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.


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/ []

18 thoughts on “Avataritis

  1. Just a heads-up if you didn’t yet notice the trackback – Artful Gamer‘s Chris Lepine posted an in-depth, insightful response to the article with breathtaking swiftness. The response, more than a full-fledged article in itself, fleshes out the discussion by taking it away from the constraints of the marketplace and inspiringly into the realm of psychology, instead focusing on the function and position of the receiver rather than the sender – something I avoided in my own article. In turn, his response is also far less reliant on artificial constraints due to its far more humane, human-level perspective!

    The analysis is tremendous food for thought for anyone even remotely interested in the role of narratives in our gaming lives.

  2. I always thought it was a response to the market place, people desiring the vicarious experience and constantly demanding better, easier and more detailed customisations (in itself a tricky balance to pull off with many failing to get the ‘easy’).

    I definitely count myself in those who spend ages creating an image I’d like to be, if only for a short while and then escape deeper into the fantasy than if I’m given a generic character to try and act out.

    But there’ll always be a difference between a game like Fallout, lots of customisation and how you react to the world is as free as practicable… to that of Max Payne, where you are given the character, his emotional viewpoint, and are taken on a linear journey almost akin to a movie.

    (P.S. You’ve just made slashdot)

  3. If you wish to examine Avatar customization, take a good look at the Champions Online MMO. There is very little you CAN’T customize there, from color, hue, shapes, everything. You can go from being almost completely ‘normal’ to ‘anime’ to…. well, even alien in one way or another. They all start on a human frame, but it doesn’t take that much to make it look like something almost completely different.
    Then ask yourself, how many different possibilities are there? To that I can only answer, I haven’t yet seen two avatars look exactly alike.

  4. As with so many arguments in the game industry, this either-or dichotomy is a false one. One might as well argue that chess has a beautiful, pure strategy and that the element of chance in backgammon destroys the beautiful, pure strategy that it ought to have; therefore backgammon is the product of poor design. Whereas, in fact, backgammon is simply a different game.
    Sometimes I want to play with an uncharacterized avatar and supply the characterization myself (Gordon Freeman); at other times I want to play with a fully-characterized avatar who is not so much me as a close friend I’m having an adventure with (April Ryan).
    Swings and roundabouts, as the British say.

  5. I’ve been gaming since asteroids.

    I don’t think I’m giving birth or creating a new life form. I’m playing myself in the game much as an actor is playing a role in a movie.

    As far as storyline goes, look at Guild Wars and Aion. They render their cut scenes with your character so you are a part of the developing story rather than just watching a character from the story. And both World of Warcraft and Aion have moments where you play in an instance (solo or just your party) where you participate with a few NPCs as key elements of the story unfolds. Your character speaks to the prince, your character is cheered for saving the town and it’s your character that fights side by side with Thral. The story is just as deep and you get to play a part in it through your character. Isn’t that the point behind interactive media?

    Rather than think storyline is dead because of unique character creation, one should consider how these interactive stories improve on standard story telling method. I’ve played enough “you are Dr. Freedman” games. I like what is being done.

  6. With respect, your article mostly faces towards MMOs. A world would be completely stupid if everyone looked the same.
    In addition, the requirement so often of suspension of disbelief – running Deadmines in WoW, endlessly killing VanCleef, watching a character beg for help to retrieve a necklace 10K other players have handed back, watching monsters appear infront of you, from out of nowhere.
    These are the problems of MMO design. Avatar customisation is not one of them. Sure limits should be put in place to assure reality within the world constructs, but by and large, little rather than much customisation is the problem in MMO design.
    The requirement for every player to be a hero is a fundamental problem with many MMOs. However, the absence of this, shouldn’t mean the absence of a back-story. It remains to be seen how to implement the two simultaneously.

  7. I really don’t see the point of this article. First, it is overly verbose and painful to read. Martyn never makes clear what, if anything, is wrong with avatars. I get the impression that he thinks the superficial process of choosing an avatar’s appearance is too superficial, and that somehow makes it undesirable.
    Chosing an avatar’s appearance (and other things) is simply part of playing a game. Need I remind everyone of the innumerable games where they let you pick a name?  Should that be fixed as well? I must admit that I would like most people really miss names like “xXx__MeGaDeAtH__xXx”, but maybe that’s the sacrifices we need to make for whatever nebulous purpose Martyn has in mind.
    This is particularly an issue for multiplayer games. It’d be foolish for everyone to look alike. And in a game with assigned looks, an avatar may end up with an undesirable look. Do you know what happens to an undesirable look? The player either whines all the time about their avatar’s looks both in game and in forums (annoying everyone) or more likely they “roll again” and creates a new avatar. Wise MMO game designers don’t even bother trying to fix this impulse. It’s not going to happen. I don’t even understand the point of doing something that the player doesn’t want to do.
    Further, this gets us to the point of what the user “wants”. My view is that the game developers have avatar creation down cold as a user “want”.
    We also ignore the utility of customizing avatars’ appearances. It can be pretty eye candy to look at. The look of an avatar is also a means of communication. It tells us something about the player, how they view the game, and perhaps even what sort of actions we can expect. For example, in one game I play, if a bunch of angry, bald men and beautiful, sneering women show up, I know to expect shooting. It’s very cliched in that game, but I appreciate the warning!
    In such games, I chose distinctive, but not freakish looks.  It helps other people remember me which I consider an important feature. I favor a spartan look, simple features and few accessories.
    I also factor in a modest roleplaying side. If I make a character intended to build and trade stuff, he (or she) doesn’t look like a warrior, but someone with either a bit more brains than usual or a little razzle dazzle, depending on my mood at the time.  Similarly, if I have a character obsessively focused on combat (I love strategy games), then I find a look that reflects that, even if it should be a bit ugly (that’s the ugly-but-rugged look).
    The look isn’t all, but it is an important part of  play in my view. It affects how other players see you and even how you view yourself in the game. As such, I really dislike not having it in my control. Maybe I’d play such a game, but at this point, I wonder what other indignities I’d have to endure because of someone’s misguided (or lazy) ideas about what game experience I should be receiving.
    My suspicion is that if you take away my ability to customize my appearance because that somehow improves the narrative of the game, then it is likely that the narrative of the game is uninteresting and unworthy of my time.

