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Life in Morrowind: Identity, Video Games, and First-Year Composition

Zachary Waggoner

Composition and rhetoric theories have continuously evolved with the (re)emergence of the discipline and these changes are mirrored in the content of composition textbooks. An examination of recent first-year composition (FYC) textbooks reveals how pervasive popular culture themes are in the discipline’s current attempts to engage students in composition courses. Titles such as Signs of Life in the USA: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, The World is a Text: Writing, Reading, and Thinking About Culture and Its Contexts, and ReMix: Reading and Composing Culture represent the many FYC rhetoric-reader textbooks devoted to critical analyses of the rhetoric of popular culture. What has allowed cultural studies to become such an integral part of progressive writing instruction theory? Drawing inspiration from Elaine Maimon, Karen Fitts argues that writing instruction is dependent on critical thinking:

Comp-rhet theory emphasizes the impossibility of teaching writing absent critical thinking about something…Cultural studies ask[s] students to interact literately with cultural material by making conscious decisions about the value and usefulness of information they know. To assist students in critical thinking this turn toward a cultural rhetoric is essential…This perspective of writing instruction heightens students’ awareness of the complexity of their own understandings [and] places students and their texts at the center of the [course’s] efforts. (90-2)

Through a cultural studies approach students learn to think and write critically about the life texts and practices they are familiar with, thus connecting their educational experiences and their everyday life experiences. In theory, this enables students to more enthusiastically engage in classroom conversations and in their writings on popular culture subjects. It also helps FYC writers consider audience and context for both the popular culture texts they are examining and the students’ writings on these texts.

Fitts’s views on the benefits of incorporating popular culture texts into FYC are echoed in the discipline’s textbooks themselves. In the preface and introduction to Signs of Life in the USA authors Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon claim that

American composition classrooms have taken the lead in incorporating popular culture into academic study both because of the inherent interest value of the subject and because of its profound familiarity to most students. Composition instructors have seen that students feel a certain sense of ownership toward the products of popular culture – and that using popular culture as a focus can help students overcome the sometimes alienating effects of traditional academic subject matter. (6)

In order to provide students with as much opportunity for textual ownership as possible, Maasik and Solomon claim to have followed “an inclusive definition of popular culture” (vii) and offer chapters in Signs of Life in the USA devoted to the analysis of consumerism, advertising, television and music, film, cultural contradictions, gender, race, space, and mythology.

Jonathan Silverman’s and Dean Rader’s The World is a Text (2006) follows a similar model, telling students that the textbook’s goal is to “make non-traditional texts part of [students’] conscious reading material and reduce the distance between the classroom and the real world” (xxiii). Towards this aim the authors include chapters devoted to reading and writing about poetry, television, space, race, movies, images, gender, art, advertising and journalism, relationships, music, and technology. I could go on: the list of popular culture FYC textbooks containing similarly themed chapters is an expansive one. Even composition textbooks built around specific themes rely heavily on popular culture texts. For example, Susan Bachmann’s and Melinda Barth’s Between Worlds explores “in-between-ness: being caught between generations, living with diverse cultures, dealing with gender conflicts, and exploring differing perceptions of the self and others” (1). The 2007 edition of the text offers a chapter entitled “Between Screens” devoted entirely to the analysis of films such as American Beauty, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Crash. Marjorie Ford’s and Jon Ford’s Dreams and Inward Journeys explores the theme of “dreams, the imagination, and the reasoning mind” and encourages students to “investigate new ways of seeing and understanding themselves.”  Much like Between Worlds, Dreams and Inward Journeys offers a chapter, “Pop Dreams,” devoted to the influences of popular culture.

I have selected Between Worlds and Dreams and Inward Journeys as examples of thematic FYC textbooks because they reveal yet another thematic trend in composition texts: the analysis of identity formation. Between Worlds invites students to explore their identities related to family, gender, race, and culture. Dreams and Inward Journeys devotes entire units to personal transformation (Chapter 5), journeys in gender and sexuality (Chapter 6), and self-awareness and memory (Chapter 3). Indeed, since Lillian Bridwell-Bowles’ Identity Matters: Rhetorics of Difference appeared on the FYC textbook market in 1998, identity formation has been almost as common a theme in composition as analysis of popular culture has been. The chapters devoted to gender, race, film, and music in Signs of Life in the USA and The World is a Text discuss cultural influences on identity formation in some form or another as well.

