The Avatar Dream and the Emerald Nightmare

One of my favorite guilty pleasures is a movie called The Nines, a 2007 self-described “science fantasy psychological thriller” starring Ryan Reynolds, Melissa McCarthy, Hope Davis, and Elle Fanning, and written and directed by John August.  You can get a feeling for his quirky personal style by reading his informal blog post about it here. August’s credits and accomplishments include GoBig FishCharlie’s AngelsTitan A.E.Charlie and Chocolate FactoryCorpse Bride and Frankenweenie. And here is a trailer.

G (Reynolds) is “rendered” into three characters in the three-part, three-narrative organization of the film: Gary, a mainstream popular TV actor with various addictive behaviors and anger management issues; Gavin, a successful TV writer trying to promote his latest pilot while shooting a reality TV show; and Gabriel, a highly successfully video game designer who is lost in the woods with his wife and child. These are three separate stories that “bleed” into each other as the parts of G become aware of (or haunted by, to pick up that word again) each other. This haunting is not random, but is the overarching plotline of the movie as S (Davis) and several other peripheral yet memorable characters stage an “intervention” to remind G of who he really is–the creator of the world. The world is quite real for its inhabitants, in many different forms (by the end, we are informed there are 90 iterations of it), but for G and the Nines, it is a simulator and “not real.”

Existential philosophy and religious parables aside, The Nines is useful for contemplation on what Harrell and Lim called the Avatar Dream, defined below:

The Avatar Dream has two elements. One is technical, enabling users to control a virtual surrogate for themselves in a virtual world. These computational surrogate selves are often computer generated images (CGI) but can range from text descriptions in games or social media to virtual representations that engage all the senses in futuristic virtual reality environments. The second is experiential, enabling users of these virtual surrogate selves to have experiences beyond those they encounter in the physical world, ranging from having new abilities to better understanding the experiences of others (such as of another gender or even another type of creature). (ACM 80:7, 2017, p. 52).

In their research the authors identify “box effects” of avatar creation. Box effects are related to social stereotyping, and can be related to issues such as intersectionality with a little creative thought, but in this case they are also related to the limitations of avatar construction as they frequently currently occur in video games and related digital environments. The range of avatar creation included in this study is pretty vast, transversing RPGs to Second Life to profiles in online music databases. One limiting aspect of such range, ironically, is that avatars have different purposes (obviously) and they range from an in-world stand-in for the self (as in Second Life) versus a marker for a personal archive (such as a musical website profile).

The Avatar Dream seems loosely related to some of the learning principles of “good video games” in Gee’s “Good Video Games and Good Learning,” as the premise of the Avatar Dream is based on the ability to imagine oneself differently than one may currently to achieve one’s goals or dreams, especially important for, although not limited to,  the young learners who needs to imagine  a future for themselves. Gee does not delve into the nuances of avatar production, choosing instead to focus on the positive aspects of character growth through recognition for achievement, as-needed guidance, increased competence through leveling, teamwork, deep and lateral forms of competence, and situated meaning. Gee sees this as the development of complex literacies which are more suitable models for educators than  banking models of education  with insufficient contextualization. Since Gee wrote this article, one could say that education has developed in opposing directions–while many schools have embraced innovative teaching models that allow students to learn through genuine experiential learning, other have pushed learning back into a teach-to-test mode that opposes his advice (usually because of state or federal mandates). If you teach, you will see the results of both models of education in your students, it’s quite likely. It’s rather schizoid to say the least, with some being very used to experiential and contextualized learning and others quite new to it.

Returning to The Nines, we see a twist on the box effects defined by Harrell and Lim. The premise of the Nines is that they are multidimensional beings of great power (compared to humans) and that the powers of at least one, the protagonist, includes world creation.  I’ll return to gender in a bit, but first I want to talk about how the powers of the protagonist are expressed through each of his three characters, Gary, Gavin, and Gabriel. Gary’s talent is for being an actor. He is the least “aware” or “realized” of the three forms of G in the world, although in the story, he perhaps travels the furthest from complete sleepwalker to “wokeness” of the three due to a series of catastrophic events. Gavin and Gabriel are both content creators in different fields. Gavin is a gay TV writer extremely devoted to his work (and the characters that he creates through it) and involved in several complex interpersonal relationships with powerful mediating females. Gabriel is a seemingly very happy and content husband, father, and uber-successful video game developer. In all three incarnations, G is involved with incarnations of other beings who are played by the same actresses (Melissa McCarthy and Hope Davis), as well as a child who appears to him in all three stories (Elle Fanning).

Gary, Gavin, and Gabriel are G’s avatars, as is made pretty clear by the conversations that he has with M (Margaret/Melissa/Mary) and S (Sara/Susan/Sierra). (M is the only being that is represented by multiple characters but is not recognized as a “Nine,” a bit of an odd blip in the movie’s cosmology. One is left to wonder if becoming a nine is a process, a “reward” for “knowing,” and is M is in the process of becoming a Nine. Or maybe not since it’s pretty clear that M knows more than G all along; the premise seems to be that G is amnesiac about his true self, and there is a “true self” to be found. The multiple unfolding of “M” seems to indicate that there is some kind of “uberhuman” self that goes beyond a human life and identity, similar to the being of Nines. (Humans are Sevens; chimps are Sixes; koalas, in a bizarre cute and funny moment, are revealed to be Eights because they control the weather.) In moments of extreme stress and forced clarity, G is able to identify the true Self of a being by a holographic number that appears over its head or some other mark, such as a tattoo in one scene. It is interesting that this multidimensional identity can only be identified by the being itself (assuming a “woke” state is in play) or through some kind of writing on or around the avatar.

