Alexander Bacalja

Alexander Bacalja (PhD) is a lecturer in language and literacy and member of the Language and Literacy Research Hub in the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, The University of Melbourne. His research focuses on critical digital literacies in both school and non-school contexts, and the potential for pedagogy to move users to more critical understandings of contemporary texts, technologies, and platforms.

Contact information:
alex.bacalja at

“It’s got that power over you”: Negotiating Projective Identities in the English Classroom

by Alexander Bacalja


This paper explores Gee’s notion of projective identity, and the extent to which the learning affordances associated with inhabiting virtual characters can be realised in the context of the English classroom. With teachers increasingly bringing video games into schools for the purposes of engagement and learning, there is a need to better understand how young people’s dispositions (Bourdieu, 1990) enable them to navigate the space between real and virtual identities within a formal learning environment.

A qualitative case-study project was conducted, involving the introduction of video games into a high-school classroom, guided by the research question: what are the possibilities for projective identity work in the games-as-text English classroom?

The study found that three factors -- student habitus, game design, and classroom pedagogy -- impacted how students realised the relationship between virtual and real-world identities. These findings have implications for those introducing games into classrooms as objects of study, seeking to enhance engagement and learning.

Key Words: Projective identities, video games, literacy, English teaching, pedagogy


Why Study Video Games as Text?

Concerns about the relevance of subject English have led to calls to expand the list of texts legitimized for study within this secondary school subject and to recognize the influence of digital technologies (Green, 2001). Academics and teachers alike have turned to video games as the most recent manifestation of new media, advocating for these texts to become objects of play and study in the English classroom (Bacalja, 2018b; Beavis & O'Mara, 2010; Burn, 2007; Gerber, Abrams, Onwuegbuzie, & Benge, 2014). Those promoting the value of such change often highlight the importance of connecting with the texts which dominate students’ life worlds, ensuring they are supported to understand how these texts are constructed and how they are positioned by them.

English curricula already create space for engagement with the everyday. A personal growth approach to English teaching argues that the classroom should be a place for pupils to “share experiences, to talk about people and situations in the world” (Dixon, 1975, p. 6), and challenges the distinction between traditional literature and other stories, films, plays, or even the personal writings and spoken narratives of students. Within this approach the language teacher should not treat culture as a given, but rather encourage interweaving and integrating language from school and home to organize students’ experiences, including those from a range of popular culture texts, in the mind (Britton, 1968; Moffett & Wagner, 1976, p. 26). The result has been a broadening of the texts validated for study, including the introduction of games, and a recognition of the different affordances offered by individual text types, such as the value of critiquing everyday texts in the classroom (Misson, 1998).

Creative and artistic expression has well and truly moved beyond what can be achieved through pencil and paintbrush. People of all ages, sociocultural backgrounds, and from all parts of the globe are choosing to use digital devices and online platforms to make expressions of self. Turkle’s (1995) early work on identity construction in the age of the internet described how computers were changing the way we think, the nature of our sexuality, the form of our communities, and our very identities. Cyberspace is significant, she contends, not only because of the blurred boundaries between the real and the virtual, but also because simulated experiences which take place in virtual contexts are contributing to the construction of our identities. This idea resonates with advocates of multiliteracies and critical literacies (Cope & Kalantzis, 2000; New London Group, 1996) who recognize the significance of each individual’s multiple identities, their of membership of multiple lifeworlds, and the impact this has on how they inhabit and negotiate their movement through these worlds.

While educators have begun to use videogames in literacy and English learning contexts (Beavis, O'Mara, & McNeice, 2012; Gerber & Adams, 2014), not enough is understood about the implications this work has on self-making. In particular, the factors impacting the learning opportunities associated with games need to be better understood, especially as gameplaying moves from the loungeroom to the classroom.

The Projective Identity

As part of his significant body of research focused on video games and school-based literacy development, Gee (2005a) notes that gamers become committed to a new virtual world through their commitment to their new identity (that of virtual characters), and through this commitment, learning occurs. This commitment is enhanced by story elements which are coproduced jointly by real world players and virtual world characters (Gee, 2006). This is at the heart of his notion of an ‘identity principle’ or projective identity’.

