Who’s Playing You?
Allegories of Discipline and Control in Avatar Films

Adam Davis

Southern Illinois University

Guard: Who aims – the player or the slayer?
Tillman: I’m the hand. Someone somewhere else is the eye.
Guard: That’s tripped out, man.
Tillman: Sometimes they take over completely. Move you around like a robot. But that don’t work so good.
Guard: Why not?
Tillman: The delay.
Guard: Right, the ‘ping’. They talk about that. The time it takes for the slayer to respond to the player’s commands.
Tillman: Whatever they call it, when you’re in the game, a slice of a second is the difference between living and dying. When that trigger pulls . . . it’s just me.

– Gamer

The tagline for the film Gamer (Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor, 2009) is the deliberately provocative question “Who’s Playing You?” which not only upends the conventional notion of control in gaming (as extending from the player) but also situates the potential moviegoer in the position of the avatar – as an object of control, devoid of agency. This bleak outlook on contemporary subjectivity as that of a videogame character can be compared with the slogan for Kinect, Microsoft’s motion-sensing input device for Xbox, which declares “You Are the Controller.” Being the controller rather than the controlled holds on its surface the promise of agentive fulfillment, but on closer inspection the two slogans are more similar than dissimilar; in gaming the controller is, traditionally at least, the plastic, tethered, utilitarian input device that is gripped and manipulated, sometimes even pounded or thrown, in service of the more animated or complex movements of the bodies on the screen. To be the ‘controller’ holds the double meaning of being the one in control, as the player, as well as being the object of control – the hardware (or in this case wetware) through which the game is played.

Advertisement for Kinect

Figure 1. Advertisement for Kinect.

In this doubling we find the body circuitously implicated within the relationship between player, machine, and code in gaming that Alexander Galloway identifies as “a singularity . . . an undivided act wherein meaning and doing transpire in the same gamic gesture” (2006:104). Rather than reading a text from a critical distance, as with traditional media forms, Galloway avers that the player creates the gamic text in the moment of play by ‘doing’, in a process that with practice becomes intuitive, producing a singularity. The Kinect sensor adds somatic performance to this unifying process, as the player must precisely perform her own body in order to succeed in the game – to play by ‘being’ the controller in both senses simultaneously. In the game Dance Central (Harmonix) the circuit of performance and control is clearly manifest, as the player must follow the onscreen movements of the character while the Kinect sensor records missteps and delays in keeping time with the rhythm – or lag, we might say, recalling both the wait time for an overloaded network and the ‘ping’ in Gamer. In Dance Central, who is playing who is ambiguous to say the least, as the best players are essentially the best puppets. The game recalls a certain scene from Gamer in which protagonist John Tillman (Gerard Butler), a death row convict and mind-controlled avatar in the lethal battle game Slayers, where his avatar handle is Kable, is made to dance by his seventeen-year-old controller Simon (Logan Lerman) amidst gunfire and explosions; in this moment of ludic movement and corporeal vulnerability, Tillman incarnates the film’s blood-spattered answer to the discourses of disembodiment that once prevailed in the theorization of gaming and virtual technologies, as he (as with Kinect) demonstrates that the body, rather than being disposable, is indispensable in the engagement of virtual spaces, appropriated in the service of the game.

In both of these examples the body is aligned with the interface, with Kinect and the “You Are the Controller” slogan positioning the body as game hardware, and “Who’s Playing You?” and Gamer situating the human as software, as the avatar that represents the player in the virtual environment. Positing the body as interface carries multiple implications, from mirror neurons and psychosomatics to phenomenological experience and gender constructivism, but the technological interfaces for videogames and virtual environments insert a tangible and perceptual apparatus between the player and the various modes of embodied engagement with the gamespace. The controller and avatar are objects that not only exist between the physical and virtual worlds, but which make the separation of these spaces within the gamic text possible. When the avatar is seen as a primarily functional extension of self in gamespace, and the controller a tool for access and manipulation, the interface position is utilitarian; but when the avatarial position is inflected back on the user, and the body conscripted into the dance steps that make Dance Central an entertaining party game (for the movement it imposes on real bodies), the interface becomes symbolic of powerlessness. The menacing tone of “Who’s Playing You?” is not the product of a suggestion of equally matched players meeting as opponents, but for its association of the reader or moviegoer with the disempowered avatar – and further for its insinuation that there is no existence outside of gamespace. In Gamer, as with the avatar-themed films Surrogates (Jonathan Mostow, 2009) and The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), avatar ontology serves as a model for ideological and informational manipulation, in which autonomy is an illusion within a society of simulation (The Matrix), ideologically suspect in a culture of vicarious living (Surrogates), or subject to the machinations of a ubiquitous and perverse game culture (Gamer).

Steven Shaviro (2010) devotes an extensive essay to the latter film, performing a reading of Gamer as a film about and existing within a control society, offering a ‘map’ (if not quite a critique) of contemporary entertainment as gamespace and neoliberal capitalism as the invisible hand making puppets of it subjects. Shaviro identifies Gamer as an example of ‘expressive’ media works that not only “provide indices of complex social processes” but are also “productive, in the sense that they do not represent social processes, so much as they participate freely in these processes, and help to constitute them” (2010:2). That is, these works can be understood as part of a collapse of critical, aesthetic, and technological distance as converging media forms reflect or render social processes already inextricable from the media objects that in part produce and define them – all within a media culture where technological change far outpaces attempts to attach meaning to it. Gamer’s videogame-derived aesthetics and manic, impressionistic editing style (which Shaviro defines as ‘post-continuity’) operate in concert with the diegetic setting of a society consumed either by playing games with the bodies of other people, or viewing the avatarial spectacle as reality television. In this essay I ask not only what it means to have an avatar, but to be an avatar in terms of the cultural and critical discourse by which films that depict avatars and avatarial relationships participate in the evolving conceptions of interactivity and virtual embodiment.

The privileged Simon and his battle weary avatar Kable (Tillman) in Gamer

Figure 2. The privileged Simon and his battle weary avatar Kable (Tillman) in Gamer.

Digital avatars are perhaps the most direct way of envisioning a virtuality of the body – if one that misses the mark; as Brian Massumi (2002) argues, the virtual cannot be represented, or at least not directly. Yet VR and avatar films have attempted such representations, in various and sometimes highly revelatory ways, and in these attempts we find moments of ‘expressivity’ as defined by Shaviro. Gamer’s figuring of post-industrial capitalism is one rendition – and a film that ‘plays’ with its subjects in more ways than one, as I discuss further below – but each instantiation of avatars in cinema contributes additional layers to the cultural understanding of what avatars ‘mean’ and how they pertain to the increasing virtualization of embodiment through multiple informational and imaging technologies. Our use and manipulation of, and desire for or suspicion of a secondary order of bodies in the image of our own begs the question of how the societal forces we feel (as well as enact) upon ourselves might be reflected, reenacted, or repudiated in the bodies we create and control.

