The Clear Line: The Player and Their Acts

When I was a kid, my parents would complain that I talked about games “as if they were real”. At the time, I didn’t understand why they’d think that. Obviously Super Mario World was not real and I had never, to my knowledge, implied that it was. I think what it is though is that, in talking about one’s experience in a game, you refer to the things you do.

There’s always been this talk about immersion and how gamers can’t tell reality from imagination. That we get submerged in games and, somehow, cannot decipher where the narrative of the game ends and where our own interaction begins. That in playing Super Mario, I am him and he is me.

That can be true, in a way. When I am playing Super Mario World, I am Mario. I play his role and I behave as he would. It is not, however, some form of possession or delusion. It’s more like acting. I am playing his part, but I am still DJ. Always have been, always will. Games are usually thought of as toys, but they are also theatre in their way. You play with them, as the player, but that role is not just that of a player of a game, but also the old theatrical definition of “player”. You are an actor, assuming this role and playing it through the course of a story. (This metaphor is especially deep in sports games where you are playing a game wherein you play a player of a game.)

But to go back to the point, to a person who does not play games, perhaps the understanding of the line seems blurred where it is really quite defined to a gamer.

When I would tell my parents about my playing Super Mario World, it was I who jumped bottomless pits, stomped on Goombas, and rode Yoshis. Other times, Mario would be the one who demolished castles, rescued the Yoshi eggs from the Koopa Kids, and received a kiss from Princess Toadstool in the end. To someone who doesn’t get it, it would seem that what I did and what Mario did were interchangeable and I only pick one or the other arbitrarily to describe the experience of playing the game.

But look at this closer. When Mario does the things I describe him doing, they are things that occur at times when the control has been taken from me by the game. His role in the game is to act as the puppet through which I, the actor, play my part. But there are times when the game cannot permit me to do what needs to be done to progress its story. Like demolish the castles or kiss the Princess. (They probably could have allowed the player to do these things, but I think the game would’ve been less elegant for it.) These are things, then, that Mario does and I do not.

However, I am the one who does the heavy lifting. Without me, Mario can’t do shit about Goombas or unridden Yoshis. I am the one putting the will behind the action. So it is I who jumps, throws fireballs, and tosses Mecha-Koopas in Bowser’s face. It is my mind deciding to do these things and my skill making them happen.

I did it. Not Mario.

So you see. It is not that I and other gamers can’t tell reality from fantasy. It’s that semantically we make the distinction all too well.

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