The Player Character as Performing Object


Engagement in games is manifest through a player’s representation of action in game. The main mechanism for this engagement is through direct control of a player character. This control mechanism can be seen as a form of puppetry in which the player manipulates a game figure ranging from the abstract to the super-human. Through a focus on the player character, this paper posits that it may be productive to conceive of the player focus as one akin to that of the puppet artist, or puppeteer, and discusses one approach to unpacking the abstract sign systems of gameplay in this setting. The player character acts out the movements of the player and marks her progression in game. A doubling happens in this action, between the physical movements on the controller and the representation of agency on screen. As a player I act, then watch the results of my action on screen, always already audience to my own play practice. One ongoing challenge for games studies is the framing of the relationship between the player and her player character. From a phenomenological perspective this has been conceived of as an instrumental extension into the game world. Using the ‘binocular lens’ of performance analysis semiotic work is necessary to balance our sense of the improvisational act of digital game-play. The player binds to the lived experience of game-play through engagement with the sign systems at play in a specific gaming experience. Puppetry has existed across world cultures, as entertainment, ritual and celebration, and broadly involves the animation of inanimate performing objects. The insertion of objects between the performer and the audience allows for different, and deeper, levels of signification than live actors alone can offer. Puppets consist a developed form of performing object, one that moves. The fascination with puppets reaches far back into history, revealing our yearning to play god, to exert domination over our human experience. Similarly, the seductive illusion of control plays a central part in the appeal inherent in digital game form. In the modern setting much work on puppetry remains relatively hidden across a broad spectrum of fields, from computer science to anthropology. However performance theorists such as Tillis introduce a broad semiotics to conceive of the multitude of ways we engage with puppetry. Other theorists have engaged in embracing digital and mediated puppet form, not least in games studies in areas such as machinima and alternate-reality gaming, yet attention has been slow in broadening the application of puppet theory to player characters. Tillis offers a focus on signs of design, movement and speech as core to building an aesthetic of the puppet. For the player character signifiers of affect and control require addition to any such tentative schema. This paper argues that the metaphor of the puppet offers a useful frame for the central figure of our game-play focus by allowing for a kind of ‘double-vision’ that enables a player character to be seen in two ways at once, ‘as a perceived object and as an imagined life’. Using the tools of performance analysis this paper addresses the liminal relationship between player and player character in the flux of play. The intention is to offer an explication of the range of methods, whether stylistic, instrumental or kinesthetic, deployed in