A talk from Beta Public Presents (2016) .
Avatars are very difficult to think and write about. An avatar in the movie Avatar is an alien remotely controlled by a human. But in the movie avatar, the real aliens are also avatars – they’re animated representations of a motion-captured performance by an actor. And of course the real humans are also avatars – they’re costumed performances, representative, associative.
Things used to be simpler. In the theatre, Japanese Noh, Greek mask, and Commedia traditions have long used mask and costume to turn people into icons for archetypal characters, emotions, or gods. Just big things that made the world work. And although these emblematic and often powerful figures appear often in games, early game avatars often simply represented position and mechanics: Pong. Asteroids.
But as games and theatre became more socially engaged, and as society itself became a more plastic idea, full of communities and subcommunities, so too did avatars, and the performance of self. I’m not talking about more detailed avatars, though.
I’m talking about politics, and what it means to, say, represent a character, or yourself, through an avatar.
Hamilton is a great, and popular, example – it’s the musical story of the largely white founding fathers of the United States, written and performed by an entirely non-white ensemble. Hamilton uses its cast as avatars to bring these figures of white history into the world of rap battle and modern dance, but also uses those historical figures as icons for the values and aspirations of non-white American communities. In this sense, it’s not clear who is being represented more, who is standing as avatar for whom. Who is playing, or being played.
But this is only the case because of the normalised ‘whiteness’ (and maleness) of characters and stories (and players, and audiences) in the media. It’s a trope that extends well into videogames – in Star Wars: The Old Republic, there is seemingly no room for the performance of women with ‘non-ideal’ body shapes in a sci-fi universe – at launch its character creator allowed for male body types as diverse as these, while the only thing changeable on the female model was height and breast size. Saints Row, on the other hand, allows for avatars as diverse as this, this, and this. And the character being delivered through the avatar, alongside your own self in the game, who can thus be of any race, sex, or shape? The President of the United States.
It’s this infiltration / subversion of power in avatar performance that leads me to drag.
This is Foxy & Husk. They performs lipsyncs of recorded interviews – their choice of costume, and the channelling of these voices through their fox avatar, awakens us to the assumptions we make about others, and helps us consider how we might relate to other communities and people.
Christeene’s almost religiously filthy performance leaves one with the feeling that they survived a particularly harsh game of Silent Hill – a damaged, but victorious avatar for gender fluidity. Christeene’s songs include ‘Fix My Dick,’ ‘African Mayonnaise,’ and ‘Tears From My Pussy.’ And I can see an easy parallel between her work and the games of Porpentine, with their punk focus on body horror, gender, and abjection.
Drag performance is really interesting to think about alongside games – it’s at once a statement of belonging to one community, of feeling outside another larger community, but of using one’s own body as an aspirational, playful, critical, dismissive, offensive, abject, or loving avatar to represent and talk about both.
Cosplay, and particularly gender-reversed cosplay, takes a little from this attitude, and as hackneyed as it might seem, Second Life might be where we find our videogame drag artists, where the performance and subversion of idealised bodies is rife. But whenever we play games, we are an outsider to a world, even if it’s a fictional one, and how we design and play as our character becomes an active site of commentary and performance on that world.
Built into the design of our game avatar are often statistics, or attributes: numbers that alter, essentially, how easy a player will find certain obstacles. The Dungeons and Dragons ruleset defines these as Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, rolled using 3 6-sided die. 10 Strength is neither weak or strong; 3 intelligence means little facility with language; with 18 charisma you would be, you know, Obama.
But what does it mean to really perform, or imagine one’s self, as a character with low Charisma? Wisdom? Intelligence? Is there a game that, rather than limiting options based on chosen attributes, simply rewards players for giving a realistic performance of their stats?
When I’m directing a play, I often talk about the difficulty of playing up or down these attributes. I’ll ask an actor to use more or less of their natural charisma, and if they can’t understand a character’s actions, I might suggest thinking about them from a less wise position. But if D&D attributes were a more widely known system, I might just say ‘look, in this scene Juliet has a +1 modifier to her Wisdom because of her chat with the Nurse earlier.’
Obviously we are never physically our in-game avatars, even when we’re looking through their eyes. No matter how much companies tout VR as completely immersive, there’s no escaping our actual location, our anchored perspective in the real. But by drawing our attention to the instability of our external avatars, games can not only draw us to perform ‘better’, but to think about larger questions of representation and performance.
Plenty of games play with perspective beautifully: in Portal, for example, when we see our own leg disappearing in the distance, we consider the limits of our own bodies, and indeed the limits of our minds. The characters in the Metal Gear Solid series talk to Snake, but give him instructions that only make sense to the player. ‘Press X, Snake!’ ‘Use CQC, Boss!’ Hearing this makes one feel simultaneously within and without the game. There’s a dissonance, feeling like the ghost in the machine.
This isn’t a feeling we get often in the theatre, mostly because we’re watching action rather than trying to imagine ourselves inside it. But these are three artists who provoke that dissonance in me.
Jo Bannon’s Foley – in which she tells a playful noir by smashing fruit and clopping high heels – conjures two avatars within our mind, the classic gumshoe and the femme fatale, and confronts our assumptions about their imagined behaviour without using a single word.
When Chris Brett Bailey performs This Is How We Die, his main activity is speaking – in a sense he becomes a voice, and we watch his character drive around, jerk off, and rip the head off a priest entirely in our mind’s eye. And the avatar he creates within our heads may not even look anything like Chris Brett Bailey!
And there’s Ontroerond Goed’s one-on-one work, which through intimate, coercive play reveals the great degree to which we automatically perform; how much of our day-to-day interaction is just driving an avatar we think stands in for us.
One of my favourite games is The Binding of Isaac. For those unfamiliar, it’s basically a dungeon from The Legend of Zelda on the Gameboy, except you play as a naked child that fights off monsters with the tears from his eyes. Each item you pick up, in addition to, say, making you run faster or cry bigger tears, also changes your avatar’s appearance. Here is Isaac with the Small Rock. Here he is with the Bamboo Sticks. Here he is in Mom’s Wig, Lipstick and Heels. Here he is
When I look at my little Isaac, I feel a proper sense of abjection, and I wonder briefly what it is to perform using this avatar. And there’s the same weird stomach feeling I get when, say, watching a performer in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed get sodomized with a pole, have their limbs and tongue removed, or wake up after thier surgery during which their gender has been forcibly reassigned. Just as games and theatre can help us explore freer and more egalitarian expressions of identity, so can they bring us closer to horror and trauma of living in our human bodies.