To be sure, I believe these trends in first-year composition textbooks are positive ones. Helping FYC students understand how the texts of the world around them are rhetorical and contribute to the construction of their self identities is important intellectual and civic work. And yet composition textbooks to date have missed the opportunity to utilize one genre of cultural texts that is not only extremely popular with many college students but that also has the ability to impact identity formation in meaningful ways.

I’m talking, of course, about videogames. It is surprising that even the progressive FYC texts discussed here with “inclusive” definitions of popular culture have chapters devoted to the study and analysis of films, television, and the music industry but not to video games. Signs of Life in the USA contains no articles or essays related to videogames at all; this also holds true for Between Worlds, Identity Matters, Donald McQuade’s and Christine McQuade’s Seeing & Writing 3, and Wendy Hesford’s and Brenda Brueggemann’s Rhetorical Visions: Reading and Writing in a Visual Culture. The World is a Text and Dreams and Inward Journeys each contain one brief article devoted to video game violence. Two essays scattered among seven FYC textbooks demonstrates composition studies is not yet paying adequate attention to the cultural significance of videogames.

That videogames are indeed a significant popular culture entertainment medium can no longer be questioned. A comparison to the movie industry illustrates this fact. In 2008, United States cinema box office totals reached over nine billion dollars (Motion Picture Association of America 1). After generating 2.6 billion dollars in revenue in 1996, computer and video game sales in the United States in 2008 reached more than eleven billion dollars. Videogame revenues now exceed those of the film industry.

Videogames are also significant for first-year composition because many college students play videogames. The notion that videogames are for children and are “outgrown” when the gamer reaches adulthood is a myth. Demographical statistics from the Entertainment Software Association reveal that the average age of American videogame players is thirty-five, and that 25% of videogame players are over the age of fifty. Women age eighteen and older represent 34% of videogame players. This is a significantly greater portion of gamers than the group that is publicly perceived to play the most videogames: boys seventeen and younger, who represent only 18% of the game-playing population (2-3). The numbers are telling; adults play videogames, and most FYC students are adults. They are also part of a new generation of young adults who have been born and lived in a world where videogames and videogame technologies have always been present. For these young adults videogames are just as “natural” a part of popular culture as television shows, movies, and music videos and therefore just as in need of cultural analysis.

There can be no doubt that popular culture entertainment media like television, film, and the music industry impact and influence identity formation; many of the textbooks mentioned above contain essays and articles designed to prove just that. Yet I believe videogames have an even greater potential to impact users’ identities than any of the other popular culture media currently discussed in composition textbooks. Why? What is different about videogames from films, television shows, and music videos? Interestingly enough Maasik and Solomon provide the key to answering this question in Signs of Life in the USA when discussing how the most effective and enduring learning takes place:

Learning to read actively means interacting with what you read by responding. It means that you’re having a kind of conversation with the author rather than simply listening to a lecture by an expert. Studies have shown that such interactive learning simply works better than passive learning; if you read actively, you’ll gain knowledge at a higher rate and retain it longer. (33)

Gunther Kress also acknowledges how crucial interaction is to learning by pointing out that true learning takes place when an individual reflects and assesses internally over the results of interactions with external stimuli (40). Each of these authors emphasizes the importance of interaction to effective learning. It is also the interactive elements of videogames that distinguish them from films, television shows, and other entertainment media.

What exactly does “interactive” mean when applied to videogames? Current definitions of videogame interactivity owe their origins to Espen Aarseth’s landmark Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. There, Aarseth introduced the concept of “ergodic” literature, where “nontrivial effort is required to allow the reader to traverse the text” (1): such literature “requires hard work in the form of concentration as well as conscious instead of automatic adjustment of eye focus and distance” (180). Aarseth believes that ergodic texts like hypertext novels (Stuart Moulthrop’s Victory Garden) and text-only adventure computer games (Zork) require active work rather than passivity on the part of the reader/player. Mark Wolf provides a simpler definition of Aarseth’s complex term ergodic: “the action has some physical aspect to it and is not strictly an activity occurring purely on the mental plane” (15). This term can be used to help differentiate videogames from not only movies and television shows (passive activities that require no physical work from the viewer) but also from traditional novels and stories: simply turning the pages of a book does not constitute “nontrivial” effort in Aarseth’s eyes.

