stats. To illus­trate, the dif­fer­ence between Container and Conveyer is the dif­fer­ence between Battle Bots and Boxing. A level 3 Courier in Fallout: New Vegas can’t be crit­i­cized for being ripped apart by Deathclaws, as there is no way a low-level PC can real­is­ti­cal­ly stand a chance against such hellspawn. However, a play­er of low skill level in Counter-Strike who, say, does­n’t know how to dif­fuse a bomb (shame­ful con­fes­sion), will be held liable for hir trans­gres­sions when the bomb blows up in hir face (I shame-quit the next round). Returning to WoW for a moment, it is one thing to be given a max-level char­ac­ter with an impec­ca­ble build and the best equip­ment avail­able. It is quite anoth­er thing to know how to use it.

Though it is impos­si­ble to select the most impor­tant aspect of what makes a good game, the rela­tion­ship between play­er and PC deserves espe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion, for what is a game with­out a means of influ­enc­ing its out­come?2In most games, we are given one of three of means, (Character, Conveyer, and Container), and each has us as play­ers ful­fill a spe­cif­ic role in turn (Audience, Actuator, and Animus, respec­tive­ly). There is undoubt­ed­ly some over­lap between each of these three cat­e­gories, but I believe there’s value in think­ing about PCs this way. Each of these cat­e­gories high­lights dif­fer­ent modes of player/PC inter­ac­tion, and I believe each of them offers us a unique insight into our­selves, both as play­ers and as peo­ple.

  1. When a character’s gen­der is left up to the play­er, and is thus vague until oth­er­wise defined, or when speak­ing of indi­vid­u­als who iden­ti­fy as such, I pre­fer the sin­gu­lar gender-neutral pro­noun Ze, and its plur­al, Hir. I remain uncon­vinced as to the cor­rec­ti­tude of the use of They/Their, despite how­ev­er many hun­dreds of years it has been used, and this is a ship down with which I intend to go, unless some indi­vid­ual wish­es to be called such. []
  2. A mis­er­able pile of cutscenes! []

Chelsea L. Shephard

About Chelsea L. Shephard

Chelsea L. Shepard (formerly Hannah DuVoix) doesn't write for the Ontological Geek anymore, but she used to be our Editor-in-Chief! She is currently earning her MFA in Game Design from NYU and is probably also thinking about Fallout: New Vegas.

5 thoughts on “The Ghost and the Shell: Human/Cyborg Relations In Games

  • Anne Winters

    I’m curi­ous as to where you think Commander Shepard fits into these cat­e­gories. He seems, to me, to be a mix between a Conveyor and a Character.
    Well writ­ten arti­cle, btw!

    • Chelsea L. Shephard
      Hannah DuVoix Post author

      Shepard, in my bold and flam­boy­ant opin­ion, defies the sys­tem (and other sys­tems, which I shall explore after I play ME3). Shepard can be any of the three, if the play­er is of a cer­tain frame of mind and style of play. I of course invite you to draw your own con­clu­sions, but I would place hir in the Character cat­e­go­ry, with a big, throb­bing aster­isk for off-the-charts (it would seem) lev­els of play­er agency, or being able to make impact­ful deci­sions.

  • Mike Ossiff

    Do you have a cita­tion for Link’s nam­ing? It makes sense, but I’ve never seen it in print before.

    Moving on. Even when the PC is a char­ac­ter, the play­er still takes a more active role in the story than some­one read­ing a book (for exam­ple) would. The play­er is forced to become not just a view­er but also an inter­preter. It’s up to you to fig­ure out where the boss key is hid­den and how to defeat Ganondorf. So even as a mem­ber of the “Audience,” you’re not a pas­sive view­er: you must invest your ego in the events of the game. This isn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly counter to your the­sis, but I think it should be explic­it­ly noted.

  • Chelsea L. Shephard
    Hannah DuVoix Post author

    Sadly, I don’t have a cita­tion. If I had to guess where I picked it up, it was prob­a­bly some Ocarina era issue of Nintendo Power or some­thing.

    Granted, the Audience is more than sim­ply a pas­sive view­er, but that’s the nature of an inter­ac­tive medi­um. You the play­er are always doing, for that is what the play­er does. The Character/Audience rela­tion­ship is the low­est level of “syn­chro­niza­tion”, if you will. The dis­tance between play­er and PC is at its great­est when you are con­trol­ling anoth­er per­son. Link will always fight Ganondorf, and he will always find the key. It’s just that you are the one defeat­ing and find­ing at this moment, and not anoth­er play­er. And you will always be doing these things as Link, for Link’s rea­sons. As we move across the spec­trum, the motives shift from the PC to the play­er. The Avatar is dif­fus­ing the bomb because you, the play­er, need to dif­fuse it, or else the ter­ror­ists will win, and play­er and PC are com­plete­ly unit­ed in pur­pose and action.

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