The dilemma of character versus gameplay

The character sheet for Caprice Nisei from the board game Android, showing her light side and dark side pictures

The character sheet for Caprice Nisei from the board game Android, showing her light side and dark side pictures

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.  =^_^=

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26 Responses to The dilemma of character versus gameplay

  1. Thefremen says:

    Yes, I think this a positive thing. When I first started playing street fighter 4 I immediately thought Abel would be the character for me. French, cool fighting style…but eventually I found that C. Viper worked better for my playstyle and she even had a cool storyline that worked for me since she takes breaks from kicking people’s heads in to call her daughter. I eventually got over the character design choice of having a tie tucked into her clevage.

  2. DM says:

    I’ve found that I don’t invest as much in characters I don’t identify as much with. That can be negative, in an immersion sense, but it can be positive when it comes to likely losing and examining some of the other elements of the game (as you describe). You’re definitely right: only in gaming could this sort of conundrum be both a question and a decision yielding diverse but valuable rewards.

  3. Alex says:

    This post gave me pause for thought. On the one hand, yes, playing a character you don’t immediately identify with or isn’t in step with your preferred play style can be a learning experience. On the other hand, why does almost every single game need to be such a “learning experience” for people who aren’t straight white cis men? For those people, having to make the choice between play style and representation is a rare occurrence.

    I can see this as a possible argument for more kinds of people being represented in games, but it seems like you using it the opposite way, to show that our current state of extremely lopsided representation is a good thing. Do you mind clarifying that?

    • Seraphina says:

      I wouldn’t say that it shows our current state of being lopsided, nor would I go to say that every single game is an experience dominated by white cismen.

      The industry is certainly evolving, as most games are pushing towards adding RPG elements into their gameplay in some fashion, which also includes character customization. Even in games where characters cannot be customized, as the above, most games offer a large selection of characters for the user to play as.

      If the game doesn’t offer character choice then it’s usually due to the game’s focus on a particular character’s story, for example: Eizo, Kratos, Bayonetta, Lara Croft. At that point, gender and representation are a function of the story the game wishes to tell.

      Of course stories are inevitably impacted by their writers, and most of the writers in the industry are, surprise surprise, white cismen. They write about the things they would like to see. However, as I said above, the industry is evolving and the way it handles story is evolving with it.

      L4D2 used the South as a setting — a setting very infrequently seen in games. FFXIII’s lead character is a woman. Resident Evil pushed the setting over to Europe. Halo: ODST pushed the line by using a cast of characters instead of a single character. Developers are experimenting, and undoubtedly you’re going to see more varied stories told as we continue forwards.

  4. Zahra says:

    Before I write my comments, I want to say that I’m very new to active awareness of feminism and my own biases (I am a bilingual (primarily French-speaking) Quebecer, a woman and of East Indian origin, with a bunch of privileges thrown in : cis-gendered, mostly heterosexual, never physically abused, etc.). I am grateful that the Border House exists and hope that I’ll learn a lot more.

    Alex :
    This post gave me pause for thought. On the one hand, yes, playing a character you don’t immediately identify with or isn’t in step with your preferred play style can be a learning experience. On the other hand, why does almost every single game need to be such a “learning experience” for people who aren’t straight white cis men? For those people, having to make the choice between play style and representation is a rare occurrence.

    Thank you for voicing my discomfort with the piece. I do agree that learning to play from a different perspective can be a refreshing experience.

    However, in Seraphina’s piece, I was sad for the girl who chose Caprice. The only two females were hard to play characters, so she had the choice between playing a male character ( and my thought, in her shoes would have been ” *again* ” with a weary sigh) and have it easier OR play a female character (my thought, in her shoes “yay, for *once* I can play a female character”) and get steamrolled. If she is persistent, she may come back and play again. If she isn’t, this first experience at Android may have turned her away from the game (or maybe even the complete genre). It’s a sad thing for her.