Gee’s notion of the identity principle outlines how video games encourage identity work and reflection on identities:

Learning involves taking on and playing with identities in such a way that the learner has real choices (in developing the virtual identity) and ample opportunity to mediate on the relationship between new identities and old ones. There is a tripartite play of identities as learners relate, and reflect on, their multiple real world identities, a virtual identity, and a projective identity (2007, p. 64).

Projecting involves seeing the virtual character as one’s own character in the making (p. 50). In order to achieve this, a person has to inhabit the identity offered by the game and make a commitment to the virtual world in which that virtual character exists (Gee, 2005a, p. 34).

The ability of games to allow people, through the design of virtual characters and worlds, to ‘try out’ new selves is central to the identity principle thesis. Gee (2005b) makes specific reference to roleplaying games as “equipment for playing with living” (p. 105). Characters in games, like characters in real life, come with limited potential and capacities, and it is up to individuals to consider the best ways to work with those potentials to shape the kinds of growth that can occur. The equipment Gee refers to is embedded within the design of games, but also importantly in the predispositions that people bring with them when they begin a game, including their desires and goals. We -- as players of video games -- are thus both imposed on by the virtual character and their goals and characteristics, and are capable of imposing ourselves onto that character. Through projective identities, or what I sometimes refer to in this paper as ‘projective work’, people can transcend the limitations of their own real-world identities.

Consider the types of identity work enabled when playing a game like Mass Effect (BioWare, 2007). Mass Effect is an action roleplaying game set in the year 2183, which requires the player to take on the role of Commander Shepard as he carries out missions across the galaxy to repel the threats to humanity posed by an advanced machine race known as reapers. Gameplay involves completing quests which progress the story, each of which involves interactions with non-player characters (NPCs), and the game environment. Dialogue with NPCs is a core part of the game. The player must decide what kind of dialogue they which to use. They may use polite and selfless dialogue to seek out information, or they might choose aggressive and hostile exchanges. A player’s dialogue choices impact Commander Shepard’s morality ranking, measured by the number of charm and intimidation points accrued. As a result of the collection of these points, new talents can be developed and used to progress the game.

In this example, we can see evidence of projecting taking place in both directions. The human player can project their desire about what kind of Commander they wish to be. The virtual identity of Commander Shepard is thus a product of the human player’s projections. Likewise, Mass Effect projects onto the gameplayer. Elements of Commander Shepard constructed by the game designers, combined with the evolving virtual identity informed by actions already taken by the human, create a character that “rebounds back on the player” (2007, p. 54). Reflecting on the ‘new’ Commander Shepard, the one which has internalized the effects of the human player’s decisions is where the learning takes place. Taking a projective stance in this instance involves meshing our own desires for the Commander with the virtual character’s possibilities for action. Playing with identities in this way, both our own and those of the virtual character, requires reflecting on the interface between the two, and knowing how to filter particular aspects of our real-world identity in order to mesh with the virtual identity.

It is important to briefly outline several other key terms which will become important in later analysis.

Gaming capital

Consalvo (2007) was the first author to theorise videogame learning in terms of gaming capital describing how players belong to particular groups that share similar practices, beliefs, and a sense of style, “a culture distinct from mainstream society” (p. 3). Gaming capital is accumulated as gamers gain knowledge about games and game culture, but more importantly, as they share that knowledge with others (Consalvo, 2009). Thus, players can develop gaming capital by playing a game a great deal and gaining deep knowledge of the game, which is then shared with fellow gamers.


Habitus refers to an individual’s dispositions realised through schemes of perception thought and action (Bourdieu, 1989). These are socialised norms and tendencies that guide behaviour and thinking. Habitus is not always suited to the contexts in which we act. As Bourdieu (1984) argues when talking about the fluid nature of the dispositions we possess, sometimes practices generated by the habitus are ill-adapted to a particular field despite their earlier successful functioning.


Identity, or what it means to be a certain kind of person (Gee, 2000-2001, p. 100) has been theorised in many different ways for social research (Moje & Luke, 2009). I use the term here to capture identity as self. This use focuses less on how selves or identities are different, and more on how selves come to be at all. There is an emphasis on self as a construct dependent on interactions with others, and how this self tends to shape the things we do or do not do.

