Matthew Horrigan

Matt Horrigan is a researcher and artist living and working on unceded Coast Salish territories. Matt holds an interdisciplinary MFA from Simon Fraser University with a graduating project exploring experiences of immersion in real and fictional worlds.

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The Liminoid in Single-Player Videogaming: A Critical and Collaborative Response to Recent Work on Liminality and Ritual

by Matthew Horrigan


In "Liminality and the Smearing of War and Play in Battlefield 1," Debra Ramsay deploys Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner's concept of liminality to facilitate a close reading of the ways in which Battlefield 1 figurates temporal disorientation. In response, I argue for a clearer distinction between the related but different concepts of the liminal and liminoid. Liminality is a property of the crossing of thresholds of transformation. It manifests especially in the rite, the type of ritual that accompanies changes of identity. Liminoid events effect reversible, even momentary, transformations, affording play with and reconfiguration of components of the liminal. In the case of videogaming in a virtual world, this essay theorizes that the fluid antistructure of the liminoid is organized in time around moments of spontaneous communitas, and especially phenomenal similarity, between player and avatar.

Keywords: liminality, liminoid, avatar, Rule of Rose, militainment



Can we describe the ritual structure of single-player videogaming? This essay begins to remedy the undertheorization of the category of the "liminoid," which has much to offer as we pursue an increasingly detailed understanding of the personal and political power of videogames.

The context for this account is a general broadening of scope for the terms "liminal" and "ritual" in recent discourse, as evidenced by two pieces of writing: Debra Ramsay's "Liminality and the Smearing of War and Play in Battlefield 1" in Game Studies (2020), and a special issue of PhilosophicalTransactions of the Royal Society B concerning the rituals of humans and animals (Legare and Nielsen, 2020). The former minimizes the role of the liminoid and the latter minimizes the role of the rite. Each minimization suits the purpose of its particular study, yet omitting the category of the liminoid occludes the distinction between, say, a Battlefield match and an actual baptism by fire; and omitting to discuss rites as distinct from rituals occludes an important difference between, say, death and toothbrushing, so a renewed specificity of terms is in order.

Here I unpack Ramsay's deployment of liminality as a conceptual framework for investigating gameplay experience, connecting her take on the term with prior ludological applications of it and producing what I hope to be a clearer view of the meanings made of gaming by the different concepts of liminal and liminoid. Contra Ramsay, I discuss the liminal in terms of the transformation of relational identity, where Ramsay had focussed on liminality's shaping of time. I then recategorize Ramsay's version of liminality as liminoid, and develop several nuances regarding the latter. Specifically, liminoid play is meta-play upon the signs of the liminal. By removing aspects of liminality from the sanctified and transformative rites in which they have most permanent consequence, liminoid play becomes a mode of agency over the form of the liminal. Liminoid rituals are relatively frequent and reversible; of such rituals, this essay takes a special interest in the ritual structure of the act of manifesting an avatar in a virtual world. The ritual of videogame roleplay--in contrast to the rituals of live action roleplay or virtual reality--contains what I call "moments of similitude," in which the player's actual body and virtual avatar synchronize.

The preferred term here is not player-character but "avatar," understood in light of de Wildt et al.'s inquiry into the term's appropriated history, from Hindu scripture and eventually into the imaginary of California tech culture (2020, 965; see also Juul & Klevjer, 2016). As de Wildt et al. note, the metaphorical significance of the term runs deeper than mere exoticization--the Hindu concept of an avatar, born from one world into another, makes eerily good sense of the kind of roleplay associated with games such as Battlefield, where the avatar is both a projection of the player's agency and image in a virtual world (Klevjer, 2012).

Rites, Passage and Rituals

Cristine Legare and Mark Nielsen define rituals as "(i) predefined sequences of action characterized by rigidity, formality and repetition, which is (ii) embedded in systems of meaning and symbolism, and which (iii) contains non-instrumental elements that are causally opaque and goal demoted" (2020, 1-2). The returning act of taking up a controller before a video screen, and entering a virtual world, is thus a ritual, although the happenings that follow within the virtual world may be open-ended.

Ritual per Legare and Nielsen is interesting in part because of its counterintuitive expenditure of energy. Why would a body, understood as the product of a biological process, perform a ritual act? Why would a species evolve such a habit? The Royal Society special issue goes on to support the idea that rituals function in the formation of the social identities of individuals within a group, and in the collective bonding of a group through a synchronized rhythm of increased and then decreased arousal and anxiety (4).