    If it happens to many other women, it becomes a sad thing for all gamers, because we lose a different perspective on games, women player get marginalized and men think that women are unskilled players… And we get to a time when the Border House is needed.

    • Alex says:

      Welcome, Zahra! And yes, this is what I was trying to get at.

      Even though there ARE good things that can come of being forced out of one’s comfort zone (or whatever we want to call it) with game characters, as Seraphina points out, there is still the problem that the people learning these lessons are people from marginalized groups MUCH more often than it is straight white cis etc men.

      In fact, the ones who would benefit the MOST from the lessons Seraphina describes are straight white cis TAB men, since they are raised from birth to see themselves as default humans and they always have their experiences catered to, throughout society. People from marginalized groups are already quite familiar with these lessons because they’ve been learning them their whole lives, not just in games.

      • Thefremen says:

        Funny thing is that people don’t always learn so easily. Sarah Palin was shocked to find whites were a minority in Hawaii when she attended UH. She dealt with this by (yet again) switching universities. (this according to her father)

    • Twyst says:

      Welcome!
      I agree, in this woman’s shoes i would also have chosen a female character and just dealt with whatever i had to deal with. This was how i played DotA, for example – i played only the female characters, regardless of their difficulties and specialties.
      Very rarely do i see the need for a character to be set male or female. I understand ease of code, and time and all that. But most of the time, like you say Zahra, it makes me sad.

      • Seraphina says:

        What’s being missed here is that in this case (and in other cases) the developers or creators want to tell a story or offer some sort of set experience.

        In the case of Android, the board game actually does tell the stories of the five detectives through the use of their attack and defensive cards (each come equipped with a scene from the character’s life) and through their plot cards (a game mechanic which players must try to resolve well to keep their characters working at peak efficency and win the game.)

        To say that perhaps we need to make Caprice not Caprice or some gender neutral character is to, in this case, undermine part of the design. To make Mordecai from Borderlands a non-fast talking, bird loving jerk is to pull from the design.

        It goes beyond ease of code for some developers. Certainly there are cases which do what you say, but there are other cases where the characters add to the story and to the experience. To remove or change that would be to change the experience for the worse and result in not telling the story the developer wants to tell.

        • Twyst says:

          I am not missing the point, i understand narrative, and i understand game design – i am lamenting that more choices and more situations arent accounted for a the the design level.
          Nor did i reference changing any of the characters provided, just that it is unfortunate that for wanting to play a woman, which, to some, is very important, a new player in this particular game, has a difficulty barrier to overcome.

        • Alex says:

          Well, yeah… it’s not a huge problem with this specific game that the only female characters are more advanced ones. It’s more the overall problem of lack of a variety of options for female players in the medium as a whole. Android was simply the example you used.

          But the only way for this problem to be changed is if individual games and their designers consciously decide to make more female characters.

          • Thefremen says:

            Ugh. Speaking of the only female characters being the hard to play ones, remember Chun-Li in original SF2 where other than k-k-k-k-k all her combos were charging ones.

          • Twyst says:

            And, if i am reading the art correctly, Caprice is POC, which is pretty cool, props! :D

          • Seraphina says:

            She is. And Rachel Beckmann, the bounty hunter, is african american. Of the other characters, Raymond is white, Louis is white, and Floyd is… um… a machine. ^_^ The titular Android.

            This game has a heavy leg in Blade Runner and Neuromancer, so one united world is a basis of the gameplay.

            “The world changed, crime did not.”

        • Brinstar says:

          I guess my question is: Why do developers overwhelmingly want to tell stories about men and from male perspectives?

          • Seraphina says:

            You make it sound like they purposely select men for the express purpose of leaving women out.

            I know that as a writer, I write about things that just come to me. I don’t go out to purposely select a gender or sex or race or anything for my characters. They each seem to fall into their roles and I modify them as I see fit.

