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Gods from the Machine: Godhood and Morality in Roleplaying Videogames

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This dissertation aims to situate moral play under a structure of godhood. This comprise two distinct but intertwining elements: the player-as-god and diegetic gods. The player-as-god is a concept I will outline that describes the player-avatar relationship as a dualistic notion that encompasses the avatar as a distinct, diegetic character, and the player as a controlling being who transcends the gameworld. The two collide in player-avatar relationships to create a ‘fantasy self’, as Katherine Isbister terms, that is neither solely player nor avatar. The player-as-god, as both transcendental but simultaneously native to the gameworld, must forge new moral and social frameworks according to the different ontological and cosmological fundamentals of the created gameworld. These frameworks, I will argue, are predicated on higher diegetic powers that guide and inform the player-as-god. I will examine this topic through four case studies. In Grand Theft Auto V, I will illustrate the player-as-god as part of a player-avatar relationship that involves a pre-characterised avatar, in the form of GTA V’s playable protagonists. In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, I will analyse a more ‘blank slate’ avatar in the player-avatar relationship, and consider how the player-as-god is directed by diegetic gameworld gods and higher powers. In Diablo III, I will explore the highly intertextual nature of its moral framework, as it borrows extensively from Judeo-Christian tradition. Finally, in Dark Souls I will add a moral dimension to Daniel Vella’s notion of the ludic sublime, examine how moral futility is instituted in the game’s lore and mechanics.
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Too monstrous to be truly accepted, too human to be entirely and comfortably cast out. The giant has traditionally held a unique position amongst monsters, an "Intimate Stranger" (Cohen, 1999, p. xi) who threatens the boundaries of the categories we impose upon the self, society and culture. In this thesis, I consider what the position of the giant is in digital roleplaying games and how digital games provide a new and particular arena for the giant. A familiar figure in myth and legend and no less familiar in digital games, I combine traditional monster theory and scholarship on giants with work on videogame monsters and digital game research more broadly. To do this, I first introduce the figure of the giant and its definition and then undertake a brief literature review, summing up the present state of videogame monster research and other theories which are relevant to my thinking and arguments. Then, I consider the giant in digital roleplaying games through three lenses. First, as monsters of excess, a perspective that considers giants as an exaggerated manifestation of those traits which we deem monstrous when taken to their extremes. Second, as technological giants: giant robots, cyborgs and so on whose appearance as giants links the age-old figure of the giant with our more current anxieties regarding our future and our increasingly intimate relationship with technology. Finally, as aspects of nature: giants that seem to be more a living part of the gameworld than as a horrifying and excessive human monster. I explore how these giants seem to relate more to how we think of and understand our relationship with nature, from its sublime beauty to its hostile wildernesses. To conclude, I attempt to draw these perspectives together to gain an oversight on what role the giant plays within digital roleplaying games, arguing that the giant is a particular figure used to consider and work through our socio-cultural anxieties at the most fundamental level and is one that requires medium-specific consideration within game studies.
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Chapter
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