We take the notion of a player character for granted. We often describe games to people in terms like “You’re a spy with a bandana and you have to break into a secret military installation” or “You’re a space prince and stuff sticks to your magic ball and you roll it around and more and more stuff sticks to it.” That kind of explanation depends on the idea of a player character — on being able to say what you are in the game.

Some games have obvious player characters, but others don’t. If there’s no player character, then what are you in the game? I think that you’re always something, but I want to work out when that something that you are can be called a player character.


You’re always something

First of all, let’s define a spectrum along which games might vary. At one extreme we have an obvious player character: let’s go with Tomb Raider. There’s Lara on the screen. You control her and only her. She is the player character. At the other extreme is a clear absence of a player character. I’m going to go with maimai, since I described it recently. It’s a rhythm-action arcade game with a special cabinet. The player responds to audiovisual prompts, and there is no apparent player character on the screen, in the soundtrack, or anywhere else. You are the player and only the player — not a character.

But you always have to be something in the terms of the game. Since games are interactive, the game has a role to play and so do you. What are you to a game?


The lazy answer: you’re NOTHING

It’s easy to conceive of Tomb Raider as a modelled world in which there is Lara Croft. Lara’s a part of the modelled world. You could imagine the whole world ticking along with Lara running around, climbing things, and shooting dogs dead, even if you weren’t involved with it. You can look at the whole situation in isolation from a player and pick out a part of it (Lara) and say “That part will be the player.”

Tomb Raider source & maimai source

Tomb Raider source & maimai source

Now, try and do the same for maimai. The “world” now is more abstract. It’s a system, a collection of rules for inputs and outputs. If we conceive of it in isolation from the player then it seems incomplete. There’s a bunch of rules and conditions and potential events, but then there’s a gap, like a hole of trailing wires waiting for a player to connect to them. The system is incomplete without you, and there’s nothing in that imagined playerless world that we can point to and say, “That’s you, that is.

So the player is nothing beyond themselves: there is nothing in the game that is the player. I don’t find that analysis satisfying.


Why not? (God, I hope this is a short answer.)

Hope all you like. That account of game worlds I just gave, leading to the conclusion that the player may be nothing in some games and something in other games, rests on a distinction that I don’t think withstands scrutiny.

We imagine game worlds in isolation from the player, and we say, “There’s Lara, that’s the player”, or “There’s nothing in maimai which is the player”. That’s fine with those examples, but what about something like Populous or SimCity? You don’t appear on screen in those games — there’s no avatar — but we know you’re not nothing. In Populous you’re a god, and in SimCity you’re a mayor. You have a clearly defined role in relation to the rest of the game world, so I don’t want to say you’re nothing. All the same, however, we can’t imagine those games’ worlds in isolation from the player and point to something and say “That’s you”. And I don’t think those are the hardest examples.

Here’s a real hard case: Winning Eleven. It’s a football game. Like Tomb Raider, it’s really easy to conceive of the game world ticking along without the player: two teams run around, kick the ball, do the goals… you know, football. But what thing in that world is the player? It’s not any one footballer, because you can control the whole team (a few guys at a time), but we can’t say it’s the whole team either, because you never control it all at once. Are you an off-screen presence like in SimCity? The manager? No: your control over the footballers is too specific and your perspective too omniscient. Nonetheless, I can’t bring myself to say that you’re nothing, because my intuition is that whatever you are, you’re something — or some combination of things — that’s there in the game world, and not merely yourself holding a controller, like the player of maimai.

SimCity. I had a  lot of processors.

SimCity. I had a  lot of processors.

If only you had a brilliant theory that made sense of all this and led to illuminating critical analyses of any type of game

Right? This where I call on a “player role”, which should help make sense of our intuitions about difficult cases. I think the stumbling block in my train of thought so far has been the desire to point to a thing in the game world and say “That’s you”. It’s a nice, simple idea, but it ran aground on the rocky hard cases.

Consider a broader notion of “thing” — more abstract things that we may not be able to point to. If we loosen the requirements in that way then we can specify that a player is always a thing in a game, it’s just a question of what sort of thing. Starting with that extreme case of maimai, I’m going to say that the player is that hole of trailing wires, that gap in the system waiting for inputs. When playing, the player has powers to do things in the game, to affect the game world, whatever it is. Those powers bundled together, in the abstract, are the player role in the game world. Your role is the gap you fill in the game world.

Once we conceive of the player role as a bundle of powers we can see that player roles are universal to all games. In Tomb Raider, too — our opposite extreme — you have influence over the game world as the player, and it just so happens that your influence is somehow wrapped up in Lara Croft. In Populous or SimCity you have bundles of powers, and whether there is a named entity of “god” or “mayor” is a separate matter altogether. In Winning Eleven, the sort of thing you are is not a footballer or a team or a manager, but a collection of potential interactions. The nature of player roles common to all games is that they are bundles of powers like that.


Okay, is this philosophy or something? Or are you just being weird?

Couldn’t it be both? Here’s what we can do now that we have the concept of player role: we can split the question of what you are in a game into two questions: what’s your role, and what if anything in the game world manifests that role.

