When you finally get around to discussing online gaming with your patient, there is a lot of lingo to learn. So I wanted to give you some basic concepts, and today I want to discuss the difference between Players and Characters.
The player is pretty straightforward: She or he is the person at the computer playing the game. In terms of psychotherapy the Player is your patient. Alternate terms might be “gamer,” “member,” or “user.”
Character becomes a little more complex. The Character is the persona adopted by the Player when interacting with the virtual world. Characters may resemble the Player who created/uses them, or they may be completely different. Characters may have complex personalities and backstories that do not resemble their Player at first glance. Depending on the game, Players can have extensive or limited control over what Character they choose to interact with the game world. For example, Tomb Raider has one Character, Lara Croft. You have no control over what Lara looks like or her history, the Character is pretty independent of the Player. In World of Warcraft you have much more variety, and Players can design Characters which have various looks, professions, races, classes and genders. These can be as symmetrical or assymetrical with the Player as the Player likes. For example a Player who is a 50 year-old male human being can create or “roll” a Character who is a female dwarf. (We’ll talk more about Character Race and Classes another time.)
In Second Life the Player can have even more choice in terms of Character appearance, but there is no variety in terms of non-human races. Characters in Second Life can design their physical appearance, clothing, and home environment much more extensively than in either of the examples above.
Another word you have probably heard used to describe a Player’s Character is their “Avatar.” Strictly speaking the Character is more than their Avatar in terms of backstory and personality, but for simplicity’s sake let’s treat them as synonymous. So when you hear the term Avatar therapy, what that means is that the Players (patient and therapist) engage in treatment via the virtual world by using their Avatars.
Players can have more (sometimes many more) than one Character. In MMORPGs like World of Warcraft you usually have a “main” Character, and then several “Alts,” or alternative characters. Many of these alts came into being because the game limits how much time your Character can play online before they are unable to gain experience points to progress to a higher level. So when a Player was leveling a Character, and they needed to let that Character “rest,” they created an alternate Character to play. These Alts often allowed Players to try different professions, races and classes. Last bit of jargon for today, when you hear a patient referring to their “toon” or “toons” they are referring to their Character or Characters.
Why does knowing this help the therapist? Many ways, besides the obvious conveyance to your patient that you are making an attempt to understand them. In terms of usage, it is important to ask the patient how many Alts they have to get a sense of how involved they are in playing the game. It is important to ask about the character’s gender if they don’t mention it, because many patient Players have Characters that are a different gender than the one the patient presents in the office with. Characters can often embody the patient’s idealized self, or their alter ego. Does the Character have a backstory? If so, what is it? What wishes are embodied in the character? What has the character mastered that the Player may wish to achieve mastery of? What does the Character spend time doing in-game? Does the Character have friends in-game? These are just some of the many questions that can have diagnostic information presented when answered.
If all of these questions seem too daunting to begin with, I suggest you start with these two questions when working with your gamer patients:
1. What is your main Character like?
2. In what ways are you similar to and different from your Character?
Try it, I bet you’ll be surprised how much material comes up as a result of just those two questions. And if you have had conversations with patient Players about their Characters, tell me. What have they been like?