From ‘Cinema Envy’ to Social Media Envy? The Changing Face of Videogame Characterisation in the Age of Platformisation

Abstract (in English): 

It was in Summer 2020 that Seraphine - a ‘virtual influencer’ in the mould of Brüd’s Lil Miquela – began building an audience on Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud. Each of her posts served to flesh out her persona: that of an anxiety-prone aspiring musician with an ‘adorkably’ girly personal style and a cute pet cat. In September it emerged that Seraphine was a new playable character in e-sports giant Riot’s League of Legends (Riot 2009), a free-to-play ‘multiplayer online battle arena’ funded by the sale of sale of ‘skins’ and cosmetics items that allow players to customise the appearance of their chosen characters. While the character proved highly popular, the launch was not without controversy, with some pundits finding Riot’s bids for ‘relatability’ clumsy and their portrayal of the Seraphine’s mental health issues ‘perverse’ and ‘offensive’ – especially when set against the backdrop of a worsening pandemic (Jackson 2020). The controversy intensified when, in a post published two months later, Medium user Step-nie (2020) recounted her ‘brief relationship with a Riot employee’ and outlined her belief that the company had essentially plagiarised her online persona to create Seraphine, a character who ‘looks like me, and talks like me, and sounds like me, and draws like me’.

The Seraphine incident highlights how shifts in the development, distribution and monetisation of digital games driven by the rise of ‘platform capitalism’ (Srnicek 2017) are fostering new approaches to characterisation and storytelling - approaches informed by (and often modelled on) the ‘self-branding’ strategies (Duffy and Hund 2015) and ‘small storytelling’ practices (Georgakopoulou 2016) of young social media users. For a sense of how these approaches diverge from previous paradigms we might look to The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog 2020). Naughty Dog’s blockbuster sequel confirms that gaming has yet to shake the case of ‘cinema envy’ that Eric Zimmerman diagnosed it with almost two decades ago (2002, 125). If the game’s photorealistic visuals and its use of state-of-the-art performance capture techniques mean it often looks like a film, its approach to plotting and characterisation is similarly steeped in Hollywood conventions, and entails subjecting protagonists Ellie and Abby to a series of life-threatening trials and life-changing tests of character set in motion by a shocking inciting incident. But while the game was one of the highest-grossing releases of last year, as a story-led singleplayer console game it is also a specimen of what many consider a dying breed. Drawing on accounts of fictional characters as ‘quasi-persons’ (Frow 2014), studies of transmedia characterisation (Thon 2019; Steinberg 2012; Azuma 2009) and work on games and social media, this paper asks what Ellie, Abby and Seraphine can tell us about the functions of fictional characters in an entertainment ecosystem being reshaped by platformisation.



ELO 2021: Games, storytelling and methodologies, May 26

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Milosz Waskiewicz