Although summer concepts are typically given to playful beach romps and outdoor parties, July saw a host of Kpop music videos featuring a decidedly indoor activity: video games. Today we take a closer look at this trend, examining avatars, sandboxing, and virtual reality. We don't often realize it, but our interactions in video games are actively shaping audience perspective within the music videos genre. The phenomenon called self-presence may just be the trend that forever changes the way we consume Kpop. Press A to Start.
Level 1: Video Game Culture in Korea
The popularity of video games has been on the rise throughout the world, but in Korea, it has always been big. South Korea more or less introduced us to the idea of the professional gamer, one who competes in tournaments for big-money prizes. And though you can now find professional gamers from every country and continent, the culture of Korea is far more accepting, and rewarding, than those in the West.
Western gamers are reliant on online viewership for fame and recognition. Sites like twitch.tv provide a platform for thousands of fans to watch live matches (live, but not in person). The more popular games, like League of Legends or StarCraft, draw the biggest crowds, sometimes in the tens of thousands. But whereas Western gamers turn online for their audience, Korean gamers receive real-life attention, plaudits, and even sponsorship. Tournaments are hosted live and in person, with commentators, play-by-play analysis, and screaming fans. There are so many fans, in fact, that the League of Legends final this year will be held in the same stadium that hosted the 2002 World Cup. For further evidence of the level of acceptance of video games in Korea, consider that Chung-Ang University admits competitive gamers as student athletes alongside the more traditionally recognized sports.
All of this is to say, video games are a big deal in South Korea, and receive much more mainstream acceptance than in America. Of course there are still stigmas attached to being a gamer (we’ll get into that below), but there is also fame, popularity, respect, and money to be earned. And not just online. The best gamers in Korea are celebrities in their own right. With that in mind, it only makes sense that Kpop would capitalize on the popularity of video games.
Level 2: Self-Presence through Perspective
Three music videos featuring gaming in the month of July is a lot. But the Kpop genre has always included references to video game culture. The trend that we are examining, more specifically, is that of self-presence in the form of avatar- and gesture-based game playing. Self-presence is defined as “a psychological state in which virtual self/selves are experienced as the actual self” (Lee 46). Enough theory. Let’s look at Fiestar’s “I Don’t Know” for a prime example.
The music video begins realistically enough, with Jei facing off against her neighbor in a video game. It is not until the audience is shown the actual game, however, that we start to see an example of what is called self-presence. Within the game, Jei plays as a photo-realistic avatar of fellow-member, Yezi. It’s a simple effect, really, to turn the women into video game characters. Fiestar only needs to apply a fighting-style HUD, or heads-up-display, to make it feel like an authentic video game. Fiestar does, however, use a few tricks to help the audience truly identify with Yezi’s avatar.
But what do we mean by that? Identification with an avatar is “an imaginative process through which an audience member assumes the identity, goals, and perspective of a character” (ital. added, Cohen 261). The disconnect between Jei playing as Yezi is somewhat nullified by both women being members of Fiestar. But in this instance it is the first-person POV camera angle that creates a feeling of actually being inside the game. This is what is meant by self-presence. Adopting Yezi’s point of view causes the audience to identify as her. We are not just watching a music video at this point; we are living it. And that is all thanks to video games.
Level 3: Rise of the Avatar
A fair question for us to ask is where this trend is coming from. After all, video games have been a mainstay in Korea since the rise of Kpop. So why are we just now seeing the rise of self-presence in music videos? A lot of that has to do with technological advancements.
The first avatars in video games were fully-made characters. Choices were limited: male or female; blue or red; warrior or warlock. It wasn’t until video games began allowing gamers to tweak the facial features of playable characters that the avatar began to create a feeling of self-presence. Though avatars began with few options, recent advancements have allowed a level of customization that users can easily sink hours of their lives into. Everything from chin width to eye level to brow depth is included. The dedicated gamer can now design an avatar to match his or her own identity. Identification with an avatar has been shown to be strongest when the avatar is constructed “to physically resemble [the creator] in body shape, race, and facial features” (Williams 7). And improvements in graphics have made these avatars near photo-realistic. All of which leads to a strong feeling of self-presence.
B1A4’s “Solo Day” is a good example of this effect. At the start of the video, the audience is shown five playable avatars, each a member of B1A4. There is Sandeul, the Pizza Delivery boy; Gong Chan, the Flower Vagabond; CNU, the Obsession Guy (they mean OCD); Baro, the Space Geek; and Jin Young, the Couch Potato. But these avatars are all...kind of negative. What gives? Most likely, B1A4 is representing the stereotypes of gamers. They are couch potatoes, geeks, nerds, young guys with crappy jobs. Even though Korea grants a lot of respect to professional gamers, the stigmas are still very much alive. As social commentary, B1A4 may be reminding their viewers that gamers deserve our love and respect too.
Each avatar is accompanied by a short video clip and some nice comic-style art. But notice that these avatars have no customization. The audience choice is limited to five presets (and really, we get no choice at all). Self-presence in this video is therefore much lower than in the Fiestar video. Jin Young, the Couch Potato (a.k.a. gamer) is chosen as the playable avatar, but we still visit every character just like a typical music video. The key moments are the brief shots of 8-bit graphics, small reminders that this is all a video game, and Jin Young daydreaming about the car at the end. But imagine what could have been in B1A4 had filmed five separate music videos, and applied coding that allowed the audience to literally choose their avatar. Although this video falls short of true self-presence, it is begging to be applied. That future is not far off.
