Tuesday, November 29, 2011

THESIS: "Partners in Crime: The Relationship Between the Playable Character and the Videogame Player"



If you have been following me on any kind of social media network this year, you've probably heard me mention once or twice that I've been writing an Honours* thesis in Communication and Cultural Studies at The University of Queensland. Well, I submitted it about a month ago and today the marks finally got released. It would seem I got a First, which essentially means I received some mark above 80%. So this is great!

And now that marks are finalised, I can finally let you fine people read it, if you wish. If you want it, and if I have done this correctly, you should be able to get it from this link.

If in all my social media network rantings I never actually mentioned what I was doing, here is my abstract:


This thesis creates a space for videogame criticism to account for the playable character’s role in the shaping of the player’s experience. Just as the player defines certain actions and characteristics of the playable character, so too do the character’s actions and characteristics shape the player’s experience. The two exist in an intimate coupling where intention and action start with neither actor but in the flow of information and agency between them.

To account for how meaning is produced in videogame play the videogame critic must account not only for the player’s agency and actions but also for how the player is acted upon. Players interact with videogames textually as fictional worlds embedded with actual imperatives that afford and constraint different styles of play. While most videogame scholars acknowledge the role of the playable character as a vehicle through which the player navigates and configures this world, rarely is its mediating effect on the player fully recognised. In discourses surrounding videogame play it is not unlikely for the terms “player” and “character” to be used interchangeably when discussing the agent that acts within the videogame’s fictional world. This uncertainty as to just who is acting highlights a gap in the existing literature on playable characters and their significance towards the production of textual meaning.

Engaging with actor-network theory and cyborg theory to understand videogame play as cybernetic, this thesis demonstrates how the playable character’s nonhuman agency—independent of the player’s intentions—can be accounted for. It explores how the agencies of both player and playable character intertwine and mediate each other to form a hybrid actor, the player-character, which is the actual actor that navigates both the actual and fictional worlds encompassed in videogame play. Finally, through a textual analysis of Grand Theft Auto IV, this thesis demonstrates how the player-character hybrid can be deployed to account for the playable character’s role in the production of the videogame text’s meaning.


So there you go. If this sounds relevant to your interests, please give it a read and let me know what you think.

(*For those of you in countries where university doesn't have an Honours year, it is this kind of bridging, research year you do right at the end of your undergraduate degree, usually (though not always) if you want to go onto postgraduate work. So this isn't quite on the level of a Masters or PhD dissertation, so don't expect such a thing!)

9 comments:

Allan Weallans said...

First of all, congratulations on your success.

Secondly, this is really interesting to me. Part of my PhD involves using a "virtual user" to represent the player in a way the AI character agents can understand. Essentially, it's about making the agents believe that the player is another agent, so that they can use their Theory of Mind techniques to predict the emotional impact of their actions and therefore shape the player experience.

To do this, we have created a selection of pre-authored roles for the player, to create a baseline from which other characters can predict the impact of their actions. One thing that occurred to me, however, is that as much as we can't throw the player into the narrative without the contextualisation of a role (not least because then the other characters wouldn't have anything on which to base their Theory of Mind stuff, but also for reasons you mention related to fiction comprehension and the delineation of affordances and constraints), we also can't assume that the player will be perfectly aligned with the authored role provided. It seems to me like what the virtual user really is, then, is a representation of your player-character hybrid.

I think your work helps to answer a lot of questions I've been turning over in my head about this virtual user idea, particularly about how to justify it and explain what it is in my own thesis. So it's very relevant and useful to me. Thanks!

Brendan said...

Allan,

That sounds really interesting! I'm super stoked that my own research might be somehow useful to yours and would love to hear what you think if you get to read it and if you actually use it. Let me know how it goes!

And thanks for the congrats. I'm really proud with how it turned out after the many, many, many nights. :)

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jodittaylor said...

Wow! It’s rare to see grad student that are taking their thesis about videogame topic. Well, it would certainly made you unique, and really tell that you know what you are doing with you paper. And from the looks of it, you really does write part of your paper great.

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