Drawing on Aarseth’s work on ergodic literature, Jill Walker provides a definition for interactive that highlights the connected, reciprocal nature of the relationship between a user and a videogame: “users must perform physical actions beyond perceptual actions (such as looking and listening) in order to access digital works…there is a feedback loop between user and machine where the user has some influence on the machine and the machine has some influence on the user” (1). Reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels or watching Peter Jackson’s movie versions of these novels are passive actions that require no interactivity from the viewer (even as the viewer may connect emotionally with Frodo’s quest or Aragorn’s struggles against his destiny). Videogames, though, have a definite work aspect to them: “Gameplay requires all kinds of work including concentration, endurance, and coordination. Gaming requires strategy, skill, imagination – in essence hard work. A player’s work interacts with the [video]game’s work to create the user experience” (Ruggill 299-302). In the video game Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle Earth the user takes an active role in the storyline; Electronic Arts’ website for the game invites users to “control the legendary heroes, massive armies, and epic campaigns of Middle Earth. The fate of a living, breathing Middle Earth is in your hands” (1). In the Lord of the Rings novels and films, the outcome is preordained. But in The Battle for Middle Earth users can choose to play as the evil forces of Mordor or Eisengard if they wish, creating a different, darker outcome for Middle Earth. Of course, winning military campaigns in The Battle for Middle Earth requires the user to not only learn how to control the gaming interface (consisting of either several buttons on a gamepad or on a keyboard and mouse) but also how to effectively strategize and command large virtual armies in real time to achieve victory. Skillful gameplay of The Battle for Middle Earth requires not only nontrivial physical effort (manipulation of the gaming interface) but also much mental work: concentration, imagination, and trial-and-error strategizing and planning are essential to winning the epic, time-consuming battles within the videogame.

There are many different genres of videogames yet each genre allows for some type of an interactive, reciprocal relationship between user and the videogame. The user responds to videogame stimuli and inputs decisions (for example, sending Aragorn alone into battle against an army of Orcs). The gaming system then responds to the user’s actions (Aragorn may be overwhelmed and slain by the Orcish horde). The user then reflects on the outcome of the interaction and responds (perhaps by reloading an earlier saved game so that Aragorn isn’t killed or sending an army against the Orcs to avenge his death). This reciprocity continues throughout each videogaming experience; it is what makes videogames so unique from other popular culture texts.

I believe it is this reflective, trial-and-error interactivity that also gives videogames the ability to impact identity formation as well. Of course, “identity” is a theoretical concept that has been much debated by scholars across disciplines. Most would agree that one’s identity (or identities) is part of one’s “self,” but Jan Klein’s scientific definition of “self” shows just how problematic this is: “[Self is] everything constituting an integral part of a given individual” (5). Rhetorically, it is easy to see this definition is open to much interpretation. For example, what constitutes an “integral” part for a given individual? Who gets to make that decision—the individual or the society around that individual? Much of the theoretical conversation revolving around identity is concerned with this very issue, with the tensions between modern and postmodern perspectives central to the argument.

Modern theories of identity stress the notion of a single coherent identity. Lester Faigley describes how modernism’s notion of the individual is a “coherent consciousness capable of knowing oneself and the world” (16). With this concept at its core, Anthony Giddens’ Modernity and Self-Identity is a pivotal treatise on modern identity and identity construction. There, Giddens describes how self-identity is connected to self-awareness:

Existence is a mode of being-in-the-world. The identity of the self presumes reflexive awareness. It is what the individual is conscious of in the term self-consciousness. Self-identity has to be routinely created and sustained in the reflexive activities of the individual. It is the self as reflexively understood by the person in terms of her or his biography [presuming] continuity across time and space…A person’s identity is not to be found in behavior nor in the reactions of others, but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. The individual’s biography, if she is to maintain regular interaction with others in the day-to-day world, cannot be wholly fictive. It must continually integrate events which occur in the external world and sort them into the ongoing story about the self. (52-4)

Giddens reveals some interesting assumptions about identity in these passages. It seems clear that he believes in a single self-identity rather than multiple self-identities for an individual. This identity is determined by a person’s life narrative (again singular) that is created through the individual’s self-awareness. In other words, each person becomes aware of their own identity by constructing a narrative story about themselves: who they are and what they’ve done. Each new action the person takes must be able to be integrated with the identity they’ve already created in their life narrative (with change possible over time). He also suggests here that neither the person’s actions nor the outside perceptions of those actions by other people greatly impact identity: the narrative within the individual’s mind (and that individual’s own reflection on and awareness of the narrative) determines identity.