While promising as an investigation into ritualistic behaviour across species, Legare and Nielsen's focus on ritual as behaviour downplays many studies in the humanities on ritual. Particularly omitted topics are: the phenomenology of ritual; the difference between ritual and rite; and the property of liminality, which researchers following Arnold van Gennep have long accorded a central role in certain ritual processes (van Gennep, 2019/1909). In general, Legare and Nielsen's investigation is, despite its interdisciplinary aspirations, emblematic of the state of current research on ritual: isolated, separated by concerns both of method and of field from significant adjacent threads of inquiry on the topic.

Although the task of harmonizing the many existing bodies of work on rites, rituals and liminality looms, this essay does not take it on directly. Instead, it makes the preliminary contribution of proposing clarified distinctions between key concepts, to facilitate future empirical investigations into liminality and videogaming.

First, a provisional distinction between ritual and rite: a rite is a special type of ritual which effects a transformation. Rites can be repeated, but many occur only once in the life of an individual body. For example, a Catholic may brush their teeth every evening while looking in a mirror, as a ritual associated with going to bed; yet will receive the Last Rites no more than once. It is no accident that many descriptions of liminal rites are sensationalistic and emotionally charged, for such rituals are special, rare, and serve to structure momentous changes. The "liminality" of going to bed is very different from the liminality of dying, or of coming of age. Rites accompany thresholds whose crossing is difficult or impossible to revert. They present the most charged and concentrated cases of liminality. It is then the permutations, extensions and dilutions of liminality that form the principle object of interest for this essay. As elaborated below, the microscopic temporal structure of certain rituals of videogame play moves between preliminoid, liminoid and postliminoid moments, producing what Victor Turner called a "spontaneous communitas" (1991/1969, p. 132) between player and avatar.

Liminality and Videogames

Liminality has been many things to many theorists. Springer’s Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion defines it permissively, as "the psychological process of transitioning across boundaries and borders. The term ‘limen’ comes from the Latin for threshold; it is literally the threshold separating one space from another" (Larson, 2010, p.519). As David Larson points out (p.520), the concept originated with Arnold van Gennep, who used the term to describe the transitional state novices undergo during a rite of passage (van Gennep, 2019/1909, p.27). The concept then developed via two genealogies, one narratological, the other sociological.

In regard to narrative, Gennep’s work influenced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, famous for its description of a narrative archetype Campbell called “the monomyth” (Campbell, 2004/1949, p.1). In the monomyth, a hero crosses a series of thresholds, which take various forms among different stories. William Free and Janelle Balnicke popularized the monomyth as "the hero's journey" by which time it had already inspired George Lucas's plot for Star Wars--epitomizing what Steve Wilcox would refer to as a "feedforward" process from analysis to art (Free and Balnicke, 1987; Lucas, 1977; Wilcox, 2013). Nowadays the hero's journey provides a touchstone for much popular discourse about story structure, as exemplified on the wiki TVTropes, which functions as a venue for vernacular narratology (TVTropes, "Literature / The Hero with a Thousand Faces").

Ludologists have since picked The Hero's Journey's low-hanging narratological fruit by discussing games in terms of "the player's journey," variously to: argue for a particular reconciliation between narratology and ludology (Fuchs, 2018), theorize the process of becoming more engrossed in a game (Kim, 2012), and advocate for mechanisms to help players synchronize their real-life "true characters" with the characteristics of their avatars (Eladhari, 2007, p.185). Such constructions of the player's journey are relevant here because they implicate the player as an extension of what Joleen Blom calls the "character ecology, the sphere in which characters are produced and reproduced" (2020, p. 58). Yet, the videogame player differs from a fictional character in that they eat, drink, breathe and otherwise live outside of a virtual world, and can inhabit a gameworld only through what Rune Klevjer calls "prosthetic telepresence" (2012)--with the avatar as their prosthesis across the boundary that is the video screen. The participation of the player in the virtual world is therefore the crossing of a threshold, which we might find accompanied by special ritual structures.

Although the scholarly genealogies of the monomyth and the liminal have diverged, there is a resonance between the way the monomyth describes the macrostructure of characters and societies developing over time, and the way accounts of the liminal emphasize the microstructure of individual thresholds within that development. Without subscribing to the universality of the monomyth, this essay maintains its concern with patterns of personal transition, and with the function of the liminal within systems of identity over time. Campbell drew influence from Gennep's "threefold structure of liminal processes: preliminary, liminaire, and postliminaire," with liminality figuring as "the journey of transformation" "between two states" "when one is neither one nor the other" (Larson, p. 520). Per The Hero With a Thousand Faces, thresholds, and tropes in general, are ordinal, occurring at specific points in a story's sequence of events. TVTropes, however, assigns each trope to its own page, discussing it as an individuated occurrence rather than a function within a total plot arc or a social emergence. The modularization of tropes in TVTropes serves the agency of fiction authors by presenting plot events in a way that emphasizes potential for reconfiguration instead of beholdenness overarching archetypes. Sacrificed, however, is a sense of the effect of liminal tropes upon actual identities within social practices, as opposed to the identities of characters as components or devices in a text. The elegance of the theory of liminality, rather, stems from its simultaneous application to both, as a component of the structure of actual and fictional life.

