I’m a sucker for customizable avatars. If any game has even a halfway decent character creation system or any significant way to alter the protagonist’s appearance then it’s probably going to end up in my collection sooner or later. I have pretty much zero interest in professional wrestling but I sunk an ungodly amount of time into the Smackdown series over four years of my life and in those four years I have never touched a real wrestler. Sometimes I put Soul Calibur IV into my 360 and don’t even play. I just make another character. Or two. Or three.
But here’s the thing I noticed recently. All the avatars I’ve created over the years – whether they’re my rock star in Guitar Hero, my Sim, my Shepard or my warrior of the soul – have born more than a passing resemblance to me. That was my main attraction to the ability to shape the avatar. I could put myself in the game. In JRPG’s I always named the main character after myself. It instantly attached me to the avatar. It closed the distance between me and the world of the game. This isn’t a character designed, programmed and written by some external entity. It’s me. I am the hero.
Then about a year and a half ago something started to change. I started at university. A good university. I moved away from all my friends and stepped into a world where it seemed like everyone was effortlessly stylish, exceptionally social, funny, ferociously intelligent and destined for great things. I very quickly began to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond and my self-esteem hit rock bottom in a way that it had never done before. Compared to these people how could I possibly contribute anything of value to the world, either creatively, socially or academically? Recently I took a look at some of the games I had been playing at that time and I noticed something interesting. The avatars no longer looked like me. I have long black hair. They had short red hair, they had braids, they were bald. I had started creating old characters; I’d never done that before. I had started occasionally playing as women, another piece of uncharted territory for me. I remembered playing Kingdoms of Amalur and creating an avatar that resembled me, but then playing for a few hours, scrapping my save and starting over with a new, distinctly different face because playing as me “just felt weird.” I felt strange conceptualizing myself as the hero. It felt odd to perceive myself as being resourceful, strong and capable in the game world when I didn’t feel that way about myself in the real one. In Kingdoms of Amalur you play literally the only being with any direct control of their life in an otherwise totally pre-destined universe. I didn’t feel in control of my life at the time.
The way that we choose to represent ourselves in a digital space can say powerful things about us, and these things can be different for different people. I’m not suggesting for a minute that everyone who ‘plays themselves’ is completely comfortable in their own skin and that anyone who creates an avatar distinctly different hates who they are. What I’m saying is, when presented with the choice of how we wish to be represented in the digital world, our decisions may be more deeply motivated than we realize.
During avatar creation we have a conceptual choice to make, we can create a ‘self’ or we can create an ‘other’. When we create a ‘self’ we are putting a version of ourselves into the game, and when we create an ‘other’ we create a separate character with their own distinct personality. If we create a version of ourselves it doesn’t necessarily have to look like us, we simply have to conceptualize that avatar as representing us. This can be in the form of the avatar’s name being our own or its physical appearance resembling ours. It can even be expressed in the mechanical decisions we make about how the avatar will play: it’s often noted that playing wizards rather than warriors is a popular choice amongst the less sporty, more academically minded and it’s not too difficult to see that the wizard, who gains his powers through study and mental dedication, is the clearer choice if the academic player wishes the avatar to represent himself. All of these properties allow us to ground ourselves in our avatar, they make us feel closer to the digital world our avatar inhabits and makes their journey a personal one. Also more interestingly it allows for us to idealize or improve upon our perceptions of ourselves – going back to the wizards and warriors example, a very un-athletic player might still think of their avatar representing them, but then choose to play a very physically powerful warrior. This can potentially reveal insecurities that were previously unknown – if our un-athletic player chooses to turn himself into a warrior he could be in some way acknowledging that he would prefer to be that way in real life. I don’t want to suggest that idealizing a representation of yourself is inherently unhealthy but it does raise interesting questions.
On the other hand the player may, much more positively, be using the digital world as a place to explore alternate ways of being, particularly ones that are difficult to slip quickly into and out of in the real world. Although in some cases this could also be an admission of low self-esteem. A woman who sincerely believes she is attractive would probably not want to experience being unattractive “just to try it out” but a women who does not believe she is attractive might well want to explore the supposed empowerment that being attractive has (this example is complicated slightly by the fact that most avatar creation systems are built in such a way as to make a conventionally unattractive female impossible to create, but that is an issue for another day).
