Playing the game: Role distance and digital performance


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This paper explores the connection between the conventions of the live role-based performance of Process Drama, and the mediated performance of online role-playing videogames.
Identity formation within digital/virtual environments is a dominant theme in cyberculture studies. Equally, the adoption of alternate identities through performance is a key concept in Process Drama. Both activities allow participants to ‘become somebody else’. Both deal with the identity shifts possible within imagined environments. This mutability of identity
provides a metaphor for considering the episodic nature of in-role performance and out-of-role reflection in both drama and videogames. The prevalence of this metaphor within popular culture texts suggests young peoples’ perceptions of performance, role and the individual are changing. Increasingly
identity maintenance is mediated through texting, screens, the Internet and multiplayer videogames.
This paper describes a reflexive qualitative analysis of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game Everquest in terms of dramatic performance and role distance, focusing on identity and learning outcomes. It provides a theoretical
connection between the conventions used in the two related educational fields of Process Drama and videogames.

Draft version. This is a preprint version of the article:
Carroll, J., & Cameron, D. (2005). Playing the game: Role distance and digital performance. Applied Theatre Researcher, 6.

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Playing the game: Role distance and digital performance

  1. 1. Playing the Game: Process Drama, Digital Role and IdentityJohn Carroll ( & David Cameron ( Sturt UniversityIntroductionThis paper explores the connection between the conventions of the live role-basedperformance of Process Drama, and the mediated performance of online role-playingvideogames.Identity formation within digital/virtual environments is a dominant theme incyberculture studies. Equally, the adoption of alternate identities through performanceis a key concept in Process Drama.Both activities allow participants to ‘become somebody else’. Both deal with theidentity shifts possible within imagined environments. This mutability of identityprovides a metaphor for considering the episodic nature of in-role performance andout-of-role reflection in both drama and videogames.The prevalence of this metaphor within popular culture texts suggests young peoples’perceptions of performance, role and the individual are changing. Increasinglyidentity maintenance is mediated through texting, screens, the Internet andmultiplayer videogames.This paper describes a reflexive qualitative analysis of the massively multiplayeronline role-playing game Everquest in terms of dramatic performance and roledistance, focusing on identity and learning outcomes. It provides a theoreticalconnection between the conventions used in the two related educational fields ofProcess Drama and videogames.Process Drama, digital role and identityProcess Drama is a form of improvised role-based drama with a history that goes backto the middle of the 20th Century. It draws on the earlier educational drama work ofBrad Haseman (1991), Dorothy Heathcote (1991), Gavin Bolton (1999), Cecily 1
  2. 2. O’Neill (1995) and many others. This dramatic form has parallels with the developingdigital ‘interactive drama’ described by Ryan (1997) McGonigal (2003) and Laurel(1991), though Process Drama - with its role-based performance conventions - is lesswell known within the digital performance area than it is in other areas ofperformance studies.Elements of Process Drama are incorporated into Education as Drama in Education,into Psychology as Simulation and Drama Therapy, and into Sociology as RoleTheory. The ability of dramatic role-based activity to allow participants to ‘becomesomebody else’ is central to the form. As Dorothy Heathcote says, we employ itnaturally and intuitively all our lives - “put yourself in my shoes” is a readilyunderstood request in everyday life (Heathcote 1969).The concept of variable role and identity has also been widely incorporated intoeveryday culture, from Goffman’s use of frame analysis (1974) to Goleman’s notionof emotional intelligence (1995). It has been picked up by management training andbusiness, as well as computer studies (Turkle 1995). It is also a central concept in theanalysis of digital environments such as virtual reality spaces, online chat rooms andvideogames (Ryan 2001).Of course it has always been part of theatre and Brecht (1979) puts it poetically, ifrather more bleakly when he says: “I have seen how humanity is traded. That I show, I the playwright. How they step into each other’s rooms With schemes Or rubber truncheons, or with cash.”This commercial and dystopian view of ‘visiting another room’ is the image that issometimes portrayed as the result of the performance of identity, particularly within 2
  3. 3. the new and evolving world of digital culture, and especially when it involvesdramatic role enactment in immersive and online videogames.There appears a deep synergy between the conventions of live role-based performanceof Process Drama and the mediated performance of role-playing videogames thatcould be usefully explored in terms of identity and learning outcomes. As SherryTurkle points out: “in terms of our identities we’re getting squeezed in every direction as new technologies provoke us to rethink what it means to be authentically human. Authenticity is becoming to us what sex was to the Victorians - an object of threat and obsession, of taboo and fascination” (in Coutu 2003).This focus on authenticity and ambiguous identity is a staple of cyberculture debates,post modernist thought, popular visual culture and the current theoretical fascinationwith ‘the body’. Ryan notes the popularisation of the view that we own not simply aphysical