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Level Up: A Day in the Life of a Warcraft Warrior

Director’s Commentary:
Sherry Turkle asked in her book, Life on the Screen, “Why grant superior status to body when selves without have different kinds of experiences”? Apologies to you Ms. Turkle, but I say different. Quoting myself from one of my blog posts: “I personally hold the body and actual life experiences as more sacred than whatever goes on inside a game. To me, body is more important than fantasy”.

In class we have grappled with the notion of representation of self and the many facets it incorporates. We can show ourselves to the online community, to the world through Facebook, Myspace, Second Life, etc. So would my online avatar be as effective in presenting me to the world as I myself could? What if the avatar is more than just a representation, but rather myself in electronic, virtual form? I believe that in trying to identify our boundaries, where bodily, biological self is separated from online avatar, we face the task of redefining reality. To me, reality is the body and with it, our real life experiences. The mind, though used for interpreting the world around us, is still inclined to imagine and to dream. I do not mean to say that imagination is unimportant but it is the act of spending one’s life mostly in one’s head so as to become confused with reality and fantasy that is problematic. While Turkle argues that online experiences are of another, more meaningful category, I argue that these online experiences are a figment of the imagination and that real life experiences are more imperative. In defining the word “virtual”, Webster’s dictionary defines it as “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted” and “of, relating to, or being a hypothetical particle whose existence is inferred from indirect evidence”. Basically, virtual reality is a simulation of reality but in itself is not reality. Likewise for my online avatar: it is an essence, an electronic fragment of me so that I can may be represented online, but it is not I.

When I played World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King™ for the first time, I quickly understood the thrills and the potential addictiveness that the game represents. However, I did not feel that my character was I. Especially in a game so scripted with its rules of not just concerning game play etiquette but also with the rules that govern the appropriate behaviors of each unique character, our Warcraft characters do not necessarily conform to fit our selves but rather we must conform to fit our characters. Take for example, my experience playing a level six Night Elf Druid. As a druid, the game expects that the character understands the balance of life and respects the World’s animals. When I, the player, decided to fulfill a quest that required me to kill more animals than necessary to maintain the balance of life, I was swiftly punished and sent on a quest for redemption. In this game, actions have consequences. To overstep the boundaries that confine the appropriate behaviors of our chosen characters as deemed by the game’s creators at Blizzard Entertainment®, is to be punished afterwards. In this scripted game, our characters do not have the obligation to represent us well but rather we have the obligation to represent our characters well.

But if our characters are not us, then why is it that avid players can be so invested in the game as if they themselves were battling the beasts of Azeroth? To answer the question, I will be taking a momentary route in biology. I point to a PBS Nova scienceNow segment that aired more than four years ago on mirror neurons. These neurons, which are also called motor neurons, fire whenever the body moves and coordinates movement. When I brush my hair or workout on the field hockey field these neurons, found on either side of the brain (the ventral premotor cortex, to be exact), fire. When I see someone else brush his or her hair or workout, these brains cells will also fire. The scientists interviewed for the segment agree that these motor neurons aka mirror neurons are responsible, on a cellular level, for the empathy observed in humanity. When James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers ran 100 yards after an intercepted pass in order to put the Steelers ahead during Super Bowl XLIII, I definitely empathized with his exhaustion afterwards. I know the pain and the out-of-breath feeling after completing 100-yard sprints during field hockey season. While I watched Harrison run, I also imagined myself running for such long a distance, but I am in no way James Harrison. When I watch my Warcraft character fight off beasts, I can imagine feeling her movements as if I were the one jumping and slashing at my foes. However, I am not my character. Online experiences, while they may seem real to us, are actually figments of our imaginations arising from our mirror neurons.

A Note About My Personal Experience with Warcraft:
Needless to say, the events featured in my film were inspired by true events that I have witnessed firsthand with the game. Though set up as an MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) with the intention that players (who do not necessarily need to know each other in person) ban together to complete quests. I suspect that the creators of Warcraft intended the game to become an alternative social forum—a way to link people who live across the street from each other but also to link people from opposite sides of the globe. Andy Clark wrote in his book, Natural-Born Cyborg, “Isolation…is often a matter of perspective. The apparently isolated individual tapping away night after night is, in many cases, spending quality time in her own chosen community. These eclectic electronic communities often bring together a greater number of like-minded folk than we could ever hope to find in our hometown or even in a large city….”. In my own experience, however, I felt incredibly lonely. As a beginner (newbie or newb), no one wanted to socialize with me or to even offer me help when my character clearly looked confused (facing the wrong direction during a battle, being whacked mercilessly from behind by corrupted furblogs in Starbreeze Village are just some examples). In friend, who at the time was a level 74 Night Elf Warrior, informed me that higher level players usually do not associate with lower level players during quests simply because of an imbalance in experience and experience points.

As aforementioned, I did not feel that my character was me or was an extension of myself. In fact, I felt disconnected from my character because I felt so uncoordinated in trying to maneuver her. Again, facing the wrong direction during a battle or selecting a target too far out of range were two main causes for frustration. For my film, I wanted to convey this feeling of disconnection between player and character but through the character’s point of view. I wanted to imagine how my character must felt when I made her movements too slow to fight off an adversary or when I appeared to be “uncoordinated and directionally impaired”.

2 Responses
  1. Anne Dalke permalink*
    April 26, 2009

    this is hilarious! And though I come @ these questions, philosophically, from a diametrically opposed point of view (I do believe that my “extensions” in the virtual world “are” me), you’ve got me re-thinking my position. Particularly compelling was your discussion, above, of the function of mirror neurons, as the source not only of empathy but identity with that-which-is-not-me (but feels like it is!). And I especially appreciate your decision to convey the feeling of disconnection between player and character through the character’s point of view: that’s a pretty clear way of indicating the separation–when not we, but our avatars, are calling the shots (and the judgments!).

    So I’ll be very curious to hear (see?) your responses to other explorations of these questions; am thinking especially of Hannah’s work on Bryn Mawr: First, Second Life and Hillary’s In Second Life–but perhaps the strongest nudge comes from Cat’s texting and calling avatars. What metaphor would you use, for instance, to describe the relation between self and character, if not Hillary’s puppeteer with her puppet? Or Cat’s selves (our selves) who foreground certain “aspects” of ourselves on text or on the phone, and background others? I can’t wait to listen in on that conversation….

  2. Solomon Lutze permalink
    April 26, 2009

    Yeah, this is pretty awesome.

    There are two things that really struck me as cool, and that I’ve been trying to think about.
    The first is the idea of the character’s actions all being accounted for: “I wanted to imagine how my character must felt when I made her movements too slow to fight off an adversary or when I appeared to be “uncoordinated and directionally impaired”.” I always loved the idea of having my character running motionlessly in a corner, or jumping around everywhere, and trying to imagine how the character is rationalizing these actions.

    Second. “our characters do not have the obligation to represent us well but rather we have the obligation to represent our characters well.”
    YES. I have been wrestling with this for my own project, “Excerpts from a Tamriel Journal.” The major difference is that in the game I was playing (Oblivion) I really had very little obligation to hold my character to any kind of consistent personality outside of my own desire to do so. This essentially hit the nail on the head for me: sometimes the question isn’t “how are our characters like us” but “how are we like our characters.”

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