Review of Literature

Those theorising the relationship between game literacies and learning often refer to the importance of leveraging identities during gameplay. Salen and Zimmerman (2006), in their exploration of the player/character relationship, refer to games as “identity factories” (p. 27), which marks this medium as distinct from all other media, such as film, television, or books. Beavis & O’Mara (2010) are similarly interested in the relationship between player and game identities, arguing that texts have long been linked to the production and reproduction of individual and cultural identities and that this supports the study of games in English classrooms. Where literature was once charged with inculcating the cultural heritage which was seen to personify an educated and civilized society, in a globalized age, characterized by a diversity of new technologies, learning about, and through, texts requires going beyond the printed novel. This relationship between games and their potential to create rich experiences for learning has been explored by others (Bogost, 2007; Prensky, 2007; Squire & Jenkins, 2011; Steinkuehler, Squire, & Barab, 2012). Across this body of work, gameplay represents a site that is rich in social and cultural practices, and ideal for meaning-making and learning (Bourgonjon, 2014).

The relationship between learning, identity, and gameplay has also received much attention. Studies have focused on the creation of virtual selves through avatars (Hawisher & Selfe, 2007; Martey & Consalvo, 2015; Steinkuehler, 2006), the way real world knowledge informs ‘readings’ of games (Squire, 2008), the (re)production of gendered identities (Beavis & Charles, 2007; Healey, 2016), the taking on of new roles during gameplay which becomes linked to our own desires and beliefs (Bartle, 1996; 2010; Lewis Ellison, 2014), the process involved in forming connections between humans and virtual characters (Taylor, Kampe, & Bell, 2015), and the use of gaming spaces for the design of self (Resnick, 2007). One common focus of this research is a focus on how gameplay is informed by the knowledge a gamer brings with them, as well as the context in which they are gaming.

Researchers have also begun investigating the impact of bringing video games into English classrooms. Perhaps the most substantial contribution to this space comes from the Literacy in the Twenty-first Century project (Beavis, Apperley, Bradford, O'Mara, & Walsh, 2009), which investigated how English and literacy education might benefit from examining popular digital culture -- and the ways in which young people make use of it -- to improve the teaching of print and multimodal forms of literacy. The study juxtaposed different frameworks of analysis, including literacy, semiotic and pedagogical, in order to explore what literacy educators might learn from games. The project’s Games as Text, Games as Action model (Apperley & Beavis, 2013) highlights the importance of the relationship between gamer and game, through the inclusion of “me as gamer” as a focus for understanding games as text and games as action. Such a model resonates with Gee’s projective identity principle, emphasising that a gamer’s identity informs their gaming practice at the same time that the player is positioned by the game. The projecting goes both ways, and the reflection on decision-making about this projecting, or so Beavis and Apperley argue, is the stuff of critical games literacy and learning.

Case studies introducing games into English subject contexts are few. Research in this area can be synthesized into three conclusions addressing the implications for learning which relates to the player’s identities. The first suggests that gameplay under classroom conditions provides opportunities to reflect on our own identities and the ways that other identities are communicated through multimodal elements (Bacalja, 2018a; Beavis & Charles, 2005; Beavis & O'Mara, 2010; McNeice, Smith, & Robison, 2012; Pelletier, 2005). The second conclusion is that the games-as-text English classroom can be used to provide opportunities to create new selves and to reflect on the construction of these new selves (Beavis, 2014; Buckingham & Burn, 2007; Marlatt, 2018). The third conclusion supports the premise that studying games represents a way to connect with the everyday literacy practices and textual preferences of many students, thereby validating their cultural capital and creating space for authentic learning (Beavis et al., 2012; Carroll, 2016; Walsh, 2010). All three conclusions depend on degrees of relationship between the actions of the real world and the possibilities of the virtual character.

Video games are becoming an increasingly prevalent part of young people’s in school (Papadakis, 2018) and out of school textual activity (Brand, Jervis, Huggins, & Wilson, 2019; Entertainment Software Association, 2017). However, not enough is known about the extent of projective identity work possible when texts typically practised outside of school are brought into subject English classrooms and affected by teacher-led instruction. It remains unclear how the projecting capacity of video games is helped or hindered by the dispositions which inform the ways they are played and studied in classrooms contexts. The purpose of this study was to investigate this very issue. What happens to projective identities when gameplay is positioned within an educational context where the purpose of play is not entertainment, but rather study?