While the focus of this essay is on avatars in cinema, the 2007 game Assassin’s Creed (Ubisoft) bears mentioning here for its illustration of the reiterative nature of avatarism. In the game, one plays what is essentially the avatar of an avatar, as bartender Desmond Miles is abducted by a corporation determined to locate a number of ancient artifacts by which it can exert mental control over people (a recurring theme in avatar texts). The corporation forces Desmond to relive the genetic memories of his assassin forebears – or, considering both the interface used by the player and the technology of the ‘Animus’ that facilitates Desmond’s spatiotemporal entry into his ancestor Altaïr, to play the ‘memory’ encoded in his DNA. Success in the game is contingent on successful reenactment, as players are kept on task by a meter displaying the level of ‘synchronization’ between Desmond and his avatar/ancestor, which of course is actually a measure of the player’s synchronization with the game. Between missions the game returns to Desmond’s incarceration, which the player momentarily shares until linking again with Altaïr.

Like Tillman, Desmond plays to be free, while their users (Simon, the player) play for entertainment. Desmond’s awareness of his avatarial status is rare for a narrative-based game, while the player, though positioned to identify with Desmond’s plight, essentially operates in the service of the corporation, playing Desmond playing Altaïr in order to achieve its objectives; Altaïr, the (unaware) avatar of an avatar, is the one upon whom multiple levels of control are exerted. Assassin’s Creed puts into play a structure of control that is recursive and compulsory – theoretical territory well-established in Foucault’s writings on power and subjectivity. For Foucault subjectivity is twofold, as one is both subject to discursive influence and the subject of its perpetuation in the disciplining of behavior and the body, as we can see in his concept of panopticism:

He who is subjected to a field of visibility, and who knows it, assumes responsibility for the constraints of power; he makes them play spontaneously upon himself; he inscribes in himself the power relation in which he simultaneously plays both roles; he becomes the principle of his own subjection. (1979:202-3)

For Foucault, the answer to the question of ‘who’s playing you?’ is you, as you are ultimately the instrument for the inscription of power on yourself. Avatars are bodies subject, like our own, to control and inscription, and in avatar films it is the avatar with which we are asked to identify – sometimes literally, as with Gamer, and other times through sympathy for characters who are victims of an avatarial culture, as in Surrogates, in which the protagonist peers through the ideological wool to find that the vicarious lifestyles which were meant to enhance the experience of living have drained life of its meaning. While videogames make use of avatars, cinematic depictions of avatars are more concerned with how we have become avatars, in narratives that can be read in terms of Foucauldian subjection and discipline – or, as recent scholarship suggests, relative to control society.

Critics of the political economy of gaming such as Shaviro and Galloway have turned their attention from Foucault to the illusive utopianism of flexibility, which Galloway cites as “one of the founding principles of global informatic control. It is to the control society what discipline was to a previous one” (2006:100). Deleuze (1990) outlines the ‘society of control’ in which control operates as modulation in contrast with the mold of the enclosure theorized by Foucault in his description of docile bodies. However, Foucault yet proves useful in his particular treatment of power relative to the discipline of the (avatarial) body, as we will see in the discussion of The Matrix and Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera, 2008) below. In the following section I turn my attention to two films, The Lawnmower Man (Brett Leonard, 1992) and eXistenZ (David Cronenberg, 1999) that privilege modulation over the mold, and are thus most productively approached with control society in mind.

Issues of gender undergird any discussion of agency in these films, as agentive action primarily falls within the domain of the male protagonist. This in itself isn’t unexpected, as male activity and female passivity within the films accord with Hollywood convention.; however, the association between masculinity and agency accrues additional significance in the context of the disempowered avatar, as male characters contend against an encroaching virtuality that threatens agency, while their female and raced counterparts, already closer to the avatarial position and more familiar with the virtualization of the body, become facilitators for the medial transitions of the white male, or characters in need of rescue from a virtuality that has consumed them. I will incorporate a discussion of masculine agency in this essay, but leave off further exploration of the feminine and raced relative to virtuality, a topic that warrants fuller treatment than I can grant it here. Galloway’s preference of the term ‘action-based media’ over ‘interactivity’ in his theorization of gaming is particularly interesting relative to these cinematic depictions of masculinity, as action implies a vector, power applied unidirectionally, while interactivity implies greater possibility for bidirectional influence and exchange. Recent scholarship has problematized conventional notions of interactivity, and the figure of the avatar occupies a central place in manifestations of the question of who is playing who, and when, if ever, we can say “it’s just me.”

Re-working the Docile Body

Before Neo is Neo, he is Thomas Anderson, hacker and coppertop. The Matrix envisions a world in which humans have become a power source for machine overlords; enclosed physically in pods and mentally in the ‘neural-interactive simulation’ of the Matrix, humans circa 2199 are incarcerated in a world of Baudrillardian simulation, but also as exemplary (if overdetermined) models of the docile body, which “may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved,” as described by Foucault (1979:136). Docile bodies are the bodies of individuals made to conform to certain roles and performances through systems of discipline, generally involving an ‘enclosure’ (an institution or organization) which provides specialized, ideological education by separating individuals out for training. With the pod and simulation enclosures facilitating docility in the Matrix, the machines separate the physical and mental realms of the subject, supplanting the physical body and world with an immersive virtual reality. Thus integral to the Cartesian structure imposed by the machines is a form of virtual embodiment that engages the embodied mind so it should not miss its sleeping body. Emerging from the Matrix, then, introduces the mind to its actual physical body. But Neo (Keanu Reeves) does not stay out for long, as he soon re-enters the Matrix after working through training simulations in Matrix-like virtual spaces. From our own embodied perspective, it is easy to think of his training as learning to differentiate physical embodiment from virtual embodiment, but of course Neo had for most of his life only experienced the latter, and had been physical only a few days. Thus his return was not simply a transition from the physical to the virtual, but a return to the virtual with a new tool: interactivity.

Christian Krug and Joachim Frenk (2006) note that interactivity was key for Neo’s break from the simulation of the Matrix; initially freed by a hack, he then becomes a transcendent hacker able to exert control over the Matrix. However, Krug and Frenk note that the tie-in videogame Enter the Matrix (Shiny Entertainment), which promised to extend the Matrix experience and allow fans to enter and interact with the world presented in the films, was ironically linear and restrictive, allowing only minimal interactivity outside accomplishing pre-designated tasks. Philosophical declarations of determinism in the film extend quite literally to the structure of the game, they write, as playing it only brings about story events that were always going to happen anyway. The game thus becomes a tool for control, figuring as “just another extension of the great game that is the Matrix” (2006:83).