Central also to modern identity theory is the work of Kenneth Burke. His views on human identification remain relevant to modern and postmodern theorists alike and are crucial to understanding identity. For Burke , identification is a consubstantiation of merger and division:   “In being identified with B, A is ‘substantially one’ with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another” (20-1). Every day, people identify the stimuli they encounter as similar to themselves (merger) or dissimilar to themselves (division). Both are identifications, however, since as humans we are only ever able to define ourselves (what we are) in relation to what we are not anyway. Burke refers to this as the paradox of substance: a man is defined in relationship to not-man (woman); life is defined in relationship to not-life (death), and so on. Burke believed all identifications had the potential to be substantially transformative.

The influences of Burke’s modern notions of transformation and identification can be found in the work of many postmodern identity scholars including Diana Fuss. Fuss characterizes a typically postmodern view as she points out that identity is a disputed and unstable theoretical concept: “Identity is rarely identical to itself but instead has multiple and sometimes contradictory meanings… [what is needed is] recognition of the precarious status of identity and a full awareness of the complicated processes of identity formation, both psychical and social” (98-9). It seems clear that Fuss believes that both internal (psychical) and external (social) stimuli contribute to the multiplicity of identities within individuals. She goes on to say that she “endorse[s] identity as alienated and fictitious…To the extent that identity always contains the specter of non-identity within it, the subject is always divided…Fictions of identity are no less powerful for being fictions. It is not so much that we possess contingent identities but that identity itself is contingent” (102-104). The last sentence of this quote demonstrates that Fuss does not believe in any “core” identity but rather in always-shifting, contextual identities with none having any lasting primacy over the others. This is a crucial distinction between modern and postmodern identity theories.

Fuss also explores the notion of identification in relation to identity but takes a different approach from Burke. She distinguishes between identity and identification in the following way:

We tend to experience our identities as part of our public personas, the most exposed part of our self’s surface collisions with a world of other selves – we experience our identifications as more private, guarded, evasive… every identity is actually an identification come to light… Identity is the Self that identifies itself. Identification is the psychical mechanism that produces self-recognition… the detour through the other that defines a self. (2)

Identification for Fuss is the more personal, internal self-awareness that precedes and leads to the more public identities of individuals. This identification seems similar to Giddens’ reflexive self-awareness in some respects, but Giddens would likely never agree that this self-awareness ever travels through an Other to construct self-identity.

This notion of an Other that aids in identification and identity formation is interesting when applied to computer technologies and user-videogame interactions. Sherry Turkle is among the ever-increasing number of postmodern theorists whose work on computer technologies and self-identities continues to problematize the simplistic modern notion of a single coherent identity. Focusing primarily on the Internet and computer interfaces, Turkle argues that the notion of computer “windows” provides a “powerful metaphor for thinking about the self as a multiple, distributed system” (14). A computer user might have several different programs running at one time: a word processing program, an Internet browser, a calculator, and an e-mail account. Each program’s window can be minimized at will, and the user can bring any of them to the forefront as desired. Turkle believes that this is similar to the different aspects of our self-identity: different facets can be given primacy depending on our needs and wants.

This belief that an individual contains many identities that can each be given primacy depending on contextual external stimuli and psychical internal preference is supported by other technology and identity theorists as well. Allucquere Rosanne Stone describes identity as a “process in continual flux” (19) and argues that computer technologies make visible the essential fact that human identity is unquestionably multiple: “The identities that emerge from [human-machine] interactions [are] fragmented and complex. I see these identities engaged in a wonderful and awesome struggle, straining to make meaning and sense out of their lives” (36). Donna Haraway, in theorizing cyborgian possibilities for human-computer interactions, argues that the modern notion of a “coherent inner self, achieved or innate, is a regulatory fiction that is unnecessary” (135) in a postmodern technological world. Instead, she says, identities are often “contradictory, partial, and strategic” (155). These postmodern theorists challenge the modern notion of a singular, stable identity. Yet it is interesting to note that all of the identity theorists mentioned here, modern and postmodern alike, acknowledge the need for interaction with external stimuli resulting in internal self-reflection and assessment as essential to identity construction.

