He usually has no name and no voice, and he almost always has the personality of a loaf of white Wonder bread. Sometimes race is optional, sometimes even gender is optional. Hell, sometimes even species is optional! It makes little difference though because this character is little more than a chess piece on a chess board. I’ve actually developed a fondness for my little Warhawk dude and my MAG man. I have no idea what they, or my old CoD guy looked like, but they all took an ass kicking with dignity. I do recall I favored Lauren in UT3, but had no issue swapping her out for Akasha when I wanted a change. Mostly what these characters have in common is that none of them are a gray haired, 54 year old lady with bifocals. They don’t have to be though, because they are simply a proxy for me in a competitive game – again, little different from a chess piece.
Many shooter games utilize this Placeholder or Proxy character… you have choice of preset soldier characters that have the same skills in games like Unreal Tournament or Warhawk. In games like Team Fortress or Killzone , the appearance is based on predetermined classes which can be changed on respawn. In other games, your character is the same and your attire changes when you switch class. When some gaming critics malign the lack of representation, the lack of personality, character growth or other factors in gaming, they seem to be critiquing games from a perspective of movies or literature and are overlooking (or not understanding) the “game” aspect of gaming. Outsiders to the FPS/shooter genres often simply see generic soldiers in a violent video game where the objective is to kill each other. They don’t see that these games aren’t about the story or the characters or the violence… they are about the gameplay and that the character you play is nothing more than a tool to interact with the strategies and tactics of the game. These characters are, in the truest sense, a proxy for the gamer. They simply act on our behalf within the structure of the game and we don’t have to identify with them or feel a sense of immersion with our character.
(Sometimes I’m thankful for a lack of immersion… cause that had to HURT!)
Most FPS games are simply a form of rock, paper, scissors. When all characters look the same (or all are unique), it’s difficult to tell if you’ll win the game of rock, paper, scissors… but in other games where classes are used, the game mechanics allow for a different strategy in knowing if your sniper rifle will beat that shotgun. In class based games the look of the character defines their role for other players… that happy little sunflower in Plants Vs Zombies can heal me, that Infiltrator in Killzone can use a skill to appear to be someone on my own team. The limited customization and predetermined character model is a gameplay component that visually identifies the player’s skills and/or weaknesses to their opponents.
When I play role playing games it’s different. I do want a sense of immersion and to feel it’s “me” in the game making decisions, interacting with NPC’s, creating a personality that is respected or feared, making choices that can effect the world. I do want that older gray haired lady representing “me” to be making out with my choice of younger male romance options. In competitive FPS games I don’t really feel this need as much mostly because my character is almost 100% oriented to simply winning the match, instead of inhabiting a more comprehensive world. I won’t wear a prettier outfit if the stats are lower, I don’t need my character to have a history or personality. I can simply be a happy little sunflower or a big ole football playing zombie. As technology has progressed and allowed me more customization options of my proxy soldier, I actually find that I do identify more with my character (particularly if I can be a female) and I”m a little less willing to take risks that benefit the team, I’m less willing to die protecting a teammate scoring for our team, and I’m more focused on how my outfit looks. For me, my generic male character is more disposable… a simple default proxy sent into battle to follow my directions… even when that strategic instruction is to die for me. Essentially, having a penis on my character dissociates me from the avatar and allows me to act more like a General ordering my troop in a war and my disposable generic proxy simply obeys my orders. In the ubitquious first person view, we rarely even see our own character and mostly see the character or avatars… or proxies… of the other players in the game. I have over 2000 hours in MAG and to be honest, I couldn’t really tell you what my character’s face looked like, and all I remember are the different outfits that identified the different factions (and the awful bicycle helmets that my own faction wore… how humiliating to be dressed like a bunch of bike couriers!).
This aspect of a placeholder or proxy character is somewhat unique to video games. They are simply gameplay tools and I don’t need to identify with them, or feel any sense of immersion with the character. I either choose to imprint my own personality on these characters (my Gordon Freeman had boobs) or it just doesn’t matter because they are simply a way of interacting in a competition… simply taking out a sniper playing card with a shotgun playing card. The Call of Duty advertisements seem to resonate with gamers who understand this. The “There’s a soldier in all of us” ads seemed to capture this concept that the avatar is merely a tool that replaces us in the game. Showing the vast variety of real people behind the generic avatars was truly a stroke of genius. In-game footage would merely show a bunch of generic soldiers killing each other, but the advertisements show what is truly going on… the people behind those generic characters. A black business woman in a suit and heels wielding a rifle, a young blonde girl in jeans holding a shotgun, a fry cook with dual pistols. These people weren’t dressed as soldiers because the game provides us with a proxy soldier who doesn’t have to look anything like us. This isn’t glorifying war as some critics claim, rather it simply illustrates the diversity of the gamers behind the proxy avatars who enjoy the strategies of the game. Whether it is Plants vs Zombies or humans vs humans or aliens vs aliens… the “war” simply provides an excuse for the competition that is the focus and basis of the game’s mechanics. I loved the more recent ads where we see “kevin” (a very average male) being a badass on a winnng streak… and even stopping to eat a sandwich while playing. Kevin is “unstoppable, untouchable”… and we’ve all had those wonderful in game moments. We’ve also all met our Cara who brings that streak to an end and reminds us that there is always somebody out there who will be better than us at the game.
(We’ve all taken that quick sandwich break while playing a game!)
For me, those ads capture much of what it is to be a competitive gamer. Regardless of the avatar on the screen, or the setting, it’s a game where we win or lose… where we come home from our jobs and any one of us can be a “soldier” on a digital battlefield with the highs of winning and the lows of losing. For me there are far too many Cara’s in my games… but for those moments when I am Kevin… on a winning streak and unstoppable, when my tactics and skill pay off – what a wonderful feeling! Overall, in these types of games, it doesn’t matter if my avatar isn’t an older lady with gray hair and bifocals because I’m not part of a story or even part of a game world… I’m simply part of a game.
It’s wonderful that as gaming has progressed, we now have the technology available to create increasingly diverse avatars in multiplayer games. I will always want to play as a gray haired older lady in my WRPG games, but I am also gradually coming to the conclusion that I play more strategically in multiplayer shooter games when I’m a car, a happy sunflower… or a disposable dude. It’s nice that we have increasing options though… because not everyone is me. 🙂
(oh, and I guess I should note that despite the blog title and the fact that video games have apparently taught us that men are the default, the norm, that there is nothing special about them, that no attention needs to be made to their representation and that they are disposable or expendable… I’m quite capable of separating real life from fiction (or game mechanics) and feel that all genders are equal in the “real world” and that being happy is what truly counts).