Character-based videogames in general tend to follow a more or less predetermined course through levels and tasks, and a geography that often only yields one correct (or even one possible) course. “Video games are computer-and-monitor-supported activities that select a small basketful out of all the possible ways that embodied brains may relate to worlds and other agents” (Gregerson and Grodal 2009:81). Interactivity in gaming (particularly the popular character-based adventure variety) tends to offer a limited form of agency, as linearity predominates, and progression is tied to compliance rather than innovation.1 Repetition comes to typify videogame experience as players rehearse the same actions multiple times in an attempt to get them right rather than devising different solutions to solve problems. “Not only are the conventional limits of the game itself revealed at such moments,” writes Andrew Darley, “but so is its pre-programmed character: the element of control and choice it seems to offer is revealed as illusory – just as predetermined as most formulaic narrative” (2000:157).

Thus while interactivity within digital media has certainly changed media consumption and continues to hold many promises, it is clear that interactivity cannot simply be conflated with agency. Lev Manovich argues that in computer culture “authentic creation has been replaced by selection from a menu,” and thus the mythos of interactivity must be interrogated to uncover the form of agency it provides in any given context (2001:124). Examining the forms that interactivity assumes in videogames, we see that while games offer a variety of performative actions (jumping, shooting, etc.), repetition is the action that most succinctly defines gameplay. Behavior within the game world is disciplined through learning to execute certain actions in a particular way, which allows the player to proceed to the next level and reach the (pre-determined, linear) ending of the game. The disciplining of behavior is produced through a disciplining of bodies – the correct and precise movements of the player’s fingers and thumbs on the controller, and the corresponding (though misaligned) movements of the character body in the game.2 Wii controllers, which facilitate greater body movement, and the camera-based system of Kinect require more involvement of the body and more analogous movement, and thus greater discipline over the body of the player – even as these systems draw on a sense of naturalized movement as the basis for their games (or ‘remediate’ analog movements, such as swinging a tennis racket).

Shira Chess (2005) writes that repetition in videogames is an example of the disciplinary tactics that produce the pliable docile bodies described by Foucault: “the game’s controls and interface create a system that both facilitates game mastery and produces an environment where players can be easily taught” (Chess 81). Mastery over the game is thus ultimately connected to the player’s complicity in being mastered by the game. This can be seen, as Chess points out, in the way that certain game elements (like a map which directs the player where to go) “not only give the player more control over their actions, but the game’s designers more control over the player” (2005:82). Control and being controlled go hand in hand, and between these two points is the avatar body, which is both the object of control and the representation of the controlling subject in the space of the game.3

In contrast to videogames, virtual worlds offer a much less structured interactive experience. For some this aspect makes virtual worlds unappealing (videogames remain exponentially more popular), but others are drawn to the relative freedom afforded by graphical virtual worlds such as Second Life that function as social networks within open-ended gamespace. Since avatars in these spaces are generally highly customizable and social interaction occurs through or with avatars, the early mythos of the avatar was centered on its reflexivity. “Virtual worlds provide people with a mirror,” writes Richard Bartle, co-creator of the first MUD (multi-user dungeon) – and virtual world designers “get to make the mirror” (2004:164). Avatar-enhanced communication prompted Sherry Turkle’s (1995) experiments in identity play, which hinged on a two-way interactivity: the user designs the avatar body, the appearance or manifestation of which then influences the behavior of the user. While more recent scholarship has contested the degree to which identities can be refashioned, anecdotal evidence abounds of users acting differently within avatar guises.4 This impact on behavior does not on its surface seem to be the product of a deterministic design, leading users along a certain path; but to the extent that virtual worlds (not just avatars) act as mirrors, we must also question how experience is structured through the construction of virtual spaces, bodies, and interfaces – and the particular nature of their reflections.

Idealized notions of interactivity, from avatar design to clicking through a website, imply that the user is able to shape his or her experience with digital online media and also shape aspects of the medium itself, choosing what links to click on and what options to engage. But beyond the ways in which users shape computer space, Manovich is concerned with how the computer shapes human experience. For instance, whereas reading a sentence once gave rise to any number of associations the reader might make, a hyperlinked sentence feigns depth while in fact restricting thought to “pre-programmed, objectively existing associations,” which Manovich aligns with Althusser’s concept of interpellation, in which “we are asked to mistake the structure of somebody else’s mind for our own” (2001:61). He continues:

This is a new kind of identification appropriate for the information age of cognitive labor. The cultural technologies of an industrial society – cinema and fashion – asked us to identify with someone else’s bodily image. Interactive media ask us to identify with someone else’s mental structure. If the cinema viewer, male and female, lusted after and tried to emulate the body of the movie star, the computer user is asked to follow the mental trajectory of the new media designer.” (2001:61)

Graphical virtual worlds ask us to do both, as cognition and experiential embodiment intersect in the representations of self within avatar bodies. Thus we can get a sense of the circuitry of designer, user, and avatar, mediated through the technologies of virtual spaces. The designer creates the parameters and possibilities of the world, the types of bodies it supports and permits, the nature of the space in which virtual bodies exist, the amount and type of modifications the user is able to make to bodies and space within the virtual environment, the way it appears to the user and others, etc. Constrained by these possibilities, the user creates and/or controls a virtual body while cognitively and affectively relating his or her own ‘bodily image’ (and sense of embodiment) to the body on the screen and the space in which it exists. Beyond the technological constraints are ideological concerns, such as capitalistic elements in Second Life: functioning as a relatively free space which privileges user creation over owner design, the Second Life model is yet founded on land ownership and development, and commerce, fashion, and advertising are driving forces in Second Life activity – forces in which avatar bodies are caught up.5 (Ideological influences become additionally salient when we consider that virtual worlds are increasingly popular with children).6

Ideological hegemony functions in The Matrix as a means of control over the unawakened humans, although the machines are less concerned with content than effects; their aim is the exploitation of the physical body, and the Matrix in its various iterations (we learn that earth life circa 1999 is the one that worked best) is put in place to keep the humans docile rather than to instill any particular ideology (while the film itself critiques a cultural complicity with simulational culture). The ideal form of the Matrix simulation, which results in the greatest degree of control and fewest occurrences of rebellion, is one that not only places humans in the ‘shared hallucination’ of a large-scale persistent environment, but one that first of all situates them in a form of virtual embodiment that they can accept as real. Thus when the awakened Neo re-enters virtual space, his success there is dependent on learning to divorce his sense of reality from the virtual body that he once simply ‘lived’ as Thomas Anderson and now must perform or operate as an avatar. Neo applies a hacker ethic to the virtual body and its environment, figuring out how to break through the ‘reality’ of gravity and physical space. “Do you think that’s air you’re breathing?” Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) asks Neo in the simulation, provoking him to change his cognitive relationship with his avatar body through repetition and what James L. Ford calls “a techno-cyber version of meditation” (2003:166). Meditation is a means of ‘reprogramming’ the mind through the discipline of the body, held in quiet repose or the careful movements of martial arts. Following the download of the kung fu program, Neo must translate his computer-generated ‘knowledge’ to the virtual body that has never performed the movements he now knows how to do, while we watch the computer-aided body of Keanu Reeves float across the screen, transitioning from photographic body to the gravity-irrespective ‘cinematic body’ that will come to define movement in the Matrix (Shail 2005:25).

