AAR Series: Gamer-Player/ Gamer-Avatar: The Potential of a Video-Gaming Body

Sara Frykenberg

 By Sara Frykenberg with Mary E. Hunt

Posted originally on Feminism and Religion.

July 26th, 2011, 10:43 a.m.:

The Lady Sheogorath has not forsaken thee!  She is instead, looking for amber matrices in the Shivering Isles… wondering why she can’t get her minions to do this while she lazes about and watches dances provided for her entertainment… or [better yet] summon Haskil just because she feels like it.

I am the Lady Sheogorath.  I earned this identity through multiple quests and different in-game choices made while playing the Land of Madness expansion pack to Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Posting this comment on Facebook over a year ago, I expected fellow gamers to “like” my post.  What I did not expect was the way in which non-gaming friends also “liked” it, attracted to the fantasy goddess image.  My post opened up a dialogue squarely in-between parts of my identity: the gamer, the avatar, the friend, the un-omnipotent goddess, the cyber-technology user (which itself, is an aspect of identity that speaks to my class privilege and aspects of my global identity) and the person relating to other beings from both physical and non-physical aspects of my experience.  My gamer-player/ gamer-avatar body is also a kind of embodiment that I choose, earn and is given to me, based on the parameters of the game I am playing.

This is a scene from the Land of Madness, aka, The Shivering Isles.

This is a scene from the Land of Madness, aka, The Shivering Isles.

I think that some feminists might ask me, why would you play these games? Video games are often seen as juvenile, unreal fantasies that are at best, a waste of time or a temporary escape, and at worst, addictive mechanisms for the reproduction of societal oppression and violence… And many of these critiques are warranted.  Linda Eklund’s study of 8 female gamers who play World of Warcraft(WoW), suggests that the creation of game avatars was often motivated by racist standards and that the game itself— the way in which it is created – enforces heternormativity.[i]  Nora Campbell describes male video-game avatars as, “establishing the fantasy of armored impenetrability.”[ii]   That is, they tend to reinforce patriarchal and Christocentric understandings of power.

Halo’s “Master Chief” is a great example of this.  Master Chief from Halo 3He is literally clad head to toe in body armor.  However, ironically, Master Chief isn’t really untouchable.  Actually, as in many video games, the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar playing Halo has to die many, many times in order to in order to complete game tasks.  Immortality is in effect, achieved through death—I know, I know, where have we heard that before, right?  Yet, Master Chief is not the Christ.  The multiplicity of his deaths renders the deaths themselves somewhat meaningless.  And I would suggest that the purpose of this almost godhood is not to “finish” the game (as in, gain salvation): it is to keep playing the game.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is far too complex a relational identity to be written off a pawn of oppression.

The body of the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is both impenetrable and vulnerable.  He/she/they is online and offline, existing and physically interacting in both places at once.  He/she/they is in-between in an obvious way.  Literally, an observer can see and expects that the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is functioning in more than one space.  Critically, this in-betweenness also allows the player to embody difference.  He/she/they’s avatar body may or may not “match” their offline body.  Nor is there an expectation for cisgendered or racial offline/online matching by other human-driven avatars despite heteronormative and often racially scripted game play and relationships with game-driven characters.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar chooses the embodiment that will help to create their story in the game world; but, as Eklund also notes, all chosen bodies can achieve the same levels and corresponding power (2011).  This ability to embody multiple and sometimes conflicting aspects of identity in a highly visible and often obvious way, combined with the ability to access power in an egalitarian way, tampers with our relational expectations in the world of game play.  As a kind of manipulation of racist and heterosexist expectancy, this multiple-bodiment has transformative potential.

Donna Haraway calls cyborgs, “the offspring of implosions of subjects and objects and of the natural and artificial.”[iii]  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is a relation to this cyborg and her family of misfit toys because he/she/they is born in a similar way.  The problem with this cyborg-relation is that he/she/they and their kin is born into an oppressive and abusive narrative.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar’s embodiment does not directly oppose this environment; it, actually, often actively participates in the narrative.  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar is not anti-abusive.  Yet, this kind of embodiment is a self-conscious participation in muddling and the blurring of boundaries within an environment where others are muddling and blurring boundaries.  The gamer-player/ gamer avatar challenges oppressive paradigms by disfiguring them with a complex and multiple embodiment.

