In less than two weeks after the release of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six: Vegas 2 ('R6V2') on the Playstation and XBox, player-generated game-based movies were appearing online demonstrating the physical modifications players had made to the game’s protagonist, Bishop. Often within these movies, the modified avatar is seen engaged in performative action.
In digital games, particularly first person shooters (FPS) such as Call of Duty 4 and R6V2, there is shift towards ‘deep customisation’. Adopting conventions from role-playing games in which aesthetic appearance, armour, skills and experience are tied to the character’s well-being and in-game performance. The inclusion of a face-scanning feature in R6V2 allows players, using their console’s webcam, to enhance their avatar with their own face.
Intrigued by these player-generated game-based movies including these highly customised avatar, I wanted to know more about the people who created them. What is it like playing with an avatar that looks just like you? Why make a movie showing a multiplayer shoot involving an avatar portrayed as Rambo?
The aim of this paper is to share some preliminary findings (from two particular segments of players that generate game-based media) so as to:
- Understand players’ motives for undertaking these activities
- Learn more about players connections with their avatars in the FPS genre
- Further illustrate another dimension of play
The first half of this paper provides an overview of the gameplay in R6V2 followed by briefly covering some of the various concepts that informed this study and the study’s participants. This is followed by details of the methodology and the identification and discussion of key findings and conclusions.
The inter-relationship between the players of digital games, the places where gameplay is enacted (and re-produced) and the significance of this type of play are all requisite components to investigating player-generated game-based media. Before delving into those areas, I will give a brief overview of R6V2.
Gameplay Activities in Rainbow 6: Vegas 2
R6V2 is a tactical first person shooter (FPS) like its predecessor. The player takes on the role of Bishop, a member of an elite anti-terrorism unit. The player, taking on a first-person point-of-view, often is staring down the barrel of Bishop’s current weapon (e.g. shotgun, sniper rifle, sub-machine guns). Gameplay involves progressing through various sites in and around Las Vegas in a linear manner to quash the terrorist activity that has gripped the city.
Within each campaign, players are given opportunities to enhance their character’s skills, armour and experience. Hence, actions and decisions taken by the player in-game will impact Bishop’s performance (e.g. graduating to a higher military rank, stamina); this is an aspect that has crossed-over from online role-playing games.
Player and Avatar
Within a number of game genres, including FPS, an avatar is the requisite proxy that allows the player to exert their will upon the game environment. But what does the avatar represent to the player?
When considering player involvement in the game environment, it’s a psychological experience. Whilst identifying with a character, one would imagine themselves as that character and thus temporarily transpose his own identity and role with that of his character (Cohen 2001). Identification is the process by which viewers psychologically experiences the events as though the events were occurring to them (Cohen 2001). Though Cohen was defining identification in terms of audiences identifying with a media character, it can be applied to players of digital games. For the player, the avatar represents an opportunity for the player to experience ‘somatic displacement’ (Holopainen and Meyers 2000) which is the ability to project yourself into an entity other than yourself (e.g. car, action figure, game avatar). Hence, the avatar can be thought of as the incarnation of player’s alter ego or their ‘game ego’ which Wilhelmsson (2006) describes as ‘a bodily function that enacts a point of being within the game environment through a tactile motor/kinaesthetic link’ (Wilhelmsson 2006). The avatar, taking a first person point-of-view in FPS games is less intrusive and allows for a greater projection of the player into the game world.
The avatar makes the player visible. The avatar, as a character in the gamespace, makes performance possible and desirable as it is a vehicle for creation of player artefacts.
Productive Players: Playing the Performance
When Caillois wrote that games were ‘unproductive’ (Caillois 1961), he could not have anticipated the opportunities created with the arrival of the internet nor the ‘participatory culture’ (Jenkins 2003) that is often emblematic of this medium.
Celia Pearce wrote that 'the boundaries between play and production, between work and leisure and between media production and media consumption are increasingly blurring’ (Pearce 2006) and introduces the notion of ‘productive play’ in which play is an act of production. Others have commented on the rise of the prosumer (Toffler 1980) and produsage (Bruns 2008) who willingly uses their leisure time to participate in a culture of consumption and production in order to create game-based content.
