Experience, 60 Frames Per Second: Virtual Embodiment and the Player/Avatar Relationship in Digital Games


  • Chris Alton York University


From the earliest days of video game studies as a field, and before - with discussions of virtual reality - a debate has endured over the nature of virtual embodiment. From Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck in 1997, to Edward Castronova’s foundational examination of the phenomenon of MMOGs, to Valtin, Pietschmann, Liebold, and Ohler’s examination of online social immersion in 2014, the concern over how embodiment is configured in virtual spaces is ongoing. Further, questions of whether such embodiment is possible, and if the experience should be called ‘embodiment’, continue to be omnipresent. Several of the theories put forth about virtual embodiment are, at best, not fully explored or followed through to their logical conclusion. At worst, some of these theories paint a troubling, dehumanizing picture of the perception of virtual embodiment and the player/avatar relationship. The continued focus on the phenomenology of the experience is understandable, however, as the synthesis of player/user and in-game avatar is the locus of most, if not all, video game and virtual environment experiences. Engaging with theories of virtual identity, gender, the player/avatar relationship during gameplay, and the often embattled juxtaposition of narrative and gameplay in video games, this paper explores the ways in which avatars are both characters and embodied experiences. This examination addresses ideas of the avatar as vehicle, the avatar as narrative character, and the avatar as cybernetic embodiment, and strives to find a synthesis between them, in order to come to terms with the unique structure of the player’s interactions with the virtual experience.