body, but also virtual bodies - or body images - which either “clothe, expand,interpret, hide, or replace the physical body, and which we constantly create, project,animate, and present to others” (2001, p. 306).Consider the following two statements by influential exponents from the fields ofeducational drama and videogame-based learning respectively. Firstly, DorothyHeathcote: “ I am concerned in my teaching, with the difference in reality between the real world where we seem to ‘really exist’ and the ‘as if’ world where we can exist at will. I do live but I may also say, ‘If it were like this, this is how I would live’. It is the nature of my teaching to create reflective elements within the existence of reality” (Heathcote 1991, p. 104).Secondly, James Paul Gee: “they (videogames) situate meaning in a multimodal space through embodied experience to solve problems that reflect on the intricacies of design of 3
  4. 4. imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined worlds and the design of both real and imagined social relationships and identities in the modern world” (Gee 2003, p. 48).Both drama and videogames deal with the shifts in identity formations that arepossible within an imagined or virtual environment.The notion of identity formation within the virtual/digital environment has been aprominent theme in studies of cyberculture, as has the performing of alternateidentities through the assumption of performance role within Process Drama. Thisplaying with identity is particularly evident in the way that the presentation of the selfin the online environment is presented as mutable. In Process Drama the relationbetween identity and power is a defining characteristic of the form (Carroll 1988).This experimentation with identity expressed within the parameters of a videogame ora Process Drama session may challenge traditional notions of a single identity -especially in the context of race, class, gender and sexuality.The mutability or ‘morphing’ of a constantly reinvented identity provides a newmetaphor for connecting the episodic nature of in-role performance and out-of-rolereflection in both drama and videogames. This metaphor of identity mutabilitysuggests that among young people the perception of performance, role and theindividual is undergoing change. Young people have already assimilated the conceptof transformation into their worldview, as they increasingly inhabit the world ofsurface, conveyed by the computer screen and enacted on the Internet and withinvideogames.This metaphor of ‘morphing’ allows them to reject the idea of the unitary self - onecareer path, one job for life, one definition of self, one gender division, one kind ofdrama, one notion of the body. This is a poststructuralist view of the decentredsubject; one that is culturally constructed and continually recreated using the imagesof the new media to provide role personas to temporarily inhabit. These socialconstructionist notions emphasise the spatial and temporal locatedness of identity(Hall 2000). Rather than being fixed, identities are seen as “necessary fictions” 4
  5. 5. (Weeks 1995) or “points of temporary attachment to the subject positions whichdiscursive practices construct for us” (Hall 2000).The concept of enacted role and temporary identity, explored within the ProcessDrama field so thoroughly by Heathcote, (1991) Boal, (1995) Bolton (1999) andmany others, could be usefully applied here to provide an analysis of the dramatic rolepossibilities of multiple identity play within the drama and the interactive gamesenvironment. The increasing closeness of performance elements within both fieldscan be seen as a response to the changing cultural forms being generated by gamingplatforms, interactive networks and developing online digital media.This cultural challenge to the essentialist notions of the fixed self also opens uppossibilities for flexibility and the reconstruction of identity. For example, in his bookModernity and Self-Identity (1991) Anthony Giddens addresses the idea of identity asa project. In Giddens’ work, and that of Ulrich Beck (1992), the breakdown oftraditional cultural markers, and globalisation of late modern society and theconsequent dissembedding of the self are seen to have led to less fixed notions ofidentity. As a result, biography and identity appear be much less fixed and more openfor young people than ever before. As Giddens suggests, the self becomes a reflexiveproject in which decisions concerning lifestyle "give material form to a particularnarrative self-identity" (Giddens 1991).This ongoing reflexive project of self identity involves sustaining a “coherent, yetcontinuously revised, biographical narrative.” (Giddens p. 81) The process ofalternative identity formation has been accelerated by the exponential growth ofimmersive and online gaming. The field of identity formation that both drama andvideogames encompass means they are uniquely positioned to grapple with this issuein a cultural climate of increasing openness and identity relativism.Process Drama is able to provide a positive idea of the place of the individual inpoststructuralist thought by providing drama conventions that negotiate constantlyshifting identities. Within Process Drama the participant can be seen as a subject-in-process, capable of agency, role differentiation and integration within a range of 5