The most famous theorist of liminality is Victor Turner, who developed van Gennep's account to theorize the Structure and Anti-Structure of the ritual process (1991/1969). Per Turner, liminality transitions the members of a social group toward a state of commonality and communal organization called “communitas” (p. 94). There are three types or stages of communitas: first, spontaneous communitas, which Turner associates the social state of communitas with the psychological state of "flow" that went on to figure extensively in studies of sports and, eventually, games (Csikszentmihalyi, 1975; Jackson and Csikszentmihalyi, 1999). Second, there is normative communitas, as a group organizes itself around shared behaviours (compare Bruce Tuckerman's famous analysis of the stages of group formation--"forming, storming, norming and performing;" 1965). Third, there is ideological communitas, in which the experience of communitas becomes a model for the formation of an entire society (Turner, p. 132). Following Brian Sutton-Smith (1972), Turner distinguishes liminal from "liminoid" events, where the liminoid are: optional ("optation pervades the liminoid phenomenon, obligation the liminal" (Turner, 1974, p.74)); individualistic (p. 75); associated with leisure (p. 83); and thus "removed from a rite de passage context" (p. 84). Where liminal events are "eufunctional,"--that is, mechanisms by which a society functions "without too much friction"--liminoid events "are often parts of social critiques or even revolutionary manifestoes" (p. 86). Turner claims that, in secular cultures, liminoid activities like gaming have taken over the "flow-function," the facilitation of experiences of flow (p. 90).

Recent scholarship has tended both to ignore Turner's emphasis on communitas and downplay his distinctions between liminality and 'liminoidality,' thus propagating the scope-creep that has made liminality a humanities buzzword. Paul Stenner ascribes “micro-liminality” to situations in which “transformative experience” functions as “the crucible for the emergence of novelty” (2018, p.28). Katie Beavan, Peter Case and Margaret Page apply the concept to spatial circumstances like elevators, as venues for the infamous 'elevator pitch' (Beavan, Case and Page, 2015). The adjacent concepts of the preliminary and postliminary have likewise largely disappeared from contemporary literature on the topic. Such is the case in Ramsay's argument, which ascribes liminal properties to Battlefield 1 (2016). Ramsay formulates the following definition of liminality. "At its simplest, liminality is a transitional phase of time in which the usual order is momentarily suspended, and in which events occur in spaces outside of those of the everyday yet embedded within them." Noted and dismissed is the Turnerian view that "cultural forms of play, such as extreme sports, are liminoid rather than liminal, in that they are optional and ultimately not transformative." Ramsay's definition of liminality is not all-permissive, though; but rather narrowed by prioritizing Turner's emphases on "play" and the destabilization of "temporal position." Instead of framing liminal moments as deconstructing and then reconstructing identity or social structure, Ramsay frames them primarily as dissolving time and space. For example, "the game’s menu screen is itself a liminal zone that smears space and time. It provides a perspective of the globe as if from space (an impossible view in the early 1900s) overlaid by digital titles and graphics."

There is the potential, here, to conflate liminality with the boundaries whose crossing it involves. Van Gennep used the term "marge," generally translated as "passage," for the zone across which liminality characterizes the transit (Kertzer, 2019, p.xix). But should liminality be assumed wherever one finds boundaries crossed? The boundaries at issue in game studies tend to be those of the "magic circle," a term which originates amid Johan Huizinga's description of game worlds as "temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart" (1949/1938, p.10). Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman appropriated the term to describe the general idea that "a boundary exists between a game and the world outside the game" (Zimmerman, 2012, p.1; Salen and Zimmerman, 2003, p.95); gameplay 'magic' thus occurs when the player is inside the circle. Where Jon Dovey and Helen Kennedy classed the magic circle in general as liminoid (2006, 41), Allison Harvey located what Turner called "liminal moments" (1991/1969, p. viii) in its "shifting of boundaries" (2006, p.4). Many mobile games, like Pokémon Go (Niantic, 2016) fall under the categories of "augmented reality" or "pervasive" games (Paavilainen et al., 2017; Majgaard and Larsen, 2017); Erik Kristiansen theorized the shifting boundaries of such games in terms of ritual (2015). J Tuomas Harviainen made a similar move in theorizing the ritualistic aspects of social role-playing games, considered as "liminal games," requiring specific work from players to define and maintain the magic circle's boundaries (p. 506) [1]. In general, it is difficult and potentially fruitless to overspecify the precise location of the magic circle with respect to any given game. However, this essay's concern with videogames orients it toward an intuitive boundary: the video screen, taken as a symbolic separation between the virtual world of the avatar and the actual world of the player. Like the theorists of the "player's journey," I am interested in the recurring patterns by which such a threshold becomes crossed.

