Animated game pieces. Avatars as roles, tools and props 
Gaming and identity
Children are sometimes thought to be especially vulnerable to the influence that computer games might have on identity, still as Walkerdine (1998) puts it, there is a need for more research on this topic:
This paper can be seen as a contribution to the study of this unexplored relation. The findings suggest that the assertion that children’s game play is a matter of “a complex relation of identification” based on the fact that children use the personal pronoun ´I´ can be questioned. Though, as Walkerdines quotation indicates, the usage of ‘I’ in game contexts are bye no means trivial. Avatars can have a roll in identity formation, not in the mystified sense of being “alternate” personalities, but rather as a potential resource for the child’s presentation of self in the social context at hand.
Against the idea of immersion
One could argue that Salen and Zimmermans leap from the early pen and paper role-playing games to the digital games of today is a problematic generalization since they have no empirical support (other than their own game experiences) to back up their statement. Yet there have been some studies on computer games which give a similar picture.
In an ethnographic study of how children position themselves in computer settings, Johansson (2000), like Walkerdine (1998) observed how children used the personal pronoun ‘I’ when talking about the actions of their avatars. In her conclusions Johansson is critical to psychological interpretations of this phenomenon. Johansson claims that expressions like ‘I died’ are something that children say in play roles which are clearly separated from their own self. According to Johansson this is the same thing as taking on different perspectives in socio-dramatic play were children can switch between the present and the past tense, between talking as characters and talking about the characters. Even though Johansson does not use Goffmans frame concept her findings suggests that at least Fine’s distinction between a primary framework and a socio-dramatic frame can be applicable for digital games as well.
In previous studies I have explicitly focused children’s interaction patterns during computer game play (Linderoth, 2004). The results shows that children establish their interaction when playing computer games by shifting between different frameworks for handling the things they see on the screen and by relating, transforming and/or dissociating aspects of the world outside the gaming situation. There where three patterns where children related features in the game to different frames:
There were also dynamic patterns where things from the wider social setting
had to be handled in the game situation. For example children who were
close friends sometimes had to negotiate the situation in order to reach
an agreement which allowed them to compete with each other. These dynamic
patterns as well as the aesthetic focus correspond Fine’s observation
about a primary, everyday framework as a part of game experiences (it
is the child, not the player or the character who finds some parts of
a game to be appealing). The socio-dramatic interaction pattern is consistent
with Fine’s inner frame where players become characters and the
rule focused pattern is similar to what Fine calls the game context. Thus
the identified interaction patterns in the study support the idea that
the experience of playing computer games is a “three-fold framing
of player consciousness” (Salen & Zimmerman, 2004, p. 454).
Design and collection of data
In the first session two girls, who are sisters, Bea (six years old) and Elin (eight years old) played Perfect Dark on a Nintendo 64 console for 60 minutes. The children were playing the multiplayer option and were sometimes on the same team fighting against bots, sometimes in opposing teams. The session took place in the children’s room at home. Recording was done with one stationary camera. A parent was called upon at two occasions. The researcher overheard the session from next door. The game is an agent style action adventure with the possibility to play a multiplayer scenario on a split screen. In the multiplayer option 1 - 4 players can be either with or against each other when playing. The players can also have ‘bots’ (character which are controlled by the games artificial intelligence) in their teams. The basic way of gaining points in order to win is to defeat members of the other team without getting your own avatar killed.
In the second session three boys who are friends, Felix (eight years old) Anders (eight years old) and Simon (eight years old) played Super Smash Bros. Melee on a Gamecube console for 60 minutes. The session took place in the living room at Anders home. Super Smash Bros. Melee is a humorous fighting game. The goal of the game is to gain points by knocking out your opponents. Before each round the players choose from a broad variation of different avatars. The avatars represent characters from other games. Recording was done with one stationary camera. The researcher overheard the session from next door.