  6. 6. environments both digital and dramatically enacted. This focus on mediated roleperformance has arisen because the technology of the form within the role-playingdigital environment, including on-line real-time avatar based games, has now beenlinked to multiple modalities (words, images, sounds, actions) that in some wayreplicate the mulitmodal discourse of that long standing semiotic signing system - thetheatre.As Heathcote says, “the theatre is the art form that is totally based in sign” (1991, p.169). In the past a single mode (usually text or icon) of communication was the onlyform available in the digital world (Carroll 2002). However digital technology hasnow made it possible for one person to be engaged in all aspects of multimodalimmersion and production. In the past this immersion was usually the preserve of thetrained actor or the participants in role-based Process Drama.As a number of authors have argued, (for example, Turkle 1995, p. 184) such role-based digital involvement may not be all fun and games - there may also be importantidentity work going on as there is within Process Drama role taking. In the past suchrole immersion was preceded by extensive training, in the case of actors, to clarify thedistinctions between identity and role. In the case of untrained individuals, directorsor skilled teacher/facilitators provided guidance in Process Drama. Somecommentators have felt the anonymity of cyberspace may open new possibilities forexploring alternate identities by providing an even more protected space forexploration than live improvisation. However there is the counter possibility thatunreflexive role identity assumption may encourage personality withdrawal andpassivity.One of the most interesting questions raised by this kind of work on identity in onlineperformance is the extent to which this role experimentation is liberating and whetherit has any kind of significant or positive repercussions in drama performance and theclassroom. On one side of this debate are academics, like Sherry Turkle (1995), whotake a generally optimistic view of the liberating possibilities of disembodied identityplay. The Internet and gaming are seen as a significant social laboratory forexperimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of the self (seen as a form of 6
  7. 7. radical performance); providing a safe environment which offers uninhibited access toemotions, thoughts and behaviors which are closed to young people in real life.Turkle’s argument suggests that while some individuals may use cyberspace toexpress dysfunctional offline selves, most use the digital domain to exercise andexperiment with what might be considered truer identities. Maybe it is here that thefirst collaborations of the digital world and drama classroom could occur.This kind of online experimentation may also be seen as having positive repercussionsin real life (or “RL” as it is called in cyberculture), contributing to a generalreconsideration of traditional, unitary notions of identity. Such optimisticinterpretations of cyberspace have lead to suggestions that the Internet may open upthe possibility of post-gender dramatic performance. Certainly there is evidence onthe Internet of self-conscious attempts to undermine traditional gender identities(Carroll 2002).However, other cybercultural critics have been less optimistic, in particularquestioning whether the dramatic performance of online identities is truly liberatingfor individuals or whether they simply reproduce cultural conventions and RLstereotypes. For instance a number of writers have commented on the way in whichonline culture often involves ‘hypergendered’ performances and the stereotypicalperformance of racial identities.Critics question the ideological implications of these performative acts of othernesswithin the digital environment. For example, Nakamura (2000) describes theappropriation of identities defined as Other as a form of identity tourism. Thisperformance comes without the risks associated with being Other in RL and allowsindividuals to indulge in a dream of crossing over racial boundaries temporarily andrecreationally. Rather than any kind of radical performance, Nakamura suggests thatthis identity tourism involves the act of playing the fantasy Other, which reaffirmsrather than challenges RL stereotypes. This seems to be the case with the genderboundaries in EverQuest, Diablo and other online games. 7
  8. 8. Whatever the pros and cons of this more radical ‘stepping into another’s shoes’, theconnection between the conventions of Process Drama and immersive digital role-playing is even stronger when considered in terms of semiotic production. Becauseboth forms exhibit the multimodal ‘open text’ that Eco describes as characteristic ofcontemporary communication, they are both oriented towards the semiotic action ofproduction. As Kress points out, the screen is now the dominant site of texts; it is thesite which shapes the imagination of the current generation around communication(2003).As Eco puts it, the author (or composer, artist, playwright, instructor, game designer)offers a work to be completed by the reader (or listener, viewer, performer, student,player), such that “the common factor is a mutability which is always deployedwithin the specific limits of a given taste, or of predetermined formal tendencies”(1989, p.20). In this manner a work can be offered as a “plastic artifact” which can beshaped and manipulated by its audience, but which still operates within the worldintended by the author (Eco, 1989). In particular, Eco defines a subcategory of openwork – the “work in movement” – which Aarseth suggests is the closest link tointeractive media forms because it is built upon unplanned or incomplete structuralelements allowing a process of mutual construction to occur (Aarseth, 1997, p. 51).The texts of both Process Drama and videogames demand constant interpretation andarticulation. As Gee (2003 p11) points out, in role-playing games you can design yourown character and the same is true for Process Drama. Both forms exhibit theepisodic form that alternates in-role behaviour with out of role activity. For example,within the videogame Diablo after completing a task the player returns to the armoryto buy upgraded weapons before returning to role performance with enhanced powers.Within drama there is the alternation of in–role enactment and out of role negotiationalong with research, discussion and planning. Table 1 matches some of the obvioussimilarities that exist between these two forms. 8