Neo in training

Figure 3. Neo in training.

The discipline of the mind through philosophy, meditation, and training works to integrate Neo’s cognitive relation to his avatar body with the phenomenological experience of his embodiment. It is not his physical body that learns kung fu (he doesn’t fight in the real world like he does in the Matrix7), but his embodied mind, through the interactive embodiment which controls his avatar or ‘residual self-image’ (an image that wasn’t really imported from the physical world – otherwise it would be shorn and pale – but from another virtual space, where he once performed his avatar body differently).

In The Matrix, hacking computers is visually translated to martial arts fighting, rejecting the disembodying informational computer space that provides the menacing context for a film like The Net (Irwin Winkler, 1995) in favor of the movement and mastery of the stylized body. David Gabbard (2006) identifies a ‘double-enclosure’ in The Matrix that corresponds to Foucault’s definition of the enclosures that produce docile bodies: the Matrix as a ‘prison of the mind’, but also the enclosure of the body. The avatar gives form to the abstractions of embodiment, but also enables, restricts, and colors embodiment through its particular modalities. Learning to use an avatar, whether in a videogame or virtual world, means learning to be embodied in the new space and body, and learning to use one’s own body to facilitate the new embodiment – the combination of buttons to jump and kick at the same time, for instance, or the best time to flick the Wii controller to adjust for the slight delay in response. The bodies of jacked-in characters in The Matrix are for the most part inert, and thus the step of moving one body to control the movement of another is eliminated; however, Neo still moves with his residual ‘body’ – or residual sense of embodiment, rather than simply the body image – which is then trained to become a powerful avatar.

In the film, humans are exploited in pods while their avatars are free to roam within the virtual simulation – or in the ‘reality’ of this virtuality, free to work at their virtual jobs, for avatar bosses who penalize for tardiness (even though no one has left the pod). This double exploitation – of humans by machines, and humans by other humans – places bodies at the center of ideological and systemic pulls, with the machines on one end and a capitalist system of labor on the other, and human bodies and their avatars doing double work to sustain both. In their docility these bodies become both “subjected and practised,” as

discipline increases the forces of the body (in economic terms of utility) and diminishes these same forces (in political terms of obedience). In short, it dissociates power from the body; on the one hand, it turns it into an ‘aptitude’, a ‘capacity’, which it seeks to increase; on the other hand, it reverses the course of the energy, the power that might result from it, and turns it into a relation of strict subjection. If economic exploitation separates the force and the product of labour, let us say that disciplinary coercion establishes in the body the constricting link between an increased aptitude and an increased domination. (Foucault 1979:138)

In the avatarial relation, bodies are situated between, as connecting links: between the videogame player and the game designer, or between player and the game world to be conquered; between social relationships among users in virtual worlds, between the user and his or her perception of self, or between the user and the image culture that informs the construction of avatar bodies; and in avatar films often between character and diegetic growth or fulfillment, as a facilitator or an obstacle, or both. In The Matrix, the assumption of the avatar from outside the pod is to hack and re-work the docile body, converting it from anesthetized cubicle worker (a passive power source, so to speak) to a dynamic virtual agent of the user. Interestingly, it becomes the task of the character to discipline his or her own body, as we see in Neo’s training. He has been fitted with new knowledge, and is guided in his training by Morpheus, but Neo must do the final and most personal work in disciplining the body, that it might operate at greatest capacity in the tasks for which it has been enlisted.

Trinity becomes the mirror to his quest, intimately tied to him (and his double in appearance), but never able to be the One, as her proficiency in the Matrix only makes her a better ‘two’; indeed, her name alludes to the irresolvable assemblage of deity that is never quite one because it is always also three. Neo’s white masculinity positions him as antagonistic to his bifurcated avatarial position (a dilemma he shares with Cypher [Joe Pantoliano], who opts to return to the false unity of ignorance in the Matrix), and his agency is directed toward overcoming the virtuality of the Matrix by defeating its source and freeing the humans from their enclosures. Trinity serves as helpmeet, furthering Neo’s trajectory toward transcendence and unity – which we must note, however, he never fully achieves, his sacrifice instead resulting in stasis.8

Sleep Dealer (Alex Rivera, 2008) explores the utility of the docile body, and the exploitation not only of bodies but of the avatarial relation itself. The film interweaves boundary transgression and border crossing in a story about Mexican workers who are employed in the U.S. but never leave Mexico. With nodes implanted in their arms and necks they manipulate high-tech robots in the U.S. from Tijuana factories – the ‘sleep dealers’, so-called for the tendency of workers to lose themselves during long shifts and eventually collapse. In the story, Memo (Luis Fernando Peña) leaves his family’s milpa after the death of his father, which results when his own amateur hacking attempts are picked up by authorities. He gets a job as a virtual construction worker in San Diego and, standing in a long line of workers connected to cables and oxygen masks, performs his labor by pantomime in a dark yet oddly beautiful dance of particularly alien(ated) labor.

Telepresent labor in Sleep Dealer

Figure 4. Telepresent labor in Sleep Dealer.

The film does not explain why the robots in this futuristic world do not work autonomously, though we can infer that, in what seems to be a keen observation on the economics of advanced technology, foreign workers remain cheaper than advanced AI. The work is long and draining, producing a loss of essence or vitality: “sometimes you control the machine, sometimes it controls you,” warns Luz (Leonor Varela), the young woman who gives Memo his ‘node job’ – another feminine facilitator. The economic hold of the job over the worker is instantiated in the images of Memo’s labor, as the glowing interface cables that stream from the ceiling to the arms and wrists of the workers form an image of strange marionettes, puppets on vascular and neurological strings.

