Today’s Response: What role does character selection play in a game!

17 December, 2009

First, read Gil’s comment in Today’s Question. Then read “But You’re a Girl: Gender in Video Game Character Selection” by Ayse Gursoy. Both are very insightful, and I didn’t expect a couple things when I wrote this question. For some reason I hadn’t considered the gender aspect of choosing characters before Gil had talked about it in the comments. Gil addresses the fact that games are starting to base game play on gender selection. Game play such as the skills and decisions in Fallout 3 and equipment in Demon’s Soul. Hopefully, there will be more of these changes in game play soon. As long as developers know that both genders can cross the lines of conventional stereotypes. For example, if you choose a female character you shouldn’t be forced to wear bikinis and thongs all the time. Gender choices shouldn’t just affect outer appearances either. There should be unique paths that are only available to each gender. I know this might seem a bit paradoxical. People can argue that there should be gender equality, and some people might actually enjoy the fact that their character acts like their gender. When I say act like their gender I can just hear the cry of stereotyping, but its true that men and women think differently. That being said women think differently than other women, and men think differently than other men. Everyone has their own personality, which brings me to the core of character selection.

If there are pre-defined characters in a game that a player has to select from, then there will always be a conflict of choosing which character fits the player’s personality. Usually in character selections there are only a handful to choose from, and most of the time these seem extremely biased towards one aspect of personality. The muscle guy, the girl who is a hopeless romantic, the guy that always “saves the day” at the last second, or the girl who is helpless in any situation that requires thinking. Using such extreme personalities alienates the player from injecting their own personality into the game. I know games need to do this so that they can write a semi-linear story and have it actually make sense. It would be difficult if a player did have the option to inject their personalities into the game because there would have to be an infinite amount of stories and cut-scenes developed for any action. Some games need the structure of specific character types.

What about more open ended games like MMOs? Often times they don’t have the rigid structure of a story to tell, where characters “develop” on their own throughout a story arc. Usually players can create their own looks, but there is still a stigma of creating a character that looks “different.” Read this article by Cuppycake, it describes how people playing in virtual worlds expect everyone to look “ideal.” I don’t find this all too surprising, as some argue characters are supposed to be how you fantasize yourself as being perfect. The argument is that since most players want to change their appearances in real life, then naturally they will create a virtual image of themselves that is “perfect.” I do find it disgusting that people insulted a player who looked different. Such incidents could be an outlet for releasing frustrations from the real world, but it is extremely harmful to bring this mentality into games. Players might also create characters that they can look at while playing. Ayse Gursoy asks in “But You’re a Girl”:

Of course, I also cannot forget that the very nature of video game characters means they are constructed as objects to be looked at.  For all the game cares, I could play as an amorphous blob.  This is why so many pre-designed characters are heavily sexualized, especially the female ones.  So what does it say about me, when I choose certain appearances?  What do I like to see in front of me, and if that matters, why don’t I ever pick characters that look exactly like Johnny Depp?

Its a very intimate time when a player is creating a character, especially in games that allow you to change every aspect of appearance. I remember when my friend bought Saints Row 2 and we had friends over (both genders) when he was making a character to play. We sat for an hour or more just telling him what to change on the character. Aspects like how fat he was, what kind of voice he had, what kind of hair should he have, or what race he should be came up. Gender was settled fairly early, because he didn’t want to play as a woman. We did however laugh when he decided to see what our final man looked like as we slowly slid the gender bar from male to female. I found it very strange while doing this though, because each of us had a unique opinion on how there character looked. Everyone would have made their character differently, which is the power of sculpting your own character. When we played the game though it seemed like all that work went to the wayside. Nothing changed in the actual game play, I made a character later and it played the exact same. Gil remarked on this  saying,

“I’m sure that in the future, games will allow NPC’s and enemy AI to recognize nuances of our physical appearances and react accordingly. I just don’t see that happening anytime soon.”