Videogame Play as Political Ritual

Turner's discussion of liminality and communitas involved political overtones which continue in Sebastian Deterding's description of liminality in gaming and gamified situations. Per Deterding, "liminal phenomena are collective duties embedded in and reaffirming social order [...] as part of one play-and-work complex," whereas more individualistic liminoid events often become "geared into the machine of progress as an engine of innovation" (2014, pp.25-26). Deterding's ideas of the liminal and liminoid offer insight to Roger Stahl's research on "militainment," which connects entertainment media, and especially egoshooters, with army recruitment (Stahl, 2009). Where, despite linking liminality with FPS videogames via the shared but "difficult to quantify" property of transformation, Ramsay does not engage with the history of first-person shooters as propaganda directed toward players, the transformative impact of the popular FPS America's Army could be quantified in terms of its success as a recruiting tool (United States Army, 2002; Stahl, p.107). Liminality in space and time alone is liminality depoliticized. However, the question of the mechanism by which liminal and liminoid phenomena contribute to specific social effects--such as military indoctrination--remains open.

A sociopolitical version of liminality would be useful for discussing Battlefield 1. Stahl describes how the U.S. military produced America's Army as an extension of the same post-Vietnam propaganda campaign that gave funding and logistical support to mass media like Top Gun (Scott, 1986; Stahl, p.28) and Transformers (Bay, 2007; Stahl, p.46) which cast American forces in an attractive light. Not all military-themed FPSs are pro-army; many critics (e.g. Payne, 2014) have noted Spec Ops: The Line (Yager Development, 2012) for its anti-militainment moralizing. Nevertheless, as Ramsay notes, most FPSs have tended to leverage the role of "individual skill and valor to bring victory," in what Stahl cites Stephen Klien as calling an "anti-war/pro-soldier" stance (Stahl, p.80; Klien, 2005). In the transformative figure of their player character, the action of participating as that character, and the liminoid state contextualizing that action, even ostensibly anti-violence shooters might still prefigure actual recruitment via their function as war simulators. Battlefield 1, however, does not "follow one central narrative, or one single soldier" (Ramsay, 2020). It is thus not pro-soldier but rather pro-communitas in positioning each soldier as one of many, with individual players frequently taking on the role of multiple soldiers who die one after another in the course of a battle.

Trauma may have a role to play in the sociopolitical effectiveness of liminal events. Ramsay notes the role of trauma, sacrifice and failure in the stories of Battlefield 1's cutscene characters, and paraphrases Anke Ehlers's work on post-traumatic stress disorder (Ehlers, 2010), noting that "traumatic memory disrupts the relationship between past and present and constitutes a break in autobiographical narrative, making it difficult to process the traumatic event." The game I take below to illustrate liminal and liminoid gaming is, like Battlefield 1, distinctly dark of affect, evidencing an Ehlers-esque interpretation of trauma as disrupting time [2]. But rather than jump immediately to the political task of critiquing the societal function of liminal gameplay, I want to heed Deterding's call for "theoria" (p.25) and pursue a rich account of the relationships between players and videogame avatars.

The operative term will be "liminoid." Even where America's Army hypothetically makes the difference between a potential army recruit signing up or not, gameplay effects personal transformation according to repetitive patterns unlike those associated with the rites that form the paradigm case of the liminal. To claim that a game is liminal on its own is to commit to a difficult argument. The liminoid need only involve some characteristics of the liminal. Like many sociological concepts, liminality was developed empirically to describe a multifaceted, recurrent patterning of observed events, whose coincidence is not trivial. Separating out liminality's many elements--play, time, ritual, identity, sociality, et cetera--dilutes the concept's descriptive utility. The more permissive concept of 'liminoid' protects liminality's vague boundaries by accounting for partial cases. At these boundaries, we might find, say, liminoid temporality; without, say, the ritual, obligation and other aspects that together combine to produce the kind of experience and societal function to which the term originally referred. Attempting to ascribe a game liminality, instead of the less euphonic 'liminoidality,' may seem a stronger argument. However, it is better to maintain a clear concept with widely relatable peripheries and adjacencies, than a copiously applicable one whose boundaries erode with each application.