Indeed, the placement of the nodes on the body are situated to evoke manual labor, with multiple points at the hand, arm, and shoulder rather than the Matrix-style single spike to the brain (those freed from the pods actually have multiple nodes distributed across their bodies, but these are neglected in their return to the Matrix). The spike produces a cerebral virtuality that leaves the physical body inert, while the virtual movements in Sleep Dealer require an enactment of the labor, its movements without its materials. Strapped to wires and limited in this way, the virtual worker could scarcely perform, say, acrobatic kung fu, as in The Matrix; nor could he or she, tethered to an assigned robot, live vicariously through a cosmetically ideal body, as in Surrogates. Thus in the movies not all virtualities are equal – a condition that parallels Jennifer Gonzalez’s observation of historical cyborgism, wherein “those who had access to certain machines were privileged, those who were expected to behave like certain machines were subjugated” (1995:269). Inequality is evident in the various interfaces employed by cinematic avatar users: the prongs and sockets that mark the bodies in Sleep Dealer and The Matrix, the softer interface that lays over the eyes in Surrogates or lightly on the face in Avatar (James Cameron, 2009), and the hypermedia womb of the spoiled rich boy in Gamer. The marginalized and poor bear the marks and components of technology and are subjected to the physical penetration of a hard connection; the consumer class wears it gently on the skin while in repose; the privileged user, for whom the interface has become purely a screen, doesn’t touch the equipment at all. The vascular cabling and multiple node sites in Sleep Dealer also illustrate the requirement of the worker to give not only time and energy over to the labor of the avatar, but the vitality of the biological body as well. The contact points embedded in the hand, arm, and shoulder reflect the role of these parts as embodied tools of the worker – unusual in an avatar film, where the movements of one body are typically divorced from the other.

Memo in Sleep Dealer

Figure 5. Memo in Sleep Dealer.

The worker in Sleep Dealer is both puppet and puppeteer, virtual and embodied, alien and alienated. In a Foucauldian diffusion of power the virtual laborer produces a miniaturized enactment of the influences of power on his own body transferred onto another. Power is not simply conveyed, however, as if Memo as the intermediary subject were merely a conduit, but it becomes part of his subjectivity, so that in the instantiation of power the subject finds himself alone ¬– Memo is compelled to work the robot body as a condition of his employment, but the job only creates the conditions for the intimate power he must exercise in the uncanny dance of the two bodies. In the economics of alienated labor, this exercise of power leaves him powerless still. Although Memo is able to strike a blow against the totalitarian government that has withheld water from his family, the film leaves him in Tijuana, presumably still employed at the sleep dealer, having more or less accepted his (unjust) fate. Luz, who uses her own nodes to upload the memories she sells to make a living, is portrayed by the film in a very different light – not as a victim acquiescing to the reality of the virtualized economy, but as profiting from it (if only marginally) as a ‘writer’ of sorts, much more in her place than the emasculated Memo.

Avatars of Technology

The virtualization of the economy occupies a central place in Deleuze’s description of the society of control, where corporations exist as nebulous, fluid entities in contradistinction to the rigidity of the factory. While Memo’s work is wired and futuristically telepresent, the setting for labor perpetuates the model of the factory, even bolstering its Fordist capacities by conforming mobile jobs such as picking fruit and driving a cab into an assembly line model. Race and nationality clearly inform this vision of twenty-first century upgrades to a nineteenth century system, as factory work in our present era is increasingly farmed out to third world countries for lower wages. The corporation, which Deleuze refers to as a ‘spirit’ or a ‘gas’, floats above these labor realities as an amorphous, flexible body disassociated from the physical body of the worker.

Control society is also defined by its flexibility, as it modulates itself in response to changing conditions rather than seeking to establish conformity. The machine of the control society is the computer with its capacity for efficient alteration amidst the fluidity of informatics. (It is notable that the dominating technology in both Sleep Dealer and The Matrix is robotic hardware, which is itself rooted in the clockwork ideal emblematized by the automaton.) Computers, VR interfaces, and avatars are the potent images in The Lawnmower Man, where virtual technologies are presented as promise turned pathogen, metastasizing through the avatarial body. Jobe (Jeff Fahey) transforms from feminized simpleton to intelligent hard body through the disciplinary regime imposed on him, but doesn’t stop there, growing cancerously instead into an unfettered cyber-god. eXistenZ places its characters in a VR game with shifting logic and biological hardware that makes it difficult to discern where agency and bodies begin and end. While the direction of control in eXistenZ is clearly manifested in a one-to-one relation between player and avatar (a relationship also particularly indexical, as the appearance of the actors doesn’t change across the interface), the Cronenbergian horror of the game lies in its iterative nature, as every player is also an avatar, and thus agentive control imposed on one’s character may simply be a reflection of the control imposed on oneself.

Chimp POV in training simulation in The Lawnmower Man

Figure 6. Chimp POV in training simulation in The Lawnmower Man.

The Lawnmower Man begins with a Foucauldian image of the soldier, which Foucault uses to typify the docile body. Whereas men who demonstrated certain qualities were once plucked from the populace to be soldiers, training regimens came to supplant selection with production as soldiers were made rather than found. The Lawnmower Man opens with an interesting play on the soldier made, as a VR interface and a game-like battle simulation are used to turn chimpanzees into killing machines. The chimp successfully performs in the simulation, but the VR training and psychotropic drugs have produced a surplus of aggression and the chimp goes on a rampage, shooting guards and mounting a failed escape from the laboratory compound where Dr. Angelo (Pierce Brosnan) conducts his experiments.

Although through this incident Angelo has recently witnessed the negative effects that mind control can have on bodies, his first impulse upon getting to know the mentally handicapped Jobe is to give him a similar treatment, with some adjustments to temper the aggression (which ultimately fail). He promises Jobe that he can make him smarter while bettering his social standing, preventing people from taking advantage of him. The training begins with videogames, and while Jobe performs poorly in a computer-administered intelligence test he does better in a flying game, where we see his first engagement with virtual space through an avatar. Going deeper, Angelo introduces him to more advanced VR applications which Angelo sees as “the key to the evolution of the human mind,” reflecting the longstanding assumption that new ways of seeing and organizing space produce new epistemological possibilities (which the film ultimately counters with the paranoia of information technology producing new ways of being influenced and controlled). Jobe’s training progresses with his acclimation to virtual space, and then to the sort of downloaded education that would later appear in The Matrix – except for Jobe it brings pain rather than a rush.

Pain becomes a defining aspect of Jobe’s transformation, and it is pain he later vindictively inflicts on others. The intense drug regimen and accelerated mental enhancement seem to be literally restructuring his neural network, manifest in the torment and perspiration on his face. The discipline of the mind exacts a toll on the body, and Jobe’s increasing mental power is also marked with bodily shifts. Claudia Springer (1996) notes that initially Jobe is coded feminine, with his long hair and submissive personality, but after the VR treatments becomes hypermasculine, with taut muscles and a cowboy’s swagger – thus rejecting the possibility that biological gender might give way to more fluid definitions. His physical transformation thus serves a compensatory role in re-establishing gender roles, and I would also add that it compensates for the inertness of the body in front of the computer monitor – like Neo, Jobe is no desk jockey. Rather than the power of information on a server or network, power is located in the body, and the muscles signify his power (or the power enacted through him) corresponding to the avatar bodies he assumes in the virtual world, which evolve in their iterations from innocuous to menacing. Virtual embodiment is what distinguishes his experience from more conventional computer use, aligning the power of the computer and the locus of the embodied self in a dangerous and unstable fusion. Eventually, virtual embodiment in the avatar is not enough, and Jobe seeks a new body – a body of cables and computers and endless virtual space, in the hardware and software of networked technology itself.

