I am a Paddle, I am a Stalker, I am a Game: Locating the Player in the Zone of Becoming

Souvik Mukherjee

A second explosion in the Chernobyl nuclear plant has created a blighted and irradiated expanse, where the player, a mercenary explorer locally called a ‘stalker’ awakes with no knowledge of his past and little hope for the future. The locale described above is, of course, fictional. It is to be found in the computer game, S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl and is an area called ‘the Zone’, a concept borrowed from the science-fiction novel Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers and Andrey Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. As in both these pre-texts, the ‘Zone’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R also is a constantly mutating area fraught with danger and possibility. It is the place where multiple identities can be formed, mutated and interchanged and where the very existence of the player is dependent on shifting levels of possibility. As such, this metaphor of the ‘Zone’, taken from a videogame itself as well as its pre-texts, is an apt one for describing and redefining a key element in game studies: the identity of the player. This metaphor also combines well with the concept of the zone of intensity and possibility in the work of the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. In this ‘zone’, the formation of identities takes place as a continual process referred to as a ‘becoming’ in Deleuzoguattarian terms. In a sense, then, the player’s identity can be seen as developing through a complex process in the ‘zone of becoming’. This paper will aim to introduce the metaphor of the ‘zone of becoming’ into current discussions in game studies as a more compelling way of understanding the process of identity formation in videogames.

The backdrop to any new discussion on identity consists of a vast range of issues especially associated with previous research on immersiveness and involvement in computer games. Janet Murray famously compared the player’s experience to that of the Holodeck in the Star Trek series. She describes this experience as ‘immersion’ and comments that ‘we seek the same feeling from a psychologically immersive experience that we do from a plunge in the ocean or swimming pool’ 1. The Holodeck analogy, though attractive, is problematic for a number of reasons. Later commentators such as Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman have objected to the total submersion in the medium that the analogy suggests. Further, the similarities that Murray might see between the holodeck and first-person games are superficial and much more problematic than she claims.

In Star Trek, Lt-Commander Data plays at solving mysteries in-character as Sherlock Holmes just like the player of Half-Life 2 wears the HEV suit and answers to the name of Gordon Freeman; Data, however, does not have the same problematic experience of identity as a videogame player. The player obviously cannot ‘walk into’ the game as Data does: her identity is a composite of her real-life identity and that of the in-game character. In the case of third-person games, the camera is another problematic issue: the holodeck user does not have to see herself inhabiting the body of a different character, sometimes of a different gender. Further, the game characters cannot become sentient and interfere with reality as they can in some cases in the holodeck. Finally, the holodeck analogy does not account for the simultaneous identification with multiple characters that is possible in RTS games like Age of Empires where the player embodies various characters or even groups of characters all at the same time.

According to Salen and Zimmerman, in opposition to what they call ‘the immersive fallacy’, issues of involvement and identification need to be conceived differently:

A player's relationship to a game character he or she controls is not a simple matter of direct identification. Instead, a player relates to a game character through the double-consciousness of play. A protagonist character is a persona through which a player exerts him or herself into an imaginary world; the relationship can be intense and emotionally "immersive". However, at the same time, the character is a tool, a puppet, an object for the player to manipulate according to the rules of the game. In this sense, the player is fully aware of the character as an artificial construct.2

The awareness of the character as an artificial construct is a significant move away from Murray’s position. As opposed to immersion, it seems to connect to Gonzalo Frasca’s neologism ‘outmersion’, which implies the player’s capacity to view the game from outside. Frasca also speaks of ‘meta-outmersion’ where the player distances herself from the game in order to critically analyze it- this can only occur when the player becomes self-aware of outmersion itself. Such conceptions are not new to videogames. Gary Alan Fine, applying Erving Goffman’s method of frame-analysis, made similar observations about role-playing board-games. In Goffman’s schema, the shift from one frame to another is characterized by a process of intense involvement or what he calls ‘engrossment’. In a way, all of these accounts relate to Salen and Zimmerman’s term ‘double consciousness’. The point, however, is whether such a ‘doubleness’ implies a binary formulation where the player and the character occupy distinctly separate frames and whether, therefore, the involvement and identification occurs one at a time.

