Thursday, February 23, 2017

"Representation" in video games

I know I wrote earlier that I wouldn't write again about social justice warriors, but in my defense, that's only tangentially related to this subject.

Some people (you know who) have this notion that when people play video games, they imagine themselves as being the protagonist, the character that they are playing. Thus, they conclude, people feel left out and marginalized when the playable character is completely different from themselves. They also think that in games where you can customize your playable character, people will make it look like themselves as much as possible.

Even if we give this notion the benefit of the doubt (ie. that it's being held completely genuinely and honestly, rather than it being self-serving and claimed for political purposes), I don't really understand where it's coming from. Even in the most honest cases it's just a huge misconception.

In pretty much the entirety of video game history playable characters have basically never represented the player him or herself, and this has never bothered anybody. People do not identify themselves as actually being the playable character, as in imagining "I am this person".

If you are playing, let's say, Ori and the Blind Forest, would you identify yourself as being this, and would you get upset because it doesn't represent you?

Of course not. No sane person would. You control the playable character, you aren't the playable character. Nobody thinks of themselves as being the playable character and get upset because it looks nothing like them. (Of course you could imagine being in the shoes of the playable character, in a form of empathy, in the same way as you could feel empathy for any person, but that's not the same thing as thinking that you are that character.)

At most you can say that the playable character acts as an "avatar" for the player. As a player, you do actions and sometimes express yourself through that character.

Even when a game has advanced character creation, quite rarely will people try to make it look as much like themselves as possible. Most people would choose a character design that's "badass", or perhaps cute and pleasing to look at, or in some other way is "cool" in some manner. Other people will just make it completely ridiculous, just for the lulz.

Very rarely, if ever, will the character have any commonalities with the player, oftentimes including gender itself. Choosing a character of the opposite gender is not a sign of the player wanting inside to be that gender. The playable character is just an avatar, perhaps in some vague sense a kind of imaginary "companion" (if there's any kind of emotional attachment to it), not the player him or herself. Many people would have such a "companion" of the opposite gender, because of the emotional attachment, or any other reason (yes, sometimes more banal reasons, but that's fine.)

As an example, when I played the game Dragon Age Inquisition, this is the character I created: An androgynous-looking albino elf:

I'm not androgynous. I'm not an albino. I'm not an elf. I just designed the character like this because I thought it was cool.

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