Being Non/Human 2013: Who’d Choose To Be A Human?

The academic criticism of computer games has achieved a concern with the politics of identity that is both extensive and limited. It is extensive in the depth of answers to questions articulated most plainly by Meadows (2007), questions I shall reluctantly summarise as “where does the player end and the avatar begin?”; it is limited in that it seldom moves beyond those questions, save in the realms of gender objectification and identification, in which the gender of the player is often the primary focus of investigation (Norris (2004), Gallelli (2010), Carr (2011) et hoc genus omne).

I propose a project investigating a similar choice that can be made by players in fantasy and science fiction games, focusing for the sake of brevity and ease on World of Warcraft: the choice of a ‘race’ – or, more accurately, ‘species’ – which is not the player’s own. The paper will present and explore reasons for choosing a non-human, even monstrous avatar, and the extent to which such avatars are characterised both in the game’s representations and in the players’ interactions with those representations, made to occupy a liminal space where they can be occupied/inhabited/identified with by their player, and yet remain tantalisingly Other. Some of this implications of this choice – the reification and reframing of racial difference into species differences, the luxury of being able to choose from potential prejudices, and the taxonomic aspects of the ‘level/race/class’ identification of player avatars – will also be considered. The project’s objective, ultimately, is to establish a basic understanding of the motivations and implications surrounding the choice to ‘be non-human’.

Unfortunately I’ve lost the notes for the paper itself, but it went down reasonably well. It felt a little irrelevant in the company of the other Being Non/Human papers, but it was a credible enough piece of theory and they said I could come back for the 2015 conference. These are quite uncomfortable projects, really – I find them awkwardly abstracted from an identifiable primary text and appreciation of craft, and there’s enough of the Creative and Professional Writing student left in me to feel that pure theory is not what I’m for. Nevertheless, I am legitimately interested in talking about virtual identities and if that means I have to sit at the front and set terms for a discussion for a few minutes, so be it.

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