The excerpts below are structured in five columns. The first and second
columns are the number of the turn and the name of the participant. Column
three tells what the participants are saying and column four tells about
actions and events in the physical room. In column five events in the
game are described.
In this excerpt Elin makes a frame shift within the same turn. She first talks to her fictive ‘pal’ and then makes a statement to her sister that she has seen her ‘pal’. Even though she uses the same word the meaning is different. Hi pal is a representation of a greeting; it is supposed to be treated in accordance to the tacit understanding that follows with socio-dramatic play. A special kind of awareness where we agree to treat the world as if it had other properties than those we perceive. The listener is supposed to accept the idea that we treat the bot as if he could hear what we say. This only goes for the first part of the turn. In the second part Elin addresses Bea and makes a statement which is not supposed to be treated from an as if approach. Here the word ‘pal’ does not signify a fictive friend but the actual bot within the game. In a second excerpt the same phenomenon occurs.
Turns 1 and 2 are utterances about the game state, what the children are doing and how they experience the things that happen. Still they use the term ‘pal’ which is illusory since it gives the impression that this is socio-dramatic interaction. In turn 3 Elin makes one utterance where she for a moment talks to the fictive characters.
The two excerpts above suggest that entering an alternate reality only is one potential way of experiencing computer games. An assumption which challenges the opinion that the relation between, screen world, inner world and outside world has a mystic, unexplored impact on children’s identity.
In the third excerpt Bea and Elin are playing in the same team against a team of bots. The girls’ team has yellow avatars, their opponents are red. In this excerpt it is possible to see the multilayered character of the gaming activity. At the beginning of the excerpt the children have established a socio-dramatic frame for their interaction. In turn 1 – 5 they thus pretend to be two agents which have radio contact with each other. In turn 6 - 7 they comment upon their own interaction. In turn 8 – 15 they try to re-establish the socio-dramatic frame. At the end of the excerpt in turn 16, Elin’s interaction becomes rule focused.
In accordance with the analytical focus on identity, turns 7 and 16 is interesting. When Elin in turn 7 says The red one killed me.. she is repeating what she said in turn 5. In turn 5, the statement was said ‘in character’ as a part of her pretence play to be an agent. In turn 7 this frame is broken and the utterance is best understood as a comment about the impossibility of making sense of what she has said within the socio-dramatic frame. Something that she explicitly comments in the rest of turn 7 the red one killed me then you can not say that the red one killed me. What happens here can be described as an unintentional frame break. Without thinking about it, Elin makes the statement that she is dead and when she realize that it is not possible to make a comment about your own death when you are dead, the situation becomes comical. Thus Elin is perceptive about the difference between her identity in a primary framework as the producer of the socio-dramatic frame and her identity within the socio-dramatic frame as an agent. It is also worth mentioning that the information Elin communicates to Bea in turns 2 – 5 tells the reality about her game state. When she says that she sees a red bot, she gives Bea the opportunity to use this information strategically. Thus in turn 16 the utterance I died is not said in a socio-dramatic frame. Something we can tell from the fact that the utterance is said in an everyday voice and the last part of the turn we will probably lose this time. Here we have a third frame at work, the competitive, rule focused level of meaning. The utterance I died is here said to a team mate in order to give her the information that the team has lost a point. While ‘I’ in the primary framework denotes the speakers own physical body and ‘I’ in the socio-dramatic frame signify the fictive character, ‘I’ in turn 16 means the speakers agency within the game activity. I claim that this way of using ‘I’ is an everyday phenomenon and not something unique for computer games. When our agency in a certain activity system is extended outside our own body we talk about this extension as a part of ourself. For instance a horse and a rider tend to become a unit, and, while only the horse is exhausted after a ride, we still say ‘I trotted’. Likewise we talk about our game pieces in board games as a part of ourself, and can in the game of Monopoly claim that ‘I’ stand on chance. 
