It’s fun to pretend to be one of our favorite game characters. But why?
(Matias Tukiainen from Espoo, Finland, CC BY 2.0)
Maybe because we spend so much time imagining we ARE them. That’s what games allow us to do - become someone else, while still being ourselves.
There’s a funny kind of parallel processing that happens when we play games. We never really “get into character,” exactly. We’re not actors, playing a role. When we tell our friends about the game we played last night, we don’t say “Colt kicked ass!” We say “WE kicked ass.”
But we also take on our characters’ abilities, roles, and sometimes even their personalities for a little while.
There’s a lot to unpack about the player-avatar relationship. It’s unlike any other. And it’s something game writers and narrative designers need to wrap their heads around. So let’s talk about it!
Today we’re going to be drawing on the work of Katherine Isbister, who shares insights about player psychology in her book Better Game Characters By Design. In it, she describes how players experience characters at four different levels - in their bodies, in their minds, in the room, and even in their hearts.
Let’s take a closer look.
Level One: Feeling like a character
We navigate the world through our five senses. When the light turns green, we go. When we smell chocolate-chip cookies, we salivate.
When we play as an avatar in a game, we can’t feel the avatar’s physical body - not exactly. But we see how the game world reacts TO our avatar’s body, and that makes us feel a certain way. We throw a punch, and the wall crumbles. Cool!
Games can make us feel faster, stronger, bigger, more powerful. We can be professional football players or sweet little pixies. We can be a hundred feet tall. We can be invisible. In a game world, anything is possible.
It is FUN to have superpowers. It feels great to be able to do things we can’t do in real life.
And that makes us feel good about our characters - and ourselves.
Level Two: Thinking like a character
We don’t just FEEL like our character - we start to think like them, too. We start making decisions based on what our character is able to do.
For example, if we see that our character can leap tall buildings in a single bound, then we start thinking like a person that can leap tall buildings. That sort of person approaches the world differently than a person who can only walk into a building and take the elevator.
Games are all about problem-solving and taking action. We are the brains of the operation, and our avatars are the brawn.
This idea extends to our character’s tools and abilities, too. Once you realize you can open portals, you start thinking in portals, too.
Level Three: Partying like a character
We are social monkeys. We’ve survived as a species because we’ve been able to work together. We evolved to live in groups. So our social hardwiring is STRONG. If there are other characters in the game, we can’t help but pay attention to them. And if the game allows us to socialize in ANY way, we’ll take advantage of that. We want to be together!
Last semester I asked the students in my game-writing class what games they loved to play. The women in the room talked about their love for competitive shooters. It turns out they love playing these games because it’s how they can spend time (online) with their friends back home. They talk and gossip and catch up while they’re shooting up the joint. Who knew shooters could be so soft and cuddly?
And when we can actually see our avatars onscreen, we can take on their personas. Our avatars can become a mask we wear, a Halloween costume that lets us escape ourselves, just for a little while. It’s fun to be in a world where people treat us as if we were starship captains or secret agents. Or Mexican wrestlers, even.
And now we come to the final level, which is more powerful than any other.
Level Four: Yearning to be a character
Warning: We’re in Freudian territory now.
Game characters can tap into our fantasies and dreams. If you’ve always wanted to be a reporter in outer space or a hunter from another dimension, well here’s your chance.
Turns out it’s not all fun and games. Fantasy is powerful. Part of us needs to become someone else, at least for a little while. It taps into some deep human wiring.
“Psychologists…have touted the importance of stories…in helping both children and adults come to terms with concerns, explore emotionally laden or thorny problems, or to create a foundation for making an important identity shift…[avatars can] speak to many players’ real-life hopes and fears.”
Games: like therapy, but cheaper and more fun!
So there you have it: four different ways players connect with their avatars. I hope these insights help you the next time you sit down to craft a character.
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Susan’s first job as a game writer was for “a slumber party game - for girls!” She’s gone on to work on over 25 projects, including award-winning titles in the BioShock, Far Cry and Tomb Raider franchises. Titles in her portfolio have sold over 30 million copies and generated over $500 million in sales. She is an adjunct professor at UT Austin, where she teaches a course on writing for games. A long time ago, she founded the Game Narrative Summit at GDC. Now, she partners with studios, publishers, and writers to help teams ship great games with great stories. She is dedicated to supporting creatives in the games industry so that they can do their best work.