  9. 9. Table 1: Comparison of Process Drama and VideogamesProcess drama VideogamesGroup narrative orientation Video intro/cutscenesTeacher in role Instructions from superior, helper etcDiscussion of role attributes Selecting role attributesIn-role, attitudinal drama In role, playingOut of role research Handbook, cheats, historyExercise focus Speed challenges, custom gamesIn role, character In role, experienced characterDiscussion, debrief Online chat, web user groupsWhen entering the dramatic frame in both Process Drama and videogames “a willingsuspension of disbelief ” (Coleridge 1907) is established. In the case of drama this isthrough the negotiated agreement of the participants and the formalising of thisagreement by the facilitator, often using narrative as a focus. Videogames have asimilar formal narrative expressed in cutscenes and narrative overlay, which establishthe dramatic world. Often instruction or guidance is provided by characters within thenarrative and dramatic frame of the game. This function operates as teacher-in–role indrama and commonly as a superior (as in rank or status) or helper in videogames.There are also out-of-role tasks that occur that are nevertheless part of the activity,like selecting role attributes or engaging in research. As well as these activities thereare different levels of playing involvement in both dramatic forms as well as out offrame discussion.As Kress and Van Leeuwin (2001, p.68) point out, for both Process Drama andvideogames the meaning of the experience for the participants does not only reside indiscourse and design of the site, it also resides in the production of the unique formitself. Both forms are co-productions of design and participation that take on elementsof aesthetic choice and artistic production 9
  10. 10. In learning terms, Eskelinen (2001) makes a critical distinction between the sort oflearning exhibited by both these forms and that of engaging in traditional text-basedlearning. He makes the point that the dominant mode of learning in literature,mainstream theatre, and film is interpretative, while in games and Process Drama it isconfigurative. He says: “…. in art we might have to configure in order to able to interpret whereas in games we have to interpret in order to configure, and proceed from the beginning to the winning of some other situation” (Eskelinen 2001, p. 2).This type of learning is directly applicable to the ergodic learning pathwork thatAarseth describes in Cybertext (1997). He describes a phenomenon whereby theplayer, or user, of a text is a closely integrated figure in the construction of a semioticsequence. They construct the text by their input into the given elements. He arguesthat traditional texts require little input from the reader, apart from eye movementsand page turning. He contrasts this with dramatic texts that require nontrivial effort toconstruct and traverse them, such as Interactive Fiction, Process Drama orVideogames. Aarseth uses the Greek words ergon (work) and hodos (path) to describethese as ergodic texts (1997, pp 1 – 2). Within Process Drama the participantsconstruct the narrative from the experiential moments of immersion within thenegotiated group devised world. This is a very different experience from actorsperforming a written text or the theatrical experience of being members of anaudience participating in the unfolding of a written text.Similarly within videogames during the process of playing, say for exampleEverQuest, the participants are engaged in the construction of an individual andunique screen based semiotic structure. This consists of a selective configuration ofthe game elements and their own player choices, and produces a unique improvisedlived environment. The wide-ranging variable expression of meaning built into such anon-linear game text should not be confused with the semantic ambiguity of linearprint-based texts, which allow for different reader interpretation of a preset format.The game world of EverQuest is constructed through an individual player’s work andexists as a unique artifact, and hence is an ergodic text as Aarseth defines it. 10
  11. 11. Of particular interest is how closely learning concepts drawn from Process Drama,such as understanding Role Distance and dramatic protection (Carroll 1986), apply tovideogames learning. For example, by initially ignoring a game’s manual mostplayers appear to have a learning experience that closely mirrors the process ofexperiential learning that occurs in role based Process Drama (Carroll & Cameron2003). In the role-playing videogame EverQuest a player’s continued interaction withgame elements and tasks is rewarded with points for experience. A new playerpractices martial skills by killing rats, skeletons and other creatures that convenientlyexist in plague proportions on the introductory levels. By becoming successful atthese tasks the character is eventually promoted to a higher skill level. Each time acharacter is promoted, the player can distribute a small amount of experience pointsamong a range of character skills and attributes. In this way the player can shape thecharacter’s growing expertise in or knowledge of certain areas.The promotion system also allows for a penalty-free learning zone for the player.Until a character is promoted to a skill level of 10, they can die and be re-generatedlargely without loss. They will be returned to a safe location, and will keep whateveritems they were carrying at the time. However, once a character achieves level 10experience, it becomes necessary for the player to locate their ‘corpse’ in order torecover those items. If the character has chosen a particularly awkward location inwhich to die, recovery may not be possible. This can be a significant penalty in agame that relies heavily on the collecting of powerful weapons, useful tools, valuableobjects and magical items. Maintaining this inventory can be an expensive pursuit,both in terms of accumulating the game wealth to purchase or pursue these items, andliterally in terms of the subscription costs to play the game long enough to develop acharacter’s worth.Restricting the risks for characters below level 10 experience allows new or less ableplayers to indulge in high-risk behaviour while at the same time being protected bytheir Role Distance from deep identification with the character so that his or herpotential danger becomes a positive learning experience. 11
