Opinion: Identity in games
The topic of ‘personal identity’ in philosophy is a knotty one, as Julian Baggini’s recent book, The Ego Trick, shows. What guarantees that you are the same person from one day to the next, or from one decade to the next? Some thinkers favour a story about psychological consistency, which others attempt to challenge with fantastical parables. Suppose that, through some magic sci-fi process, you suddenly underwent ‘fission’, so that there were now two identical human beings who shared all your thoughts and memories. Which one would be ‘you’? Both? Neither?
One day, perhaps, the evolved progeny of videogames might play with the fluidity of time and character to furnish a kind of dynamic laboratory for such thought experiments. Currently, however – with marginal exceptions such as Braid, Echochrome, and perhaps Chubby Drizzle – they force us into a tiny set of roles that are crudely static and strangely vacant, as well as geosocially myopic.
Who was I, for instance, in the Modern Warfare games? I was a favoured clutch of guns. You will ask me in vain for the names of the variously accented and moustachio’d soldiers I inhabited, but I do recall vividly that I adored the M4A1 superior all-purpose face-shooting gadget (preferably with a grenade-launcher attachment), and as backup the warm close-quarters precision of an MP5, whereas my co-op friend is a high priest of the cult of the AK-47. In such games, the weapons have more character than the characters do. The fetishistically accurate looks and use-personality of an MP5 give it a far more robust and consistent ‘personal identity’ than is allowed to any of the grunts you temporarily control. (This is extended brilliantly in Far Cry 2, whose guns age and begin to creak, just like humans.)
The monstrously entertaining Lost Planet 2, though, offers an intriguing reversal of the norm: it is the weapons that are genericised and anonymous, known merely by the labels ‘rifle’, ‘shotgun’, and so forth. In each ‘chapter’ of the game, meanwhile, ‘you’ are a member of a different faction, all of whom appear to be at each others’ throats until, at the finale, they all, rather touchingly, agree to cooperate in order to defeat an enormous glowing blob whose implacable blobular enormity threatens to plunge the planet into a new ice age, or something (I am paraphrasing slightly). The diversity of roles is only superficial, in that every character moves similarly, yet playing a set of kinetically inspired levels as a Sand Pirate did in some way teach me to love those foul-mouthed criminals.
There is a way, too, in which videogames reveal something about the player’s own ‘personal identity’, in that they are complex enough to sustain a style of play that remains recognisable as yours over time. In co-op shooters, my friend likes to storm around going all Rambo with his beloved Kalashnikov, while I hang back firing single shots, jonesing for that pink mist. It’s a good tactical combination, and so over the years we have each made every disposable ‘character’ in all the shooters we have played as much like ourselves as possible. Videogame characters, after all, are inert until someone plays them. And when you play them, you change them, or at least you change what is, in a dynamic warlike context, essential to them: not their polygonal fizzogs or fatuous scripted clichés, but their behaviour. So any playable dude from Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 (as I played it) has more in common with a dude from Lost Planet 2 (as I played it) than he does with another dude in his own game (as someone else played it). In this way, ‘personal identity’ in videogames is really an emergent, intertextual phenomenon.
You can treat videogames in this way as devices for exploring (or at least revealing one aspect of) the player’s own personhood, but could they also be devices for exploring the personhood of others? Could they one day be vehicles for enlarging our imaginative sympathies, as some people suppose novels are? Maybe, if they get a lot more sophisticated, and ditch the cultural imperialism for good measure. (Aren’t you tired of ‘being’ an American in games? Even if you are an American? Even if you’re in space? Why aren’t there more iconic videogame protagonists who are German or Swedish, let alone Nigerian or Chilean?) Perhaps in 30 years most of the protagonists in games will be Chinese. But they will also still all be ‘me’. That could work in a creatively uncanny sense (I experience the rich, persuasive simulation of another person as ‘me’) or it could just be business as usual (I happily shoot people in they face the way I always do, except ‘I’ am hoarsely yelling sweet nothings in Mandarin while I do it). Until then, beneath the sounds of chattering gunfire and excitably farting French horns, I will periodically hear Bob Dylan’s quizzically hostile croak: ‘Who are you, anyway?’