  8. Ok, I worked for 2 years as a technical artist on a AAA title on an avatar-editor for one of the big guys, and let me tell you straight off:  There’s nothing “easy” about making a good customizable avatar system.   We had a team of 6 technical artists, 12 character artists, and 4 animators — an extremely large team to simply focus on the avatar creation system.
    Let’s just ignore whether such systems actually enhance the experience or not — but to say that this is “easy” and “efficient” is simply wrong.
    And for the record, WoW, Guild Wars, and XBox 360 Avatars are extremely bad examples of avatar creation systems.

  9. I’d like to point out one thing, namely, my article originally has very little to do with the MMO due to its inherent structural needs, aims and requirements. I notice many of you have learned to associate and thus discuss the concept of the avatar and character customization in relation to the MMOs and social gaming overall; both these associations are something I did not seek to discuss in this article, and subsequently tried to avert by utilizing artificial, constructed stances (“we will consider”, “no mechanisms are in place”, “beyond the MMO”).

    I understand if such targeting feels like a narrow, restricted focus, though, and therefore I also think it’s great if you want to utilize the article as a launching point for a discussion that relates to the aforementioned (as has been largely done so far)!

  10. Right at the beginning Mr. Zachary says this isn’t about MMOs and I would hardly say this article is terrible, I found it quite interesting, though the writing does seem to skit about a little making it perhaps harder to follow than it should have been. Nonetheless I find myself agreeing (assuming that I was able to follow the article) with some of these points; the proliferation of character customization is not a good thing.
    In old RPGs you would create you own characters a la D&D and they would have no impact on the story other than being a portal for interaction, later games such as (the wonderful) Baldur’s Gate allowed your custom character to be part of the story, mostly by using the NPC party members rather than the protagonist to further the plot, and it worked well.
    But then we have games like Oblivion (don’t get me wrong, I like Oblivion) where your character’s customization has basically no impact on the story and there aren’t other fixed characters to help drive the narrative.
    On the other side of this I’d highlight GTA 3&4 where the character is fixed and the story and interactions with others also fixed, however you can change your character to a certain extent with alternate clothing and hairstyles and so on, this sort of customization is purely window dressing but it takes nothing away from the game.
    Ultimately it is not character customization that I have a problem with but the ever more frequent examples of shallow customization, in place seemingly as a marketing ploy rather than an integral part of the game.
    Sorry about the half-essay, I’m really not used to writing comments on web sites, but in the face of the negative comments I thought I’d chime in with a more positive statement.

  11. FatedTemp, I’m rather glad you found the issue of customization overpowering narrative interesting in itself rather than simply coming to the aid, if you will, of a particular article!

    Like Nela pointed out very early on (thanks!), the article was published at Slashdot, and I do think the thread contains many comments that are very much worth reading. While many chose to comment on the external failings of the story (pretentiousness, lack of humour, language, style and so on) I have yet to see an overbearing amount of objections to the core issues present here. I won’t go into further detail about the aforementioned gripes now – perhaps later – but suffice to say, such an amount of feedback in such a short duration equals a massive learning experience for us!

    Deservedly, commenters have been quick to point out that customization is not always antagonistic to narratives and in fact compulsory for many genres and features of video games. Some counter-examples have been named, but like I mentioned earlier, the point of this article was not to discount either view; instead, I simply believe that this viewpoint, as reactionary as it is, has not been purported often enough recently and that we should keep on reminding ourselves of the cost(s) of control to our narratives.

    Lastly, I do believe Nabeel and Richard will both sleep much more soundly if I point out that the style of this particular story is not altogether representative of what we try to put out here at The Slowdown!

  12. “For the purpose of this article, we will consider avatar customization a convenient narrative cop-out.”

    Alpha Protocol is intended to be a CRPG, and character customization is a staple of the genre.

    “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.”

    These are called adventure games. The mechanism stopping developers from making lots of adventure games is that they are no longer nowhere near as popular as before.

    “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.”

    What’s damaging “the maturity and growth of narratives in video games” is a lack of ability (game designers are not writers or film directors) and a lack of maturity (modern game designers are informed only by fantasy and scifi films, comic books and other video games, so there’s no broad experience with culture, arts and life in general behind their writing).

    That being said, story-telling is a LOW PRIORITY in video games. Although video games are technically capable of great story-telling, they are still nowhere near as good at it as films and books are. If you’re so gung-ho about “narrative,” just watch films or read books. Video games are about playing and one of the things people like to play — for whatever reason — is dressup. Saints Row 2’s deep character customization sure as hell beats GTA IV’s overwrought “narrative.”

    The rest of the article is incomprehensibly confusing, rambling and directionless. I have no idea what you are trying to say, except that you’re complaining about stuff that has almost nothing at all to do with video games.

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