A cyborg type of social

Centipede, my childhood companion.

Inspired by A.’s recent post here, as well as by a simply astounding book I’ve been reading, I’ve been thinking a lot about this whole “going solo” business.

I agree that we shouldn’t somehow position those who game alone as “sad.” Frankly, that’s  just silly.  I don’t think that studying social interaction around games is overemphasizing the social, but it’s a good point that those who do study the social online also need to keep in mind the solo dimension. It’s important to pay attention to going solo because there are a lot of game-playing people who don’t play the “social” games like WoW (more than those who do, in fact). But it’s also because playing by yourself is a huge part of playing the “social” games, as well. In WoW, as A. points out, a tremendous amount of game play is actually done alone – leveling, for example, is largely a solo activity. Even when you play “with other people” in, for example, a pick-up-group (PUG) to run a dungeon, there’s essentially no conversation; you might as well be playing alone for all the sociability that experience has.

But for me, part of the joy of going solo is actually the relationships. Yes, relationships. Bear with me, here. When I read a good book (like this 2nd installment of The Kingkiller Chronicle I’m reading… amazing), I get so engrossed in the characters, their world, their story, that it doesn’t actually feel like I’m alone. As I read that book, the pains of the characters hit me in my gut; their joys make me flush with happiness; their fears make me tremble anxiously. Don’t look at me like that. You know you’ve done it, too. I mean, what fun is a movie, for example, if you don’t jump when the hero is attacked or cry when she loses her love?

Indeed, I think much of my own obsession with books as a young kid – and later with video games – was appealing because I felt as though I was part of this whole world of amazing other entities. My only-child existence was a little less only for a few hours as I poured over those pages and lived the adventures of those characters. When I finish the really good books, I find myself actually missing the characters; I sometimes even catch myself wondering what they’re up to “now.”

Video games are the same for me. I recently watched a trailer for one of my favorite games, The Longest Journey. Just watching the characters and listening to the music gave me pangs of nostalgia not only  for the amazing experience of playing, but also for the characters, the world, the imagery – for the object that is the game itself and for all the objects that make up the game.

Bruno Latour says that we have relationships not only with other humans, but also with objects – that things like books or computers or even my mouse or my chair have meaning in our life. So, he says, the relationships we have with those things shouldn’t be put onto a lower tier than relationships with humans. He argues that the network of our lives includes all those relationships because they all  have meaning. In other words, we don’t construct what it is to be social (or anti-social, for that matter) based on our interaction with humans alone, but also based on our relationships with objects.

Folks like Donna Haraway emphasize that our interactions with objects and bodies are constructed by our ideas about them. She calls us all “cyborgs,” because those ideas are deeply embedded with things (machines literally as well as metaphorically)  and because our affinity with that otherness becomes part of who we are. For Haraway, “taking intense pleasure in machines” (2003, p.490) is part of making the machine us; and the machines are an aspect of embodiment itself. As a result, we are made up of both the”natural” as well as the “artificial.” She urges us to examine the edges, the cyborg, the hybrid, the chimera – perhaps even by seeing the social in the solo.

Some might call my thrill and nostalgia for characters in The Longest Journey parasocial relationships – “one-sided” ones that I get really involved in, but the characters don’t “know” anything about me. For me, calling those relationships parasocial is too reminiscent of the accusation that they are “odd,” or as A. puts it, “sad” – a view that really just misses the point (and tempts us to mistake them for unimportant). But whatever the framework you want to use to describe them, our relationships with those games, books, characters, and technologies are all part of our understanding of ourselves, including being alone (which from one perspective, we always are, no matter how much we talk to other people) and being social (which from another perspective, we are always constructing, whether it be with people or characters or objects). As a result, relationships with characters, games, and objects – yes, even little centipede heads crawling down the screen – can be just as meaningful as relationships with people.

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8 responses to “A cyborg type of social

  1. Great insightful article!
    It reminded me of playing WoW and bringing out a companion pet when I was out questing in the world. It felt more comforting and I guess somewhere I could engage in the relationship that I imagined my character had to the pet and get a sense of not being alone through them.
    You mentioned how we form relations to things, and it makes me wonder how well NPC’s can fill the social role as well.

  2. This is an extremely interesting post! (And one I came to quite late.)

    I wonder, do you consider your relationship with your avatar (in Warcraft, for example) a similar one to the characters in the books? Or is the avatar part of your body?

    For me, I find that the avatar exists somewhere in between those two states; I have trouble describing it. Wondering about your thoughts on this.

  3. @Lauren: First, thanks for the kind words! I would say the ones in books are very different: those are people i feel almost as though i’m hanging out with. My Lantana is much more an extension of myself, although she does have some identity of her own (for example, I say “she” :). But I do kind of miss her when i don’t log on for a while, as though she were a friend I haven’t seen in some time. As you say, it’s somewhere in between “Me” and “someone else.”

    I think the core thing about my relationship with Lantana my avatar in WoW is that I basically don’t have a sense of her having a separate personality or agency, whereas book characters do in some part of my mind.

    • Thanks for your response! I’m curious as to whether you have experience in the roleplaying culture in WoW; my character was “born” in the roleplaying culture even though I rarely roleplay these days. From that experience, I get the sense that she very much has her own agency, but not all the time. I can selectively activate it in certain contexts. I think a lot of roleplayers feel the same way. Have you encountered this in your work at all?

      I am very interested in these issues as well, for how they affect language use in virtual worlds. For instance, name reference — Warcraft folks call me “Ska” after my character, even we interact in real life, and even when they know my real name. And when do we say “she” to refer to the avatar, and when do we say “I”? It’s an intriguing boundary issue.

      (P.S. I love Rothfuss’s work as well, he really pulled me in to his world!)

      • Actually, i don’t have any experience RPing in WoW (to speak of – played on an RP server some, but very little RP action). I had more exposure to that in Second Life, but never did actually *do* it.

        The name thing fascinates me, too. I have a few friends – met pre-WoW – whom i call by their WoW nicknames, and some people I’ve met in WoW still call me Lan, even in person. It’s a funny tihng how we move back and forth between “she” and “I” when we talk about our avatars… there *is* actually a paper in that we’re working on (if slowly :).

      • ps see my post about starting on the RP server if you’re curious :)
        https://wowmusings.wordpress.com/2009/06/26/role-playing-with-acutal-people/

      • I can’t seem to post a reply to your reply, so I hope this is clear that it’s in response to your 5:32 AM/5:41 AM comments.

        I enjoyed your post on “role playing things”, although I think you’re right that that’s not the kind of RP most people would think of in the game world. It’s interesting how there are levels of suspension of disbelief — some that everybody does without realizing (or caring), like interpreting the code as objects, and some that few people do.
        This is an extremely interesting phenomenon. I have a guildmate who has appeared in my studies a few times who is a pretty heavy roleplayer although she is an advanced raider as well. A couple of years ago (perhaps you remember) there was a glitch where warlock pets got renamed after a patch, and this particular player was extremely upset that her warlock’s imp had been renamed. She felt that it wasn’t “her” imp anymore, that it was some strange imp who had replaced hers; since the imp had been part of her character’s story, she became extremely jarred when the imp could be subject to such things as game glitches.

        I am also interested in the details of your “she/I” paper, would you mind if I e-mailed you about it? (I am doing a bit of work that skirts around that area, I would love to share ideas with you!)

  4. @Lauren: sure, please feel free to email me! lantanasham@gmail.com. sorry i didn’t see this before!

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