So why do videogames fit into this theoretical identity debate? How can videogames impact identity formation? I return again to Fuss’s idea of an Other that can be passed through to aid in self-recognition, self-reflection, and self-identification. I believe at least one genre of videogame provides the space for the creation of just such an Other through which users can explore and experiment with their own identity. I’m referring to video role-playing games (v-RPGs), a genre of videogames that allows users to create customizable avatars. An avatar is a specific type of controllable videogame agent. Wilson provides the following definition:

[An avatar is] a virtual, surrogate self that acts as a stand in for our             real-space selves, that represents the user. The cyberspace avatar functions as a locus that is multifarious and polymorphous, displaced from the facticity of our real-space selves…Avatar spaces indisputably involve choice in the creation of one’s avatar; there is substantial scope in which to exercise choice and create meaning [within the video game]. (2-3)

I like the specificity of this definition focusing on the creative choice of the user as it separates avatars from other videogame controllable agents. For example, Pac-Man cannot be altered in any way by a user playing that game. He can only be controlled in terms of his movement; his appearance and skills never change throughout the course of the game. This makes Pac-Man an agent. The same holds true for Lara Croft of Tomb Raider fame, Mario of Super Mario Bros, Frogger, Sonic the Hedgehog, Max Payne, and Marcus Fenix (Gears of War). All of these famous videogame characters are agents, as they can only be controlled by the user, never altered in appearance or skill level.

In fact, when considering Wilson’s much more restricted definition for avatars (the necessity for the user to have much and continual creative control over the agent’s appearance, skills, and attributes) it becomes clear that most of the controllable characters in videogames are indeed agents rather than avatars. In Hamlet on the Holodeck Janet Murray speculated on how future videogames would substantially impact users both emotionally and intellectually. She predicted that videogames would “move from the pleasures of immersion and navigational agency to increasingly active and transformational experiences” (264) and that “a role-playing world should allow [users] to choose from several ways to go about tasks including bartering as well as fighting” (268). Murray’s predictions have come true; role-playing games that allow users much freedom to make these choices exist. How then can video-RPG gameplay impact identity formation? To demonstrate this potential, I provide here the results of interviews with users of the v-RPG The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (henceforth referred to simply as Morrowind). First, however, it is important to have a terminological framework through which this videogame identity formation can be articulated. For this framework I turn to James Paul Gee.

In What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy, Gee argues that in v-RPG interactions, three different distinct identities are involved. The first of these is a virtual identity: the avatar that exists in the fictionalized virtual gameworld. Gee uses the example of the half-elf named “Bead Bead” he created for the v-RPG Arcanum. The second type Gee calls real-world identity. For Gee, this is the “real-world character” that sits down in front of a computer and plays the game. “James Gee” is a real-world identity: Gee has a physical body that exists outside of virtual space (much of the time in Tempe, Arizona). However, Gee points out that each of us have many different “non-virtual identities” at all times, identifying himself as a “professor, a linguist, an Anglo American, a middle-age male baby boomer, a parent, an avid reader, a former devout Catholic” (55), and so on. These multiple aspects of our identities are accessed by us as necessary as we encounter and react to life stimuli. Given Gee’s notion of multiple identities, how does he characterize the interactions between his real-world identity (James Gee) and his virtual identity (Bead Bead)? Gee describes Bead Bead as a “delicious blend of my doing and not my doing” (54-5) and to explain this he creates his third type of identity, projective identity that he describes as:

The kind of person I want Bead Bead to be, the kind of history I want her to have, the kind of person and history I am trying to build in and through her is what I mean by a projective identity. Since these aspirations are my desires for Bead Bead, the projective identity is both mine and hers, and it is a space in which I can transcend both her limitations and my own... In this identity, the stress is on the interface between – the interactions between – the real-world person and the virtual character. (56)

Gee’s projective identity then is the liminal middle ground between the real-world identity and the virtual identity of the user: the avatar. It is through the space of this projective identity that virtual identities created and maintained within v-RPGs and the real-world identities of videogame users inform each other. Gee seems convinced that the liminal, threshold space between the user and the videogame avatar is crucial to any identity formation that occurs as the result of v-RPG play. I believe there is evidence to suggest that the real-world identities of v-RPG users can indeed be impacted in meaningful ways by their virtual identities and to illustrate this I turn to Morrowind.