It is possible to infer, as James Newman does, that this ‘doubleness’ involves an ‘Offline’ state such as manuals and cutscenes where the character identity is built and an ‘Online’ state where the gameplay happens. Salen and Zimmerman’s model, however, indicates a greater level of complexity. The identification with the character(s) occurs on a multiplicity of levels. Frasca observes that the player moves from ‘outmersion’ to ‘immersion’ but does not discuss the nature of the transition. For example, when playing Breakout it is clear that the player is not a paddle; yet, after David Sudnow’s eloquent description of his playing experience it is difficult to be so sure:

Playing Breakout again and again, through the slow phase and fast […] I hit slam after slam after slam, and was nodding, and bobbing, and tapping. I was learning to feel it go fast and go slow, to feel how fast fast is from this slow and that.3

The 'I' of his account is a complex identity - it isn't just himself as a human player, it is also an identification with the paddle on the computer screen which is hitting the ball 'slam after slam'. The experience of the speed as described by him is also important: he speaks of 'going fast and going slow' whereas most probably his body is not moving at these speeds but the paddle onscreen that changes speed. Sudnow's description shows that the engagement with the game can be immense whether or not the game environment is realistic and the point-of-view that of a first person game. The identification with the paddle, even in a simple game like Breakout, shows a high level of complexity when the shift from one frame to another is contemplated. In a game with multiple ‘controllable’ characters, such as RTS games like Age of Empires, the issue takes another dimension.

In this case, it is possible that the player keeps shifting her identification with different elements in the game. As the participants in a research interview, conducted by Newman, claimed, 'they didn’t consider themselves to be a single Tetris block so much as every Tetris block whether falling, fallen or yet to fall' 4. From the above examples, it is evident that the identification that occurs between the player and the game is a varied experience comprising of various ways of experiencing points-of-view and to equate it simply with the holodeck-experience would be erroneous. Similarly, the oversimplified binary conception of identity, interpreting ‘double consciousness’ literally as divisible into the discrete categories of ludic character and non-ludic self, needs to be avoided as well. A more representative description of the experience would be to call it a ‘multiple consciousness’.

Within this multiplicity, the ‘frames’ of identity need to be conceived as a continual process instead of discrete units of identification. Such a continuum will also explain the multiple identification with the game elements, as described by Newman’s interviewees. For the latter, the multiplicity described does not only include actualized instances of Tetris blocks but also all the possible ones. The identification, therefore, occurs within a ‘zone of possibility’.

This analysis started with a description of such a ‘Zone’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R, a space where events are continually in process and which is subjected to radioactive mutation. As a Stalker waking into the game-world as an amnesiac, the player does not have a fixed identity but rather one that develops with the mutual interaction between herself and the 'Zone’. This process has clear similarities with some key concepts in Deleuzian thought and it can be seen that the complexity of the process of identification in videogames can be more adequately analysed within a Deleuzian framework. Manuel DeLanda commenting on Deleuzian multiplicity describes a ‘space of possibility’ similar to the ‘Zone’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R and in his Cinema books Deleuze himself introduces the concept of a non-homogenous space where ‘linkages can be made in an infinite number of ways’. He calls it the affective zone or the ‘any-space-whatever’. This space exists in-between perception and action: it is, as it were, throbbing with possible events, much like the fictitious radioactive ‘Zone’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

Deleuzian analyses of cinema have already noted the similarity. Commenting on the ‘Zone’ in Tarkovsky’s cinematic pre-text, one of the conceptual sources of S.T.A.L.K.E.R, Anna Powell observes that in the film, there is an ‘overt stretching out of the affective interval between action and perception’ and that ‘as Zone and viewer, screen and brain intersect … [and] make an unformed hiatus of waiting, with potential for unexpected change’ 5. The similarity of Powell’s Deleuzian account of the ‘Zone’ in the film with its videogame counterpart is indeed striking.

In the game, the Stalker builds up his identity through a series of actions, which also determine his fate. For example, if he is avaricious and spends most of his time hoarding money, then he is very likely to be smothered under an endless shower of gold. There is, of course, always the possibility to keep changing the identity by acting differently within the system. The last words, ‘within the system’, are significant: just as identity formation cannot be conceived of without thinking about action, it is similarly impossible to see action as solely what is input by the player. As commentators like Galloway observe, the actions of the machine-algorithm exist in a constant feedback with those of the player.

In the ‘Zone’, the player constantly is in a state of becoming: she develops her identity as momentary actualisations of multiple possibilities. The ‘Zone’ is therefore a ‘Zone of becoming’. Becoming is also one of the main concepts of Deleuzoguattarian thought and is characterised by an intense involvement which can only be understood as a multiple and continual process. The similarities observed between the Deleuzian ‘affective zone’ and the ‘Zone of becoming’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R can now be explored further in terms of this process of ‘becoming’.