Taking a textual practice like video gameplaying, an activity typically enjoyed for pleasure and outside of the classroom and engaging with this for the purpose of school-based learning creates an altogether different context. While research has attempted to understand the relationship between identity formation and gaming, this has rarely been used to explicitly test the merits of Gee’s identity principle; nor have the possibilities of learning-through-gaming in a classroom context been examined from this perspective.

Investigating Projective Identity in the Classroom

The identity principle was investigated through a qualitative naturalistic inquiry centred around one Year 10 classroom, containing 15- and 16-year-olds, in a secondary school in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne. Students who self-identified as gamers were invited by their English teacher to take part in the study, with eight students confirming their involvement; four girls and four boys. The project was guided by the research question: What are the possibilities for projective identity work in the games-as-text English classroom?

The core component of the study was a four-week teaching unit. This involved myself as the teacher-researcher working with the eight students in a teaching space completing activities connected to videogame play and study. A range of playing and learning activities were conducted, utilising popular video games (Fable 2, Dungeon Siege III, Forza Motorsport 3, Bully, Halo 3) played in single, multiplayer and cooperative modes. Data collected and analyzed included curriculum documents, student work samples, classroom audio and video recordings, and pre- and post-interviews.

The teaching intervention was structured around four approaches to teaching text typically associated with subject-English. These approaches (Personal Growth, Cultural Heritage, Critical Literacy and Skills) informed the pedagogy which enabled the play and study of the games. Classroom activities included:

  • Defining games and discussing game covers
  • Watching game trailers and analysing their features
  • Playing the games and using comprehension questions to address genre and story
  • Writing about peer gameplay
  • Evaluating paratexts about games
  • Investigating the relationship between gamer and game, and the role played by choice
  • Multiplayer gameplay followed by guided discussion

The analysis of this data was supported through a computer-assisted data analysis tool, NVivo, which facilitated the identification of themes. These themes were then adopted as codes to classify and categorise the data. Theory-driven and data-driven coding (Boyatzis, 1998) -- the former referring to codes derived from prior hypotheses or existing theory and the latter capturing themes which emerged inductively as a result of reading and reviewing raw data -- supported the identification and synthesis of data.

The analysis below is organized according to three factors which impacted projective identity work; the dispositions or ‘habitus’ of individual students, the design of the games used in the study and the classroom pedagogy that accompanied the games’ use.

Student Habitus

Projecting was shaped by individual students’ habitus, or dispositions, including their prior gaming experience, and attitudes towards video games. Habitus is the internalisation of past and present experiences which contributes to how an individual comes to perceive of the field as a meaningful world worthy, or not, of investing one’s energy (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1989, p. 44). In this instance, data revealed that students brought with them a range of video game identities constructed and reinforced outside of the classroom which allowed them to participate and perceive of projective work in different ways.

One example of how habitus impacted upon projecting during the intervention came from one student, Brad (all names used are pseudonyms), and his account of his family’s gaming practices. On several occasions Brad volunteered personal anecdotes about gaming with his stepdad and family which help understand why he described himself as “a gamer, probably a competitive gamer,” and why introducing video games into mainstream classrooms will impact students differently. During his pre-intervention interview, Brad was asked why he chose to take part in the study. He responded:

When my mum married my stepdad, there was just basically more people to play with and they were also, you know, into gaming. So, it just kind of made things easier, the transition, [the] joining of our lives…It’s always been, you know, social. We all just go down to the Games Room and we’ll set up a game and we’ll be, you know, talking to each other, [and] you’re egging each other on, trying to trick each other into things. It’s really cool.

