Avataritis

There’s a condition spreading rather like wildfire in the gaming medium – and no, it’s not a strain of the influenza. The latest game to fall prey to this affliction is Obsidian’s Alpha Protocol:

“Michael Thornton is you. He’s been specifically designed as a blank canvas; a host for your own personality and playing style.”1

The "Original"

The "Original"

This is avataritis, or, the video game industry’s highly emotional, pandemic response to finding the easiest, most efficient solution to the very unique dilemma presented by its ever-widening player base. Leigh Alexander framed the problem appropriately – though in relation to difficulty – a mere week ago at Gamasutra: “the concept of ‘everything for everyone’ won’t help.”

Now, to offend half the blogosphere offhand: For the purpose of this article, we will consider avatar customization a convenient narrative cop-out. We shall also assume that no mechanisms are in place stopping developers from writing and designing heterogeneous yet fully structured, narrative-based computer games with carefully constructed and immutable, unchangeable characters.

Therefore, the current rat race for the best, most customizable avatar shall thus be perceived an abhorrent one, damaging to the maturing and growth of the narratives in video games. (Obviously, there are occasions wherein the “tabula rasa” scenario is a fully motivated one, either by its ludic or narrative function, but assuming this to be a default state to be aspired to seems ultimately misguided beyond the MMO.)

The remaining half, then, shall also be offended as we sequence into a discussion of the representation of ethnic (and other) minorities. I’m not going to discuss these themes directly, instead drawing attention to how egalitarian, census-oriented game criticism and research sometimes intentionally avoids the more literary functions and realities of video gaming narratives.

An example of the census critique model could be a story from the “self-proclaimed feminist”, Alex Raymond, whose article “Beyond Gender Choice: Mass Effect’s varied inclusiveness” recently discussed the gendered unbalances of Mass Effect. In the same vein, a recent virtual census study conducted by Dmitri Williams sought to reveal how “the mismatch between real-world and videogame populations could be excluding some groups of potential players from games”2 – another fine example of the sector. Williams has in fact published a great deal of work on the topic, including “Looking for gender (LFG): Gender roles and behaviors among online gamers”.

Proponents of ethnic diversification in video games often nevertheless perceive characterization to be an issue of representations motivated by percentages, ratios, census numbers, customer/player gender and the realities of the marketplace overall, choosing (perhaps rather wisely?) to ignore the narrative realities of the issue. What I mean by the word “wisely” is that obviously, one can’t not be apologetic to their research, and a tremendous discussion is to be had about the extending and diversifying experiential sphere of life of the post-modern gamer.

That being said, I was extremely pleased to discover a view very similar to mine in the brief article, “Facing White America from Minority Country“, in which Juan Letona responds to a Kotaku editorial3:

“For Hispanics/Latinos we have a great literature legacy to inspire us, from Cervantes to Borges to Bolano. What they have done for literature a new breed should apply their trade in game development, and I encourage all minorities to do the same.”4

In the response, Letona wholly circumvents the aforementioned dilemma by instead choosing to focus on the individual-authorial nature of writing, by selecting examples of writers known for their experiential fiction, authors that chose to write about their personal sphere of life, of their own cities, countries and fellow countrymen. A similar list of mine would perhaps include Dos Passos, DeLillo, the Beats, Spiegelman. Yours may be vastly different, obviously, just like mine is from Letona’s, but the core idea of the approach remains, namely, game fictions are no different from their other fictive counterparts in this manner, and thus inherently informed by their writers’ experiential continuums – whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

My Tabula Rasa character

My Tabula Rasa character. Highly ironic!

Attempting to separate the author’s experience from the material (à la New Criticism and liberal humanist methodology) is a response to a pre-existing state. Therefore, in our inherent negative knee-jerk reaction to, say, the generic male whiteness of the current gaming landscape, we involuntarily and accidentally deny our current authors of their experiential wealth and resources, ultimately condemning – if not altogether depriving them of – their formative origins. No matter how slanted the picture is (and indeed, it is very slanted!), are we truly willing to risk the authenticity of our future fictions by, realistically speaking, ranking different life experiences by percentages and ratios?

In relation to this issue, Delayed Responsibility’s Alpha Protocol –rooted response to Raymond’s article contained the following quip:

“You can have gruff ladies who are not white! You can have gruff people who prefer not to be called ‘men’ and/or ‘ladies,’ regardless of what you think.”5

Utilizing anomalous characters like Ellen Ripley is theoretically a fine avenue for diversifying gaming characters, and the breaking-the-mold approach is indeed in perfect accord with the census approach outlined above; characters that seem improbable and less ordinary do generate an illusion of versatility. No, this article is in no way a defence of ham-fisted stereotypes, but we must acknowledge that Ellen Ripley is just as much a stereotype as her male counterparts – her anti-stereotypy remains, after all, effectively an inverse stereotype.

