Here we go again: representation matters! I say this so much I should get it as a tattoo. But I really believe in this mantra. Today I want to talk about one of the more straightforward ways to include representation in video games. I’m referring to player avatars.
In many games, the player has an on-screen representation in some way or another. Maybe it is story based, and they are controlling a specific character (such as Mario or Link). Sometimes you can even name the character, such as in role-playing games like Earthbound or Undertale. Other times, you can even customize the character a bit more. Sports games are really good for this—you can pretty much make any character in your image. Of course there is some in-between. There are games like Mass Effect that let you customize how your character looks fairly deeply, but you’re still the same character (as in, you’ll always be Commander Shepard no matter what you look like). You’re only changing the appearance of the main character—not who they actually are.
What is the downfall in this? Well, for the games with limited customization, sometimes the options are a bit too limited. For example, in Pokémon games beginning with Crystal, you could choose to be a boy or a girl. While this was nice, this was the extent of the changes you could pick. While I would have liked a slightly different shirt, I would have really like to have a different skin color. I’m Black; I’d like my character to reflect that if it’s supposed to be me. This was resolved in X and Y, but unfortunately didn’t make it into the Ruby and Sapphire reboots. Let’s hope that the upcoming editions include diversity options. Other games, like South Park: The Stick of Truth, have the opposite problem, where you can change the skin color, but you’ll always be a dude. Undertale somewhat mitigated this problem by having a protagonist that had both an ambiguous gender and racial background, but that sort of representation is still pretty limited.
I understand that full character customization for all games is probably impossible; development costs, graphical restraints, and various programming restrictions for body shape are concerns that are harder for some companies than for others. However, I do think the inclusion for diverse avatars is quite feasible for characters who are less graphics-intensive. For example, I just started playing Pokkén Tournament for Wii U (a Pokemon fighting game) and you can, as always, pick to be a boy or girl trainer. But this time, you can also change your skin color as well as clothing, hair, and a few miscellaneous other options. Your character is represented by a static image that doesn’t change, so there is no real reason not to have these (and possibly more) options available. This can be attractive to developers, as there is no need to worry about animation.
Now, I know this isn’t the perfect solution: this only works because the player’s avatar has literally no bearing on gameplay; it’s just cosmetic, and the focus is on the battling monsters. But that said, we’re seeing more games give options to players where the characters are active. Games like Call of Duty: Ghosts give the player options on gender in the gunfights, as this doesn’t affect the game in any tangible way. Splatoon does this as well, going a step further by adding skin tone. These considerations feel overdue, but they aren’t any less appreciated.
Overall, I just want game developers to add a bit more diversity to their lineups. If they want to tell a specific story about a specific character, that’s fine! Some of us play The Legend of Zelda, Tomb Raider, and Halo for those characters, so it makes sense for them not to have too many customization options. However, it doesn’t make sense for so many mainstream characters to have such a lack of diversity. Character creation doesn’t complete erase this issue, but games that do feature character creation should have diverse options. And if the game isn’t about a specific character (or if we’re supposed to insert ourselves) why not let the character be a person of color, or another gender, or of a different body type? Again, I think games are moving closer to this ideal state: the new Shooter/MMO Tom Clancy’s The Division has gender/skin color options, as does Fallout 4; even 2013’s Saints Row IV let you make a character with various races and body sizes! However, that is no reason to stagnate. Again, inclusion makes more people feel welcome and if we’re being pragmatic, that’s more fans and customers for these games.