  12. 12. The authors have noted a similar process at work when learning to play othervideogames, such as their introduction to Resident Evil – Code: Veronica X thatfrequently involved gruesome deaths for their avatar Claire, the characterrepresentation of the player (Cameron & Carroll 2004). Clearly the concept of thedramatic frame is operating here, where the player is engaging “as if” the situation isreal (Goffman, 1974), but there are a range of conventions that vary the levels ofprotection needed within the game. The player can ‘toggle’ between a closeidentification with their character and a observer/learner perspective that is moredistant and willing to experiment at extreme levels in order to discover how to operatewithin the game environment.Role Distance and Role ProtectionThis penalty-free behaviour reflects what psychologist Eric Erikson (1968) has calleda psychosocial moratorium, which James Gee (2003, p.62) succinctly sums up as “alearning space in which the learner can take risks where real world consequences arelowered”. Within EverQuest high-risk behaviour is sometimes rewarded on the earlyskill levels. For example, one of the authors learnt to take advantage of the‘respawning’ that occurs when a character dies, such that if he got lost or trapped in adifficult location he would deliberately kill off his character (eg. by drowning orattacking a much stronger foe). His character would then be returned to a familiarlocation without major penalty. Similarly, he learnt that attacking creatures of similaror higher skill level was a risky enterprise, but even if only occasionally successful inthese battles the player can accumulate experience points much more quickly. Whilelearning to play, ‘death’ is an inconvenient but acceptable penalty for pushing theboundaries of the game.In Process Drama this concept has come to be known independently as ‘RoleProtection’, where the personal distance from the consequences of actually being inthe event have been elaborated and structured for different learning outcomes. Thisrole-protection or psychosocial moratorium can be seen in a metaphorical way as aninterface that frames the dramatic and performative event. In earlier times this‘frame’ was seen as a picture frame or proscenium arch framing the action. Morecommonly today it is the screen frame of the computer that performs that function. 12
  13. 13. This frame acts as a border separating the images and events from those in RL. Theparticipant enters this framed world with a mutable identity based on parameters ofthe performance role available to them. By focusing attention on the performativeactions within the frame it clearly delineates the difference between Real Life and therepresentation of reality we call role-based videogames or Process Drama. This is the‘as if’ device which provides the dramatic Role Protection that allows the participantsto enter the space of enactment.This performance form is composed of two elements; firstly there is the nature of theconventions operating on the screen or within the drama. Secondly there is a level ofRole Protection or Role Distance present that allows the adoption of a new identitywithin the penalty-free area of the dramatic frame.Figure 1 shows these elements in a less metaphorical way:Figure 1: Elements of the performance frameThe conventions operate as creative forms for both videogames and Process Drama bydeveloping non-naturalistic ways of presenting material and adapting roles within theperformance frame. Within Process Drama this covers a range of positions includingattitudinal role, signed role, character performance as well as more abstract formssuch as effigy, portrait, statue and narrative voice (Neelands 1990.)Within videogames the player has a similar range of positions from first-personshooter to central character, controller and interactive performer. These conventionsare built into the performance frame and provide the structure for the fictional socialworld to exist.There is also the protection of Role Distance that allows the psychosocial moratoriumto operate for the participants within the performance frame. Within stand-alone 13
  14. 14. videogames it is the penalty-free nature of the interaction that allows the character toconstantly learn by mistakes.. However while providing high levels of Role Distanceand Role Protection stand-alone videogames are still able to allow participants toexperience the performance frame from alternate positions. For example within thereal-time strategy game Starcraft, the player can control any of three different species– Terran, Protos or Zerg – each with its own unique goals, technologies and abilities.Within Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) likeEverQuest the penalties associated with avatar death may be much closer to those ofinteractive Process Drama than non-networked or single-player games.In a more metaphorical way the ‘Performance Laptop’ in Figure 2 below illustratesthese points. The laptop frame provides the space and performance conventions for adistanced performance and operates for both drama and videogames.Figure 2: The “Performance Laptop”, illustrating Role Distance and RoleProtection.The player/performer always has the option to select from a range of distance andprotection conventions. The most obvious position is immersion in the action ofunstructured first-person participation. This full role, “first-person shooter” (FPS)position, while providing high levels of involvement and activity, is one that providesminimal levels of protection for the participants. Within videogames, FPS game forms 14
