BDiGRA 2024: Avatar-Player Interaction and Discursive Ambivalence in The Player (Mango TV, 2021)

By Charlotte Stevens on April 16th, 2024

As part of the Game Cultures cluster’s strong presence at British DiGRA (University of Staffordshire London, 12-13 April 2024), Harri Charles and I shared our joint attempt to work out what one particular low-budget drama is offering its viewers in terms of arguments about gaming in general, and specifically in how players of fantasy games might relate to the characters in the games they play. Overall, we agree that it’s a weird little show that doesn’t seem to understand or like gaming, and we had fun at the conference sharing the working-through of how we reached that conclusion.

This is the abstract for our presentation:

Chinese web series The Player (Mango TV, 2021; 20 episodes) makes compellingly odd choices about representing video games, players, players’ relationships with avatars, and the social/cultural role of gaming in contemporary China. With this presentation, we unpack how the series addresses apparent fears around players’ over-involvement in virtual worlds, and how it chooses to represent player-avatar relationships.

The series is about players of the popular Chinese massively multiplayer online role-playing game Fantasy Westward Journey (NetEase, 2001), and also features a group of game characters who develop self-awareness thanks to a malicious ‘AI’ and fortuitously timed lightning strike. The players befriend their chibi-style animated avatars to stop the ‘AI’ and its human creator. Where this gets complicated, representationally speaking, is that The Player’s actors are in doubled roles, each performing both as player and as game character when the diegesis swaps to a live-action rendition of Fantasy Westward Journey itself. A player speaks to his (animated) game character, and then becomes the character when the actor swaps roles.

Looking at this through game studies literature, these avatar/player interactions cannot be tidily separated into representations of a self or the insertion of player identity into a “game body”/other (Crick, 2011; Li, Lau, and Khoo, 2013). While sometimes The Player treats avatars as virtual intermediaries to navigate game spaces (Thomas and Johansen, 2021; Scriven, 2018), it also troubles these definitions by constructing players and their avatars as combined extensions of the self and as separate entities with individual agency. This means we the viewing audience see the player, embodied through the actor’s performance, in effect becoming (or rather continuing to be) the avatar as the drama moves between two diegeses.

Though it is less clear what the show is trying to argue around virtual worlds and player-avatar relationships, its sensationalization of the player-avatar relationship and experiences of virtual world gaming (for example, the players temporarily gain their game characters’ powers) sells the pleasures and attractions of a real game whose IP was licensed for the series. However, its presentation of gaming as something to grow out of suggests an ambivalence around the social/cultural place of gaming, particularly if too much time spent with a game world leads to destabilisation of self that can only be resolved through a successful heterosexual partnership in ‘real life’.