The Burial

Novices are portrayed and act as androgynous, or as both living and dead, at once ghosts and babes, both cultural and natural creatures, human and animal. They may be said to be in a process of being ground down into a sort of homogenous social matter, in which possibilities of differentiation may still be glimpsed, then later positively refashioned into specific shapes compatible with their now postliminal duties and rights as incumbents of new status and state. The grinding down process is accomplished by ordeals; [...] hazing, endurance of heat and cold, impossible physical tests in which failure is greeted by ridicule, unanswerable riddles which make even clever candidates look stupid, followed by physical punishment [...]. But reducing down overlaps with construction. (Turner, 1977, p.37)
When we turn now, with this image in mind, to consider the numerous strange rituals that have been reported [...] it becomes apparent that the purpose and actual effect of these was to conduct people across those difficult thresholds of transformation that demand a change in the patterns not only of conscious but also of unconscious life. (Campbell, 2004/1949, p.8)

Rule of Rose is a rare game. Apparent influences include the psychedelic platformer American McGee’s Alice (Rogue Entertainment, 2000) and William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, while the opening sequence resembles a darkened take on the forest bus stop from Miyazaki’s My Neighbour Totoro (1988). Players play as Jennifer, returning as a young adult to visit her old orphanage and finding it ruled by an authoritarian gang of children, who absorb her into their hierarchy. The script adopts a Marxist worldview: the most domineering children constitute a self-appointed “bourgeoisie” called the Red Crayon Aristocrats, which bullies lesser “peasants.” Upon release, the game was subject to moral panic and consequently banned in the UK (Staksrud and Kirksæther, 2013). At time of writing, copies resell for over 300USD.

The moral panic centred especially on one cutscene. Upon encountering Jennifer, the Red Crayon Aristocrats push her into an open coffin and nail it shut. But despite the scene's infamy for depicting a child buried alive, the encoffining scene shows, as youtuber RagnarRox notes (2018, 11:13), a rite of passage, not a murder. The sacredness of the event resounds in the rhythmic unison with which the children wield their hammers, marking the beginning of Jennifer’s relationship with the young elders of her new society. In time, they let her out of the coffin and she begins her harsh new life. Jennifer must now embark on quests, retrieving "gifts" for the Aristocrats. But her quests’ completions meet with undeserved rejection, punishment and frustration. Rule of Rose unfolds as a game of ordeals more than battles.

Within Rule's fiction, Jennifer's burial presents a caricaturally overt example of a Turnerian rite [3]. The encoffining is certainly liminal for Jennifer. But it isn't for players, who experience the Red Crayon Aristocrats' sadistic schoolyard games via the distancing elements of a virtual body and a video surface. Yet there is a resonance between the liminal experience engulfing Jennifer and the liminoid experience pitched to the player. To illustrate it, let us follow a lexical intuition brought up by Turner's association of liminality with hazing.

While not necessarily part of the term's etymology, the "haze" in "hazing" captures the sense of dissolution associated within liminal ordeals. It bears resemblance to the metaphor of the Fog of War, or the acronym FOG (Fear, Obligation, Guilt) used to describe affects commonly ascribed to abusive interpersonal relationships (Forward, 2019/1997), fraught with (escalating) ordeals. These experiences are not just difficult and painful, but also confusing; hazy. An epistemic void emerges, imbuing any intro- or 'outro-'spective point of orientation with additional power to set a memorable scene and set up a relational bond.

Rule of Rose enacts what I call a "rhetoric of dissolution." The plot gives such impact to psychological trouble that the setting magically reflects the fragmented unconscious of the protagonist. Like American McGee’s Alice, Chris Nolan's Inception (2010), and many other magic-realist, or virtual-reality-centric, narratives, Rule of Rose’s psychedelically-shifting environs externalize thoughts: a zeppelin becomes a giant fish, while the interior of the orphanage becomes the passenger compartments of the zeppelin. These transformations exercise what John Ruskin called "the pathetic fallacy"--where environs function as externalizations of human psychology (1856, p.152)--at grand, grotesque and absurd scale, organizing the objects and locations around Jennifer according to the poetic associations of her subconscious. Amid the game's sequence of events, the burial marks a transition toward showing players Jennifer's characteristic perspective, while for her, it initiates a dissolution and reconstruction of her inner and outer life.

Ewan Kirkland claims that survival horror extends the tendencies of Gothic fiction to have audiences "participate in the protagonist's ordeals, reacting as they react, undergoing the same rites of passage as the central character, analogous to the close relationship between player and avatar" (2012, p.109). If Kirkland is right, I think the ability of the shared ordeal to transcend the boundary of the screen results from several types of synchronization--epistemic, affective, and intentional--between the states of actual player and virtual avatar. The frustration, the non-logic, of receiving a punishment for completing an in-game quest constitutes a point of concentrated ludonarrative consonance (see Hodge, 2014 on "ludonarrative consonance"), distilled in the question, "why?" the player, like Jennifer, does not know what they have done to deserve this. Their shared unknowing produces what I call a "moment of similitude."