Subsequent to this, a discussion during the first lesson of the intervention involved each student sharing with the class their experience with gaming. Brad offered:

Yeah I [have] played a lot of videogames. I'm influenced by my stepdad who it’s a rare thing for him not to visit JB Hi-Fi [1] and bring home a game of some sort. So I, yeah, I played lots and lots of games because [my] stepdad he plays lots of, I don’t know, he plays lots of shooter games so I play lots of those too… I do enjoy the Halo [game] series as well as the Call of Duty [game] and things

Brad’s responses demonstrated how his video game identities are related to experiences of gaming with family. Gaming was an activity perceived by Brad as easing his transition into his new family, and facilitated new connections between him and his new stepfather. Brad’s comments described gaming as a catalyst for the positive and meaningful integration of two families which were brought together by his mother’s remarriage. In this instance, gaming occurred in a highly social context, evident in the way family members arranged themselves in the same space, and in a manner that mediated interaction with each other. The importance of social gaming to Brad and his family was such that a room in the house was assigned the title of “The Games Room.” Furthermore, the acceptance attributed to this form of cultural practice was highlighted by Brad’s stepdad’s own game identity, captured by references to his frequent purchases of new games. Brad’s experiences of social gaming with his family were a sign of a real-world identity orientated to see gaming as a social activity where engagement with virtual characters and worlds was a worthwhile investment of self, a position Brad would take throughout the study, as evidenced below.

Another example of the impact of out-of-school gaming practices informing student habitus was evident in the game-playing dispositions of Adam and Harley. These two friends engaged in social gameplay outside of the study which data showed contributed to forms of social gameplay inside the study. Observational data revealed both students were enthusiastic participants when opportunities arose to inhabit on virtual characters and play within the design limits of individual games. During pre-intervention interviews both Adam and Harley shared accounts of playing video games together, often travelling to each other’s houses to play the game Civilization. Adam shared:

If I do play a game it is sometimes on my own but if I play when I go to a friend’s house or something, like, I play Civilization with Harley, he is in this [class]… If he comes over or something then we can play online… I guess it’s more sociable if you are playing with someone else. I mean we’ll play sitting right next to each other and we can talk about, like, we always making an allegiance and talk about what we’re going to do and stuff.

Similarly, at the end of Harley’s interview -- and following the teacher-researcher sharing that he too played Civilization -- Harley revealed: “Yeah, Adam got it [the game] and he gave it to me.” These examples show evidence of a form of social capital being activated and reinforced between these two students which was directly tied to their gaming practice. Each time Adam and Harley met to play video games together, material exchanges, for example Adam sharing the game with Harley, and symbolic exchanges, talking and collaborating through gameplay, produced interactions which contributed to the formation of a durable network, or a sense of solidarity (Bourdieu, 1986, p. 51). These moments, themselves opportunities for projecting, supported the development of their video game identities, and increased the likelihood that they would be able to recruit these identities for when the time came to engage with virtual characters and projective identity during the study.

Adam and Harley frequently chose to play games together when classroom activities required paired gameplay. They transported game-related dispositions formed outside of the study into classroom-based intervention activities in order to enable projecting. These socially constructed dispositions resulted in two students positively predisposed to engaging in projective work, and committed to the new virtual world which they inhabited together (Gee, 2005a, p. 34). This was evidence of students negotiating video game identities socially and calling upon the histories of the relations between them to navigate this activity.

The absence of a habitus conditioned to see gaming as a worthwhile activity resulted in some students limiting their classroom-based play, inhibiting projective work. Consistent with other research which has investigated student preferences for using videogames in classrooms (Bourgonjon, Valcke, Soetaert, & Schellens, 2010), students who shared fewer experiences of prior pleasure with gameplay tended to exhibit video game identities less positively-orientated towards embracing the identities of virtual characters, and committing themselves to various goals in gameworlds. This, in turn, affected their projective capacity. Two students who lacked gaming capital and expressed minimal pleasure or engagement with video games outside and inside of the intervention were Alicia and Rachel [2]. The extent of Alicia’s gaming experience was “playing with my little brother on the Wii…but other than that, not much experience with videogames.” Rachel’s experience was similarly limited, “I don’t really play games.” When coupled with observations from the teacher-researcher regarding the lack of participation from these two students during opportunities of gameplay within the study, there were few expressions of positive emotion, pleasure or happiness associated with their classroom play. This was one factor impacting the strength of their video game identities and when combined with their limited gaming capital, resulted in less of an investment in projective identity work. These two students self-regulated their behaviour away from play during the study, demonstrating a reluctance to take control of the virtual character during these times and often commenting before gameplay about their perceptions of their own gameplay; “Can someone else play” (Alicia). Much like debates about engaging reluctant readers, this raises issues about how these students can be better engaged. Unlike Hanghøj, Lützen and Geer (2020), who found that games and game culture could be used as a topic for reflecting on everyday texts and generating journalistic writing, the lack of gaming capital possessed by Alicia and Rachel hindered their participation. This, in combination with the high levels of enthusiasm amongst boys in the study, and gameplay being limited to a single console and just two controllers during in-class play, limited their ability to see the virtual characters from the study as worthy of commitment.

