In search of the perfect avatar-body
Body production through video games
María Rubio Méndez
Video games can be considered as a predominantly male medium created by and for men. The representation of women in video games usually verges on hypersexualization and, in the context of their symbolic universe, women are presented as an object of desire, a trophy, a femme fatale or a damsel in distress that needs to be saved. Here you can see a series of images of very well-known female characters like Lara Croft or Princess Peach, the perennial figure of the woman kidnapped by a villain that the hero, Super Mario, rescues in the majority of his adventures.
That is precisely the reason why it may appear strange to propose, as I intend to do, a defense of video games as a tool that feminism can reappropriate for a construction of gender identity free of the traditional and harmful stereotypes that have kept women in a position of inferiority and inequality in relation to men. And as a medium that can contribute to bridging the “gender digital divide” attracting more women to the fields of science and technology.
In fact, my research on video games as a tool feminism can reappropriate has its starting point in the astonishment at the findings exposed by MIT researchers Pam Royse and Mia Consalvo in their article “Women and games: technologies of the gendered self”. Their study on the relationships between gaming and gender identity construction reaches the conclusion that women who play video games most frequently (the so-called power users, that play video games more than 20 hours a month), I quote, “seemed most likely and willing to exploit gaming technology in order to explore different enactments of a gendered self” [end of quote – p. 20]. This means that, although these female power users are frequently exposed to the gender stereotypes video games so often magnify, they turn out to assume gender identities that are freer and more open to experimentation with different roles and forms of pleasure in virtual worlds. In this sense, the answers given to the researchers in the course of the study show that in their conceptions of the relationship between technology and gender both appear to be most highly integrated.
In this presentation I would like to draw your attention to the crucial difference that exists between the forms of pleasure and agency that can emerge in the practice of certain video games, especially massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), on the one hand, and the process of body production that take place when playing other kind of video games, namely health video games, on the other hand. This latter type of games has experienced a rapid growth in recent years since Nintendo launched the video game console Wii and a wide range of video games for body care. These video games demand from players to assume the position of the «patient» with regard to an «expert», encouraging them to perform daily and systematic therapeutic check-ups of their physical (weight, agility, equilibrium, coordination, food and calories consumed, etc.) and mental state (memory, concentration, logical-mathematical intelligence, etc.). Thus, the practices required by these video games, which are already programmed in their gameplay, are practices focused on the modification and production of medically healthy bodies in the context of and according to contemporary medical discourse. As a result, these video games become biotechnological tools for body production, rather than mere entertainment items.
Even a preliminary critical review of the content of these health video games can quickly and explicitly reveal the ways they contribute to body construction and modification. In order to illustrate it, I would like to present a brief analysis of one of Wii’s most famous video games: Wii Fit Plus, which together with its predecessor, Wii Fit, has sold more than 40 million copies according to Nintendo’s own website.
This video game is designed to help players enhance their fitness, for that purpose it offers physical training on a daily basis through a series of minigames and exercises. The game features exercises divided into four categories: strength training, aerobics, balance exercises and yoga. All of them are arranged as games including typical features of video games: players get points and gain experience, they can level up from “novice” to “fitness enthusiast” and they are encouraged to compete with other users of the same video console through rankings. Besides, players can monitor their progress through a calendar that displays the weight, the body mass idex (BMI) and the Wii Fit Age registered in the daily body tests the game constantly ask players to perform. Wii Fit Age is the main parameter that measures the progress in the game and is calculated using the players actual age and the results obtained in two very simple balance tests. Although this parameter does not seem to have any medical relevance, it does reveal the discourse about health that underlies this game: being healthy is equivalent to being young.
Along its development the game displays on the screen a series of pieces of advice to have a healthy lifestyle which recommend acquiring habits like going to bed and waking up early, sticking to a balanced diet, doing exercise and not forgetting to perform the game’s daily body test, “even though we are very busy”. The game also asks to keep track of the calories we consume daily and it incorporates a calorie burning counter that registers the energy burnt while doing the game’s exercises. Calorie burning is calculated using the Metabolic Equivalent Value or MET, which, according to the game, represents the intensity of an activity: it takes one MET to sit still, the user’s weight and the time spent doing an activity measured in hours. : The number of calories burnt in an activity is directly proportional to the product of METs, the user’s weight, time and zero point forty eight.
As we can see, this video game’s gameplay, game mechanics, rhetorics and the attitude and involvement that demands from users implicitly defends the idea of the need of control, monitoring and disciplining of the players’ bodies; bodies that are assumed to be unhealthy or, in any case, improvable bodies with regard to a standard supported by a medical rhetoric that claims objectivity and scientificity. The body production these video games operate begins with the necessary assumption of a deficiency on the part of players. This implies to conceive of one’s own body as an always at risk, vulnerable body that needs to be constantly checked.
These vulnerable, deficient bodies have to be disciplined through personal effort guided by an expert (the game) that knows their true needs. Even if these video games should, in principle, be fun, entertaining, attractive devices that provide pleasure, their rhetoric is not that of pleasure and fun, but that of seriousness perseverance, effort and commitment to achieve an optimal state of health, which consists in reducing one’s Wii Fit Age as much as possible, and in reaching a body mass index labeled as “Ideal”. Such rhetoric can only be effective within a wider cultural context where there is a generalized, socially produced desire of having an ideal body, that is, a young and slim one. Video games like Wii Fit and Wii Fit Plus capitalize on the association of a perfect body to happiness in their advertising strategies and campaigns, in which women appear as the main marketing ploy, as well as upper middle class heteronormative families (husband, wife, boy and girl).