(An another angle to the issue at hand is, do you have to play Alpha Protocol if you find its experiential range to be in discord with yours? Do games have to be all-inclusive and appeal to the widest possible range of players? I asked this question in my earlier post, “Cherry-Picking Easy Targets“.)

To backtrack considerably, I should mention that only truly since August of last year have I really come to this more dogmatic approach towards the avatar. It all started when Leigh Alexander briefly returned to her GameSetWatch column, The Aberrant Gamer, with an article titled the “Uncanny Valley of the Dolls“. While the article mostly focused on the delightfully frivolous topic of character customization in Soul Calibur IV, it also brought up the concept of the uncanny, or “Das Unheimliche”, originated by Jentsch and later popularized by Freud – a very topical term indeed, thanks to viral videos like Meet Emily or The Normals (Sony’s Heavy Rain also springs to mind).

A great feeling of the uncanny indeed arose within me while reading the following:

“…with the distance graphical sophistication has come, we can practically play God and birth new, lifelike people every day if we so choose.”6

Beyond the hyperbole, I found myself perplexed by the very concept: All this time, I had assumed players to perceive character creation an act, a form of role play, also often altogether abandoning both, delegating the process to low-level gameplay functionality. I might have allowed myself to subscribe to the idea of “power fantasy”, but assumed not everyone sought these; a power fantasy, after all, would have to be supported both by the narrative as well as the character creation, ultimately becoming a daunting, harrowing process of guesstimating and trying to min-max a game before it even began. For the developer and the player.

After some considerable thought, then, I found my issue to be with Alexander’s use of the verb “birth”. I do fully understand the extended semantic transfer from the word “create”, which is indeed rather commonly used to describe the interface, over to the the verb “birth”. While we may commonly use the term “character creation” for the feature set of the aforementioned process, be as it may, these terms may not be the most appropriate ones: Yes, the act does resemble that of “creation” in that players apply their imagination to a restricted set of tools, much in the same way one would other forms of art, but a process of “birthing”, like Alexander calls it, it is not.

After all, the word “birth” is far removed from the tangible actuality of the interfaces to which our creativity is ultimately tied to. What’s more, the process is almost always transformative, not an originative one (here one might mention “monster” generators such as Spore, but I find them not at all applicable in terms of their narrative content).

The Endless Possibilities of Saints Row 2

Saints Row 2: The Avatar to End All Avatars

My point is this: On the character creation screen of a character-based game, we do not give “birth” to a character much like a mother does not become her infant baby. In video games, then, we do become one with our character – at least as much as acting out a role in a play allows us to vicariously experience being an another being. This difference is both minuscule and semantic, but important nevertheless. Interestingly enough, a rare intransitive use of the verb, meaning “to have birth, be born” also exists. Had this archaic form entered daily use and survived to this day, Alexander’s use would not have puzzled me whatsoever!

So far, then, I have attempted to uncover troubling connotations in the terminology and methodology currently used for describing and discussing the generative processes of avatar customization – words like birth and create over adapt, or customize. I have also spent considerable effort on extolling the value of the experiential worth of a writer’s particular life sphere over the levelling of the authorial voice. But what does this all mean, for games, designers, players? Alexander’s article succeeds in vocalizing the phenomenon:

…audiences often demand protagonists to whom they can relate, whom they admire, to motivate gameplay and enhance immersion – so isn’t the best way to “get it right” to allow players to build their own.6

For designers, writers and ultimately companies to seek to “get it right” in this manner, from my narrative-obsessed standpoint, is what I mean by avataritis. As you probably have noticed, my decision to characterize the issue at hand with a pathological suffix stems from its contagiosity: The primary underlying problem is a simple yet distorted view concerning the level and capability of our understanding of human-like motivation. What follows is that in the current public discourse of avatars and non-player characters, there exists an insistent perception, a persistent need to equate understandable motivation and action with relatability.

Breaking this dichotomy down, relatability and understandability are, though conjoined phenomena in practice, two different features and processes. Successful exposition, suspension of disbelief and immersion therefore truly only require the latter. Features like the colour of one’s skin, facial features, speech and language, body shape and language, clothing – these are all concepts that help us to identify and relate depending on the degree of our experiential knowledge.

