Playing Animal: Coded Human/Animal Identities in Video Games

Juan F. Belmonte


This paper studies how computer code and social norms coordinately manage human and animal identities in video games. Just as characters' actions are largely defined by computer code, identity-defining actions are also defined in real life by sets of social norms. Both computer code and social norms concur in the articulation of identity. My claim is, however, that both computer code and identitarian social norms have a binary, arborescent nature. As such, animal and human identities in video games are based on branching either/or dichotomies whose complexity varies depending on the identity being portrayed. In most cases, human characters follow normative identity discourses with little or no exploration of alternatives modes of being in the world. It is, in fact, in animal characters placed in borderline positions (such as animals not being entirely animal nor human or possessing an indeterminate gender that makes them act in unpredictable ways) where new forms of understanding human identities can be found. In order to substantiate my claims this paper will analyze representations of animals (such as the feral wolves of Skyrim and the sapient Red XIII in Final Fantasy VII) as well as humans (from games such as Persona 3, Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, among others).