Morrowind, set in the Elder Scrolls fantasy universe, is a single-player v-RPG originally released in 2002 for PCs and the Xbox console system. It topped many videogame critics’ “Game of the Year” lists and remains popular today (as does the fourth installment in the series, Oblivion). To aid in the identification that takes place between the user and their avatar, Morrowind allows the user to make continual choices about the avatar’s creation and development. At the outset, Morrowind allows the user to select the name of the avatar, the sex (male or female), and race. Ten different races exist in Vvardenfell (the island setting of the game, within the larger world known as Morrowind). Four of these races are humanoid (Nord, Redguard, Breton, and Imperial), three are elven (Dark Elf, High Elf, and Wood Elf), and the other three are more animalistic in appearance (the reptilian Argonian, the feline Khajiit, and the porcine Orc). Each race has predetermined values in eight primary character attributes: strength, intelligence, willpower, agility, speed, endurance, personality, and luck. Attributes like these (and often these very eight) are canonical in v-RPGs and the variability in choosing which of these attributes will be strongest and which weakest for the avatar is an essential characteristic of strategic gameplay in role-playing games. Each race offers a limited number of facial and hairstyle options the user can pick from when deciding on their avatar’s appearance. Each race also receives a bonus to different skills based on their inherent abilities and attributes. For example, Khajiit characters receive a fifteen point bonus to the Acrobatics skill (since Khajiit have a very high natural agility). Like the attributes, these customizable skills that can be improved over the course of the gaming experience are central to video role-playing games. Morrowind offers twenty-seven different skills, designed to help the avatar interact with the gameworld via physical combat (Axe, Block, Blunt Weapon, Hand-to-hand, Heavy Armor, Light Armor, Long Blade, Marksman, Medium Armor, Short Blade, Spear, and Unarmored), magic (Alchemy, Alteration, Conjuration, Destruction, Enchant, Illusion, Mysticism, and Restoration), or non-combative means (Acrobatics, Armorer, Athletics, Mercantile, Security, Speechcraft, and Sneak). All skills have a rating between five (very unskilled) and 100 (mastery of the skill). The user decides which five skills to designate as Major skills and which five to designate as Minor skills: the avatar will begin with a higher rating in these skill sets. All skills can be improved simply by the avatar repeatedly and successfully using them in the gameworld (e.g., using a spear in combat will gradually improve your “Spear” skill rating). Each time the avatar increases ten total skill points from among their Major and Minor skills, “leveling up” occurs and the user can improve any three of the primary attributes by one point each. Within the v-RPG genre, Morrowind allows each user a great range of freedom to select the skills and attributes they are most interested in when constructing their avatar both at the beginning of the game and throughout the duration of the gameplay experience. Morrowind also allows great freedom in exploring Vvardenfell: the user’s avatar may explore anywhere on the vast island at any time. These many choices and freedoms allow each user’s Morrowind experience to be in many ways uniquely their own.

As a result, many users have been able to identify strongly with the virtual identities of their Morrowind avatars. This is evidenced by the large number of postings in the Morrowind forum at, a comprehensive website devoted to the Elder Scrolls universe depicted in Bethesda Software’s games. Most of the users posting there admit to having logged several hundred hours playing Morrowind; one user estimated he had spend over 1000 hours within Morrowind’s gamespace. In order to examine just how closely connected these users believed their real-world identities were to their virtual identities, I posted the following query in the Morrowind forum: “Do you find your virtual Morrowind identity to be as ‘real’ in some ways as your non-virtual identity? How does one inform the other?”  The replies I received demonstrated a dynamic and substantial relationship between the users’ real-world identities and their virtual identities. Dante Nerevar wrote “In many ways I look at my character as me. I look at it like this: there are two of me, Nick [real-world identity] and Dante [virtual identity]. When not playing Morrowind I am Nick, but when I am [playing] I’m a completely different person. Regardless, some of my characteristics influence Dante’s and his influence mine.”  Here, the user seems to contradict himself, at first stating that his two identities were “completely different” but later admitting to mutual influence between the two. Toastman shows a similar contradiction when he discusses the separation between his real-world identity and his Morrowind avatars:

I love getting completely absorbed in a new identity, discovering how he reacts that is different from my reactions. I do things in character that I would never, ever think of doing in real life, [but] for some of my characters I make decisions based on my own values. Even though my own [real-world] identity can change depending on who I’m with, my Morrowind identities are less real to me than my own identity. I know that when I power down my computer, that I will be myself again.

Toastman is willing to admit that his real-world identity is constantly shifting given different stimuli, but isn’t willing to concede that his virtual identity (which also evolves thanks to Toastman’s reactions to stimuli) impacts his real-world identity. His last phrase is provocative: if he wasn’t himself during his Morrowind gameplay, then who was he? Did his avatar have a life of its own? Another Morrowind gamer, Anais, wrote “I find that with my most played Bosmer [an elf] we often have disagreements. She has solutions to problems that wouldn’t occur to me. I also have to respect her wishes.”  Here, she seems to suggest that her Bosmer virtual identity comes up with solutions to problems without any input from Anais’ real-world identity. Of course, this is impossible, since the Morrowind avatar takes no actions that are not explicitly triggered by the user. Each of these Morrowind users seems unwilling to acknowledge the substantial connections between their real-world and virtual identities.