The training that Angelo institutes for Jobe thus reintroduces the problem encountered earlier with the chimp: endowing the subject with greater capacity for self-determination results in decreased control over the subject. But Jobe’s increased agency is not only a problem for Angelo, it also brings difficulty for Jobe, whose transformation as a result of his use of VR is not simply an IQ bump but a complete psychological and physiological change. Notably, it is not until he becomes more aggressive as a result of the training and drugs that Jobe even begins to assert himself within virtual space, as previously he was always guided by Angelo and subjected to the technological re-education facilitated by the program. In the question of who is in control and who is being controlled, Jobe never enjoys the sense of interactive control promised by the technology until it has already exerted control over him, and thus the trajectory of his character from one of limited to ultimate agency is imbued with the technology that produces him – that is, it is no longer Jobe’s story, it seems, but the story of the technology that forms the new Jobe, instantiated in the old Jobe’s body before it is finally shed.

Jobe's avatar in The Lawnmower Man

Figure 7. Jobe’s avatar in The Lawnmower Man.

Thus even as Jobe begins to exert his destructive power over other characters, he is yet a victim, as Paul Young (2006) sees him – but a victim in that he (and we) are part of a society in which information systems have thoroughly permeated contemporary life. Thus Jobe is a “victim of VR’s encroachment on the real, rather than a victimizing hacker pure and simple,” who “turns into a fascistic monster in part because he is too mentally immature to understand the implications of the powers he wields” (Young 2006: 200, 199). Young further points out that the origin of the telepathic and telekinetic powers Jobe develops are given no explanation other than being generally associated with his use of VR, and in this the film exudes a paranoia of virtual technologies while at the same time granting them mystical powers – not only for use in controlling others, but comprising forces that threaten to control the user as well. The Lawnmower Man exemplifies what Young calls the ‘hacker myth’ (computers offer uncontrollable power to irresponsible subjects) and the ‘myth of total media’ (the fear that computer media will completely penetrate reality) in that Jobe the hacked becomes Jobe the hacker, who accesses minds and disintegrates bodies on his way to diffusing himself within the network, taking over the global telecommunications system. However, the genesis of Jobe the techno-god lies with Dr. Angelo and VR; since Angelo’s intentions were relatively good (if misguided), the film places culpability on the technology itself, for “ultimately the technology provides the conduit and powerfully determines its own use; human input is neither requested nor desired” (Young 2006:201). The cinematic response of The Lawnmower Man to the competing technology of computer media is to characterize interactivity as an unpredictable, mysterious force, where the agency and control facilitated by interactive media threaten both the public and the individual.

VR in the popular imagination augured a possible future modality for interactions with computers and digital media that would be defined by senses of immersion and direct perception. VR collapses the distance between users and the mediated images and information that are presented for their ‘experience’, rather than simply for viewing. Ken Hillis argues that “virtual technology achieves a new form of spatialized power, based on unseen computational abilities with which my body is rendered complicit” (1999:71). Whereas in embodied reality perception precedes conception – I perceive my environment and base my comprehension on what I see or sense – in VR the conception of the designer of a virtual space precedes the user’s perception, which suggests “the loss of my perception’s primacy, and by extension, loss of self-reflexive abilities” (1999:72). The conjunction of a highly constructed media environment with a user position (overly) near the medium, which prohibits or diminishes the ability to maintain a critical or thoughtful distance, produces the potential for ideological control (the same potential theorized in the cinematic apparatus).9

The feminized Jobe is subsumed by the technology because he is unable to achieve an objective distance, instead receiving its effects in his body as much as his mind. The more intelligent Angelo is able to maintain a critical distance in his own use of VR, saving the full treatment for his hapless subject in the Frankenstein role he assumes, recklessly playing god (and creating one). Jobe’s inexperience with virtual technology makes him vulnerable, as his adeptness with machines is limited to the mechanical, casting him as a machine age relic who is unprepared for a technology that manifests itself in computer-generated images and informational abstraction. Technology no longer appears as what it is, but dissimulates itself behind screens as it channels information; Jobe, failing to discern the difference, flies too near. Also, as with the cinematic apparatus, the sense of direct perception in VR is associated with a subconscious level of reception: “The VR experence eludes cognitive defences and directly stimulates the subconscious,” concludes one paper on VR and psychotherapy (Optale, et al, 2004:168).10 In the film, direct stimulation becomes a portal to the brain through which information can be transferred. As with The Matrix, traditional learning is superseded by the download, but access to the mind leaves marks on the body.

In The Matrix the plug penetrates, but Jobe receives his information through the eyes in a sort of converse of the gaze, as he is penetrated ocularly by the VR interface that forces information into his brain. It is interesting to note, then, that the first manifestation of his growing aggression takes feminine form as he inflicts a version of the technological suffering he has endured, repeating his victimization. His cybersexual encounter with Marnie (Jenny Wright) is initially pictured as an ideal of cohesion and harmony as the two bodies become one, melding into a two-headed dragonfly; after they have disjoined, however, he takes monstrous form and rapes her mind, leaving her debilitated. No particular action by Marnie provokes this reaction, and so it seems to come from somewhere deep inside him, from a place that he himself is not entirely aware of. Springer describes his transmuted form as a “roaring monster from the id,” the “rage of the patriarchal unconscious” (1996:93), but overlooks the particularly vaginal shape of his monstrous mouth. In a visual contrast to a penetrative characterization of cyberspace (such as that made by Alluquere Rosanne Stone, attributed to an “inarticulate longing of the male for the female” [1991:108]), Marnie (and the viewer) are swallowed up by an enveloping orifice. Situated as mouth the orifice suggests incorporation, but its smoothness and roundness imply a different violence, of being consumed by a (toothless) vagina dentata that surrounds and overwhelms rather than penetrates. Jobe rapes by envelopment and subsumption, stealing Marnie’s mind into himself while evoking the mental penetration enacted on him in his training, in which Angelo rapidly and repeatedly forces information into Jobe’s brain; in other words, he rapes from the position of victim.

Eventually, Jobe ‘becomes’ his avatar, leaving his physical body behind and existing only in the virtual world or the body of the network, obliterating the avatarial relation between two bodies through the destruction of one of them. What is monstrous in The Lawnmower Man, however, is triumphant in Avatar as Jake (Sam Worthington) exchanges his human body for his avatar body, and a life incomplete for one fulfilled. In each case the photographic physical body is traded for a digital one, but whereas the aesthetic of Jake’s lithe new body is naturalistic and smooth, Jobe’s avatar is caught up in the spectacle of itself as a digital effect, exuding an otherness that must be diegetically contained and destroyed. We can thus see how the evolving Jobe considers his physical body restrictive and his docility past its usefulness, and thus a new body is needed in order to accommodate his increasing modulations.