The potential for gameplay and study to support learning about texts, the world and ourselves is mediated by the habitus each student brings with them to the act of playing. The difference between those students who derived great pleasure from gaming and those who did not demonstrated how video game identities were tied to experiences of emotion in the social world and impacted on projecting during intervention activities. Responses from those students who phrased their prior gaming experience in terms of positive emotional responses support the idea that inhabiting the identities of virtual characters can elicit powerful emotions (Gee, 2005a; Squire, 2003). Such responses contribute to the formation of video game identities that see gaming contexts as sites of possibilities, and therefore, worthy of investment and a willingness to “play the game” (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1989, p. 42) -- both literally, in terms of controlling one’s avatar, and metaphorically, in terms of participating in the “game” of culture.

Game Design

Game design was also identified as a factor impacting the participating students’ ability to inhabit the space between virtual and real-world identities. The selection of games for the study was motivated by several factors, including the desire for: story-based games, multiplayer games, games from numerous genres, and games which adhered to classification guidelines established by the Australian government and state education authorities. A detailed example of one student’s experience inhabiting a virtual character and projecting their own values and desires through this character was evident in Brad’s extensive description of the game Mass Effect. It was during a post-intervention exchange between the researcher and Brad focussed on the use of another game during the study, Dungeon Siege III (Obsidian Entertainment, 2011), that Brad explored notions of multimodality, story and game design.

Brad: I think it, [Dungeon Siege III], should’ve given you a choice. I think that it’s probably a hard thing to implement into a game, but I believe it’s a personal choice. And, if you’ve given the player a choice to choose what kind of experience he wants out of the game, or she wants, then I think that would make the enjoyment better. So, the Mass Effect series which was one that I’ve enjoyed and I continued to enjoy it until the third one, there was not a choice…In the first one, it’s mainly choices, word choices, and they’ve got either a paragon or a renegade system. So, if you make good choices, obviously you’ll become a paragon and they’ll unlock more when you talk to people. People will generally say small talk or they might be like, “Oh, it’s, you know, the hero of this place, you know, he or she is really good.” Whereas, if you do the renegade people are more going to be like, you know, runaway, “He’s scary.” But in the first one, it was mainly a story. There’s lots of text, lots of talking and that’s the main focus. Even though there is a combat system, it was pretty badly made, but it was a story that’s the main focus.

Interviewer: And so, you were still willing and happy to go through that story or text?

B: The first time I got halfway and got annoyed because the game mechanics is frustrating. There’s [sic.], it doesn’t let me save in combat and you could get halfway across [a scene] and then died and then you have to restart the entire thing because there were just enemies everywhere, so you can’t save unless you get to the lucky spot. The thing on the third one that was the most impressive, that made me play through the first one even though it’s really frustrating, was at the start of the game it gave you three options. It said option one was play a story, option two was play combat, and option three was both.
So, that was the old experience. That was the one that I was used to. So, I obviously chose the other one because I want what I was used to.
But if you were new, you had three options and so you can choose if you want to do mainly fighting or mainly story.

I: Okay. And that links into something you were saying at one point about novels. You said that novels are a bit like a timeline. It’s almost like it just goes through the timeline. Whereas games, you can change what you want to change, so you don’t have to follow the main story. Do you think that gives them an advantage or a disadvantage, one more than the other?