Other subscribers to the Morrowind forums seemed much more comfortable acknowledging the reciprocal relationship between their real-world identity and their virtual identity via their avatar. Syronj wrote, “Shaka [the avatar] is an idealized version of what I would look up to in a character: brave and unselfish, whenever possible. I sometimes think the game has made me more likely to take a chance in real life.”  Syronj credits her virtual experience in Morrowind with making her real-world identity braver. Danile also readily admits that her avatars are “mainly how I would like to be in real life. Tough, and not taking any put downs or anything from anyone. But, like me, they are caring and do not hurt anyone if they do not have to. One of my current [avatars] likes to go pearl diving and all the pearls he gets he sells to get money for widows and orphans. It’s beyond me to be evil.”

The presence of a liminal projective identity between real-world and virtual identities was perhaps best articulated in the Morrowind forum by a user named Bloom. In describing his avatar Boris Karl, Bloom writes:

It is amazing to me that Boris Karl is not even a level 5 character, yet has walked around the entire circumference of Vvardenfell. He has been killed several times, but never has he been all that interested in leveling up. It’s not in his nature. When Boris encounters something that interests Bloom, the two have a tendency to overlap, although I try to resist that...I think the middle ground between them [Boris and Bloom] is the arena of exploration and discovery. It is why I love the game as much as I do.

Here, Bloom seems aware of a dynamic and reciprocal relationship between his identities. Indeed, I believe each of the Morrowind forum postings I’ve shared here demonstrate the connections between the users real-world and virtual world identities whether the original users are willing to admit it or not.

The Morrowind users described here demonstrate that their identities both impact and are impacted by their videogame play. Of course, these are users who spend a significant amount of time, often many dozens of hours, with their avatars in Vvardenfell. Certainly, the longer one plays an open-ended v-RPG like Morrowind, the more opportunities the user has to make identity-impacting diegetic decisions: where to go, what to do, which skills to work on, which attributes to improve when leveling up, and so on. Yet FYC teachers need not require their students to play dozens of hours to explore the relationships between real-world and virtual identities in video games. One hour of Morrowind gameplay is enough time to allow a user to make numerous diegetic choices related to identity formation. In that time, the user can create their avatar, selecting the avatar’s name, race, sex, facial appearance, hairstyle, astrological birthsign (with accompanying special abilities), and class (which determines whether the avatar will initially be proficient in combat, magic, or stealth and communication). These decisions, if considered carefully, take approximately fifteen to forty minutes. Once these decisions are made the avatar is free to explore the town of Seyda Neen (where the game begins), talking to citizens, or leaving the town to adventure elsewhere on the island. Morrowind avatars have the potential to be fairly unique after just the initial creation process thanks to the many identificatory variables mentioned earlier; imagine how different individual gaming experiences might be after just an hour’s time of moving freely through Vvardenfell.

Thanks to Cynthia Selfe, most composition teachers are now aware of the need to pay pedagogical attention to how computer technologies impact and influence students in our FYC classes. Barbara Duffelmeyer articulates these concerns well, declaring that “[Composition] pedagogy needs to provide an occasion for students to reflect on and articulate their relationship to digital technology and the ways that they might develop some agency within that relationship” (358). For Duffelmeyer, “enacting critical pedagogy means thinking of students as participants [and] urges an appreciation of multiple points of view that permit students to become aware of the cultural and personal lenses through which they, and others, view the world” (371). It seems clear to me that the FYC textbook authors I cited at the beginning of this chapter agree with Duffelmeyer; the many chapters devoted to the technologies of popular culture attest to that. What better popular culture medium than videogames to accomplish these pedagogical goals?  Through their interactivity, videogames provide users with agency. Through open-ended gameplay and the opportunities to “try on” different avatar identities, videogames allow users to explore multiple points of view.

As I mentioned earlier, even one hour of Morrowind gameplay is enough to allow FYC students to engage in critical thinking and writing about popular culture and identity formation. To illustrate the benefits of using Morrowind in the classroom, I provide the following example from a section of FYC I taught in the fall semester of 2007. That semester I used Lester Faigley’s Picturing Texts as the textbook for the course; its emphasis on visual rhetoric and cultural analysis resonated well with students. The fifth chapter in Picturing Texts is entitled “Constructing Realities”; the readings and discussions in this chapter are designed to help students explore the concept of ‘reality’ – including virtual realities. We read this chapter in preparation for a writing assignment that asked students to analyze the connections between virtual realities and American identity. In this chapter, the authors ask the following provocative question regarding virtual realities: “The boundary between what purports to be real and what is actually real has become blurred…Is it a bad thing for people to escape into alternative worlds?” (320-30). Predictably, students in this course (nineteen students in all) disagreed about the significance and potential dangers of virtual videogame identities. Even though 32% of the class admitted to playing videogames regularly, only 21% felt it was possible for videogames to impact identity formation; the rest of the class did not understand how videogame avatars might seem ‘real’ to the users who created them.