Jobe’s transformation encompasses dual myths of disembodiment, as both a transcendent victory over his handicapped, feminized body, and as a monstrous, dehumanized void. Abstracted from his fleshy body, Jobe becomes dependent on the mainframe computer that contains the essence of the self that he has withdrawn from his body. The fact that he is threatened by the bombs that destroy the laboratory demonstrates that Jobe’s ‘body’ remains in some sense physical – that he cannot simply become pure information, for as Katherine Hayles (1999) demonstrates, information requires a body. His escape into the telecommunications network can thus be seen as the assumption of a new body, distributed and dehumanized but still physical. Throughout the film, Jobe’s increasing presence in the virtual world and his violations of physical law are consistently grounded in the material body – in his muscles and sexuality, his pain and perspiration, and finally the body of the computer and network. Jobe manages to escape the mainframe’s firewalls and execute his birth cry of making every phone in the world ring simultaneously, but since we never return to his digital avatar body, the ringing of the phones becomes the singular expression of the networked being; thus at the conclusion of the film he is not quite an entity contained within a technological system, but one seemingly absorbed by it, the two becoming one – the technology that he has become, or that has overcome him.

A disturbing nearness to technology also permeates David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ (1999) in the biotechnologies that facilitate access to the game and resurface in its play. The organic MetaFlesh game pod, made from mutated amphibian parts, connects to the player via a Bio-Port, located at the base of the spine. The UmbyCord (as in ‘umbilical’, which it resembles) carries game information from the pod to the user, but also the energy and emotion of the user back to the pod. The strange, organ-like flesh of the game pod makes the connection between human and machine at some indeterminate animalistic point in between; when Donna Haraway (1991) broke down boundaries between humans, animals, and machines, she perhaps could not have anticipated this strange image of the conflation of all three.

Players linked in to the game eXistenZ via UmbyCords

Figure 8. Players linked in to the game eXistenZ via UmbyCords.

Not only are the players of the game eXistenZ situated biologically near their technology, the technology is too intimate with them. Steve Keane writes of the MetaFlesh pod, “it plugs into the players, rather than vice-versa” (2002:151), interiorizing gamespace in the collective minds and bodies of the players. The game pod is an odd interface in that it does not feature buttons or other traditional input devices for controlling the game, but is rather controlled by suggestive stroking – a sort of pseudo-sexual coaxing – rather than concise input. The connection between body and technology is thus mediated by an uncanny organism that incorporates aspects of each and yet seems to be incomplete or malformed, while connecting to the game seems closer to a blood transfusion than a download. When Pikul (Jude Law) expresses concern about having a hole put in his body, Allegra (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the game’s designer who is in certain ways just as lost in it as the neophyte Pikul, offers cold comfort by opening her mouth wide, doing less to naturalize the new umbilicus than to serve as a reminder that mouths, too, are openings for contagion. The implication is that as the pod (and by extension the game) becomes infected or corrupted, so the body and mind of the player are at risk. As a quasi-living thing, the pod is not an instrument but an entity, and to connect to the game is to give oneself over to it. Thus in eXistenZ, as with The Matrix and The Lawnmower Man, immersion in virtual environments is equated with “the psychosomatic nightmare of losing control of the body” (Keane 2002:151) – a theme which characterizes much of Cronenberg’s other work as well.

The loss of the body and the loss of reality run frequently on parallel planes, as we have seen; the ability to control the virtual body is diegetically restorative, a means of dominating gamespace and reasserting masculinity. Neo’s discipline allows him to use his avatar body as a hack, operating not outside of the logic of the Matrix, but achieving virtuosity within it and affecting its reality from the inside; Jobe on the other hand is from the outset lost in his alienating graphical body, while his physical body acts as an interface or opening of sorts for the infection of the real world by the virtual. Jobe’s supernatural control is equated with a loss of control – a lack of discipline. The MetaFlesh controllers move control of the body to the metonymic abstraction of an externalized organ, and succeeding in the game is in a certain respect dependent on properly coaxing the pod and keeping it healthy while at the same time being subject to its whims; control is circuitous rather than vectorial, for both gameplay with the pod and in the iterative gamespace in which there is no clear direction of control.

Allegra and Pikul moving in and out of gamerspace in eXistenZ

Figure 9. Allegra and Pikul moving in and out of gamespace in eXistenZ.

Gamespace in eXistenZ is simultaneously transparent and opaque, as what appears at first to be a clear logic of avatarial engagement has by the end become ambiguous; Pikul and Allegra, having ascended through a game within a game, are at the end of the film faced with the desperate question: “Are we still in the game?” Cronenberg creates this opacity precisely by omitting the kinds of distinctions between the real and virtual worlds that we see in other avatar films. As Pikul and Allegra occasionally enter and leave the game, their physical and virtual bodies and the physical and virtual spaces are analogous – same actors, same appearance, with a relatively similar palette in the visual look of the film on either side of the interface. Even when the characters find themselves in rather unusual settings, including a factory for the game pods themselves (placing them for a moment on the production side of the pods they are presently jacked into, as if the pod reflexively ponders its own malformed existence), Cronenberg’s restrained, unvarnished treatment avoids the cues that in other films accompany moves across the interface – the digital graphics in The Lawnmower Man, the green tint of the Matrix, the airbrushed smoothness of the bodies in Surrogates. In this he disavows any sense of a computer game in favor of a ubiquitous cinematic modality – cinema is the real, and the virtual too. The bodies of the characters (and actors) thus become disguises in a bit of cinematic trickery, as the audience is given no means for distinguishing between the physical and the virtual at the level of the image; when Cronenberg pulls the rug out from under the diegetic logic that has separated the various spaces, the uniformity of their visual mode becomes pronounced. Every player is the avatar of another within a perpetual cinema that can only move up or down levels into more cinema, which situates the film medium itself as a sort of interface between the virtual and the real.

The answer here to the question of ‘who’s playing you’ seems again to be you, as the characters seem to be playing themselves – but a you that you don’t know and can’t see, with an agenda that is invisible to you. In addition, the characters seem to be played by the film in a manner recalling Godard’s Weekend (1967), in which the beleaguered characters ask passersby whether they are in reality or a film; discovering that they seem to be in the latter provides no relief or escape however, as they are eventually captured (and eaten) by cannibalistic revolutionaries, never able to overcome their subjection to the film. Cronenberg translates this ethic to an age of virtual reality, and the film is interesting for its malefic imposition of film form on the game, obliquely exposing the invisible hand of control that is here ‘played’ by the director. In the final scene of the film Pikul and Allegra shoot the designer of the game (a stand-in for Cronenberg, and the position held by Allegra within the other game iterations) for deforming reality, but their fire misses the mark as Cronenberg has stepped aside, leaving the audience in the position of the ‘player’ complicit in manipulation of the characters on the screen.