Yet what makes productive play a performance? Schechner (2002) asserted that ‘play is at the heart of performance’: that there is not performance without play. Hence, a performance takes place during the act of playing when the player is simultaneously a spectator (this even takes place when one is playing single-player). During gameplay, the players’ manipulation of the avatar means that the player is the author. A performance occurs when players produce artefacts that isolate a performance such as movies.
Furthermore, the player/producer presents them in a particular venue (e.g. YouTube, Gametrailers, GamersTube) in which the ‘performance’ can be witnessed by others. As Filiciak notes:
“The Internet is, in a sense, like a television on which everybody can star… All the time we have a feeling (more or less true) that others are watching us. The existence of audience is an absolute necessity, we simply cannot- or choose not to- exist without it" (Filiciak 2003)
Players in Production
The production of gaming artefacts is another example of the player extending engagement in tangential play in which the input of time and resources is not a consideration as it is an extension of their play.
The following sections illuminate who these players are and the types of content they created.
Ten participants took part in this study who had the following characteristics:
- Between the ages of 16 and 26
- Four lived at home / six away from home (e.g. shared university accommodation, shared accommodation)
- All based in North America (3 in Canada, 7 in the U.S.)
Of the ten people that were interviewed half had created game-based movies in which they chose to use the face-scan feature of R6V2 and graft their own face onto their avatar. The other half were players who had created game-based movies in which they often selected the faces of prominent public figures (e.g. George W. Bush), circus clowns and icons from the film world (e.g. Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, zombies, Rambo, Jason from Friday the 13th).
The participants can be thought of as being experienced gamers: the minimum number of console-based gaming experience was five years. A majority of these participants described having a preference for playing FPS games. For these participants, an average of 16 hours per week is spent gaming and gaming-related activities.
Though the resources that these participants used to create these movies varied somewhat, they process that was used was almost identical and consisted of:
- Deciding what story they wanted to capture
- Arranging the shoot (e.g. modifying game character(s), assembling other participants) Filming the event using preferred software (e.g. Neuros MP4 Recorder)
- Editing (often the most time-consuming aspect)
- Uploading to an online areas (e.g. YouTube, Gamerstube)
The movies that were examined ranged in length from three minutes to six minutes. Most (7 participants) had prior experience in the creation of movies from in-game footage. The content of these player created movies (and others) revolved around creating and capturing gaming footage in which they showed:
- Character development or ‘wardrobe mode’: The game’s protagonist, Bishop, is being shown ‘backstage’ trying on a variety of uniforms, genders and faces (e.g. Bush, Rambo)
- Wish fulfilment: 1:1 Split Screen Combat (e.g. What if George W. Bush had to battle Rambo?)
- Demonstration of competitive action: Multiplayer combat in which various players ‘dress up’ as clowns and zombies
A qualitative approach was used to investigate the process of self-produced media and players relationships with their avatars. In domains in which existing theory and concepts are limited in scopes and exploratory work is required, qualitative research is suitable for investigating this area (Cresswell 2003).
Players who had posted their player-generated content in online areas such as YouTube and Gametrailers participated in remote semi-structured interviews (VOIP + webcam, phone-based) lasting a minimum of 45 minutes. Furthermore, a brief follow-up (1 month later) semi-structured interview was conducted to get a reflective account of their subsequent game-based experiences, including assessing the degree to which participants preferred playing with a specific avatar they had customised.
R6V2 was played and the gamespace and interfaces were observed extensively. Data collection yielded transcripts, written notes and player-generated game-based footage.
The data analysis consisted of coding the textual data around codes that centred on areas such as motives, gratification derived and social interaction. These codes were then examined and collated into a smaller number of themes so as to characterise the story that emerged from this exploration.
A description of each of finding will be accompanied by quotes from participants that best encapsulate the observation and, when appropriate, be linked to comments and observations made by other researchers in related areas.
Motives for creating player-generated media
For all of the participants, the creation of player-generated movies was an extension of their playful interactions in R6V2 and a means to exert their agency (Bandura 1997) whilst demonstrating an autonomy from the games developer through their creative play. A participant who made movies in which his R6V2 avatar is depicted as a homicidal clown and Rambo said, “It’s fun making something [creating a Freddy Krueger face for his avatar Bishop] that isn’t expected and putting it in the game… It’s cool that people find ways to change the character and environment. It makes playing better ‘cause you can see different things that other players have made and not the developers” (P3, aged 19). This autonomy the player undertakes to complete this activity also creates for a sense of ownership.