So we turned to Morrowind. Our course met in a computer-mediated classroom, which facilitated the ease of this gaming exercise: each student was required to play one hour of Morrowind. Students were asked to pay particular attention to their decisions when initially creating the avatar (such as the name, the sex, the race, and the class) and were required to write a brief paragraph for each decision, explaining how and why they made each decision. This gaming and writing session took up one seventy-five minute class period. During the next class meeting, we analyzed the students’ choices for their avatars; they also read aloud their rationales for the diegetic decisions they had made.

Several insights into videogame reality and identity were immediately apparent from the data collected from the students’ gaming sessions. 89% of the students had given their avatars names that had substantial personal significance. For example, one student chose the name “Adnama” for her avatar, explaining that it was her name backwards. She wanted to keep her name but wanted it to sound “foreign” to better fit the exotic Wood Elf race she had selected. Other students had similar personal reasons for selecting their avatar names. 89% of the students also selected their own sex for their avatar. The following female student’s rationale for this decision was typical: “I chose to be female become I am one in real life.”  Most of the students identified more strongly with their own sex and therefore selected it for their avatar. The two members of the class who did not were both women: they both had selected male avatars because they felt the attributes of the males for the races they wanted to play as were more advantageous. This shows that even these two students had clear, personal strategic reasons for their selections.

Similarly, when selecting from the ten races possible in Morrowind, 94% of the students had very careful personal and/or strategic reasons for their choices. In explaining her choice of Wood Elf, one student wrote, “They are quick and smart. They are really good as scouts, archers, and thieves, and they are very curious, which I am as well.”  Her statement here reveals her personal identification with this particular race. A male student chose a diplomatic Breton, explaining by saying, “I can identify more with a thinker, not a fighter like the others.”  Another female student chose the reptilian Argonian race for her avatar. Her explanation highlighted how intimately tied to her non-virtual identity this decision was: “I have [in her non-virtual life] a reptilian pet that I found. I also liked the fact that little is know and understood about this race [by Morrowind’s other races] – giving me more freedom to make my character more unique than others. I also liked that they have natural immunities (to poison) and abilities (underwater breathing) that weren’t acquired through magic.”  As we discussed their Morrowind gaming experiences and examined the rationales for their diegetic choices, it became clear to the students that the vast majority of their virtual choices for their avatars were intimately influenced by the proclivities of their non-virtual, real-world identities. This exercise helped the students understand how virtual gaming identities might seem ‘real’ to those users who invested time and energy in creating and evolving their avatars (infused with traits and characteristics important to their real-world identities). As I mentioned earlier, only 21% of the students believed it was possible for videogames to impact identity formation before this Morrowind gaming experience; 94% believed it was possible after the exercise and accompanying class discussion. As a result, the students were able to analyze the connections between virtual realities and American identity in more complex and nuanced ways in their longer writing assignments.

Of course, Morrowind is but one of the many single-player v-RPGs that exist; many other videogames (and many other genres of videogames) exist that could aid teachers and students in exploring identity and culture. Teachers could also have students explore identity construction in massively multiplayer online RPGs (MMORPGs) as well; Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of online player types provides an additional framework students could use to articulate their diegetic decisions. These explorations will invariably include discussions of race, gender, and class. The discussions would also likely include analysis of other popular cultural media as videogames re-mediate (to use Jay David Bolter’s and Richard Grusin’s term) and are remediated by films, television, fantasy and science fiction novels, and table-top strategy war games. Discussions on the connections between videogame virtual identities and real-world identities will help students to explore perceptions of the self (the stated goal of Between Worlds) and to investigate new ways of seeing themselves (the goal of Dreams and Inward Journeys). Videogames also require users to interact, reflect on the interaction, and then react: the essential components of both learning and identity formation. It seems clear to me that the substantial inclusion of videogames into first-year composition textbooks is essential for any textbook claiming an “inclusive” definition of popular culture. We need to pay immediate attention in composition studies to the ways videogames impact learning, culture, and identities, and this attention needs to be prominently displayed in our textbooks.


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