Monday, October 26, 2009

A Bad Case of Avataritis

Two articles regarding avatars piqued my interest recently, compelling me to jot down my own ideas on the subject. The first is a piece by Martyn Zachary from The Slowdown titled Avataritis, in which Martyn laments the over-abundance of character customization in videogames to the detriment of in-depth development of a preconceived character. The second piece led me to the first and is it itself a response to Martyn's Avataritis. Once again, Chris Lepine of The Artful Gamer draws my attention - this time with a psychological approach to avatar creation. Though I will cover their points briefly, reading these two insightful posts is well worth your time.

I would not be the first to criticize the videogame industry for churning out uninspired stories starring the strong and capable white male killing everything that moves - or the objectified female doing the same. I do not believe it is particularly contentious to say videogame narratives lack character diversity in numerous ways. If we take this for a given, character customization can be, as Martin puts it, "a convenient narrative cop-out." Developers can avoid the pitfalls and potential costs of writing a unique, compelling and well-structured non-normative personality by giving that responsibility to the player.
Lepine follows up by identifying an "armoured gamer" trait that restricts whom a player can relate to based upon their physical similarities. Many gamers may see, and are encouraged to see, avatars as an extension of themselves. They immerse themselves into a story by creating a physical representation of themselves within the game world . In an industry dominated by white males, diversity is expectantly deficient. I combine Chris and Martin's sentiments when I spread the blame around, putting the onus of change on gamers and developers alike.

When given the opportunity, I exclusively play a female character. My Mass Effect character is a red head with a mean scar across her face. In Fallout 3, I did my best to create a lead of mixed descent. I do this specifically to experience non-normative stories. I interpret my father-daughter Fallout 3 story differently than I would a father-son story. In this regard, character customization allows me to circumvent the game industries reliance on normative player characters. If I am going to tell my own story within a story, I would prefer it be unique.
I also enjoy making my character each time. I can easily spend an hour designing my avatar and experimenting with all my aesthetic options. Here is where the creative process falls short. As Martin points out, "character creation" is better described as "character transformation." Our protagonists always have some foundation, be it in their physical or mental characteristics, that exists within a preconceived world. This is where homogeneity shows itself.

Bonnie Ruberg of Heroin Sheik and Simon Ferrari of Chungking Espresso have both called out Bethesda for their sloppy inclusion of female protagonists in Fallout 3 - sentiments I can safely affirm. Alex Raymond of While !Finished finds similar normative trends in Mass Effect, and actually received a response from Bioware defending their design decisions by stating they are "unapologetically aiming for a wide audience." Both these games successful depict diversity in important ways, but still succumb to common narrative tropes.

This presumption that gamers are incapable of engaging with protagonists unlike themselves, particularly when it comes to race, is insulting. This belief simplifies both players and avatars. Chris Lepine puts it well with this statement:

"We don’t have to be, want to be, or know how to be the characters we see on screen. All we need is characters that perform understandable actions and reactions. Relations. Emotions. Desires. Wants. Wishes, drives and urges. None of these ultimately have to do with ethnicity, gender, looks or otherwise."
As a Latino gamer, I still find numerous stories starring white characters engaging. Other gamers can find non-white male protagonists immersive also, even if it takes some getting used to. Humans have an amazing ability to empathize and interact with individuals unlike themselves. Designing games based upon our preconceived notion of what would be easiest for the majority of players is a terrible idea. The result is already apparent: a plethora of stories cut from the same cloth which, on occasion, sloppily include stereotypes as if to appease a quiet minority.

There are a lot of diverse stories out there, and plenty of writers to tell them. A membership survey by the International Game Developers Association finds its development community to be 83 percent white and predominantly male. Naturally its output is largely homogeneous; but it need not be. Ursula K. LeGuin, and numerous female authors, have told compelling stories through the eyes of male protagonists, Ian McEwan and a few male authors have done the same with female protagonists.

One's personal identity need not limit their creative capabilities or grant them arbitrary authority to speak for their own very diverse community. Avatar creation, be it top-down or bottom-up, requires tact and maturity. For many, the games industry seems to be short in both departments. That is on all of us to amend.


  1. It's telling that even though people of non-Anglo Saxon decent are in the majority, the number of games that feature Latino, African, African-American, Asian, or any other genetic background (and I use that in a *very* loose sense) can practically be counted on one hand. I'd be curious to know whether it's market-driven or designer-driven; developers are fighting against their heritage of predominantly Anglo history - twenty to thiry years ago, during the formative era of game design, you quite simply didn't have a computer unless you were relatively wealthy, came from an educated background, and, more likely than not, were white.

    That's changed, but the people who made it big come from that background; Newell, Blezinski, Garriott, Wright, Carmack, the list goes on. I'm sure it's not conscious, but fundamentally, we design what we understand and what we're interested in. And, with that background and that design ethic, it's not surprising that stories and protagonists are predominantly one-dimensional and ethnically limited.

    I'd love to play a game told from a truly Latino point of view; the closest I think I've ever come was Grim Fandango, and that's such a stretch it's not even funny. Pathologic embodies the Russian perspective, but it's an effort to get through, no thanks to a bad translation. We need more of these but, unfortunately, history suggests they won't be coming from the major publishers simply because they're still seen as too 'risky'. After all, we're all white male adolescents obssessed with breasts simplistic narratives, aren't we?

  2. Here you talk mostly about the physical aspects of a character and how it relates to the avatar and the player. But what of the psycological and culutral differences such a difference in character would bring to the story. You can have a black or latino character, but they'll still talk and behave like a white, heterosexual male.

    Even with the freedom to create the avatar you want to play as, you are still only rolelaying skin rather than a character. Whether we like it or not a difference in outer appearances does effect how you are viewed and in response how they react to that view.

  3. @ Evan

    The historical lack of diversity is undeniable, and surely some of narrative decisions will change when the numbers from IGDA become a bit more representative. But like you said, the market imperative cannot be denied. I think it is still risky to create a non-normative protagonist. We do have female protagonists in significant numbers, but they are often hypersexualized. One of the reasons I've heard others choose female characters during character generation in games is because they would rather have someone attractive to look at during the grind. Top-down change might be the most successful.


    I had a hard time fitting in the cultural differences int the post, but it did pique my interest. Kotaku had an interesting article about non-white gamers awhile ago ( with this interesting quote in reference to a player's avatar:

    "I can make him look like me, but have you noticed, when he's standing right there, the way he moves? It's ... weird," Mills said. "He puts his hand on his hip. He twirls his head. I've never seen people who act like that."

    The danger is people might see this as a cue to stereotype, because at least we all recognize cliche. Cole from Gears is comfortable to players as a big, black, gruff, smooth-talking, football player. Louis from L4D not doesn't match that stereotype, but he is still believable and approachable. Another approach is Alyx from Half-Life, whom many people see as ethnically/racially ambiguous. It doesn't come up, and it doesn't need to come up, but this characteristic is important nonetheless.

  4. When I read that part in the Kotaku article, Jorge, I found myself wondering how many characters' mannerisms in my experience didn't trip into the uncanny valley regardless of ethnicity.

    So I'm sort of Mr. Privilege here in a lot of uncomfortable ways, but I find that one of my favorite parts of RPGs is that I get to step outside my own personality and predispositions. I'll often model characters after people I know whom I have trouble relating to, just to get that much closer to being able to walk a mile in their shoes. Because of that, I find it incredibly frustrating when a game doesn't allow for a motive other than the short list they programmed (usually with fairly obvious connections to their ethics scale du jour), or when a game assumes my character did something for a motive that's more convenient to the game's flat ethical spectrum.