What Is The Player?
It’s a weird question, I know, and you’re probably thinking ‘well, I am’. (You might get as far as ‘… aren’t I?’ and decide you need a cup of tea, which is perfectly understandable.)
Let’s quickly address the obvious answer, then: the player is a person who’s interacting with a console, computer system or other device in order to ‘play’ a game. Cool.
Well, with that answered, let’s wrap this up –
Okay, so that’s not really what I wanted to get at. We’ve established that the player exists in the real world and interacts with the game world, but that’s where it stops being so simple. The real question I want to look at is more accurately something like this:
What Is The Player When Defined As An Entity Within The Fictional Reality Represented In The Video Game That They Are Playing?
It’s less pithy, unfortunately.
Let’s break it down, then: what we’re looking at here isn’t anything at all to do with the player as a human being in the ‘real world’ (a topic I intend to address before too long, as I first promised a long time ago!), but what kind of existence the player has within the game itself. It becomes a philosophical question about how the entity that is the player in the outside world manifests, if it indeed does so, in a different world entirely. Even within this more specific framing, though, there are a few ways to address the question, so we’ll break it down further in a moment.
First, though, a note on why this is a question worth asking and one worth seeking an answer to.
With that out of the way, onwards in our quest for knowledge!
The Player As Character
One interpretation of what the player might exist as within a game world, therefore, is a character like any other. There are two ways of viewing this, I think: firstly, that the player inhabits, or essentially is, the viewpoint character under their control; secondly, that the player is a separate character but nonetheless has the same type of existence as any of the other characters within the game.
We’ll think about both of these perspectives, and each of them will undoubtedly lead to more questions, but first, a short treatise on what the heck I mean by a ‘character’ anyway.
Characters in games are much the same as characters in other media: they’re fictional representations of people (or sentient other-species beings), effectively, created with certain personality traits so that they can interact with each other as well as causing and reacting to outside events. When we read a book, or watch a film, we think of the characters as being people with thoughts, feelings and motivations (unless they are written conspicuously badly), and we feel a kind of abstracted empathy for them. We want them to succeed or to fail so that we can feel satisfied by how the story treats them, and we observe them as the events of the story occur around or among them.
The primary difference that gaming characters bear from other sorts of fictional characters is that the player is not just an observer. Usually we take an outside view, unable to affect the outcome of the story, simply seeing it unfold before us; in games, we more directly adopt the perspective of one or more characters (or, sometimes, a third-person non-constrained thing akin to a narrator, but this is another case entirely that we’ll come to later on!). We then affect the events within the world in line with our viewpoint character’s motivations, which in turn may affect how things turn out for the other characters in that world.
We tend to adopt in-character thinking when we’re absorbed in a game (unless it’s something like a strategy game in which the player assumes the role of a country or force rather than a single character – or if the player is very conscious of technical skill or metagame and therefore doesn’t really get into character or interact meaningfully with the world and its story). What I mean by this is that players may think ‘I want to save the princess’ rather than ‘Mario wants to save the princess’: not ‘Mario needs to jump over that pit’ but ‘I need to jump’.
We therefore have a possible perspective on the nature of the player: when engaged in a game, the player in some sense becomes, or adopts the identity of, the character they’re controlling.
Some games will outright address the player as a separate entity, which confuses things a little bit. In this case, if we want to stick with the ‘player as character’ argument, we might claim that the player is a different, unidentified character who exists separately to the playable protagonist. That is to say that within the world of the game, there exists another being whose nature is very much alike to all the other beings, who just likes to sort of watch over the protagonist’s shoulder or offer guidance. There might even be a physical being wandering behind the protagonist, ever out-of-shot – but this starts to just become odd from a common-sense point of view. What I mean by their nature being alike is more in the sense that they exist solely in that world or dimension and are bound by the same rules as all the other beings therein.
I don’t particularly like this formulation of the hypothesis purely because it seems to add more elements than are required to make sense of things, but equally it seems difficult to stick with the claim that the player fundamentally is or becomes the viewpoint character. The player has access to things that we must assume the protagonist doesn’t: pause menus, non-diegetic HUDs (indeed, any elements of the medium that are assumed to be not within the universe: text boxes, for example, we don’t imagine as actually appearing in the game world unless it’s a particularly fourth-wall-breaking title), and perhaps most crucially the ability to simply leave the world of the game at any time and return to what we’ll here refer to, for convenience, as reality.