I never thought about that before. Games really don’t adjust to how you make a character. MMOs only do because players will talk to each other, NPCs don’t act differently. Gil also mentions from the very beginning of the comment (I think I’ve quoted almost everything Gil said in the comment):

“I’ve noticed that typically outer appearance makes absolutely no difference in most games. Even games that allow almost infinite possibilities considering the look of your character (ie Fallout 3 & Demon’s Souls). Even with the allowance of changing physical appearance, it’s not often you are looking that closely at your character to even notice. I’ve honestly forgotten what my characters look like especially since they have headgear that covers their features.”

I agree. This is why games need to start focusing on what player created characters look like. NPC’s should act differently based on who is around them. NPCs could even have biases towards players who choose to be “conservative” or “revealing” with their outfits. For example a woman might provide hospitality if you look respectable, like if you have a full set of clothes on. It might also be based on gender, she might provide hospitality to women and not men, because of some past history. I can see why people might object, like games are supposed to be for entertainment and if you need to rest then you should be able to rest anywhere. I disagree, if a game already has the feature of changing the appearance of the character, then what purpose does it serve when it doesn’t affect the game play? Players will just continue to create characters that they want to see, instead of creating characters that will fit their game play styles. When these changes do happen I could see people who create specific characters for specific situations, just so the game is easier for them. Developers will have to be careful in how they balance the effects of character appearance. I think this would be a wonderful element that could be expanded in the future, Gil thinks so too. Its not going to be something that happens overnight, and it will probably take numerous iterations before someone finally gets it right, but I think its worth building on for the future of games.

I wanted to talk about class selection in games as well. So far I’ve really just wrote on and on about appearance, when a lot of games don’t even let you change appearance. A lot of games offer a generic character which doesn’t affect game play at all. Thats fine. I want to talk about games with classes though, where you have to select a certain type of character to play as for the entire game. Examples would be WoW or Diablo II, where there are a limited selection of classes to choose from. I will admit, I’m not a huge fan of classes, but I’ll try not to be too biased when tearing them apart. Classes limit a character to play a certain role throughout the game. When a player chooses a class they have to choose the class that best defines them such as a character that focuses melee, ranged, or magic skills. This isn’t a bad system, especially since a lot of these games focus on gathering experience and leveling up to gain more skill points. I think the idea of classes exist so that players know what to focus on when they choose which skills to build up throughout the game. Choosing the melee class will lead a player to focus on melee skills. This leads to roles in MMOs, where groups form on players who specialize in a certain area. It would be best to have an even amount of all three types while fighting, that way you gain the benefits of those skills. This is what I don’t like because a player has to decide at the very beginning of the game which class to be. Often times the player won’t know what class fits their style best in the game until they have played for several hours or more. This is a gross misuse of time. When the player does find their desired class, they find a guild or group to be in for help while playing the game. Bringing your skills aids the guild that a player is in, but it also limits what roles the player can fit. For example if you play best as a melee character and then want to join a guild they might not accept you because they already have x amount of melee players. However, if you were a magic user they would gladly accept you. I might be over-simplifying the system, but its the way I have experienced playing with classes. I think class systems are flawed because of this structure. What happens when you are a high level and you want to change skills? Well you usually have to start a new character and play through past experiences again. In real life a person has a set of skills, but they are constantly building on those skills. If I decide I want to drop painting so that I can play basketball, I don’t lose all the time I put into painting. I still have those skills. This is the way I think it should be in games. Some games already do this, like EVE and Runescape, where there isn’t a class selection. I’m not sure if I just talked myself in a circle. I can understand the reasoning behind classes. They allow for a quick access to builds which a player has a want for personally. I just don’t agree with the way it sets a player in stone sometimes, such as when a game says, “you will do this as a melee player and nothing else”

To sum up (I just realized this is over 2000 words):

  • Game that allow for a player to alter the appearance of their character should also create elements in the game that are affected by appearance. This will take a long time to balance and create, so we should all starting working on it (as a players speaking up or developers expanding the norm).
  • People should feel comfortable creating a character that they feel describes them, and players should not discriminate in games where players have created their own characters appearance.
  • Just because you are a girl doesn’t mean you have to play a girl character.
  • Players might want to play as people they can relate to, so games in the future should at least place one character in character selections that is “average” and not a stereotype.

I will probably edit this a few times, I don’t have the time to proof read it currently…

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