This is the second and final part of my article on the question posed by the GDC panel “What Colour is Your Hero?”. In the first part I spoke, as the panel did, about the representation of ethnic characters by developers in games. This time I’m going to take the question more literally and talk about player created characters, including my own personal choices.
Anyone who read either my Mass Effect 2 Review or my follow up probably noticed that my Shepard isn’t the usual ‘default male Shepard’ or one of the many interchangeable female Shepards one sees in a review of this kind, he’s black. Anyone who actually knows me is also aware that I’m not. I’m aware that is probably very unusual, so what I’m going to try and do here is ruthlessly psychoanalyse myself in order to figure out why.
First the mandatory background. I’m that most overrepresented of people, the straight white male (the Saints Row 2 avatar above is actually a proper representation) I also grew up in Birmingham, which (for our non Brit readers) is the most ethnically diverse city in the UK. At every point of my life I have been surrounded by ethnic minorities, mostly black or Indian/Pakistani/Bangledeshi. I may not be a minority, and as such it’s probable that I can never fully understand what it feels like to be a victim of discrimination, but I have grown up with these people and I have never seen racism as anything other than both absurd and deplorable.
Nevertheless, it’s a big step from there to identifying with a black avatar more than one that resembles myself, how did this happen?
I’ve been heavily into RPGs throughout my gaming life, something which really began with Bioware’s seminal Baldur’s Gate 2. BG2 had pretty primitive customisation options, you simply picked a character portrait and tried in vain to construct an avatar that even vaguely resembled it. Although I tried several different characters over while trying to play the game, one of the ones I used most expensively was a character with the face of NPC Valygar, because he looked cool and I had no intention of bringing him with me. Later on I played Neverwinter Nights and, with the aid of a portrait pack, I managed to bring Valygar back, this time using a model that fit him better.
Fast forward to Knights of the Old Republic, where things really began to kick off. Character customisation still hadn’t really taken off at the point, you chose between a series of heads that were attached to a default body. I thought most of the heads looked fairly goofy, so in the end I settled on the image of young, black man with a shaved head, one of the few faces I thought fit the part. There’s a big twist in the plot of KotoR, which I won’t mention here, but it affected the way I approached the game greatly. I’d been idling along, doing some good, some bad, usually trying to avoid the more cartoonist evil moments, until the twist struck and suddenly I felt as if the whole world expected me to go bad, to take the easy way out, to fall to the dark side, it seemed so easy, so simple to do so, but I could not. Some part of me decided, possibly purely because it seemed so perverse in the situation, that I would not fall, I would not even compromise, it didn’t matter what the rest of the galaxy thought, I was going to do good, because it felt right.
KotoR 2 would elaborate further. I choose a similar face believing I would be playing the same character (you don’t) and was thrown into a much darker world, with many more shades of grey. In KotoR 2 you play a character exiled from the Jedi after he fought to help worlds under attack, despite the council pledging not to interfere. Every other Jedi who did this turned to the Sith but you came back and stood judgement. At one point you come back and stand once more before the council that judged you get a chance to defend yourself anew, it was at that point that the hero I played became whole, when I stood there saying I would do the same again given a chance. The attitude of doing right, no matter what the consequences with authority stuck with me, and that become the hero I gravitated towards time and time again.
KotoR 2 also became another turning point, it was the first time someone else noticed, and commented on the fact that I tended to play black characters. It became something of an in joke, an affectation. It bled into other games, Oblivion, Fallout 3, Rainbow 6, I picked Louis every time in Left4Dead (and later Coach in Left4Dead 2) I became acutely aware of how many character creation tools, especially those from earlier games, had disappointing or missing options for other races. Over time the tools became more sophisticated, I began to refine the appearance of my characters, I liked to stay bald, as my KotoR character had been, but I added a beard, which offset the lack of hair somewhat.