Level 4: Sandboxing
Just as important, maybe, as the ability to create avatars, is the advent of sandbox gaming. Sandbox is a term that refers to the ability for the gamer to do whatever he or she wishes within the physics of the game, typified by a game like Grand Theft Auto (which also features heavily customizable avatars). The innovation of the sandbox game strongly links a character’s actions with the user by presenting total freedom of choice. The character could, for example, drink a glass of wine, then go watch a sunset. Or, the character could rob a gas station and brutally murder half the city. When the choices of the gamer affect the gameplay, a level of self-presence is created.
The SNL Korea GTA skits do a brilliant job of showing the less romantic side of sandbox games, and of lampooning these games in general. The skits imagine all parts of life in video game terms. For example, in White Day, the gamer is forced to relive the awkwardness and boring homework assignments of high school, just to find a date. In Super Life Game, the gamer is forced to try to advance in an "unfair" world where levels matter. Although we haven’t yet seen Kpop attempt to incorporate sandboxing into a music video, the key idea, that of self-actualization, is often present. It's a Kpop standard to see a depressed character morph into a beautiful butterfly. In the future, that morphology might just be controlled by the audience.
Level 5: Virtual Reality and Gestures
Virtual reality has long been a holy grail of the video game industry. It wasn’t until the Wii system that anyone came close to bridging the real world with the virtual. Using motion tracking and gesture-based input, gamers are now able to see their own actions displayed by their avatars, again creating self-presence. Virtual reality aims to go a step farther, even, to literally display a different world in front of our eyes. This idea has also made its way into Kpop.
In “Video Game” by Boys Republic, the audience is shown one of the men wearing a rather complicated version of a virtual reality headset, then plugging himself into Level 1. As soon as he does so, the music video turns into a motion-capture game similar to something you might find on a Wii or Xbox Kinect, though without any graphics (it more resembles a testing area). All the audience sees are the men of Boys Republic struggling to overcome simulated gameplay like dodging and jumping. And though the virtual reality headset guarantees a certain level of self-presence in the video, the audience is mostly kept at arms length. This is because we only ever experience the video game through a traditional camera lens. There is someone experiencing this through a VR headset, but it is not us. Self-presence is understandably much lower than in Fiestar’s MV, due to a lack of 1st person perspective. That is easily fixed, and it is only a matter of time before another group tackles this idea with better cinematography.
Level 6: Taking it Back to the Old School
Although video game advancements brought us a high level of self-presence, it is not graphics and photo-realism that create self-presence in video games. In “Boy Go,” So Ji Sub shows us how to do it old school style, in 8-bit. In the video, the popular actor plays himself in an old, arcade-style video game. This is another use of an avatar to create self-presence, but this one curiously lacks any photo-realism.
Instead, So Ji Sub gives us a creative take on identifying with avatars. For example, the members of Soul Dive only appear in the video game once they begin singing in the song. The world itself also contributes to a feeling of self-presence, with So Ji Sub’s character collecting records and microphones for points, running from the paparazzi (the bad guys), and receiving health from fans.
“Boy Go” is a good reminder that technology is not the most important thing to creating self-presence. The audience is drawn into the video game, both because it is well-designed, and because we get frequent reminders that So Ji Sub is playing an arcade game. The clever camera work tricks us into adopting his perspective.
Kpop has been incorporating video games into music videos for years now, but it is only recently that self-presence has become a major part of this. Self-presence is not dependent upon the recent gaming advancements, but it was predicated by it. Prior to customizable avatars, sandboxing, and gesture-based control schema, self-presence was not considered a typical part of gaming. All that has changed in recent years, and Kpop is changing with it. We can expect to continue seeing video game culture infiltrate our Kpop music videos. And as gaming becomes more complex and more personal, we can also expect more immersive music videos in which we identify directly with the characters on screen. Even more exciting than identifying with our biases, though, will be when we start to control them. The reward at the end of all this will be music videos, like this one, that respond to audience input. When that happens, we all win!
Cohen, Jonathan. "Defining Identification: A Theoretical Look at the Identification of Audiences With Media Characters". Mass communication & society. August 2001, 4 (3): 245-264.
Lee K. “Presence, explicated.” Communication Theory. 2004, 14: 27–50.
Seung-A Annie Jin and Namkee Park. “Parasocial Interaction with My Avatar: Effects of Interdependent Self-Construal and the Mediating Role of Self-Presence in an Avatar-Based Console Game, Wii”. CyberPsychology & Behavior. December 2009, 12(6): 723-727.
Williams, Kevin D. "The Effects of Homophily, Identification, and Violent Video Games on Players". Mass communication & society. December 2010, 14 (1): 3-24.
Williams, Kevin D. “The Effects of Video Game Controls on Hostility, Identification, and Presence”. Mass communication & society. October 2013, 16 (1): 26-48.
Zander Stachniak is a southern-born, Chicago-based writer who first discovered Kpop through ShoutCast Radio. His biases are f(x) and Block B.