  15. 15. are often based on reflex action and physical controller skills and depend on an ever-growing body count of increasingly ferocious adversaries for success. In other morequest-based videogames such as Nintendo’s Zelda series, the first-person view ismore open and problem-based, and much closer to the drama concept of full role.Within Process Drama, first-person full role and immersion in the event is usually theculmination rather than the starting point of any improvisational drama. First-person‘in-the-event’ drama requires a background understanding of the context and highlevels of group trust to operate in a situation with minimal Role Protection.If this minimal Role Distance is overly confronting then within both drama andvideogames the participant/player can choose a greater Role Distance and stand backfrom the action by the assumption of an attitudinal role. This maximally distancedrole requires only the agreement of the player to take on an attitude of a character inthe drama for it to operate. An EverQuest player could choose to ignore the‘connected’ aspects of the game, avoiding communication with other players andpursuing their own intra-game pursuits, such as mapping the game world. They couldimbue their character with a desire to observe the game world, rather than interactwith it.At a Role Distance closer to the action, the player can become a central character by‘signing’ the role they have adopted through costume, name, career path or someother attribute. They can actively engage other human players, adopting a particulartone in their text-based ‘conversations’ in order to convey a deeper sense of their role.At the Role Distance level closest to being-in-the-event the player can assume a fullrole and become part of the unfolding narrative action. The Role Distance chosen isalways variable, and the player can ‘toggle’ between levels of involvement in avideogame through changes of camera perspective. Sometimes this is for strategicreasons to get a larger picture of what is happening but sometimes it is because theemotional closeness of the action becomes overwhelming.As noted earlier, in terms of Role Protection, this first-person full role is the mostemotionally exposed position. However the player may choose to maintain a full role 15
  16. 16. but stand back somewhat from the moment of unstructured participation by becominga guide for the character, or an author of the narrative. In EverQuest, a player canchoose to “hire” other players to complete a difficult or dangerous task, rather thanattempting it themselves. Similarly, a player can choose to develop their character as aservice provider (for example healer, tailor, fletcher, blacksmith, minstrel) to otherplayers rather than participating in the game’s pre-designed quests. These roles areoften presented as non-player characters (software controlled agents), but humanplayers can take on these roles if they desire.Similarly, within Process Drama the teacher/facilitator may shift the Role Distance ofthe participants in a group enactment if the level of Role Protection does not provideenough artistic distance from the dramatic intensity of the event.Both the performance forms, unlike RL, mean that the participants are not trapped inthe present moment of unstructured participation. The performance frame for bothdrama and videogames allows the participants to structure the protection of RoleDistance that is appropriate for their needs.The performance frame, the conventions and the levels of protection are shown in ametaphorical way in Figure 2 above. All of the levels of protection and varieties ofconvention are available on any piece of work.Of course the ultimate protection for both drama and videogames is to exit theperformance frame altogether, and this episodic quality is part of the dramatic form –most games feature a pause function. However the combination of role conventionand Role Protection distance from the focus event provides the dramatic structure thatprotects the participants in their dramatic involvement with the narrative.All varieties of Role Distance are performative – and, distanced roles are often used indrama but less so in videogames. With drama, participants feel more protected andwork with more conviction if they are framed at some distance from the moment ofreal time enactment. If too much is at stake, the Role Distance is often too close for anexploration of the situation, and the performance frame becomes blurred while the 16
  17. 17. belief in the convention and protection of the role is lost. Within videogame genres,Role Distance varies. In first-person shooter forms, the visual rush of imminentdestruction often drives the action. In other quest-based games a more reflectiveposition is available.A case study of EverQuestIn terms of the dramatic frame outlined above, Sony Online’s EverQuest( is a realtime avatar gaming form with the full rangeof Role Distance and Role Protection available to the player.To understand the social relations realised in the text of EverQuest we need toconsider the screen views available to the player. Following a videogame conventionof equating player perspectives and Role Distance with ‘camera views’, the player cancycle through the options to choose to view the game from different angles, and alsozoom in or out and pan left and right using keyboard commands. Table 2 outlines thecamera views offered in EverQuest.Table 2: The camera views in EverQuest.Description: View: Camera position:First-person (default) Straight ahead Player cannot see characterOverhead (rotating) From above Rotates as character turnsRear (rotating) From rear Rotates and stays behind the characterOverhead (fixed) From above Does not rotate as character turnsRear (fixed) From rear Does not rotate as character turnsIn practice, the authors found that playing the game comfortably and efficientlyrequired a constant process of toggling between the first-person view, a view fromover the shoulder of the avatar, and a distant third-person view. The ‘ideal’ viewdepended on the task being performed. For example, the authors found a first-personview good for navigating through corridors in pursuit of another character, whileswitching to a third-person view was sometimes necessary in a melee fight to ensurethe avatar wasn’t being attacked from behind. 17
