18 March 2013

Why so many videogame characters look like me, but I prefer to play with someone else, pt. I

"There are many reasons why I like to play videogames, but the most enjoyable aspect seems to be the bonding I (as a gamer) develop with the lead character of the story. If the protagonist of the game has a personality I can relate to or an appearance I can identify with, this simulates the experience as if I were in the middle of that adventure myself. This is what distinguishes gaming from other more ‘passive’ events like reading a book or watching a movie: the active manner in which to command the main characters through their story. You, the player, are not simply experiencing a videogame, but literally doing it. By guiding the actions of the lead characters, one gets personally involved in the situation. In other words, the gamer becomes the hero of the story. No, even better: I get to be that hero. All that occurs in the game only happens because I’m the one pushing a button on a joystick. If I don’t, the story would cease to develop any further. It’s this feeling of being ‘in control’ that makes video gaming so rewarding, as it is only due to my own efforts that the adventure progresses the way it does. A simple conclusion would thus be that my feeling of ‘being involved’ is related to the amount of control I have over the events happening. After all, if it is going to be my adventure, I want to have a say into as many aspect of the game as possible. So, whenever I am given the option to decide on the looks of the protagonist, or to alter their personality in accordance to my desires, I will therefore happily do so.

Nonetheless, many videogames do not offer any options for character personalization; a lack which, I think, puts a distance between the gamer and the game itself by holding out on some level of ‘personal connection’. An immediate question that pops up, would be: why can’t we always choose the looks and likes of the lead character? Does it really matter whether the protagonist has a certain gender, skin color, hair style, body shape or personality? In many instances it doesn’t, I would argue, as these characteristics are often not inherent to the story and thus become interchangeable features. More importantly, lots of video games are already designed so that the character’s looks can be decided upon by the player – albeit you are still limited to the options provided by the game developers. Being offered this chance in the first place means there is no need for a ‘fixed’ model in that game; any variety in body type or physicality will do.

Regardless of such positive examples, however, a bigger share of video games still does not include any options for character personalization, despite there being room for this anyway in light of the story. As if it would matter whether ‘the hero’ has a specific ethnic-cultural background or portrays a certain gender; anyone could save their friends and family from yet another invasion by either a foreign army or aliens, right? (This is a popular setting in videogames in which ‘an average citizen’ becomes the sudden hero. Nonetheless, the variety among these ‘accidental protagonists’ is highly restricted.) For no apparent reason, almost every ‘occasional hero’ is male, white and highly masculine in its features with no option to change any of this. And that bothers me, these unnecessary limitations to a fixed set of characteristics. Why does it always have to be that single type of protagonist; that one ‘default model’ again? Especially when the story is about an ‘average citizen’ and the adventure takes place in a multicultural and ‘Western’ society like the United States – where lots of action-type games come from and/or are taking place – it would make sense to include more variety in the looks and likes of its lead characters. Or even better: to provide the player with the option to make their own choices on these features. After all, the opportunity to make your gaming experience more personal, to affect your character’s look in a way you feel most comfortable with: that’s what I see as one of the most important aspects of a worthy video game. If I can make the lead role in the game reflect my looks or personality, it gives me the impression I am living the story myself. This character I then play with, the protagonist I give commands to… that is me I’m guiding through the story and not someone else I do not care about as much. Being able to identify with the lead roles(s) and their looks or actions increases the amount of involvement.

Unfortunately, as already said, too many games are limiting the gamer by only letting you play with a fixed character. Now, on itself that shouldn’t be an issue per se. If it would make sense ‘story-wise’ for the protagonist to have a certain look or personality, I can see why the developers want to stick to their decisions and don’t give gamers the option to change this. Sometimes there is a reason behind the choice – and no alternative seems suitable. However, in many games with an unchangeable lead character, the latter is not the case. In such instances, where the protagonist has interchangeable features but the developers decide to stick to a ‘fixed’ model nonetheless, it becomes a downright negative thing to limit the game to that ‘default’ character rather than offering the player a chance to customize. Especially when such ‘preset characteristics’ are yet again shaped like the ‘tough guy’ default, this male-focused and ‘white’ standard in video games becomes recertified once more. Lack of diversity then becomes exclusion, as only a limited type of ‘gaming heroes’ is being displayed, diminishing the variety of in-game models that players could recognize themselves in.

Now, this does not mean that I can’t enjoy a game in which the main character doesn’t reflect my features or personality. I don’t mind playing with a model that acts and looks different from myself as long as the story is well written and this personage has some ‘depths’ to offer. That is, when the character has a rich background and the game develops in a profound way; as if watching an amazing film or reading a wonderful book. If that were the case, I would be totally fine with such a ‘given’ set of characteristics, as it would be in accordance with the story to not deviate from this fixed model. Appearance is one thing to identify with, while character traits are another – and it doesn’t necessarily have to be both to make a game enjoyable. If protagonists looked different from myself, but acted in ways I would be doing as well in alike situations, this would still enable me to identify with them; to get involved in the events as if I were experiencing these on my own. Nonetheless, despite being able to relate to characters that look different from myself, this doesn’t negate the fact that a limiting standard in videogames is occurring. Namely, in terms of gender and race, we are still offered a rather restricted default of the male, white, heterosexual and ‘hypermasculine’ hero; the walking steroid, known for its physical brutality rather than personality or brains..."

Daryo is one of those people that enjoys playing videogames and has a mind set at reflecting on things with 'feminist glasses' on, hence the love for Gender and Sexuality Studies.

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