            It’s not that they want… it’s that they do. As new writers come in though and the industry expands, you’re going to see more diverse stories being told in addition to more diverse gameplay mechanics and so forth.

  5. Alex H says:

    I’m not so sure L4D2 using the American South as a setting is a good thing. My first impressions of the trailer were similar to RE5′s, and I don’t understand why there wasn’t more of an outcry about New Orleans being the setting for a catastrophe. Does Valve get a free pass for some reason?

    • Thefremen says:

      Wait. What? Why are people supposed to be outraged by L4D2? Is it like having a game with a terrorist attack in New York/Honolulu/Manila/Munich/Ireland/Londonsubways/variousbritishlocationswheretheirabombed/partsofiraq/partsofiran/etcetc where there must be public outrage because zomg you can’t have games reflect real events?

      Most of the RE5 outcry was because of the echoes of colonialism involved when you have Foreigners coming to Africa and solving their problems through brute force without a care to what the native population wants, not to mention the “zombies” were hardly zombieish at all and they had that scene where the black natives carry off a screaming white woman.

  6. Brinstar says:

    Seraphina :
    You make it sound like they purposely select men for the express purpose of leaving women out.
    I know that as a writer, I write about things that just come to me. I don’t go out to purposely select a gender or sex or race or anything for my characters. They each seem to fall into their roles and I modify them as I see fit.
    It’s not that they want… it’s that they do. As new writers come in though and the industry expands, you’re going to see more diverse stories being told in addition to more diverse gameplay mechanics and so forth.

    It’s interesting that you characterise my question as implying that I believe developers tell stories about male characters and exclude women on purpose. I don’t actually believe this. My question digs much deeper than that superficial conclusion.

    The question, again, is: Why do the vast majority of characters “fall into” roles in which characters are straight, and white, and male? Why do these characters “just happen” to be this way? As you said, you and other writers/developers don’t consciously set out to purposefully select a race or gender or whatever for your characters. I think you and I might agree that there doesn’t seem to be much logical reason why developers would consciously exclude women and marginalised groups from games. And this, the unconscious exclusion of marginalised groups, is precisely the problem I’m trying to illustrate.

    • Seraphina says:

      So how would you correct this problem?

      • Brinstar says:

        Well… A complex set of interconnected problems doesn’t have a clear set of easy solutions. For example, I think your post is a really good illustration of just how complex it can be for a woman gamer, and how the same issue can be looked at from different angles. If these problems had clear solutions, everyone would have figured it out by now, and this blog likely would not exist to raise awareness of these issues. I think a good start is for people to recognise their unconscious biases and privilege, and to learn to be good allies.

        • Seraphina says:

          All right then, I can dig that to a degree.

        • Thefremen says:

          Well although the details in games like GOW (female characters who only exist to drive character development) show unconscious bias, I think the overall lack of leading female characters has to do with the lack of women writing/developing games. I know personally, as a writer who sucks, I’ve always been deathly afraid of trying to write a lead character with a background in any way different from my own.

  7. P.F. says:

    I agree with Brinstar’s (who is v. awesome) comments. I think the best we can really do in the situation is simply try and call attention to these things.

    I understand the idea of gender going with narrative, especially in single protagonist games. But I think a large part of the issue here is that many common stories we have around now aren’t completely honest in intent or are backed up unconsciously with less than sensitive standards.

    In a perfect world, yes, it would simply be an experience of viewing things through other viewpoints, and that protagonist gender divisions are in line with writer/creator gender divisions in the industry. But for a lot of non-white non-dude/bro non-males, there’s a lot more going on than that. Do women in games have to be back-up characters? Do they have to be super-sexualized all the damn time? What about people with generally non-standard sexualities or genders, who pretty much just don’t exist at all except as the butt of jokes?

    This all sort of adds up and leaves a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of non-white male gamers. Enough of that crap once you’re really aware of it and, well, why WOULDN’T you want to seek out avatars that actually might represent you?

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