Eran's blog

The Imago Effect: Identity in games

Note from the Avatar Psychology panel.

Speaking: Harvey Smith of Midway Studios Austin.

Topic is game avatar but extends to chat and other places where users create avatars.

You are the only one who knows yourself.
But you change with mood and time.
Different people have different ideas of you.
There’s probably someone else in the world that has your exact name
So who are you?

A lot of the game experience goes on in the player’s mind.

Games let you express yourself either intentionally or through customization.
Players love self-expression.
Game avatars facilitate self-expression.

Goes through character generation through the ages starting with Mr. Potato head and paper dolls. Now you can do the same when buying cars online.

Participatory culture reflects a primal human drive. The future is in more and more customization.


  • Some players assume a different persona
  • Some players express an idealized aspect of themselves.

FireTeam included player to player voice. Had existing characters. People would choose one that matches the type they like to play. When they added voice to the game suddenly the entire experience who the other people were changed because the voice did not match the avatar.

Avatars and Archetypes

  • Avatars are masks
  • Looking into your imago (your idealized expression)
  • People tend to gravitate toward repeating patterns – archetypes.
  • Archetypes provide for easily differentiated roles.
  • Joseph Campbell – hero with a thousand faces
  • Carl Jung – Multiple layers of identity
  • The archetype IS the goal. Exmaples: Sam Fisher vs. Superman.

People intuitively get archetypes, they already think along those lines.

What do players identity choices mean?

  • Avatar choice communicates a sense of personal identity or mood state.
    • No objective meaning.
    • Helps the player develop an understanding of self.
  • Henry Jenkins quote: All of us move nomadically across the media landscape, cobbling together a personal mythology of symbols and stories.
  • We appropriate symbols from the world and invest a personal meaning in them.
  • Even in games without character creation
    • Players make choices about what games to buy.
    • Example: different boxes for WoW with different character types.

Identity is multi-layered

Double-consciousness during play.
What’s going on in the player’s mind while they’re playing?
the immersive fallacy – the player is the character but they’re also themselves. Leaving a blank slate for the player to project onto.

Game characters allow us to temporarily restructure our view of self.
Game experience can be intense and immersive but the avatar is still just a puppet. The player is aware of the avatar being a fictional construct.
Many aspects to identity during game play.
Player is aware of several things at once (achieving goals, own feelings, avatar’s feelings…)

Reinforcing identity in COD2 – repeating the stylized rituals that hint at your character identity repeatedly.

Identity Absorption

Scott McCloud (Understanding Comics): My car becomes an extension of my body, it absorbs my sense of identity, I become the car. “She hit me!â€? not “her car hit my carâ€?

Identity is constructed
Judith Butler (Gender Trouble):

  • Core aspects of identity are constructed.
  • Coherence of gender categories seems natural
    • Constructed via repeated stylized acts.
    • Establishes the appearance of coherent gender.
  • Gender/sexuality are performative.

Identity is constructed by repeated stylized acts.
Example: all chars in Diablo can heal themselves but they each doing it differently in a way that enhances their identity.

Masking in anime – protagonist are drawn in more vague lines, antagonist is in more detail. Can clearly see the more detailed version is not me.

Q: how important is emotion to creating avatar?
A: We’ll definitely see more and more of that as we have more computing resources available.

Q from Justin Hall: please talk some more about yourself (I’m paraphrasing here)
A: our current game is a shooter with a subversive political message.
Letting the player create a squad (so she connects to them more). Can create a new squad member when one dies. Initially designed with different characters having different world views.
On his own representation online: started as more emo and moved to more relaxed avatars.
Mentions a avatar that was created for him by users for a 2nd life interview.

Q: why do game designers insist on putting words in my mouth?
A: this is still an open question. Some designers still see this as a good thing.


Filed under: The Net

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