Gaming Immersion: Identity and the Relationship Between the Player and the Character

The heroes are faced with a frightening foe, a gargantuan whale-like monster. The leader of the group holds a desperate look on his face.

“So what do we do now?” he asks

This question was asked during a plot-packed cutscene of a popular video game. It begs a far more difficult and pressing question of who really has the choice of what to do next. The choice is not up to him, the digital character, but to you, the player in control. Ultimately, gamers metamorphose into the archetypal personalities pre-installed in video games; basically put, when someone is playing a standard character in a game they assume that character’s set of traits and personality as their own.

Single-player games offer a one-shot relapse from reality where the player can easily take over and control the mind of the central character. The major goal of single-player games is to provide the player with a fantastical identity they can relate to, and perhaps borrow, for the time played. It can be a risky investment for the game’s creators. Small decisions (for instance, hiring voice actors) can make or break the bond that a player forms with the character he or she plays.

Final Fantasy X is a game that makes it hard for the player to relate to its main protagonist, Tidus. The major cause of this problem results from the fact that a voice actor was hired to portray him. The voice of Tidus has not been well received by fans or critics, possibly because the game marks the first time that the Final Fantasy franchise has employed voice actors, but also because the voice serves to separate Tidus from the player. The voice may lend a great deal of personality and uniqueness to the character, but at the same time renders the player as nothing more than an observer, an entity outside the established universe of the game. And most fans of Final Fantasy would agree that Tidus himself is tough to relate to, and even annoying at certain moments in the story. This makes it very complicated for the player to easily assume the role of Tidus.

A predecessor of Tidus—Cloud from Final Fantasy VII—has no dedicated voice actor, no literal voice himself. Every one of Cloud’s conversations in-game is shown to the player through a text marquee in a speech bubble. This seemingly primitive concept actually allows the player a deeper and more intimate immersion. It lets everyone who is playing effortlessly transpose their voice into Cloud, instead of being subjected to a voice actor. This type of inaudible immersion is further explored with the extensive use of “dialog trees”, or the option to select one of multiple phrases to say in mid-conversation with other characters in the game. Final Fantasy X’s use of dialog trees, unfortunately, was scarce to none.

“So what do we do now?” he asks.

Elsewhere, a seasoned, raspy voice answers, “We think, and we wait.” The grizzled, veteran swordfighter then turns his gaze and dramatically walks away.

auron and tidus

Thinking, and waiting, seems to be exactly what the game designers behind the first successful massively-multiplayer online games (MMOs) precisely did. Despite the growing abundance of single-player games, this new interactive genre would step forth and redefine the sensation of gaming’s identity immersion.

The success of MMOs is a constant topic of study, but one can say it comes from granting the player access to creating their own personality to embrace, instead of accepting a stock character template that single-player games usually put forward. Simply, the hero is finally, and honestly, you. The structure of most MMOs revolves around such non-linearity in character design, and can even stretch to environment design to additionally expand the player’s personalized “hero’s journey.”

Arguably the most notable example of an MMO is World of Warcraft, or WoW.

A past controversy inside the WoW community erupted a volcano of insight into the gaming identity.  It was called the “Real ID” Crisis. The official forums for WoW attempted to replace the anonymous usernames of the playerbase with their real life everyday names, or Real IDs. For an example, the account name “Tigole” of a random WoW subscriber would have been renamed to the account holder’s name on the credit card agreement, which might sound something like “Jeffrey Kaplan.” The outcry was tremendous. Over 2,000 pages of forum posts were written in direct retaliation of the Real ID scandal. The fan’s response was enough to force the developers to cancel the plan to make it mandatory, and instead leave it as optional.

The Real ID proposition would have been a deadly blow to any player’s gaming identity and experience. It would have burned the bridge that brings the player into immersion of the game’s community, severing their connection with the online personality they have taken as their own. The success of MMOs relies on the vastness of every player’s imagination, allowing them to fashion their own identities in an otherworldly universe. The player’s connection to the game is fragile and tenuous, but incredibly long-lasting. The developers of the standard MMO, along with the creators of any single-player game, must take great care not to damage or interfere with the union of the player and the player’s identity in the game.

When a gamer becomes that main character, when he adopts the mentality of this foreign vessel, it is such a brittle and powerfully sensitive relationship that even a bad voice actor can topple the experience entirely.

The heroes are faced with a frightening foe, a gargantuan whale-like monster known as Sin. The leader of the group holds a desperate look on his face.

“So what do we do now?” Tidus asks.

Elsewhere, a seasoned, raspy voice answers, “We think, and we wait.” Auron, the grizzled, veteran swordfighter, then turns his gaze and dramatically walks away.

Tidus, in his unbelievably whiny voice, awkwardly replies, “Two things I’m bad at!”