In the Deleuzoguattarian conception, ‘becoming’ carries more meanings beyond its common connotations. For Deleuze and Guattari,

a becoming is not a correspondence between relations. But neither is it a resemblance, an imitation, or, at the limit, an identification … Becomings-animal are neither dreams nor phantasies. They are perfectly real … if becoming-animal does not consist in playing animal or imitating an animal, it is clear that the human being does not "really" become an animal any more than the animal "really" becomes something else. Becoming produces nothing other than itself. We fall into a false alternative if we say that either you imitate or you are. What is real is the becoming itself, the block of becoming, not the supposedly fixed terms through which that becomes passes.6

Under this scheme of things, it is clear that the human subject does not take up a single new identity. Rather, the Deleuzoguattarian 'block of becoming', is synthetic and is a process. In fact, instead of establishing connections through filiation, the block of becoming operates through a process analogous to symbiosis. Involvement in gameplay functions very like the formation of the 'block of becoming’ mentioned above. It works between the player and the game-algorithm existing as a symbiotic system where the two elements are separate and yet one. In terms of frame-analysis, they are separate frames and yet part of the same composite frame. The alliance between the two entities is effected through the process of synthesis in the machinic zone of becoming. The process of becoming occurs for all the entities: player, game and machine. The player in 'becoming' a character in the game also 'becomes' part of the game algorithm. This does not mean that she loses her identity. She does not take the identity of a single element or simultaneously of multiple elements in the game; instead she 'inhabits' these in the sense of sharing in them. As Claire Colebrook observes, ‘becoming’ involves both contracting from the flow of life so as to become the perceiver of things from outside, as well as being one with the flow and becoming imperceptible. The transition from outmersion to immersion or from one frame of identity to another can be understood as part of this fluid process.

The ‘Zone of becoming’ in S.T.A.L.K.E.R is, therefore, the space where the player experiences a becoming-stalker. On the one hand, she is conscious of being outside the game and of interacting with the game through a mouse, keyboard or gamepad while on the other, she is a Stalker in Chernobyl wielding an AK-74 submachine gun and both these states are intrinsic to each other during gameplay. A player walkthrough of S.T.A.L.K.E.R instructs: ‘You can "stand" on the ledge of the masonary (sic) wall and hug the house to get atop the roof.’ 7 Though the verbs in this sentence imply that the actions are possible in reality, it should be noted that the writer has put 'stand' within quotation marks indicating a dichotomy between real and virtual actions. Bodily actions need not be perceived totally, either from a real-life perspective or from the perspective of gameplay because the body remains in a state of 'becoming', as an in-between entity.

As a process characterized by multiplicity, ‘becoming’ occurs on many planes. The development of the machinic identity of the player where the mouse and the screen become part of her identity can be seen as a ‘becoming-machine’. The continuum of frames in which the player is involved in Breakout or S.T.A.L.K.E.R is a becoming-character; moreover, when the player simultaneously relates to many elements like the assembled units in RTS games or when she connects to the game-system itself - with its rules, community and peripheral elements – the ‘becoming-character’ is also a ‘becoming-game’.

The model of ‘becoming-game’ retains the sense of intensity that characterises such ludic involvement, while also accounting for the multiple consciousness that the player experiences. The action-based development of identity in videogames is much better described as such a process rather than a holodeck-style immersiveness that does not account for the medium or the influence of action on identity formation. The older conception of gameplay as being characterized by immersion was limited because it implied being submerged below a certain plane. The actual process of gameplay is, however, much less restrictive and is characterized by an interplay between various aspects of the ludic involvement. When the frantic mouse-clicks of the player result in bursts of machine-gun fire on the computer screen or when the player's shadow on the wall and her shadow on the deserted streets of Chernobyl makes her wonder which is real, a change is in progress. Gameplay is now 'becoming' and the player is continually being redefined in her interaction with the ‘Zone of becoming’.

Notes

1 Murray, Janet, Hamlet on the Holodeck : the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York ; London: Free Press, 1997), p. 98
2 Salen, Katie, and Eric Zimmerman, Rules of Play : Game Design Fundamentals (Cambridge, Mass. ; London: MIT, 2003), p. 453
3 Sudnow, David, Pilgrim in the Microworld (London: Heinemann, 1983), p. 39, http://www.sudnow.com/PMW.pdf
[accessed 28.05.08]
4 Newman, James, 'The Myth of the Ergodic Videogame', Game Studies, 2, no. 1 (July 2002). http://www.gamestudies.org/0102/newman/ [accessed: 26.05.08]
5 Anna Powell, Deleuze, Altered States and Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007). p 139
6 Deleuze, Gilles, and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus : Capitalism and Schizophrenia, Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1987, trans. by Brian Massumi (London: Continuum, 2004), p.262.
7 S.T.A.L.K.E.R – Shadow of Chernobyl Game Guide, IGN.com, guides.ign.com/guides/480467/page_5.html
[accessed 25.05.2008]

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