The moment of similitude is a postliminoid moment, potentiated through the liminoid deconstruction of preliminoid certitudes which had reinforced dissonance between player and character--certitudes such as the player's teleological orientation toward winning the game, in contrast to the character's uncertainty about their purpose or future. Deconstruction and dissolution are necessary to bring the virtual world into line with the player's actual physical locale, because the virtual world is less concrete and coherent relative to the embodied knowledge of the player. The possibility space of the actual world is staggering relative to that of the videogame (see Wright, 2004), which latter is rife with arbitrary physical limits on a character's actions: doors that do not open and cannot be forced; flowers that cannot be picked and leaves that cannot be moved; et cetera. Anything a player's life experience has taught them about their actual physics, and by extension any aspect of their actual phenomenology, marks a disjunction with the limited physics of their virtual avatar. So, similitudes between actual and virtual worlds begin in the unknown and ineffable. This is the liminoid function of the uncanny, even logic-defeating, spatial and temporal dissolution Ramsay described.

Sketching a Typology of Similitudes

To paraphrase Richard Schechner on play-acting, playing with an avatar is performing the ritual of recognizing something as both "not me" and "not not me" (1985, p. 110), a double negative which creates an open-ended world of possibility. It is the mystery, the negative epistemic space, of the avatar and its environs that make synchronization between avatar and player possible without compromising the imaginative and potentially unrealistic expanse of the virtual world. Liminoid destructuring opens up space for moments of similitude by placing player and avatar on a relatively even playing field, just as the effect of hazing is to break down an individual subject and make it susceptible to reformation. A disoriented player knows as little as their avatar about their position within a gameworld.

The act of becoming-avatar does not qualify as a rite of passage, however, because it may repeat many times across many play sessions, and each individual occurrence does not effect a permanent transformation of a player's social role [4]. The temporary nature of the ritual of manifesting an avatar--what we might call the "ritual of avatarization"--points to a special power of the liminoid relative to the liminal: liminoid play allows us to play with the liminal, similarly to the way a thought experiment or hypothetical conclusion allows us to play with causality while insulated from actual consequence. Where per Turner actual hazing diminishes individual agency by enrolling the individual within the collective structure of the communitas, liminoidality presents revertible choices, or, more precisely, effects choice through revertability. The ritual of avatarization is specifically a liminoid ritual because (in contrast to, say, the ritual of toothbrushing while looking in a mirror) it derives its symbology from liminal events such as birth, death and coming of age. The liminoid is homologous with the liminal, a reflection in the quotidian, of the transformative and therefore oft-sanctified. In contrast to prior conceptualizations of the liminoid, I suggest that liminoidality is not para-liminal but meta-liminal.

The ritual of avatarization differs in function from the rituals of live-action roleplay. In the case of the relationship between player and videogame avatar--as opposed to larper and character--the fusion of two identities depends on individual moments throughout the videogame play process. Such moments balance against the many countervailing or emersive reminders to the videogame player that they actually share relatively little with their avatar. Moments of similitude are moments when player and avatar share the same phenomenology. They are moments of resonant participation, organized in time to make player and avatar less distinct than at either the immediately preceding or following moments.

There are multiple types of moments of similitude. Each is disembodied, in the sense that it does not draw specifically on the relationship between a body and its environs. I identify three: affective similitude, epistemic similitude and intentional similitude. Epistemic similitude is negative, developing from a shared unknowing, like the Jennifer-player's question of why her successful questing has met with punishment. Affective similitude, in contrast, does not require specific information or its lack, and can emerge instead from the convergence of extradiegetic (for the player) and intradiegetic (for the character) media. For example, Jennifer may not necessarily hear the game's moody musical score in her head, yet the sense of nostalgia and melancholy it provokes may also haunt her, as evoked by different stimuli, as she walks the grounds of the orphanage. The strongest of affective similitudes defeat the distinction between aesthetic and ordinary emotions, causing players to feel rather than mimic grief or regret or nostalgia or exuberance (et cetera), over fictional events and entities, or without being able to identify an inciting object at all.