  18. 18. Figure 3 illustrates the first-person view in EverQuest, which the authors found to begenerally the most convenient for exploration and interaction with other players,especially combat. It is also highly engaging in terms of Role Distance and RoleProtection. As noted in Figure 2, a first-person perspective in terms of both RoleProtection and Role Distance is the most likely to equate with a sense of being withinthe action; it is ‘as if’ you are the character. First-person view is the most ‘real’perspective available in this game, and in others like it. Indeed, the ‘first-personshooter’ is recognised as a game genre in itself, modelled on neo-classics such asDoom, Quake, and Unreal. It is the perspective that most places the player within the‘skin’ of the character avatar. In this view the world is seen through the character’seyes.Figure 3: First-person view in EverQuest promotes a high level of engagementwith other players/characters (source: point-of-view afforded the player in videogames is often discussed in terms of‘immersion’ – the degree in which the player is drawn into the mediatised ‘reality’ ofthe game environment. Taylor argues that two levels of immersion are possible invideogames: one in which the player is absorbed in the experience of the game, andanother in which “the player is not acting upon the game, but within the game” (2002,p. 13). She labels these two levels diegetic and intra-diegetic immersion respectively.In EverQuest, the authors experienced both forms. For example, at one point ourcharacter (Elviss the Ranger) was presented with a quest task – to find all of the 18
  19. 19. components needed to convert an old pair of boots into new, more comfortablefootwear. This began as a small and seemingly insignificant task, but it quicklyabsorbed and obsessed the player/researcher. Gathering the necessary materialsrequired exploration of the game space to find the required tools, and several enemycharacters had to be tracked down and defeated to obtain all the components.For a time, the player/researcher was engrossed in the pursuit of new boots. Havingacquired the valuable upgraded footwear, the player then became interested in thepossibilities for experimentation afforded in the game world. The player had learntthat certain objects, such as a sewing kit, allowed the player to combine game objectsto repair or enhance existing items, or possibly even create new ones.In addition to the built-in game quests, EverQuest allows players to pursue their ownpersonal goals. For example, the authors decided that Elviss didn’t like a species ofnon-player characters in the game called Gnolls. Generally, any Gnolls of lowercombat ranking encountered in the course of other pursuits became fair game forElviss’ sword. At times we would encounter other human players in the EverQuestgame world, and suggest forming a group. In the normal course of playing EverQuest,human players form groups to achieve game quests and thus enhance their power andabilities. However, the player/researcher would suggest that tracking and pursuingGnolls was a suitable quest in itself, and seek other players to assist in that goal.In this way the players would be acting within the game world for their own ends,imbuing their character with some deep-seated hatred of Gnolls that would oftenoverride more traditional game concerns. EverQuest freely allows this kind of play, inwhich players switch between expected roles and activities, and roles and missions oftheir own choosing.Other camera positions offered in EverQuest, as listed in Table 2, present options forvarying degrees of Role Distance and protection as outlined in Figure 2. Wheneverthe player is in role, standing apart from the action and looking down on their avatar,this Role Distance brings highly affective subjective elements into the socialrelationship being negotiated (Kress 2003 p118). This standing apart or being behind 19
  20. 20. the avatar signals greater Role Distance for the player, while looking down fromabove signals even further Role Distance as well as an increase in social power.The player is always in control of the Role Distance they choose. It is their desire forengagement that dictates how close to the naturalistic frame of total involvement theywill go. These conventions exist as a visual genre which is similar in form to theillustrations that exist within a multimodal text as outlined by Gunter Kress inLiteracy in the new media age (2003, p. 118). The distance and positioning of theviewer in any visual text, videogame or drama is always critical to their role position.Like many games, EverQuest allows the player to quickly toggle or cycle throughcamera positions using keyboard commands. In this manner Role Distance can bechanged more quickly, and more often, than is usually the case with Process Drama.The aim of such multimodal visual genres in gaming, drama and text is to encourageparticipation in the world of entertainment and pleasure of the situation, while at thesame time providing protection and power for the participant. The participants withinvideogames and Process Drama can always choose, by standing in differentrelationships to the dramatic action, to limit or increase their involvement within thedrama frame.Within EverQuest if the anxiety of being attacked from behind or facing imminentdeath from drowning in the sewers becomes too stressful, the player has the ability toshift engagement into greater Role Distance by using the viewing conventionsinherent in the software. Often the distance chosen is that of mid-range from theaction, a distance that can signal some engagement in the action, but not too close forcomfort. Figure 4 illustrates the third-person view in EverQuest. Here the authors (inthe guise of their character Elviss the Ranger) have been attacked from behind by aRestless Skeleton (a computer-controlled character). The authors have toggled fromfirst-person view to third-person to quickly gain some perspective on what is going onin the melee. It can be faster to switch camera views than to spin around while in first-person view. 20
