Thursday, July 22, 2010

Player gender and race in video games

When you play a video game that lets you create your character, what do you make them look like?
Overwhelmingly, people choose to make the avatar their own gender and race. Searching for the reason why, one's first natural instinct is to think, Players create avatars that look like them to immerse themselves in the game. But you'll give your guy chiseled abs and a sharp jawline even if you don't have them. The argument becomes People create idealized versions of themselves. This holds more water, but I'm not sure it fully explains why players almost never stray from their own sex and ethnicity. Players change many things that aren't "ideal" for them: they'll give their character a neon blue mohawk or a handlebar moustache, but they still stick to their race and sex. Even in fantasy games like The Elder Scrolls that offer non-human species like reptilian and feline humanoid races, most gamers I've talked to avoid these groups on their first playthrough.

As Lauren points out to me, however, "Sex and race are the parts of us that we can't change. Even if you don't have a blue mohawk, it would be possible to grow one; you just don't want one in real life. So with your avatar you can create this more outrageous version of yourself. You could never actually turn yourself Asian, though, whether you wanted to or not, and it would be weird if the 'ideal, outrageous' version of yourself involved you being another ethnicity."
It's a good point. But I'm not convinced "outrageous idealism" and subconscious ethnocentrism are mutually exclusive. It's no coincidence main characters in games with non-customizable avatars are predominantly white males; white males make up the largest demographic of both gamers and game developers.
Yes, there are a smattering of games with female and non-white leads, but the video game industry runs on franchises. The Price of Persia series is arguably the only major franchise with a non-white lead, and it's a whitewashed version of Iran. The biggest single game with a dark-skinned main character was Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and naturally, it was a story of street gangs.
The only two major franchises with consistent female main characters are Tomb Raider and Metroid, and both of those series' sales are nowhere near the white male giants of Mario, Halo, The Legend of Zelda, and Call of Duty. Imagine if at the end of Halo 3, Master Chief finally took off his helmet to reveal he's black or Arab. How do you think the Halo-playing populace would react?

But back to games with customizable avatars. If you're a white guy like me, next time you play Fallout, try being a hispanic woman. See if it changes the way you think about your character or the way you react to events in the game. I believe that deep down, we choose the gender and ethnicity we're familiar with because it's exactly that--familiar. It's comfortable to us. Video games are a unique artform because they allow us to personally walk a mile in someone else's shoes. You love walking in a pro athlete's cleats and a space marine's boots. Now try walking in heels.


  1. Truth to a lot of this. I'd like to add that I have a friend who is male, but dresses in females clothing to go to parties and things, is totally straight, but just tries his best to look pretty. He'll always make his avatar a female, and while he makes it the same race, gender isn't exactly the optimal thing.

    On my first playthrough of Elder Scrolls, I wanted to be an Orc/Ogre. I'm a big guy, and I like being a strong bastard. I dunno if an Ogre is my ideal self, but it's what I do.

    You're totally right on the wanting to be something, especially something connectible. Well done.

  2. I'm a little even said yourself that whatever race or gender you decide to be doesn't change the gameplay whatsoever (at least in fallout). So why would it "change the way you think about your character or the way you react to events in the game"? Would a hispanic female character react to the events differently than a white male character, especially if she was still an avatar controlled by the same white male sitting in his parents' basement? I don't think so. And if someone really reacted to this change of race in gender in a dramatically different way, wouldn't that be a little sexist/racist? When you're playing as a black male in fallout, do you make decisions based on "what a black male would do"? I don't think so.

    I don't think the way for people to combat any of their underlying ethnocentrism is through video gaming. And if it is, the best way to do this is for video game developers to start having lead characters as non-white and non-male, as you mentioned. I think if you looked at a game like The Sims where you can create multiple characters, you'd see that people definitely do employ the opportunity to create male and females, as well as characters of other races, and don't have any real qualms with doing so. I remember when I played Tony Hawk 3, I made a whole cast of female skaters, with black and hispanic skaters represented, because you had the option to change skin tone. But there was still a character "Lauren", who looked like me (except probably in an outfit i'd never dare to wear in real life). Just like how when you played The Sims, you made "Jake Shapiro" who was skinny and white with black hair.

    Would making my "Lauren" skater a black girl have really allowed me to "walk a mile in a black girl's shoes"? I bet a black girl would say no. And would you tell a black guy who made a black avatar instead of a white one that he has some subconscious ethnocentrism? I bet you wouldn't.

    P.S. I love you and I am flattered that you would quote me in your blog :] This makes me a little more inclined to read the shark post now.