It was Mass Effect that really made me sit back and realise what I was doing. Perhaps because my character’s occupation, Spaceship Captain, was the same. It was then that I realised that I had, slowly but surely been crafting my hero into a facsimile of one of the heroes of my youth.
Embarrassing childhood story of the day; one of my earliest memories is of my mother taking me to a barbers and me asking if I could get a hair cut like Linford Christie, I literally couldn’t understand that my hair wouldn’t do that. I admired Linford as an athlete, and although I presumably processed that his skin was a different colour that was all I was aware of, as a child at least, I was colour blind.
My earliest heroes, like most children I think, were wild and fantastic Disney heroes and James Bond, simple, uncomplicated, always victorious. As I grew older I desired more complexity in my heroes (although I always retained a fondness for Bond) I looked around me and I saw boy scouts and clichéd anti-heroes. Either simplistic do-gooders unchallenged by the perfect worlds they found themselves in, or cynics who were no greater than the dark world that surrounded them, and were heroes simply by default.
It was at that point that I found Captain Sisko.
I’d watched Star Trek before of course, and I in no way want to downplay the excellence of some of the other characters in that series, but Sisko felt different. He wasn’t a supernaturally calm as Picard, or as ridiculously pugnacious as Kirk. He was fallible, he was capable of surprising darkness, at times he seemed to be struggling to keep himself in check in extreme situations. In short he felt human, he felt like a real man with heroism inside of him, rather than a hero who had little in common with me. Sisko wasn’t the first hero of this kind I encountered (that honour goes to Sir Samuel Vimes, who as a literary construct did not have a strong visual to imprint upon my young mind) nor would he be the last (later I would become aware of characters like Philip Marlowe, and of course Batman). Not all these characters are the same, but they all contained aspects of particular concept of heroism in my mind of ordinary men faced with tough worlds often in a position of iniquity, who did good because it was not within then to stand idly by. Although I didn’t know it at the time Sisko’s visage had indelibly attached itself to this notion of heroism.
It’s only relatively recently that my gaming habits have been opened up for public scrutiny, and it’s been interesting to see the reaction of others to by avatar habits.
My university flatmates were the first to pick up on it, to them it was a bizarre quirk, an affectation, an in joke. Another (male) flatmate always played women with red hair, this was treated in a similar fashion, although less explicable (mine did not obviously relate to my taste in partners). I joked about it too, the word ‘badass’ might have been used on more than one occasion.
You might have seen the name ‘Shaft Shepard’ attached to my Commander Shepard around the place. This is not something I came up with, he’s always been called Dante (my old net handle) Shepard in my games. I understand that his fine beard might seem somewhat reminiscent of a exploitation movie, but it seemed odd that so many people quickly spouted comments like “they should have a Samuel L Jackson voice just for you”. I’d never really considered Shepard to be that kind of character, he wasn’t a Samuel L Jackson anti-heroic badass. He was a man of nobility in a tough world, he was a Sisko, yet there was the assumption, from the appearance, that this would be so.
I never made any assumptions about my Shepard, I just thought it was a cool look for a character onto whom I projected my own ideas of heroism.
I can never be sure what kind of connection people have with their avatars, and how deep it lies. I’ve read articles from several other gamers with habits that vary wildly from mine. Others enjoy playing games as evil psychopaths or bumbling incompetents, not to mention the strangely large number of male gamers that play as women. The “If I’m going to have to stare at someone’s butt” explanation usually comes up here, but it’s not something I’ve ever understood, why on earth would I objectify my own avatar? It’s supposed to represent me after all.
It makes me wonder, do we all have a tale like this? Or is it only some of us? John Walker and Richard Cobbett are clearly deeply connected with the narrative of the games they play, yet play as women. Do they have similar experiences in their past, similar heroes that inspired them, that have lead to this choice?
In the end, I think most people probably play games with an avatar that resembles them in some way, but those of us that don’t, when we really think about it, might have some interesting tales to tell.