  21. 21. Figure 4: Third-person (rear rotating) view in EverQuest.The authors have been attacked from the rear, and adopted a third-personperspective to identify their foe (a restless skeleton).It is also important to note that EverQuest intrinsically acknowledges that sometimesplayers want to shift to other role frames during the game. One of the communicationmodes afforded in the game is known as ‘Out of Character’ chatting. By typing in‘ooc’ mode a player speaks out of character to all nearby players. The gameinstructions describe this facility as being “for speaking out of the context of the gameand your character”. An odd but amusing example of this is shown in the transcript oftext-based conversation below, in which the character of Bareback commented out ofcharacter about Elviss’ name: Bareback says out of character: Love me tender, love me sweet. Elviss: Do you like my hair? Bareback: Yes I do. Elviss: I would like my shoes to be blue Suede. Bareback: That would be cool.This ability to toggle social interactions instantly and explicitly in and out of characterclearly allows for shifts in Role Protection. This exchange equates to the RoleProtection frame of critic, who can interpret and comment on the action. This level of 21
  22. 22. spectatorship is highly protected and a long way from first-person involvement.Indeed, it is often the functional aspects of gameplay that afford the ability to alterlevels of Role Protection. The player can choose to be in the action as a first-personparticipant or, as noted above, they can switch to a more protected role of critic bychoosing to communicate out of character.An even more protected position is that of the artist customising their experience. InEverQuest, this is typified by the function of allocating accumulated skill points toselected areas to enhance a character’s ability. In this mode the character is notperceived as an avatar, but as a table of skills and abilities that can be favoured orignored depending on how the player wishes to shape their experience. In video andcomputer games more generally, this high level of Role Protection is found in thepractice of modifying the game code, or in creating new game levels or scenariosusing software tools and programming skills.ConclusionThere is already considerable discourse on the developing forms of digital‘interactive drama’. This paper contributes to that discussion a theoretical connectionbetween the conventions of live role-based performance of Process Drama, and themediated performance of online role-playing videogames. It is clear that a centralelement of both Process Drama and multiplayer online videogames is their ability toallow participants/players to ‘step into somebody else’s shoes’. Both forms containRole Distance and Role Protection conventions that allow a fluid ‘toggling’ betweenclose active engagement within the unstructured moments of the event, and a moreprotected observation or reflection on the experience. In videogames, this togglingcan be as instant as a keyboard press to switch the on-screen viewing perspective.The authors’ experience learning to play EverQuest demonstrates the increasingcloseness of performance elements within both fields. Process Drama’s appeal in theeducational setting is its ability to provide a protected means of experiencing andcurriculum learning from an experiential position. The mutability of digital identities,as realised in online games, provides a similar penalty-free opportunity for exploringsocial relationships, identities and experiences ‘as if’ the player is somebody else. 22
  23. 23. Switching in and out of (or between) characters, or toggling distance between first-person participation and third-person observation, provide mechanisms by which theparticipant/player can reflect on and adjust their involvement in the events they are apart of.The challenge inherent in this digital gaming form is to explore how this connectionmight be further applied in fields such as education, where within Western culture atleast young people’s concepts of performance, role and individual identity havealready been changed by an increasingly mediated world. The ability to manipulate or‘edit’ identity is a concept already assimilated into the digital worldview of manyyoung learners. As more videogame-based resources for the classroom emerge, itbecomes increasingly important to incorporate notions of Role Distance and RoleProtection in their development. This may also help to address the ‘moral panic’reactions to the use of games in classroom learning.A continuing discussion between educators and especially Process Drama specialistsand game designers on how best to connect these new learning and identityconventions to curriculum content would seem worth having.ReferencesAarseth, EJ 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.Beck, U 1992, Risk society: towards a new modernity, Sage, London.Boal, A 1995, The rainbow of desire, Routledge, London.Bolton, G 1999, Acting in the classroom, a critical analysis, Heinemann, London.Brecht, B 1979, Bertholt Brecht: Poems 1913 – 1956, J. Willett & R Manheim (eds), Routledge, New York, NY.Carroll, J. 1988 Terra Incognita: Mapping drama talk. National Association for Drama in Education Journal vol. 12 no. 2.Carroll, J 1986, Framing drama: Some classroom strategies, National Association for Drama in Education Journal, vol. 10, no. 2.Cameron, D & Carroll, J 2004, ‘The story so far…’: The researcher as a player in game analysis, Media International Australia, no. 110, February 2004. 23
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