Play Journal #5

This week’s readings focused primarily on avatars and identity. Perhaps the topic we engaged in the most thoroughly this week was the overlap between identity and interactivity, or at least the perception of their overlap. Regarding this, Adrienne Shaw’s lens of identification either “as” or “with” was what I wanted to use to pick through the object of my play this week, Borderlands 3.

For Shaw, much of the trouble with talking about identity in video games is the easy and common assumption that identifying ‘with’ and identifying ‘as’ are one and the same. After working through what identifying in opposition or by difference means using Lara Croft as an example (55), Shaw returns to a more traditional example of identifying with a cultural figure. When describing a friend’s connection to Mary J. Blige, Shaw notes that the identification her friend had with Blige based on their shared race, gender, and style was “superficial” compared to a “specifically affective identification with the singer’s music and experiences” (71). Going on to explore the concept of representation via cultural figures, Shaw finds that purely physical characteristics are not necessarily at the heart of someone identifying with a character or feeling represented by them (while “race, gender, and age” are important, “they are not all that matter” (73).) I am cautious to use much of this in application to myself, since Shaw makes it clear that her hypotheses are not necessarily intended for application to white male identities (92).

As I mentioned in a prior post, I have been playing the Borderlands series for a while now. In most of these games, players must choose between one of four class types. The rough pattern these follow are: tank (high health, good melee damage), ranged/marksperson (built for sniper rifles), stealth/mage (able to sneak up for massive (techno)magic attacks), and all-around (often featuring some kind pet or companion turret.) Though I have completed (sometimes multiple) playthroughs with every much every class across all of the games, I always use the tank class first and usually the most often I personally find it the most forgiving due to high health and ammo regeneration, which make it easier to play alone. As a small aside: I definitely believe that this is because, when playing alone, I am usually not trying to overly challenge myself. Dying does not keep me engaged in the game, it frustrates my ability to put identification ‘with’ by the way side in the name of escapist interaction (akin to Shaw’s ‘Rusty’ subject (92).) Therefore, this choice of character can be seen as simply validating Shaw’s claim that “interactivity of gameplay may overshadow the importance of identification” ‘with’ any particular in-game character for me (97)).

However, I cannot ignore the fact that the tank character is frequently not only the easiest to keep alive, but the most able to inflict bodily harm. All characters possess a special ability, and the tank’s usually put them in a bloodthirsty state of rage geared for hyperaggressive close-quarters combat. As I have mentioned in a previous week, Moze (the tank character for Borderlands 3) enters a heavily-armed mech suit during this state, while other iterations have simply pulled out a melee weapon or a second short range weapon. Tearing minor enemies limb-from-limb is not a type of gameplay I enjoy, so I often have used this ability defensively for its temporary healing factor while running away from whatever firefight I have wandered into. The few times I have used the ability as the developers intended I have found to be moments of disidentification, where I become even less associated with or as my projected identity. The actions a tank is designed to do are fundamentally disjunctive with my desired interaction in the world, yet they are also the actions that define the character. Though Shaw questions whether “people who disidentify with particular forms of action or forms of humor pushed out of certain genres or media,” I wonder what this means for when the disjunctive action is an option that can be avoided (90).  

I would also like to take a brief moment and explore the role of the voice in the Borderlands series. Since there is so little dialogue in the game, much of how the audience identifies with the character has been through their vocalizations (grunts, moans, etc.) Just as the first-person perspective can “blend enclosure and embodiment,” adding a voice to the supposed character can bring this sense even further- not just eyes and ears, but mouth as well (Rehak 14). However, one thing I have noticed is that the characters in the latest Borderlands installment scream more frequently than before, especially in pain. In fact, there was a recent patch that specifically listed in the notes that it made a boss scream less. Though I have begun to notice it less (perhaps due to another patch I did not catch,) the fact that both my character and my enemies continue to loudly scream about their bodies being on fire is extremely disruptive to my experience, removing me even further from any aspect of subjective game space, either ‘with’ or ‘as.’