Last week on the blog we ran a cool piece by Jadelyn on playing female characters in games and it got me thinking. I ended up going on a thinking trip about Zoey, then to Lilith from Borderlands, and then to one of my favorite board games — Android.
What had ended up focusing my thoughts and feeling was how Jadelyn’s ex had said to her when he asked her to switch to another character besides Zoey. He wasn’t focusing on the gender of the character or the character at all — he was focusing on the AI and how he perceived it handled.
Games come down to one universal truth — we want to have fun. Fun for one person is not fun for another person and we all perceive fun in different manners. For some of us, fun is being able to represent yourself accurately. For others, fun may be found in overcoming difficult obstacles, exploring different mindsets, or setting your own goals in the game that are outside of the game design.
But sometimes the search for fun leads to conflicts and problems. One of those problems is what happens when games assign specific styles of gameplay or attributes to the characters involved. Now we have a choice: Is it more fun to play a character you feel best represents you (Zoey, Lilith, Caprice Nisei, etc.) or is it more fun to play a character that accurately reflects how you play as a player (DPS, Stealth, Psychic, etc.)?
Let me digress for a moment and tell you a little story about why I thought of Android, of all things. Over at one of my board game clubs, I was setting up Android and collecting interested players so we could get the full five person game going. One of the players was a girl, and her first act was to grab Caprice’s character card and set it down in front of her.
I looked over at her choice and politely explained, “You may not want to play Caprice. She’s very hard for a new player. Have you played a Fantasy Flight game before?” (Fantasy Flight is kind of known for having disgustingly complex board games, Android is no exception.)
She had not played an FF game before, but she insisted on playing Caprice because she wanted to play one of the girls. The two female characters in the game, Rachel and Caprice, each run on extremely difficult sets of rules that can be complicated for even veteran players. I tried to persuade her to play Louis or Raymond, two characters with easier rules so she might have an easier time with the game and have some fun with it, but she didn’t want to even look at them. I nodded, accepted her decision, and finished setting up the game and explaining the rules. (Rules explanation took 1 hour, just to give you an idea on how difficult this game is.)
4 hours later the game was over our girl looked saddened. She didn’t have a good time with the game and swore to never play it again. Why? Well, to put it nicely, she got steamrolled. She didn’t know how to balance Caprice’s psychic abilities and it ended up costing her. Which character got her the most? The person playing Louis, the character who’s based on a “I beat it with my fists” philosophy. A philosophy she tried to apply to Caprice, and failed. She found that Caprice didn’t really match her play style, but instead of looking to another character, she decided to call it quits right then and there.
Caprice may have represented her in the way she would like to be perceived, but Caprice’s rules/style didn’t represent her as a player. This disconnect may have lead her to have a poor experience with the game because the game didn’t reward her for how she likes to play. Instead, the game penalized her, as Caprice just doesn’t work the way this girl wanted to play her. Fun? Not in the least, if you ask me (and her, probably.)
But this conundrum isn’t just something a female can face. Pretty much anyone can be faced with this problem. A guy who wants to be sneaky and stealthy has to play Lilith in Borderlands. An African American who wants to play as a hard-boiled detective has to play the white Raymond Flint in Android.
But are these disconnects bad for the player? If you ask me, absolutely not. These disconnects are great in two respects:
1. The player chooses a character who they believe represents them appearance-wise but not gameplay-wise. The player now has to learn to make decisions and and play their character differently than their use to. It may not be the most fun because it will feel awkward, but the player will hopefully begin to think differently and learn something from this new style of play. They’re going to attempt to derive fun from something that they may find completely unfun, but in trying to overcome that obstacle they will learn more about themselves.
2. The player chooses a character who doesn’t represent them appearance-wise but does represent them gameplay-wise. They have a good time playing the character because they’re doing what they find to be fun, but it may feel a little hollow at first because they can’t relate to the character. But, over time, if they stick with it, they’ll learn more about the character and begin to develop an understanding. They’ll learn something about the character which they may never have known before, and they’ll be thrust into different shoes and see things from a brand new perspective.
The bottom line: these disconnects give the player a safe-haven to learn something new. There’s something they understand and something they don’t and without even realizing it they will begin to learn. They will think differently, have a new perspective, and find fun in places that they never thought could be fun before.
And that, my friends, is completely awesome and something you can only find in gaming. Oh, and as for Caprice… um… I totally did what that girl did the first time I played, and I got steamrolled too. But when you stick with her and learn how to play her… well… she’s so awesome. =^_^=