Identification in the Apocalypse

Identification in The Walking Dead is a fluid, ongoing process.

In their paper ”Me and Lee: Identification and the Play of Attraction in The Walking Dead” Nicholas Taylor et al. present their microethnographic case study on the shifting ways in which players of The Walking Dead identify with the main character, analyzing a specific instance of gameplay in the study and the reflections of two of the participants.

The Walking Dead comprises various moral dilemmas that the player faces as Lee Everett, taking care of a little girl, Clementine, while navigating among volatile group dynamics in a company of survivors in the middle of the apocalypse. The game was seen to be fit for exploring issues of player-avatar identification due to its high degree of “social realism”, as defined by A.R. Galloway.

In their study, Taylor et al. discovered radically differing focuses in the participants‘ gameplay, regardless of playing the same game. Such focuses ranged from mediating the conflicts between the group to simply surviving at all costs or killing the zombies in the game.

Taylor et al. apply the theories of S. Giddings and H. Kennedy on post-humanist perspectives of digital play, and, most prominently, the theory of Deleuzian “attractors” by M. DeLanda, defined by Taylor et al. as “the indefinite origin of a force that explains the tendencies in observed processes to move towards predictable states”. The attractors can be observed in the tendency to either favor or inhibit a specific way of interpreting a situation in relation to other such ways.

In the context of the study, the attractors manifest as four specific ones: simulated, describing the various cues presented to the player in the gameworld; lived, containing the experiences drawn from the participants’ off-game life; conventional, describing the participants’ prior experiences and expectations regarding the representational types – in this case media such as The Walking Dead franchise and the zombie genre in general; and situated, pertaining to the participants’ physical and mental responses regarding the physical context of play.

Throughout their paper, Taylor et al. maintain that identification is a fluid process instead of a certain kind of exchange between two stable entities. Thus, instead of classifying different types of player-character affiliation, a less rigid approach was chosen in the form of the attractors. Taylor et al. build their study upon previous research on avatar identification in games: from the perspectives of the avatar as a reflection of the self and as a vessel – a “proxy” or an instrument allowing the player to act out roles different from their off-game lives.

Taylor et al. conducted their study by having eight participants play The Walking Dead in two sessions over a course of two to four weeks, with a third session focusing on the participants’ own reflection on their chosen highlights from the game. The paper focuses on a particular instance of gameplay in the highlight session, with the reflections of two participants – referred to as WD5 and WD6 – analyzed in detail. In the game, the player faces a scenario in which Lee and the rest of the group are locked in a room where Larry, a minor adversary to the player and a father to another group member Lilly, collapses due to a presumed heart attack. The player has to decide between siding with one of the party members, Kenny, in killing Larry to prevent him from coming back to life as a zombie; or with Lilly to give Larry CPR.

WD5 decided to kill Larry, justifying her actions by not wanting to kill him as a zombie due to her getting scared easily, and in that exhibiting the effect of the situated attractor – distancing herself from the main character. She exhibited the lived attractor as well, sympathizing with Lilly’s desire to save her father despite him being a threat to the group, due to WD5’s own experiences in life. The effect of the simulated attractor was also seen when WD5 expressed worry regarding the chances of survival of the group, should Larry rise as a zombie. WD6, on the other hand, decided to save Larry. Exhibiting the effects of the conventional attractor, she stated that “in all my zombie experience they take a little time to get up”, confident in her decision to save Larry, not regarding his potential resurrection as a zombie as a serious threat.

Taylor et al. conclude with recognizing in their work two contributions to the study of avatar affiliation in gaming. The first, methodological, involves the benefits of the participants’ reflection on their play – the data about their affective states during play, rationales for their decisions and their lived experiences affecting their in-game decisions. The second, theoretical, involves certain combinations of attractors causing identification, with individual attractor-based forces intensifying or disrupting a specific state of affiliation.


Article: Me and Lee: Identification and the Play of Attraction in The Walking Dead
Authors: Nicholas Taylor, Chris Kampe, Christina Bell
Publication: Game Studies, volume 15, issue 1
Published: July 2015

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