Yet the aforementioned aspects are externalized go-to signifiers, symbols, messages and markers. The profound mistake currently being made in the popular media – movies, TV series, games – is that it’s often more than enough to merely rely on these signals; once a shared, common terminology of relatability has been discovered, reaching beyond the surface is no longer needed or even preferred. What about Cervantes, Borges and Bolano? Surely their literary merits lie not in the externals, but the internals; yet their literature remains understandable to those not part of the Hispanic community.

NetHack

NetHack

We don’t have to be, want to be, or know how to be the characters we see on screen. All we need is characters that perform understandable actions and reactions. Relations. Emotions. Desires. Wants. Wishes, drives and urges. None of these ultimately have to do with ethnicity, gender, looks or otherwise. This is the dualistic fallacy of the avatar: Customization may seem to offer developers and players alike a chance to mask, to separate an avatar from its perfunctory position and move it closer to the player, bridging the gap between various players of different origins, but due to the avatar’s function as a literary element, a character never does become perfectly liberated from its original environs and place of creation.

Now; the confusion of these two features of understanding human action, relatability and understability, stems from this misconception being both widely promulgated and accepted. For instance, in response to Raymond’s previously mentioned article, Mass Effect writer Patrick Weekes chooses to corroborate this perception:

“We are unapologetically aiming for a wide audience — summer blockbuster, not art house movie. As a result, our men are usually going to be attractive or ugly-but-rugged, and our women are going to be attractive or distinguished. That’s what most people want.”7

Pay close attention to Weekes’ use of the word “want”; have not the critics mentioned above established, beyond any shadow of a doubt, the fallacy of this very statement – that a diverse horizon of expectations exists, and that the current landscape of game avatars is both slanted and distorted? Furthermore, in purporting the erroneous view, he also fails to take into account the very real dangers of the issue. Compare his view to last year’s “The Dark Knight”, or more importantly, one of its characters: The Joker. Is he like you or me in terms of his (psychological) make-up? Not very much so… Is he likable? I hope not! Is he nevertheless… understandable? Much of the power of the film indeed lies within the fact that the Joker’s position as a decidedly, utterly chaotic entity is made visible and clarified to the viewer throughout the film.

Finally. In summing up, this post has been an attempt to give a name to the distinct voices discussing the concept of the avatar as well as the actual issue at hand.

First, I attempted to illustrate how requesting diversification of characters based on a reality-based quota and stock does not always properly take into account the creative processes of writing a narrative-based video game. Until the ethnic make-up of the whole industry changes, we should not confine our writers to statistical rules for the sake of diversification – at least, not unless there is a clearly motivated narrative requirement for it.

Second, I wished to explain semantically the mistaken and clouded terminology currently used for describing the avatar and its related processes.

Third, I sought to explain how offering players avatar-based customization can lead to beautification, stereotyping, archetyping and the ongoing perpetration of an established discourse of the avatar that allows companies to purport and rely on the assumption that players (or viewers) only want to relate, desire, admire or be themselves. This common terminology of relatability subsequently results in a superficial set of markers, never producing the need for more in-depth exposition of human interaction in video game narratives.

…in short, when players can look at an avatar and say, “that’s me,” they can care about that digital self’s well-being enough that they want to stick around, see their creation strive, grow and thrive.6

Now, as much time as we spent on discussing the difference between birthing, creating and becoming a character earlier in this article, the exclamation point remains outside semantics, that player avatars in gaming narratives should have nothing whatsoever to do with players’ surficial relationships and expectation horizons with what avatars should be like. I beg us to disconnect the avatar from each of the aforementioned discourses, from whatever purported expectations and ultimately make sure that there will be no constricting rule sets for future writers of narratives in video games.

Weekes’ quote reveals to us the danger of allowing the muddled avatar discourse to go on. As long as the avatar is confined to the current customization-based framework, our narratives will remain superficial and designed for everyone and no-one instead of enriching us, on far more personal level, with the multitudinous continuum of human interaction that is not at all beyond our abilities as writers, designers and players.

  1. http://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=223828 []
  2. http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn17819-video-games-need-a-more-diverse-cast-of-characters.html []
  3. http://kotaku.com/5358562/minority-report-the-non+white-gamers-experience []
  4. http://www.bitmob.com/index.php/mobfeed/facing-white-america-from-minority-country.html []
  5. http://shouldntbegaming.wordpress.com/2009/09/24/alpha-protocol-play-as-a-blank-canvas/ []
  6. http://www.gamesetwatch.com/2008/08/column_the_aberrant_gamer_unca.php [] [] []
  7. http://whilenotfinished.theirisnetwork.org/2009/09/14/quick-hit-bioware-writer-responds-criticisms/ []