B: An advantage. Even if I go back to [the] Mass Effect example, there’s a main one that you got to focus on, so a main story. But if you want to you can do a whole bunch of side things that can generally impact what the end result is. So, if you’ve got a choice to go to a planet and save some civilians over the main story which is to go to a planet and try to go and assassinate their leader, you can go and save the civilians and then when you get to the end of the game, again, because it’s a choice based game, you’ve got, you know, the five choices and there’s five different endings. So, depending on what the choices you made in the game, you can choose what ending you want.

Brad’s extended response is an example par excellence of the important role played by design factors in supporting the interplay of real-world, virtual and projective identities. First, there is the virtual identity, captured here by the “hero of this place” capable of “combat” and who can “save some civilians” or assassinate their leader.” Second, there were the real-world identities Brad brought with him to his play of Mass Effect. One of these identities was Brad’s gaming identity, typified by performances like choosing the third gameplay option, incorporating both story and combat because “I want what I was used to.” This comment referred to a type of gameplay Brad preferred, and importantly, demonstrated an awareness of this preference. Furthermore, Brad’s decision to engage with this game represented another aspect of his gaming identity, discriminating between genres of gameplay to select one that connected with his gaming identity. Lastly, Brad made many references to the interplay between the virtual and real-world identities resulting in projective work. Brad’s claim that “if you make good choices, obviously you’ll become a paragon,” showed how through projecting a real-world player gains a surrogate (Gee, 2008, p. 258). Brad’s valorisation of the way Mass Effect included the gamer, “depending on the choices you made in the game, you can choose what ending you want,” is an example of how virtual worlds are designed to invite real-world players to form certain sorts of goals of their own (p. 259). Through Brad’s account of occupying Commander Shepard we see how game design can impact projective identity work in order to incorporate and develop a person’s game identities.

What is at stake through Brad’s relationship with Commander Shepard is a projective identity in both senses of the word ‘project’. As Gee (2007, p. 50) argued, this form of projective identity work is both a project, meaning to project one’s values and desires onto the virtual character, and a way of seeing Commander Shepard as a project in the making, a character for Brad to infuse with a certain trajectory. To begin with the former, projecting his values onto Commander Shepard is evident when Brad described how he could choose to play the combat or the story. This is an example of Brad’s gaming identity, which is imbued with certain dispositions regarding what he wants from his gaming experience, matching the game’s design to allow him to exercise his desires within the gameworld. Regarding the latter, the project of making the virtual character, Brad talked about how he could connect with Commander Shepard to “do a whole bunch of side things,” the result of which is that the virtual character can be directed down different pathways in order to reach the game’s finale. These examples of projective work were only possible because of the match-making in operation, whereby Brad’s ‘taste’ for the game and its associated practices represented the coming together of things and people. Brad’s habitus, specifically, dispositions relating to his gaming identities, matched with the conditions governing the functioning of the field of gaming practice associated with Mass Effect, the result being a form of distinction which positively orientated Brad to this form of textual practice.

The accumulation of prior experiences with gameworlds produces game identities that form the principles of future production with video game practice. The structures incorporated into games become incorporated structures that form strategies with which to project onto, and through, virtual characters. Student references to the ‘choices’ many games offer represent an illusion. The ability of students to realize the full benefits of the projective affordances of game design was in part limited to the selection of games which did not include the types of customisation and agency often associated with many open-world or world building games, such as Sims, Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption II (for studies exploring questions of identity and self-making which draw on this design feature within games see (Beavis & Charles, 2005; Marcon & Faulkner, 2016; Marlatt, 2018)). However, prior experiences of gameplay also served as enabling and constraining forces for different students. Brad’s experiences with Mass Effect was an example of the power of a habitus, historically conditioned to be positively orientated towards game practice, which when coupled with the possibilities of game design, resulted in a “practical sense and strategy” (Bourdieu, 1990, pp. 61-62) that led to action and practice which was projective in nature.

Classroom Pedagogy

The final factor which informed the learning potential of project identity work was the construction of the English classroom as a field, a product of history, and a space for potential and active forces (Bourdieu & Wacquant, 1989, pp. 39-40). The study took place in the context of the enactment of historical models of English which privilege pedagogies and epistemologies that produce different outcomes. One emphasis was placed on critical literacy, a model of English teaching that seeks to encourage students to become active participants in the reading process and to challenge assumptions about how texts are constructed and whose interests they serve (Janks, 2013; Lankshear & McLaren, 1993; Luke, 2012). Throughout the intervention, activities were implemented which positioned students to resist the uncritical appropriation and commitment to virtual characters.