Affective and epistemic similitude resonate together in the cases of certain jump scares, which converge a simultaneous questioning of "what is happening?" with an affect of surprise, neither of which depends on a grasp of the objective structure of the situation or a test of the dubious physics of the gameworld. Curiosity, a property emerging from the relationship between body and place, is common upon entry to a new situation; but the jump scare piques it in a synchronous way. In Wolfenstein: The New Colossus, player-character BJ Blazkowicz encounters his friend Set Roth's pet, Shoshana, when Shoshana pounces by surprise on Blazkowicz's shoulder. Shoshana has a cat's head and a squirrel's body, the two affixed together via Roth's surgical wizardry. Blazkowicz exclaims "what is that thing!?" (IGN, 2017, 0:26). In this moment player and character are likely to share the same "what!?" The game does not just tell the player Blazkowicz feels curiosity and surprise; nor does it just show Blazkowicz expressing these feelings; rather, it orchestrates a situation where player and Blazkowicz feel these things in the same moment. Upon first confronting Shoshana, the player knows as much as their character does about the topic at hand (i.e., the topic of suddenly oncoming angry squirrel-cat surgical hybrids).

We could experience epistemic similitude with Blazkowicz while watching The New Colossus as a fixed-media 'game movie' (e.g. Gamer's Little Playground, 2017, 43:14), and indeed Shoshana's pounce in The New Colossus is a cutscene. But in-game jumpscares do likewise and further, provoking simultaneous action as well, manifested, perhaps, in a startled instinct to defend against incursive jump-scare monsters by clobbering them with a sidearm like the fire axe Blazkowicz has been carrying. A gameplay situation is, in respect to instinctive action, more like one in which we are standing next to Blazkowicz, in the same world, confronted by the same real creature. Likewise, were Rule of Rose a film, we would have an opportunity to empathize with Jennifer’s rejection following her quests; but, as a game, it rejects the work both of Jennifer and her player. Where fixed media scenes might provoke us, these videogame situations solicit us. They tap into the psychological processes variously investigated through the (related but distinct) rubrics of "enactivism" and the "extended mind," which understand cognition as interwoven with action rather than prior to it (Rowlands, 2009, p.53).

Although player and avatar may act simultaneously and in response to the same event, their ability to synchronize action is severely limited. Even if I were to play Rule of Rose while sitting in an actual derelict orphanage, dressed as Jennifer or even with an actual body composed similarly to hers; even within a social hierarchy of actual malicious children whose leaders task me with completing in-game quests; and even if that actual group mimicked the in-game group by calling itself the "Red Crayon Aristocrats," the world evoked by the videogame would maintain glaring differences with the actual world. The actions of the game-Jennifer would not be continuous with or similar to the actions of the me-Jennifer, since one presses on a controller and the other walks the grounds of an orphanage. Even supposing the virtual Jennifer is also pressing on a Playstation 2 controller, controlling another virtual Jennifer in a virtual-world-within-a-virtual-world, and so on ad infinitum, this extreme (and extremely hypothetical) case encounters two problems. In the first, the regress of virtual-world-within-virtual-world must eventually end, with a virtual Jennifer walking the grounds of a virtual orphanage instead of playing yet another game-within-a-game. My actions will always be different from those of this Jennifer. In the second case, where the screen is actually a mirror--or a mutually reflecting set of mirrors, producing the appearance of infinite regress--and the controller is but a prop sending no consequential electrical signal, the distinction between the real and fictional world is destroyed and no videogame is being played. This second case also describes my relationship with all the intermediary Jennifers in the first case: it is more like looking into a set of mirrors or walking before a security camera than playing a videogame.

Instead of similitude of action, we have intentional similitude. Intentional similitude manifests only for a moment. As soon as the player has formulated an intention to act in the game, that intention is interrupted by actual concerns -- chiefly, making inputs to a controller. The sense of immersion associated with "flow," however, may have to do with a forgetting, continuous ignorance, or suspension of cogitation of the actual control actions required to manipulate the game world. Rather, it may have to do with the intentional similitude between player and character stretching out for as long as, say, pressing keys on a keyboard continues to become actioned prior to or without thinking. In such cases, we may consider flow as a kind of intentional similitude stretched out by the player's diminished deliberative involvement. Intentional similitude manifests in the shared momentary orientation, among player and character, toward an objective.

In the relationships between players and characters, similitudes are the exceptions rather than the rule. In contrast to similitude, we might posit various relatives of the literary notion of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony figures in many grade-school literature curricula concerning fixed media, but has yet more relevance in videogaming. The term has its basis in Connop Thirlwall's observation that the facts of a storyworld are not usually as obvious to its characters as they are to its author, who "stands aloof" from their "sphere" (1833, p.491). Nowadays the notion conventionally extends to situations where the audience shares the author's special knowledge--if not their aloofness--accounting for the situation where, for example, "we find ourselves shouting at a character on television" because they "should have seen it coming" (Keller, 2004). Rather than agitate audiences, though, some videogames have reputations for players enjoying sadistic outcomes afforded by the irony of knowing the world and being able to manipulate it in ways that their characters do not: for example, players drowning their Sims by trapping them in pools (Sihvonen, 2011, p. 7; e.g. MattShea, 2014, 5:39; Maxis, 2000). Likewise, the raw disjunction between gameplay and actuality affords opportunities to experiment with dangerous experiences; see, for example, players plummeting to their deaths in Grand Theft Auto V's first-person view (Rockstar North, 2013; e.g. Jelly, 2014, 2:56), in an act that seems driven not quite by masochism, but by the dissociated phenomenon of what might be called 'autoschadenfreude.' Where similitude offers connection, dissimilitude offers dissociation. In the case of Rule of Rose, it helps players enjoy stimuli that signify what for Jennifer is trauma.