Kaitlin Tremblay has written amazingly well on specifically choosing monsters as avatars in order to reject the overly-sexualised and/or idealised avatars usually offered to players. They do not look like her but she says she finds them representative of her. She understands herself as non-normative and so chooses the monster. Choosing a monster to represent yourself, far from demonstrating low self-esteem, is sending a defiant message both to yourself and to the outside world. You are saying “I have no interest in who you think I should want to be! I will be who I am even if you see me as a monster.” It is using the avatar to reclaim control over self-perception and self-representation.
In an insightfully written essay Vivienne Chan shows a different reaction to the limitations of female avatar creation, writing that she always chose to play impossibly attractive women. Chan writes that, during her adolescence, the choice of sexually idealised females as her avatars was “driven by envy and vicariousness” and I find her choice of words very interesting. It’s strange to talk about envy with regards to a hypothetical version of ourselves, even an idealised one – and vicarious experience is by definition experienced through another. During play Chan was not conceptualising the avatars as being her but rather as her temporarily being them. Rather than creating Vivienne Chan but prettier she is creating a distinct character and then inhabiting them. In this sense Chan is like an actor-temporarily slipping out of her own persona and into another. However, while the actor does this as a means to the end of creating a convincing performance – the player changes persona purely for their own sake.
In the example above Chan chooses the second conceptual option. She creates an ‘other’. When we create an ‘other’ we invent a character and take them on a journey. If we create an ‘other’ then we have a few more choices in how to conceptualize our avatar and our relationship with it. We have two options: as I’ve said we can be actors, taking on the mantle of a different persona. We can also be writers, creating an external entity and then taking it on its journey, seeing their rather than our story and helping them get to where they need to go through our actions as players. In this mode of thinking we reaffirm the character we’ve created through our decisions in the game. We also task ourselves with making decisions that allow them to survive – we want our characters to be consistent and we also want them to do well. We trust ourselves to take an otherwise helpless avatar to the end of their journey. Bizarrely we can end up caring more about the fates of these ‘others’ than we do when playing ourselves. *spoilers for Fallout 3* If I’m playing Fallout 3 as myself I don’t much care that at the end of the game my avatar dies. I don’t care because I as a person am obviously ok. If, however, I’ve created a distinct character – Larry the benevolent mad scientist with a laser rifle and a dog – I care much more about his fate. The decisions I make as Larry’s guide are weightier because I am legitimately concerned for his future.
This issue of care and concern is very interesting. Looking back on it, I don’t think I had a great deal of concern for the avatars I created during my bout of low-self esteem. I wasn’t creating an idealized self but I also wasn’t an actor, inhabiting an alternate self during play sessions. I simply defined the avatars I created as being “not me.” That was all that mattered; looking through the list there is no consistency to the avatars. I created old and young, physically strong and feeble, female and male. Was I searching for a state I felt comfortable in when in reality I was living through a constant awkwardness? I don’t think so. What I was doing was observing people that weren’t me doing the things that I wanted to be doing, that I wished I had the confidence to do myself (which not-so-coincidentally was what I’d also been doing with my self-assured seeming peers at university at the time). I didn’t care about the fate of my avatars because I wasn’t personally connected to them at all. They weren’t me but they didn’t feel as if they were creations that belonged to me either. I felt no authorship towards them. It seemed their only significance was in their separateness to me.
There was, however, a deeper significance. In playing as them I had made a choice. I had chosen, however subconsciously, to re-live the experiences from my own life in the digital world. I could have kept playing as myself in Kingdoms of Amalur, I could have powered through my initial resistance but I made a choice and I didn’t. As players we have decisions to make and, for better or for worse, those decisions are powerful. Whether our avatars represent us or distinct characters that we create they are intimately tied up with who we are. That, for me, is the beauty of avatar creation. It allows us to claw back at least some degree control over the way we are represented in our media. In a film or in a novel the hero is whatever he or she is and we have no say in whether or not we can empathize with them or see any of ourselves in them. Nothing is more frustrating than watching a film in which the protagonist is obviously presented as an ‘everyman’ and yet personally finding very little common ground with him (because of mismatched gender, ethnicity, religion, world view etc.) By creating our own avatars not only can we decide if the heroes are similar to us but we can decide to what specific degree they represent who we are. They can be Vitruvian Men. They can be monsters. It doesn’t matter because they will always be ours – whatever our reasons, we will always have chosen them.