Gary, whose segment is called “The Prisoner,” is literally imprisoned by box effects. Gary is an actor, who is managed by humans (in this story, Margaret is called in to be his “handler” during the crisis). Gary is most often treated like an avatar in a video game by multiple parties and forces who are stakeholders in his story arc. He is extremely stressed by his situation and put on house arrest after setting the belongings of an ex-girlfriend on fire and finding a woman on the street to supply him with drugs  (Octavia Spencer, a Nine moonlighting as a crack dealer and all-around party girl). Drugs and fast driving seem to be one way out of the box, but they put him in direct conflict with the rules of the world, so Margaret is brought in as a celebrity handler to oversee his house arrest. She seems to really care about him, despite channeling Kathy Bates’ character in Misery in a moment of tough-love humor, and the two strike up a bond.  The house in which he is imprisoned is the actual home (in another dimension or storyline) of Gavin, one of his other character/avatars, and the bleeding through of other storylines that began during his crack party continues during the house arrest, as he hears unusual noises in the house and finds notes in his own handwriting that were written by Gavin. Gavin’s note, “Look for the Nines,” has a very different implication in Gary’s story, as Gary begins to see nines in everything he comes into contact with, and suffers from paranoia. (Note on the “crack party”–literally the party ushers in a “crack” in Gary’s reality, so nice play on words. )

If Gary were being constructed as an avatar in a role-playing video game, his character would be possibly “boxed” in from the start by his a lower level of “intellect” than the other two versions of himself. Possibly. He is an “action” star on TV (which jives with the avatar ability in some games of “agility” or possibly “stealth”)–but even then, his story about faking action-star types of abilities to get a role call this analogy into question. The Nines blends together ideas of identity from three areas that the writer John August has familiarity with (acting, writing, and gaming) so even though the overriding idea of G’s story is analogous to avatar-buliding and later dissolution, keep in mind that the video game designer Gabriel is but another one of his vehicles for experiencing his own created worlds. Therefore we need to relate the term “avatar” to its earlier mythical and religious definition. Here are the four definitions of avatar provided by Merriam-Webster:

  1. the incarnation of a Hindu deity (such as Vishnu)
  2. an incarnation in human form
  3. an embodiment (as of a concept or philosophy) often in a persona variant phase or version of a continuing basic entity
  4. an electronic image that represents and is manipulated by a computer user in a virtual space (as in a computer game or an online shopping site) and that interacts with other objects in the space

These definitions precede their use in video game development. In The Nines, the “player” idea is more or less absent, although it’s clear that G is both designer and player of his own game. Or is it? One name left out of the script of The Nines is Ryan Reynolds, the actor of the G roles, even though the name of the actor of M roles–Melissa McCarthy–is part of the storyline of Gavin.  Melissa McCarthy, the actress (as a character in the movie) is the best friend of Gavin, and he has been a champion of her real-life career–including her role in The Gilmore Girls, which she is supposedly leaving to head up this lead role in Gavin’s new TV show, Knowing (which is Gabriel’s storyline in part 3). Maybe Ryan is the player in this set-up but he just isn’t named? Like Gary and Gabriel vanish when their segments have run the course, Ryan the actor too disappears from view at the end of the film. (Gavin doesn’t step into ether at the end of his segment, but stands disoriented in the streets of New York–which lends me to speculate that Gavin is the closest version of G to August’s heart, but that is just a bubble in my brain. His bio in his blog, though, might lend some credence to this.)

The cosmology of the movie may also be related to hierarchies in Hollywood,  which would explain why the incredibly talented and charismatic Melissa McCarthy is a Seven while Hope Davis is a Nine. It’s not all about her being a “fat girl,” since Octavia Spencer’s portly crack dealer is a Nine–although someone makes reference to M being overweight in every segment; by the end, we’re let in on the secret that it’s not her weight that is the issue of her discreditation by S and the network moguls, but G’s addictive attachment to her that must be overcome in order for him to regain his real life. I’m not quite sure I buy it, though. However, Spencer is not a Nine in terms of screen time, either, so the movie may be making a statement about how much the viewing public will allow themselves to be invested in major screen time for a chubby leading lady.  To bring the discussion back to the Avatar Dream, there is a connection between the issue of McCarthy’s (the actual actress now, not the actress playing herself) stardom in this movie and the proposal of the Avatar Dream that stereotypical practices reinforce the “box effects” of self-identity/self-representation in virtual environments and that these impact the self-image in profound ways. M is not assigned the character traits that would allow her to present herself as an equal to G, S, and the Nines. She is not assigned “nineness.” The reason for her not being assigned “nineness “is in service of the story, which is to show, in part, why G’s “favorite” is not on his level and cannot remain with him. Gabriel is completely in love with her and his life with her in the “Knowing” segment, yet they are not “destined” to remain together. This is very sad, and only made less tragic by the fact that G doesn’t “obliterate her with a thought” when he leaves her world–instead, she awakens in another version of her life, with a new husband (one more on her “level”) and the same child, who also has the gift of “knowing” other versions of herself. Finding herself in this situation instead of obliterated, she raises her eyes upward and mutters, “Thank you.”