The inherent dramatic irony of videogame action, which causes moments of similitude to serve a special rhetorical purpose in videogaming as opposed to other types of gameplay, is an object of attenuation for newer technologies of play. Virtual Reality ("VR") technology functions like live-action roleplay, refashioning the bodies of player and avatar into a continuum rather than a moment of similitude--when player and avatar share actual movements of the head that shift fields of vision and hearing, or share actual movements of the limbs to push against virtual objects, these are continuous activities of similitude. With the growth of VR technologies, it is possible that VR-mediated gameworlds will come to invoke less of the moments of similitude that tend to occur in two-dimensional video gaming, as such devices for blending player and avatar become redundant or overdone relative to the task of enrolling the affects, intentions and deliberative cognitions of the player in the virtual world. The role of the moment of affective, epistemic or intentional similitude may become filled by kinaesthetic or even somatic continuity. But there would be a loss, here, too, because moments of shared surprise or desire or mystery are not only methods of connecting players with avatars, but of synchronizing human bodies. We may discover only in retrospect the extent of the empathetic benefits of the sophisticated performance that is virtual gaming across the flat, thin and underappreciated barrier of the video screen. Could this type of single-player gaming, more than VR gameplay, demand empathetic engagement similar to that involved in interpersonal--inter-body--conversation?


This essay has elaborated a framework for discussing the social act of playing a single-player videogame. A series of distinctions have been articulated: between rites and rituals, where most rituals return many times during the life of an individual, whereas the rite is a special and rare type of ritual in which individual identity is transformed; and between the liminal and liminoid, where the liminal is a property of rites, possessed of many specific characteristics whose convergence is momentous for individuals it enrolls, whereas the liminoid is a property of a far more diverse array of situations. Liminoid play involves the partial invocation of the signs of the liminal, allowing them to become experimented with and otherwise enacted with less consequence. By playing as an avatar, a player performs the liminoid act of trying on a role without committing to the full liminal process of becoming it. As intensified by the temporally and spatially destructuring characteristics of some liminoid situations, however, videogame roleplay can produce moments of postliminal structuration in which player and character synchronize. These "moments of similitude" serve to overcome the emersive margin of the video screen, and may thus play a special role in videogaming as opposed to other types of gameplay, especially live-action or VR roleplay that induces kinaesthetic or somatic continuity between player and character.



I thank the two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped improve and clarify the manuscript. Thanks also to Natalie Tin Yin Gan for many helpful conversations about interpersonal play.



[1] Not all theorizations of ritual in gameplay have hinged on liminality. For example, Alison Gazzard and Alan Peacock cite Turner without borrowing his terms in theorizing "ritual logic in videogames," and Erik Champion discusses the challenges and importance of representing rituals within gameworlds in a way that builds a sense of what he calls "wordfulness” (Gazzard and Peacock, 2011; Champion, 2016).

[2] The time-disrupting effect of trauma also provides the central narrative device in, among other pieces of media, Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, which features a traumatized WWII veteran visited by alien "tralfamadorians" who exist outside of time (Vonnegut, 1969, Chapter 2); and the first season of True Detective, where ex-cop Rust Cole theorizes a traumatic memory by echoing (as observed by The Rugged Pyrrhus, 2015) Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence (1974/1886), with the statement that "time is a flat circle. Everything we have done or will do we will do over and over and over again--forever" (Pizzolatto, Episode 5).

[3] The primitivism and sensationalism in some of Turner's accounts make them ripe influences for fiction, albeit regardless of their ethnographic accuracy; for example, Chuck Palahniuk cites Turner (Rugh, 2014). In contrast, for a realistic description of postmortem rituals in gameworlds, see Anne Haverinen's research on memorials in MMORPGs (2014).

[4] It could be objected that certain religious rituals, such as the confessing of sins, are sometimes called rites. I would venture that such terminology is aspirational rather than descriptive--one aspires to an ideal of self-transformation, of purging one's sins permanently and not falling back into them.



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