Feminist theologian Catherine Keller talks about the importance of refiguring and disfiguring abusive and destructive forces in order to create an “intersubject” that can challenge existent paradigms in relational ways.[iv]  This is a part of what she calls counter-power.  Using counter-power, you’re not in favor of a particular form of violence; but you’re also not the opposite of this violence because you are in (close) relationship to it.  In order to change the way we think about a narrative or paradigm, particularly an abusive one, we cannot deny our relationship to it.  Therefore, counter-power is about diffracting the image of abuse so it can become something different.  Diffraction is a distortion—a quarter turn of the mirror in a new direction.   It is a means of changing the way we ‘think a narrative.’  Cyborgs do diffraction, according to Haraway.[v]  I argue that gamer-player/ gamer-avatars do too. Actually, so does Eklund.  She sees the online game as having the potential to create gender-queer space (2011).  The gamer-player/ gamer-avatar can be whom he/she/they choses to be within limitation, embodying their own autonomy and even, “otherness.”

My husband looks a little different in the game; this image comes from the book series that inspired her name.

My husband looks a little different in the game; this image comes from the book series that inspired her name.

I play video games because I enjoy them.  I also consider online and gaming worlds “real” spaces of significance and significant potential. Oblivion is not an MMORPG, but I am eagerly awaiting the launch of theElder Scrolls Online.  I am currently playing Guild Wars 2 as a female Nord Giant, Sasinthe, with my husband, who plays a female human, Laura Lantha Lasa (He named herself after our favorite Golden General from the Dragon Lance series).  Laura Lantha Lasa is too sexy.  She is the image of heterosexist and racist patriarchy: big boobs, big butt, but petite with long blond hair.  She is also a man.  She is also my husband.

This may not seem like a radical challenge, but I believe that it is.  What non-players do not see is the way in which player-characters help one another online, putting their hands on the ground to resurrect fallen strangers and friends alike.  And I am excited for the potential within the gamer-player/ gamer-avatar’s embodied difference.


This post is a shorter version of my paper entitled: Inter-cendent bodies: A study of Cyborgs, Relational Theo/alogy and Multiple Embodiment in 21st century Gaming, delivered at the AAR National Conference this year.

[i] Eklund. Linda.  (2011) Doing gender in cyberspace: The performance of gender by female World of Warcraft players. Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies.  17(3), 323-342.

[ii] Campbell, Norah.  Future Sex: Cyborg Bodies and the Politics of Meaning.  Volume 11, Issue 1, 2010. Pg. 6

[iii] Haraway, Donna J.  (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.         FemaleMan_Meets_OncoMouse.  New York: Routledge.  Pg. 12

[iv] Keller, Catherine.  (1996).  Apocalypse Now and Then.  Boston, MA: Beacon Press. Pg. 32-33

[v] Haraway (2010) calls diffraction: “a narrative, graphic, psychological, spiritual, and political technology for making consequential meanings” (p. 102).

Appreciative Analysis by Mary Hunt:

Sara Frykenberg lays out the potential of games to shed light on multiple embodiments. I must admit to being out of my league in the game arena, but I am learning. The recently released “Call of Duty: Black Ops II” featuring cyber versions of Oliver North and David Petraeus with a Hillary Clinton-like character serving as president has not really piqued my interest. But I am sure that readers can recommend some games that might.

I am generally sympathetic to the argument for “inter-cendent” bodies. Carol Christ’s feminist process thealogy and philosophy is on sound, if purposely shifting, ground.

I think Sara is correct when she says, “My abilities within the game are limited to the scope of its construction.” (p. 11) This suggests to me that energies to shape the game rather than simply to play what someone else has shaped would be an important feminist strategy. If race, sex, and gender continue to be elements of a character’s being, why not construct games in which the characters are egalitarian and diverse? What if we refuse to engage in games where they are not? That move on a mass scale would have considerable financial clout in the field.

What follows, the claim that “The challenge of the video game to embodiment is that we cannot assume the human alone” is tricky. Though it is not intended this way, it is reminiscent of mechanical understandings of the divine that have long fallen from fashion. If games are human constructions, then it seems to me even interactivity is still a garbage in/garbage out proposition. What am I missing? Cyborgs have never told me.

What excites me about this post is Sara’s embrace of a new genre for religious reflection. It reminds me of early feminist work in religion and literature that opened new horizons. This work does the same. I recommend looking at Margaret Miles’ forthcoming work on the “intelligent body” which she contrasts with the “rational mind” as a theoretical resource for explaining what I think is at stake here (http://www.waterwomensalliance.org/teleconferences-audio-and-notes). I plan to stay tuned and start playing.

Mary E. Hunt, Ph.D. is the co-founder and co-director of the Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics and Ritual (WATER) in Silver Spring, Maryland, USA. A Roman Catholic active in the women-church movement, she lectures and writes on theology and ethics with particular attention to liberation issues.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.