[In this essay originally posted on the What Games Are blog, and reprinted in full with his permission, UK-based game designer and Gamasutra contributor Tadhg Kelly explains why he believes there's no such thing as a player character, and analyzes what's really going on when most people play games in context.]
"There is no such thing as a player character" is the kind of tagline that gets me into trouble in some places. So is "the emotional connection between player and character that many game makers believe exists in fact does not."
Both contain a powerful subtext, questioning everything from a player's sense of identity to the validity of their experiences. Read the wrong way, they can seem to say that all the emotion you feel in playing games is made up.
Of course that's not my intent. When I say "there is no such thing as a player character" I don't mean that there is nothing. When I say play occurs through "dolls," likewise. My intent is to reinterpret the emotional experience of play within a game-native context, and so derive useful insight that could apply to all games. In other words, the emotions are real but our way of talking about them is broken.
This is an essay to fully explain this concept, to set what's really going on when most players play games in context, about the importance of identity and self expression.
A personal story of emotional experience
When I moved to London I didn't really know why I was moving. I had had a long background in games at a kind of pro-amateur level, creating role playing games, card games and live action role playing games for the Irish convention scene. I had also had some experience in the industries surrounding games, such as working in the retail sector and as a technical writer at Havok. However, I didn't really know where I fit in. So I emigrated.
Luckily I landed my first game design job soon afterward, and the following year was a wild ride. I learned and did so much, from level design to scriptwriting to action design, but -- as happened to many others in the UK at that time -- ultimately the studio collapsed through a lack of funds. I took it hard, became depressed and needed to find a job. I was willing to take the first thing that came along, which happened to be a contract tester position.
Where my first year had been amazing, my second was miserable. My employers seemed to have a culture of shipping software in whatever state it happened to be in to meet release dates. So they produced a lot of churn content, and it was the sort of place where issues like quality were a non-starter. I was paid little, lived in fear of redundancy (testers are often only hired on rolling contracts), and spent my days testing crapware. For a long time I wallowed.
To avoid feeling that funk, we testers played games. Our lab had a local network of PCs, so we might play Call of Duty at lunch. However, the lab also had glass walls, which bred a classroom mentality. Management sat outside and looked in on us. Producers wandered by and stared into see if their game was being tested. Various people came in at the drop of a hat and complained over what they saw being done (or not). It was like a real world version of the office in the movie Brazil. We were the students being made to do our homework and our managers were essentially invigilators.
The truth was that testing was not difficult. We could go through each new build in about an hour to verify fixes, play new content, button-bash the interface, and so on. So we had a lot of free time, but had to appear as good workers being productive. This meant no Call of Duty, but we could get away with smaller and more hideable games such as emulated GBA ROMs. In so doing, I got surprisingly hooked by a soccer game.
I'm not an avid fan of soccer. When national competitions like Euro 2012 roll around I will cheer for my beleaguered Irish team, but I have no interest in leagues or the soap opera of the transfer markets or which player insulted who. However, this soccer game caught me. It had simple controls. It was fun. I would always play as a particular team because I liked their color and knew that they were supposed to be good. At first I played just single matches lasting four minutes, but later realized that the emulator could save game states. So I could play leagues, and I did. Hundreds of them.
I imagined that the different players on my team had identities, and I started playing preferential tactics on the basis that I liked one player over another. I became emotionally connected to these little dudes, and when I developed a winning strategy (which usually meant I won a match by 5-0 or more) I kept playing anyway. It was a wonderful place to go and to feel success, to imagine cheering crowds and trophies and so on. I even imagined a sort of backstory to what was going on behind the game.
At a time when my career felt like it had stalled, that little game became the highlight of my day. In retrospect it also proved to be a personal example of everything that games are, and I often look back on it as an example of modality.