Still, we need some sort of explanation as to what the player is. We must be able to argue that the player maintains a kind of existence within the game world: otherwise how are they able to not only perceive, but interact with it?
The Player As Guiding Force
Let’s move on to what might seem like a fairly sensible view about how a player’s will manifests within a game: rather than being a physically incarnate being, perhaps we exist as a sentient but non-corporeal force which is able to exert some kind of will over particular people or events in order to direct how things unfold.
As a concrete example of what I mean by this, imagine a turn-based battle in [Insert Your Favourite Turn-Based Battle Franchise Here, Unless You Hate Them In Which Case Just Imagine Pokémon]. Your decisions in these battles are often represented by a little arrow pointing to your choice (or a box outlining it, perhaps, but I’ll keep using ‘arrow’ if nobody has any objections); you can think of your impact on the game world as being the net result of the movements of that little arrow. In this example, you don’t directly move the characters or impart actions to them, but you guide them and sort of let them know what you’d like them to do, and hopefully they’ll obey this wisdom.
This thinking can carry over to all genres, though, even action games where you are more directly controlling precisely what the player character does. The key factor is in the conception of the player as some sort of manifested will existing in the game world not as a physical entity but as one that oversees and instructs – or perhaps, while continuing to have a separate existence, inhabits the mind or body of their chosen avatar.
As ever, there are yet more perspectives by which we might subdivide this line of thought: perhaps the player is possessing their character, or doing something analogous to it, in that they truly overtake the will of that character and force them to mindlessly do as they’re told, or perhaps when we play as a character we’re not really controlling them so much as providing some suggestions for how they might want to deal with a situation. Or perhaps it’s not even that: perhaps we’re a completely inactive passenger, but the decisions we make as players act as forks in paths, letting us follow our character through one of infinite branching universes so that we just happen to be watching them play out the decisions as we would have made them.
It has been explored perhaps most overtly in Undertale (and in the very good indie game OFF) that the act of a player ‘making a decision’ when playing as a character is really a rather existentially peculiar thing, although I’m sure there must be other games which touch on this as less of a central theme. It amounts to a force from outside the universe inhabited by that character reaching in and somehow causing them to make decisions that they might never make as themselves, which must be a little distressing for their sense of free will. It’s hard to get away from this conception of the player, however, because a player is undeniably a force from without, a being capable of entering and exiting multiple universes at will, of resetting time, resurrecting and revengeancing, and remaking events.
It’s hard not to eventually come to the conclusion, then, that perhaps…
The Player As God
Well, ‘a god’, more accurately. The abilities that the player has are always far beyond anything that any character within the game could ever be capable of imitating; this is in two senses, in fact. One: you’ll almost always be able to make your protagonist defeat any other living being and accomplish feats no other character in-universe will match. Two: no character will be able to pause, save-scum, reset the game, access console commands, and other non-in-universe capabilities. Even if they pretend to be able to do this, as in something like Doki Doki Literature Club, they simply cannot until someone makes a video game character which not only is able to access functions outside what it knows as reality but also has genuine intelligence and free will, and even then it would never be able to leave its own world as the player freely does (or, well, if we get to that point then I will have different and more practical concerns than writing bizarre articles like this one).
When this is considered, a perfectly valid conclusion to draw would therefore be that the player is effectively a deity of sorts. Certainly, if the characters in the game were fully aware of everything that the player’s capable of, it would be sensible enough for them to leap to the belief that the player must be divine or otherwise transcendent – it would be difficult for them to comprehend the player’s capability as anything other than magical or deific.
There are whole genres of games which almost explicitly position the player as assuming the role of a god, these being (you’ll never guess) often described as ‘god games’. It includes those games where the player has control over the land and nature, and perhaps things like large-scale strategy games and building games like SimCity or even Farmville, if one imagines the player as causing things to happen or appear out of nowhere in an instant rather than assuming that time does in fact pass while our skyscrapers are erected, we’re just not forced to watch it in real-time. I actually think that in these sorts of games, however, it’s actually easier to conceive of the player as the ‘guiding force’ described above, or even as assuming the role of a character. The character being controlled or guided happens to have godlike abilities, but they are not the same as the player. At least, I think so.