Now we needn’t panic when we can’t point at a thing that the player is. The player is just the filler of a role, and the question of character is separate.


What player characters really are

Tomb Raider is a clear case to start from (again). There’s an entity portrayed in the world of the game — Lara Croft — which appears to perform actions correlating to the player’s actions. She’s a metaphorical manifestation of the bundle of powers that is the player role. That’s the player character. Let’s take that as a definition and see how well it stands up: A player character is:

  1. an entity portrayed in the world of the game
  2. which appears to perform actions correlating to the player’s actions
  3. and metaphorically manifests the player role (the player’s powers in the system of the game)
Parappa the Rapper Source

Parappa the Rapper Source

An example: Parappa the Rapper. It’s another rhythm-action game — so it’s basically similar to maimai — but it certainly looks like it has a player character. Is having a player character as simple as showing a dog in a hat on the screen? Parappa is an entity portrayed in the game world (that’s 1), and his rapping correlates to player actions (2), representing the abilities of the player to interact with that world (3). He passes the test: he’s a player character.

Another: The Portal woman is portrayed in the game world — as a body moving in physical space, carrying a portal gun, jumping, and so on — her actions correlate to player actions, and she manifests the powers of the player in the world of the game. Check, check, and check.

In maimai — the other end of our spectrum — there’s nothing portrayed in the world of the game that appears to act in correlation with the player. There’s nothing beyond the player role as an abstract bundle of powers. Those powers are not manifest in any component of the game world. There is no player character, only a player role.


Nice theory. Let’s try and break it.

Hard case: Dance Dance Revolution. Let’s assume DDR is fundamentally the same as maimai, with the only difference being the presentation on the screen of a dancing character, who dances in accordance with the moves of the player. What do we do with that?

We want to put it in the role-only bucket with maimai because the games are just so similar — I never even look at that dancing vacuum-cleaner-robot thing anyway. But the robot’s portrayed in the world of the game and acts in correlation with my actions. It manifests my DDR powers (craaaazy powers, man). It’s a player-character. That seems unintuitive because it’s nothing to do with the game, so how do I resolve that?

It was so hard to find an image of this robot that I thought I’d imagined him. Source (YouTube!)

It was so hard to find an image of this robot that I thought I’d imagined him. Source (YouTube!)

Rather than being fatal for my theory, I think this case shows its utility. Because we can analyse player character and player role separately, we have the tools now to say that the player character of DDR is so faintly incidental to the game that it’s irrelevant to playing it. The player character is there as decoration, dressing, something to keep the screen lively — even while the player role might be sophisticated.

Taking that idea, let’s run on. In Parappa, the player character makes the mechanics of the game funnier with his voice sounds. He adds a story to the action by rapping about things (which the player is not doing) and tying into cutscenes. The player character isn’t a mechanical tool like in Portal — he doesn’t elucidate the system of the game — but neither is he just background decoration like in DDR. Parappa does a job as player character which sits purely in the metaphor, but is essential to the appeal of the game.

By separating player entity and player character, we’ve gone beyond the question of whether the player is in the game, and found a much more illuminating avenue of discussion about how the player is in the game.


What about Winning Eleven?

Back to my hardest hard case. Is there an entity portrayed in the world of Winning Eleven which appears to act in correlation with the player’s actions. Yes, it’s a football team. Does that entity represent the powers of the player within the system of the game? Yes, it does. However, there is an extra twist here: the football team is semi-autonomous. I don’t think that stumps my analysis, though.

Let’s retreat briefly to a simpler example: there’s this skateboard game in the first WarioWare (Skating Board), where your skateboard moves forward constantly and you just have to jump and duck at the right times. That skater’s a player character, but he’s doing some stuff (moving forward) that’s independent of player actions — he’s semi-autonomous. Nonetheless, that doesn’t discourage our intuitive conception of him as a player character. In Winning Eleven, the additional actions of the player character are more varied and complex, but I think the principle still holds up.

So I’m happy that this analysis of Winning Eleven results in positing a semi-autonomous player character that is a football team, and that the player role comprises influencing that dynamic team in a number of more or less precise ways. We have the tools to describe an abstract, mechanical, unrealistic, manufactured role for the player — the role of a kind of psychokinetic spectator — while still saying what we’d intuitively like to say, which is that you play as a football team, playing football.

This idea of “character” is clearly quite broad — more like a player “entity”. If we don’t like that loose use of character then we could take things a step further and say that the player entity may or may not be a character, but any player character must be a player entity. A player role on the other hand is distinct, abstract, and not an “entity” in that sense.


Getting fancy

The general application of this distinction between player role and player character is in separating out which games are doing what with their player roles and player characters. Given what they appear to be doing, we can then ask whether they’re doing it deliberately and consistently or not, and whether that adds to or detracts from the apparent artistic goals of the game.

One further step is that, again, on my definition, a player character might not be a character in the traditional sense — it’s not necessarily a character in a story. That raises the question for any particular game, to what extent is the player entity intended to be a character, and how well is that intention realised?

The player character / player role distinction is another concept for criticism. I feel like it’s a useful one, but I’ll test it out properly by applying it to some case studies in future. Watch this space.