For many, the uploading of a movie of multiplayer action was the creation of an artefact- a way of retaining a audio/video record of a particular gaming episode that could, potentially, facilitate social interactions with others who choose to watch and comment on what they have seen.
The use of their time and effort to produce game-based media was not viewed as problematic as this activity is a corollary activity of their association with gaming generally and R6V2 specifically. Said a participant:
“My mother doesn’t get what I do. She thinks it’s a waste of time. But I like doing this stuff. When I make movies and skins and tutorials it’s helping other people enjoy the game in a different way” (P6, aged 17).
The pleasure of play in and around R6V2 is a powerful motivator in the manufacture of artefacts from ‘productive play’ (Pearce 2006).
The content within these player-generated movies have a tendency to exhibit what McGonigal (2005) calls ‘high performance gameplay’ in which players adopt techniques to make their gameplay a more theatrical display. One participant noted:
“I can pull some cool moves. Sometimes you get people who talk sh*t about how they are going to kick you’re a*s. Sometimes I make movies when I play against these kinds of a**holes… First I demolish them then I post it [the movie] and humiliate them. Other people can see what I am capable of” (P9, aged 21).
There were various instances in which participants, when re-examining their gameplay movies pointed out colourful special moves (e.g. long-distance headshots, an ingenious flanking manoeuvre) in which players, acting through their avatar, eliminated enemy combatants with a flourish.
The player-generated movies allowed for the re-broadcast of in-game episodes that were deemed noteworthy by their creators for displaying:
- A) a novel solution to navigating specific situations
- B) how specific character customisations (e.g. their avatar as Rambo, George W. Bush) appeared in action, or
- C) a particular statement such as having a mob of opposing players fire at an avatar styled as George W. Bush.
The potential presence of an audience is an attraction in the uploading of game-based movies as this opens the possibility of interaction with others. One participant, who created a film with a split-screen of two player combat in which the participant played as Hitler whilst the other played as Bush said,
“He’s [Bush] is always talking about ‘Al Qaeda’ and ‘the terrorists’. I thought it would be cool to pit one against the other and make a movie out of it and see what people thought of it when they post [comments on message board]” (P4, aged 24).
Whilst it is not the ‘live theatre’ performance of a simultaneous online multiplayer death match, player-generated game-based movies are performance-based artefacts that need the external attention of an audience to validate the film’s creator. As Filiciak notes
'Since our actions are visible on a television or computer screen, it is there where we actually act, especially because our actions on the screen are highly visible to others…” (Filiciak 2003).
Players Relating to Their Avatar
All of the participants enjoyed having the option of deep customisation features available for modifying their avatar, Bishop. Being able to modify one’s avatar was highly important.
“[Commenting on the avatar he plays with regularly] This is how I want to look in the game. This is what I want them [his opponents] to see coming at them” (P7, aged 18).
“I know that it’s a FPS and most of the time I don’t see myself in the game, but I like to make sure that I’ve got on the right gear. It puts you in the game more” (P4, aged 24).
An even greater sense of embodiment and identification was felt from the participants who opted to do a face scan and have their face grafted onto their avatar.
"It’s cool how much it [his avatar] looks like me. I feel like I take the game even more seriously because I am, literally, in it. [Does he think he plays more intently due to this?] That’s a good question. I know I’m more aware that I don’t want to get shot. And I use this character [one with the participant’s face] the most” (P5, aged 22).
Participants did seem to have a greater bond with the avatars for whom they had customised with a different face or their own face. They were creating something that they felt good about playing and being.
"It feels like it’s more of my own character because it is my own character. I keep experimenting with the [zombie] face because I really want people to get kinda freaked by it and associate it with me” (P8, aged 16).
Again, the player’s sense of control, independence and desire to be a spectacle are present in the creative act of providing wardrobe and make-up to one’s avatar. The player customised avatar supports the player’s ability to more deeply inhabit the avatar.
Features such as face scanning and player creativity are producing digital experiences that enable a greater variety of performance and identification.
As is often the case with research, more questions are raised: Is this simply a lifestage activity for those under the age of 30? To what extent are these types of players satisfied with the benefits received in the exchange of their time, effort and resources for these activities?
Digital games are actively creating new models in which power relations between players and developers is constantly negotiated and re-evaluated. What is evident is that activities in and around digital games raise questions about the distinctness of boundaries such as play, work, production and consumption.
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