Playing the Player

Virtual reality theorist Michael Heim once diagnosed the sensory discord following the use of a VR device as ‘Alternate World Syndrome’, a “technology sickness, a lag between the natural and artificial environments” that shows “the human being merging, yet still out of phase, with the machine” (1995:68, emphasis added). Lag as pathology is reconfigured in Gamer as the ‘ping’, the infinitesimal delay in (the inevitable) compliance to the voice of control, but the sickness is a societal complicity with the mechanisms of a control that consumes and manipulates its subjects, moving from a VR fantasy of imaginary worlds to a dystopian vision of play as sadism. The schizophrenic Gamer comes across as a hypocritical didacticism, chastening videogame culture with a cinema of exploitation and violence of the sort that provided the aesthetic foundation for the kinds of games the film is critical of. The film generates sympathy for the avatar, but also, like eXistenZ, places the audience in the player position as we must to a certain extent go along with the way the directors play with their characters. Tillman is given the capacity to resist, but Angie is trapped in her own body as a Society avatar played by a slovenly, obese man whose enjoyment in debasing her is matched only by his bored disregard for her life. All of the Society players are depicted as depraved and cruel, featured in anonymous close-ups as disembodied faces with lecherous expressions, but Angie’s player Gorge (Ramsey Moore) inspires the greatest contempt.

Angie's player Gorge, in Gamer

Figure 10. Angie’s player Gorge, in Gamer.

Here again the filmmaker seems to have a stand-in in the film – or rather two, in Simon and Gorge, one for each co-director. The gleeful cynicism that permeates Gamer seems rooted in the way that Neveldine and Taylor ‘play’ the film, from their renegade approach to editing to their embrace of the portable Red One camera that allowed them to shoot action sequences on rollerblades. The avatarial predicament of their characters puts the characters at the mercy of the film via their players: the over-privileged gamer Simon who plays for sport, and the reprehensible Gorge who delights in manipulation. Neveldine and Taylor combine the force of the gaze with the power of the controller, subjecting their characters to eye and thumb while subtly displacing their own sadism onto Simon and Gorge. That is, if Gamer operates as an allegory of control as Shaviro asserts (and I agree that it does), its success in doing so appears largely attributable to the pleasure of game-like control the filmmakers derive from its production – a dark pleasure that saturates the film. The excessive repulsiveness of Gorge seems designed to throw us off the scent, and shame us for enjoying Angie’s subjection as much as they have.

As with the iconic images of cyborgs in cinema that helped constitute the discourse of technology and the body in the popular imagination in an earlier era (as well as prefiguring some of the technological developments to come), it is important to recognize the place of avatar films as visual and narratological expressions of evolving conceptions of virtuality – and particularly as it is instantiated in a filmic medium that is redefining itself in the digital era. As we have seen, these films thematize darker counterparts to the liberatory rhetoric promulgated in the marketing and technophilia surrounding interactive technologies. Relative to these allegories of discipline and control, you are player, controller, and avatar all at once, begging not only the question of who’s playing you, but also, given the recursivity of discipline and control, and the materialization of gamespace in our wireless, entertainment-drive society, who are you playing?


1. Open world or ‘sandbox’ games, of which the Grand Theft Auto series is a notable and popular example, are exceptions, to varying degrees, of the linearity that predominates in character-based adventure games. Puzzle and strategy games also allow for a greater degree of freedom in problem-solving, and PvP (player versus player) modes in many games remove narrative linearity but typically also limit progression through the game. However, the cinematic influence that has contributed to both the aesthetics and popularity of narrative games becomes participant and interactive in the cultural context of avatarial gaming.

2. The ‘misalignment’ of movement between player and character is a result of the difference between player input (usually pushing a button or manipulating a joystick) and the character movements on screen (such as walking or shooting). However, though the movements aren’t analogous, they do correspond in the basic sense in which one movement initiates another.

3. Hacks, mods, and machinima disrupt game design and appropriate game characters and architecture for uses outside of the designer’s intentions. While there is much here worth exploring relative to cinema, in the context of this essay I will note only the strong influence of established design and narrative/linear modes, as mods tend most often to extend the model established by the original design of the game (such as adding levels), and can also be appropriated in commercial design; machinima subverts gameplay, but generally does so in service of producing texts that employ cinematic aesthetics and narrative structure.

4. Lori Kendall, Hanging Out in the Virtual Pub: Masculinities and Relationships Online (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) and Lisa Nakamura, Cybertypes: Race, Identity, and Ethnicity on the Internet (New York: Routledge, 2002) counter Turkle’s optimism for identity shifts while tracking patterns of behavioral responses to the combination of social and technological circuits that contribute to interactivity.

5. For a critical view of capitalistic practices in Second Life see Samuel K. Bonsu and Aron Darmody, “Co-creating in Second Life: Market-Consumer Cooperation in Contemporary Economy,” Journal of Marcromarketing 2008 28: 355.

6. “Are ads on children’s social networking sites harmless child’s play or virtual insanity?” Meg Carter, The Independent, June 2, 2008. Accessed July 7, 2011 from www.independent.co.uk. (cf. Maria Rousou, “Learning by Doing and Learning Through Play: An Exploration of Interactivity in Virtual Environments for Children,” Computers in Entertainment, Vol. 2, Issue 1, January 2004.)

7. Neo’s rough, injurious fight with Bane in The Matrix Reloaded (2003) is a stark contrast with the graceful, bloodless violence in the Matrix.

8. Deleuze identifies equilibrium as a defining element of the factory and, by extension, the disciplinary society; it is interesting then that the battle against hegemony results in its balanced and pacific perpetuation – a disciplinary ideal.

9. Jean-Louis Baudry’s model of the cinema as an ideological machine was dependent on this conflation of film-viewing and direct perception. By this model, VR (at least in some idealized form) has even greater potential for ideological influence, as digital media can transmit information with much more flexibility than photographic media, and the immersive wrapping of the image in VR prohibits the user from looking outside of the screen.

10. See also Binik, et al., “From the Couch to the Keyboard: Psychotherapy in Cyberspace” in Culture of the Internet, edited by Sara Kiesler (London: Psychology Press, 1997); Amanda Schaffer, “Not a Game: Simulation to Lessen War Trauma,” New York Times, August 28, 2007. (Accessed July 7, 2011 from www.nytimes.com.)


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Adam Davis is completing his PhD at Southern Illinois University and will be joining Nevada State College as an assistant professor. His work focuses on digital culture and intersections between cinema and new media.

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