What I’m thinking of more specifically when I conceive of the player-as-god is some sort of entity extraneous to the normal state of existence in the world. When we looked at the player-as-character and the player-as-guiding-force, we really only considered that the player could affect things in a way that might well have happened anyway. The player could make certain decisions, push things in a certain direction, but only in a manner that consists with how things usually go: you can’t make something impossible happen, only cause one particular set of possibilities. This frames the player as being constrained by the laws of the fictional world, at least as long as they inhabit it. As we know, however, the player is not bound to inhabit only one world, which leads to what I think is the only logical conclusion here.
The Player As Cosmic Abomination
Here we reach the crux of the argument, which amounts to a dumb idea that I thought of while I was driving to work and therefore had to spend 2,300 words of preamble building up to. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
As we’ve covered, other theories about what the player is always lead to more questions and have identifiable weaknesses, which is a faux-academic way of saying that basically what I’m doing here is pointing out dumb flaws in hypotheses that I literally just made up myself as an excuse to present something that’s basically just a joke as Serious Scientific Fact. So here’s the evidence for the player as being some kind of reality-warping dimension-hopping time-bending performance-enhancing soul-stealing free-will-negating amoral cosmic eldritch fiend.
First off, we’ve identified that it’s metaphysically tricky to claim that the player maintains an existence within a game world that is similar to the existence of anything else within that world, thanks to our unique… playerness. We must therefore be something extrinsic, which means we are some kind of being capable of travelling between worlds. (Not only that, but we can travel to potentially infinite worlds, through time, and out of all these worlds into a single ‘hub’ world in which we have a completely different sort of existence!)
Why not a god, then? That seemed convincing enough. Well, it’s more a semantic issue than anything else, but I just don’t feel that the word fits. We’re not overseeing all; we’re simply flitting into those areas that interest us, causing some peculiar effect and then leaving again, which reminds me more of a curious little trickster demon. We change (and end) lives with little to no thought for what we’re really doing (a fact that more clever games will exploit to great effect, of course), and we do it all completely free of so much as a possibility of any genuine consequence. We’re certainly not always benevolent.
The presence of a player also has a strange effect on a world’s inhabitants beyond the obvious ‘I can make you do whatever I want (unless you’re an NPC, BUT STILL)’: it’s almost as if having a player attach themselves to a character, or group of characters, acts as a sort of performance-enhancing buff. You’ll notice that when you take control of a character, they’re usually at level 1. They have had their entire lives up to this point to be doing all their stuff, and they’ve only made it to level 1. Others around them have made it to higher levels, but the character you control hasn’t levelled up once in their life. Yet with you around, they’ll gain levels faster than any other being in their universe, soon quickly surpassing those who were at much higher levels than themselves. They’ll be able to make it to a level higher than anyone else who exists in their universe, most likely!
This does still leave the question of what the player’s relationship to a character is, of course, and I tend to think that (in some cases it might depend on the game, but for the most part) we do assume a kind of direct control over the player character, but with an increased or decreased ‘distance’ between our inputs and their actions depending on genre and mechanics. I envision the player as a flitting spirit that leaps into characters and possesses them, while leaving them their personality and perhaps imitating it (or going against it, if we’re not feeling like playing by the expected rules). We then return to our bodies out in reality, to dive back into another world when we like. In fact, in this model, reality is just another world and our own body is just another character to control.
The Player Is Unlike Anything Else
Lovecraft’s imaginings are often drawn as tentacley, squiddish, eyeball-ridden beasts, but in his works they are always entirely incomprehensible. Anyone who beholds the physical form of one of his Great Old Ones is immediately driven insane so that they can never recount what it looked like, or perhaps it simply doesn’t look like anything in such a profound way that we can’t even begin to understand it. I think that perhaps the player is, at least in relation to the game worlds they enter, a little bit like this: simply so metaphysically different from anything else in that universe that a meaningful definition of their existence can’t even begin to be approached.
What does this all mean for us as gamers? Well, not a lot really, but I hope it was interesting to think about. If anyone has any smarter ideas (seems almost inevitable) about what we are and how we interact with fictional universes, I’d love to hear them and chat at (probably far too much) length about them! Thanks for reading: look forward to more astonishingly insightful, if ultimately useless from a pragmatic point of view, thoughts as they move with the ease and grace of months-old syrup from my head to your computer screen.
I’ll leave you with some more stock images that I found and thought were fun, but didn’t manage to include. Enjoy!