Character Creators and Avatars

Blood Elf Character Creation This week over at the G.I.R.L. blog, Emily “Domino” Taylor (the brilliant woman behind a lot of the crafting in Everquest II) wrote a great piece about character creation. In conversations with Michael I’ve brought up a lot how important character creation and the appearance of avatars are to a lot of women, especially those just getting into gaming. We’ve had numerous discussions about the races in World of Warcraft and how the gender portrayals of the game bug me, which in many ways baffles him (and I understand that, it’s not obvious why it would be so irritating). We rarely even bring up games like Age of Conan, which I watched the intro to the character creator of and decided I would never play. Ever.

I believe that character creation is a fundamentally important part of any game (not just MMOs) where you have a unique avatar. I also believe that many games have very poor character creators and dreadful avatar options, but these things are important and should be treated as such. As Ms. Taylor points out:

“Humans are hardwired to draw instant and unconscious conclusions about other people based on their appearances, and if the only thing I have to represent me within a game is my character’s appearance, then I want to be absolutely sure that I’m comfortable with the way it represents me. If I am not given sufficient customization options to give me a choice that I’m comfortable with, then I’ll never really feel truly comfortable playing that game — or, as in the previous example, I won’t play it at all.”

She’s specifically talking about needing to be comfortable with the impression your avatar makes on other people, but it’s just as important that your avatar is something that you’re comfortable looking at for long periods of time. You’re playing her, if you aren’t happy with how she appears, it’s not likely that you’ll play for long. In a game where there are other people (like an MMO) it does influence how you are treated as well. I’d bet that the sexy elves and humans get harassed a lot more than the stocky dwarfs and orcs in World of Warcraft. But not everyone wants to play an orc just to escape harassment, and they shouldn’t have to.

It’s not just about having options, although having options helps. It can be ok if there’s only one body type in the game or if there’s only a couple of hair color choices. The problem is when the avatar you end up with, even when you make all the best choices you can for yourself, isn’t one your comfortable with. When it comes to videogames, the biggest issue here is often sexiness. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with sex appeal, but it has limits. Women in videogames are, by and large, conventionally sexy and designed to appeal to heterosexual men. They are pretty much all pin-up worthy and often dressed like it. That can be fine, but it’s the overwhelming norm and when it’s the only option and someone isn’t comfortable presenting themselves as sexy (especially if it’s an MMO and other people will see this avatar), that becomes a real problem. In Domino’s words: “Of course, it’s good to have the option to look sexy … but to be forced to do so all the time against one’s will is an entirely different thing.”

There are a lot of different elements of an avatar, too. Yes, hair and faces are important pieces, but it doesn’t end there. Most have some kind of skin color choices (although this often presents a problem as well, since overwhelmingly the options are ten shades of Caucasian white and sometimes one or two darker skin tones). Some games have height sliders or body size sliders (which often amount to little more than “breast size” sliders). Others let you customize the outfit you wear. In all of these choices it’s important to consider the players. Yes, put in the option to make a sexy pin-up girl, but make the option to make a normal looking girl and an athletic tomboy kind of girl too. Posture is important. If I don’t want a sexy character, I’m probably going to be uncomfortable with the avatar who stands like the elf in the image above. After all, if she’s standing like that in the character creator, who knows what she’ll do once we get into the actual game?

Think about what elements get left out. It makes sense to put limits on the customization of characters. Too many body types or hair that’s too elaborate can easily become a problem when programing in armor and clothing into the game. But if you’re only going to have one body shape, consider what it will be. It’s easier for a player to sex up a small breasted avatar than to tone down one with bouncing beach balls strapped to her chest. Not all players are white and not all non-white people have the same skin tone. Not only does “black” come in a huge array of shades, but so does “Asian”, “Latino”, “Native American”, etc. So consider having more than simply ten shades of white and maybe even having some hair styles that aren’t seen on white people (or at least, not often and not without a lot of help).

“The fact remains however that the character creation options do still reflect the priorities and attitudes of the game team. At some point someone still decided, “THIS appearance option is the one we will do first, and THAT option is just not important enough that we can’t launch without it.” It may not have been maliciously intended, but it still represents what ultimate value judgments were made about what was seen as an essential feature and what wasn’t.”

If you decide to not include female avatars at all (and let’s be honest, there really aren’t many games at all – I can’t come up with any – where there are only female avatars, while games with only male avatars are pretty common), consider what that says. Not only will we notice if there aren’t any female NPCs or if they’re all stereotypes, but we’ll notice if we can’t play a girl. Fable II was hugely popular and had a huge female gamer fan base, but I have yet to meet a woman who played Fable. I’m absolutely certain they exist, but of all the many women I’ve met (me included) who played and loved Fable II, not one played or even intends to play Fable. A big reason I’ve heard given for that is that you can’t play a woman. I’m told it’s an amazing game and it was sold on the concept that you could be and do anything, but the women looking at it noticed that somehow “anything” didn’t include being female. Now, whether that was something that they just didn’t have time for or was an intentional decision I really don’t know. Fundamentally, though, it doesn’t matter. They decided that it wasn’t important enough to be necessary for the game and that tells me something about the game itself. Fable isn’t an isolated case, either (it’s just an easy example to pull out).

Character creation is hard, but avatars are so important! What the characters are going to look like is often one of the first things we are shown about a new game and how many awesome options you have for your character is frequently one of the most heavily touted benefits early on. That’s not accidental, people really care about that. It may seem like a part of the game that players will only see briefly, but what they make there is vital to their experience with the game. If I can’t make a character who feels like what I want her to, it materially damages my enjoyment of the game. I’m going to be looking at this character for a long time (assuming I stick with the game), so it needs to be something I like looking at. Remember, women aren’t heterosexual guys and thus it shouldn’t be expected that they’ll necessarily be happy with the same things. Personally, I want my characters to feel heroic in games where they are heroes, so it bothers me when they stand like teenage girls and don’t look like they have enough muscle in their arms to lift, much less swing, a sword. I’m not playing to be a sex kitten, I’m playing to be a hero and I have as much right to be a hero as the guys do. If I end up looking like a sex kitten while I’m trying to fight goblins, chances are I’m not going to play your game for very long.

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