A fourth excerpt strengthens this line of reasoning. Now Bea and Elin has changed game mode so that they compete against each other. Each child also has a bot in their team. Bea is the yellow team, Elin is the red. When we enter the excerpt the children are discussing their difficulties to keep up with their bots.
Turn 4 at the end of the excerpt shows us how fragile the meaning of utterances can be in gaming activities. Here Elin wants to help Bea so that she perceives that her bot is close to her avatar. In order to help Bea, Elin says I saw that you saw a yellow. Then like in the excerpt above she repeats her own words, this time with a smile and a giggling voice. The humor in the utterance comes from the unusual phrasing I saw that you saw. In order for this utterance to make sense the listener must be aware of the specific context and be receptive for the different frames that are at work here. The word ‘I’ signifies Elin’s identity in the everyday sense, a girl sitting on the floor with a control pad in her hands. On the other hand the word ‘you’ which follows closely here denotes Bea’s avatar since it is the avatars point of view that is represented on the screen. Thus the statement can only be understood if we have parallel frames at work. Again we see that children can be aware of the multilayered nature of the game experience and there is no need for speculations about the impact computer games have on children’s identity.
Avatars as part of the player’s setting
Applied to the gaming activity, avatars can be seen as a part of the setting, as possible means for the players to present themselves. In two excerpts below this is illustrated. In these instances of interaction one of the children shifts frame so that he becomes detached from the values and connotations of a female avatar. When we come in to the excerpt the three eight year old boys are just about to start a fight and are choosing avatars. The avatar Zelda is a blond princess with a pink dress.
In turn 2, Anders giggles while his cursor is on Zelda. A piece of interaction which signals that something out of the ordinary is happening. In turn 3 Felix confirms that choosing Zelda is not something that boys are supposed to do. After this excerpt Anders chooses to play with Zelda anyway. While the fight loads he sits quiet.
In turn 3, Anders claims that Zelda is awesome, and he does this immediately when the game starts, he has only made one unsuccessful attack. Since Simon in excerpt 5 did not think that it was appropriate to play with the pink princess, Anders risked being harassed for his choice. When choosing an avatar with so strong female connotations he risked having this meaning attached to his identity. Then in excerpt 6, he points out that the chosen avatar is awesome to play with and thus changes the frame. Zelda stops being a princess in a pink dress and becomes equipment in the game context.
The multilayered nature of gaming is probably what makes it possible for children to play with cultural material that they probably would have disregarded in another context (this phenomenon has been observed elsewhere see Newman, 2002, for a discussion). The fact that Anders has to handle the situation with a frame shift suggests that the cultural meaning associated with an avatar can blend into the gaming activity and become attached with the player. Avatars are part of the ‘setting’ and thus provide the players with means for presenting themselves. However this is not a simple process of causality. We can not simply make connections between the player and the avatar he or she plays. The relation is, as we have seen, enacted. Thus it is possible to play an avatar with detachment in an ironical manner. The player would then probably establish a self presentation which is contradictory to the avatar.
Conclusions: Rethinking the player - avatar relation
When the avatar becomes a tool for the player, an extension of her or his agency, the term ‘I’ refers to the player – avatar unit. This is not a phenomenon which is unique for the gaming activity, it occurs in other cases when our ability to act in a certain activity systems is mediated by a tool.
This way of reasoning about the player – avatar relation gives a down-to-earth understanding about the nature of the game experience. The psychological/cognitive way of understanding the gaming activity depicts an image were we are to understand the relation between the screen world, the inner world and the outside world. A notion which wrongly takes for granted that the game experience always is a matter of representation.
Notes [ back ]
 The research presented here was funded by the Swedish Knowledge Foundation's (KK-stiftelsens) research programme Learning and IT (LearnIT)
 Sometimes this term is retained for incarnations in online communities. I will here use it for all player controlled characters in both on and off-line games.
 This line of reasoning resembles of how Wilhelmsson (2001) talks about a tactile motor/kinaesthetic link which makes it possible for us to constitute a “game ego.”
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