The game that Gabriel designs seems to be some version of World of Warcraft or one of its cousins such as League of Legends from the way Sierra describes it in “Knowing.” In 2007, when this movie came out, WoW was still in its prime. It is now a teenager. The avatar system in WoW differs from the one described by Harrell and Lim from Skyrim, as the gender of a character in WoW does not change its power. Power attributes  in WoW avatars is basically the same for gender, which is completely surface and cosmetic; however, it can be slightly different for races, and that might be worth analyzing, as some races have a buff or “passive” talent or trait that allows them to perform certain kinds of actions more skillfully or more frequently.  The major differences in abilities is determined in WoW by class, which is like the character’s life vocation: ie, mage, warrior, druid, shaman, rogue, monk, demonhunter (which is a bit more complicated as only elves can be these), death knights (also complicated by the backstory of necromancy in their training–they have to die first and have no choice in the matter), and priest. The base attributes of each member of a class are similar, but the player can customize a talent tree which creates variety of play style. The rest of the power and skill differences come directly from gear and external buffs such as potions or inscriptions, which arise directly from dedication to play: questing, raiding, killing monsters, etc. The point for sharing this is that this type of role-playing game differs slightly from the one described in the Avatar Dream article in that in general, the talents are set from the start, and not determined by the player’s whim or stereotyping. The appearance and presentation of a character, however, can be greatly affected by these.  In the picture below, I will show you my 110 shaman next to a picture of a different shaman of the same rank and general power.




Obviously, mine is very glowy and girly, and I further developed that effect through a process called transmorgification that allows us to essentially play dress-up doll with our characters by superimposing an “appearance” on armor. Her actual armor looks nothing like that, although the appearance reflects real armor, most of which was obtained at a much lower level of power. In any case, the avatar’s appearance is not a measure of its play power necessarily. This would seem to be more in line with the vision of The Nines as far as avatar talent goes–to a point. However, there is some confounding when it comes to M’s character since her “power” seems to have been limited to be in line with her status as “supporting character. But this again becomes complicated by the fact that in THIS movie, she did become the female lead against all odds, against the strong stereotyping that states overweight women cannot be the romantic lead in a feature film.

So why did I entitle this The Emerald Nightmare? In World of Warcraft, the Emerald Dream is a realm that can only be entered by characters which are practitioners of the druid arts and can only be entered while asleep. It was created in ancient times, supposedly by Elune, the goddess of the moon, as an image of world as it would be if kept in a pristine state unmarred by living creatures. Time and distance mean nothing in the Emerald Dream. Basically, the Dream cannot be changed by mortals nor by most beings, except the Titans who are responsible for almost all creation in the universe. (Small, temporary changes can be effected, but nothing that lasts–the Dream is unchanging, or is supposed to be.) It’s implied quite firmly in various places that the Dream is necessary for the balance of forces in the planet of the game (called Azeroth) to be sustainable and healthy. But something happens to infest the Dream and corrupt it; this is named The Emerald Nightmare, as you might expect, and this is one of the areas that must confronted by players in their questing and raiding as they help the leader of the druids restore order to this part of the world. The corruption is triggered by Lovecraftian Old Gods that are said to cause “the gift (or curse) of flesh” to the creatures of Azeroth. The Old Gods are quite hideous and often manifest as mountains of misshapen fleshly tentacles, blobs, and oozy cysts with multiple eyes or great singular eyeballs positioned in various ways to intimidate. The corruption of the Old Gods, however, can be much more subtle, and often takes the form of mind-control through whispers that drive their victim insane.

Roughly speaking, the corruption of the Dream is the “gift of flesh.” The gift of flesh is what allowed beings to die, which may not seem like a very good gift, and “gift” is used rather ironically perhaps. But not entirely. In The Nines, it’s implied that the Nines are immortal–it’s said that G has been “missing” for 4000 years from his “real” home.  While he’s away, G falls in love, multiple times, with the “fleshy” woman, M, who is as smart as an Nine but not a Nine, and therefore is not immortal, and is consigned to live in the created world in one role or another. The curse, or gift, of flesh is hers to bear.

A few questions to consider:

  1. How important is it to design avatars? Is this important work for humans? Why or why not?
  2. Is the kind of identity speculation and analysis we see in The Nines useful to consider in your academic work?  Why or why not?
  3. What is to be gained through art that breaks the “fourth wall” such as The Nines to tell a story?
  4. What other ways can you relate the “box effect” to  ways of assessing identity or unpacking oppressive or unjust social practices or creating new ways of being in the world?

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