For example, Kate was one student who demonstrated a resistance to fetishizing the possibilities of games, challenging the degrees of ‘choice’ available during gameplay. Following several lessons playing and storymapping the game Bully (Rockstar Games, 2006), a game centred on the fictional town of Bullworth, and which follows local student Jimmy Hopkins as he navigates the school system in order to put a stop to bullying, a classroom discussion ensued about game design. Questions were asked about the extent of influence a gamer had over a game or character. Kate responded:

You can make your own choices, but you can’t do exactly what you want because there’s always things in the game that push you to do what it wants, like you can’t just go off and start blowing things up because that’s not what the game is about. So, that’s, it’s got like that power over you, making you do something, something that’s based around the story line that it has because ultimately, I suppose that everything would lead into some sort of story line.

Kate’s two-part explanation of the relationship between gamer and game described a symbiotic relationship between a person’s video game identity and the influence of the virtual character and the gameworld. The first part of the explanation is evident in Kate’s mention of the way a game will provide choices that “push” a human player to do what “it,” the game, wants. A player has choices, but only within certain limits set firmly by the game’s design. The second part related to the power of games over gamers. This “power over you” is derived from what Kate described as the storyline that a player must follow. Projecting, in this sense, is operating in the opposite direction to that described in the previous example. Through the virtual character, the storyline and the gameworld, project onto the human characters, bridging the space between the game’s virtual identities and the human player’s gaming identity. The player must inhabit the identity the game offers if they want to play the game (Gee, 2005a). Kate’s adoption of a critical stance towards the possibilities of projecting was likely informed by critical pedagogies which included the use of critical questioning to encourage students to resist taking for granted assumptions about how texts position them.

The data showed that some students could mesh their out of school gaming habitus with the expectations of in-school literacy learning, mediated through pedagogy. These students demonstrated a habitus conditioned for social gaming in school-based contexts. To explain this in terms of Bourdieu’s (1990) reference to a ‘feel for the game’, the social moves learned by the study’s participants outside of the study were appropriated and enacted through social relations within the study. This ‘feel’ for acting a particular way when playing and studying games during the study was an example of the social game, embodied during prior experience and turned into a “second nature” during the study (p. 63), realized through critical projective work. Like Abram’s (2009) efforts to support academically struggling 11th graders through video game playing and schemas which connected this play with academic experiences, pedagogy impacts practice. Student capacity to engage in projective work within the classroom space was dependent on the game identities they brought with them and the pedagogical tools which created the opportunities for these identities to be enacted in the classroom space.


The aforementioned learning possibilities associated with meshing real-world and virtual identities is dependent on gamers seeing this kind of literacy and textual practice as meaningful and worthy of an extended commitment of self (Gee, 2005a, p. 34). This study’s focus on learning made possible through projective identities reveals that teachers cannot presume all young people share an affinity with video games which is necessary to see the virtual character as one’s own character in the making. Adopting terms such as digital natives (Prensky, 2001) and presuming all young people reflect the presumptions underpinning such categories, such as the requisite habitus to inhabit the goals of a virtual character, ignores the importance of context; the context of each individual student’s history of gameplay, the context of each game’s design, and the context of the English classroom.

Students in the study were differently able to engage in the practice necessary to produce projective identities. However, those students who were orientated in such ways showed that moments of projecting were authentic and powerful and moved beyond superficial entertainment to produce feelings of belonging, power, and control. There is the possibility for deep learning and teaching to be associated with such textual practice in the classroom, although whether this learning goes beyond the surface will be highly dependent on the ways that games are used in the classroom, the types of games selected for use, and the ways students’ positive, ambivalent, or reluctant dispositions are harnessed or engagment with this important textual and identity work.



[1] An Australian electronics store which sells video games.

[2] While the data reflected stereotypes about the gendered nature of gaming, we should be cautious of over-generalising given the small sample size. For a more in-depth analysis of the issues of gender in the study see (Bacalja, 2018a).



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