However, video games can offer other forms of body production that are not governed by this paternalistic logic of constant control and care and by the desire of achieving a perfect body that matches the socially and culturally constructed canon of beauty, health and other characteristics linked to body. T. L. Taylor, American sociologist and researcher at the MIT, develops the idea of multiple pleasures that gaming can offer players, especially female ones. She focuses her study on the online role-playing video game EverQuest. In this game, players venture into a medieval fantasy world similar to that of Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons, where they can control a male or female avatar whose race can be selected among different possibilities./where they can control a male or a female character and choose among different races of a mythology similar to that of the Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. Among the multiple pleasures that provides playing games of this kind is the pleasure of the production of a body whose value is tied to factors different from youth or beauty.
But before I go on to analyze the body production in depth, I would like to explain briefly the role of bodies in video games and the pleasures derived precisely from such role. Firstly, from the moment we start to play we experience some sort of disembodiment closely connected to the process of immersion.
Immersion is a psychological phenomenon which consists in forgetting the real, surrounding physical environment to the extent that the virtual environment of the video game is “believed” to be real instead. As we switch on the console or we click on the “start” button in our computer, we accept a fiction pact with an alien body that inhabits a world of fantasy, a body, though, we have to assume as our own body during the gaming session if we are to be successful in the game.
If immersion fails to appear, the video game has not achieved its aim, but neither has the player. To win a chess match against our fiercest rival we must forget, at least for a moment, about our daily routines and problems, or the fuss around, and concentrate on the chess board, the pieces’ relative positions and strategy. Much the same happens if we want to ensure victory in The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario Bros. or in Tetris.
The fiction pact we asume and that paves the way for immersion commits us transitorily to inhabit another reality, to accept its rules and a certain situation within it. In the game we can assume different pacts with different bodies, even simultaneously, as it happens in The Sims, where we can identify with several characters. But we can assume pacts with different virtual worlds, what would be the case of users that, for example, play World of Warcraft online, where they improve their blacksmithing skills while they negotiate potion prices in the auction chat and challenge their friends to beat their scores in Facebook’s Diamond Dash at the same time.
The phenomenon of immersion, together with video game’s specific element of interactivity and the emotional involvement they usually entail (especially the online role-playing games) makes the gaming experience a relevant event in our lives where our self-conception, including our own body conception, can be subjected to reinterpretation. Sherry Turkle, in Life on the Screen, describes the challenges video games pose when it comes to define our own identity. She claims that many manifestations of multiplicity in our culture, including the identification with virtual characters, are contributing to a general reconsideration of the traditional notion of identity. Such virtual characters have evolved greatly since Turkle’s work appeared. At present, the appearance and growing popularity of video games like EverQuest or World of Warcraft have brought about a important change with regard to production of subjectivity, online interpersonal relations and also to the production and conception of players’ bodies.
A publicly accessible online blog called How games saved my life offers more than a hundred testimonies of many people that recount how video games have contributed in one way or another to improve their lives. What I would like to emphasize about these stories is not so much the celebration of video games as a tool that can actually save people’s lives or even the world —like some authors such as Jane McGonigal seem to suggest—, but the eye-opening element in the rhetoric about their bodies and lives displayed by the gamers that write in the blog. They talk about themselves using terms such as power, strength or self-worth and they refer to their lives inside and outside the game. These terms are very similar to those used by the interviewees in the study coordinated by Pam Royse that I mentioned before or in the ethnographic study conducted by Taylor about EverQuest and World of Warcraft.
It seems that the experience of these gamers on the screen is not only affecting their lives, social relations and self-conception significantly, but it is also having an impact on the ways they experience their bodies, obtain different kinds of pleasures form them, and value them. While, on the one hand, video games like Wii Fit Plus are contributing to generating bodies that consider themselves vulnerable, and, therefore, have to adapt to the standards of health, according to the discourse of contemporary medicine, and to the canon of beauty, on the other hand, this latter type of role-playing video games help create bodies that can enjoy multiple pleasures not necessarily related to health or beauty.
One among the fundamental differences between these two kinds of games, which is very interesting from a philosophical point of view, is the appearance of a new form of corporality in the role-playing games that is absent in the other type. In Wii Fit Plus and other video games for health, the stress is placed on the body beyond the screen. However, in video games that focus on the construction of an avatar on the screen, that is the graphic representation of the character played in the game, the experiences of the body begin to unfold on two different levels, on many occasions simultaneously.
On the one hand, my body beyond the screen, with all the cartographies that have been made about it by biology, medicine, psychiatry, pornography, pedagogy and many other disciplines that have intended to map the body; on the other hand, my avatar, the body on the screen I identify with, which presents itself as a new continent, almost unexplored, upon which only routes have been sketched. However, between these two continents appears a new territory that emerges from the collisions, crossings and communications with one another. This new continent yet to be charted can be called the avatar-body. The avatar-body, half-way between the body beyond the screen and the avatar, is the product of the relationships between them. It can be understood as the series of experiences lived inside and outside the screen that somehow materialize in a new from of corporality different from the former as well as from the latter. The most philosophically interesting thing that the notion of avatar-body can introduce is the study of the connections between the avatar and the body beyond the screen that are the result of having lived what can be considered as multiple lives and having had different bodies of various sexes and races, with different abilities, social positions or even moral codes.
I think that Science, Technology and Gender studies may find interesting to explore this new territory with the aim of investigating the possibilities if offers to develop a new emancipatory conception of the body. Research on video games, I firmly believe, acquires special relevance in this context and it can provide with valuable clues about the new forms of pleasure and power bodies can achieve in our technologically mediated society.