The Border House Podcast – Episode 5: Our Avatars and Us

Character creator of Saints Row 3 showing an alternative-styled man of color

Character creator of Saints Row 3 showing an alternative-styled man of color


This time around, Rawles and I talk about Skyrim, Saints Row 3, and other games that have character creators and how they relate to diversity issues in gaming. Unfortunately, I sound a little weird and there’s a few blips here and there, I was sick during the recording :( But I’m better now and the oddities are minimal, so we hope you all enjoy! And remember, we’re always looking for guest speakers, so if you are an active game critic/journalist, designer, or activist, get in contact with me! Interviews are also a possibility :)


Opening & Closing Credits - Was that away message for me? by 8bit Betty

About Mattie Brice

Mattie Brice is a game critic, designer, social justice activist, and student at San Francisco State University. She focuses her writing on diversity initiatives in the video game community, often bringing in the perspective of marginalized voices like transgender and multi-racial women to publications like Paste, Kotaku, The Border House, and Pop Matters. Mattie also consults and speaks at gaming related conferences like the Game Developers Conference and IndieCade. Her studies have led her to explore narrative design and plans to push the borders of how we think of the medium. Tweets at @xMattieBrice.
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7 Responses to The Border House Podcast – Episode 5: Our Avatars and Us

  1. gunthera1 says:

    Wonderful podcast this week! I had so many comments I wanted to add as I listened to it this morning.

    1 quick clarification:
    When Mattie mentioned Skyrim writing over the save files for her characters, those are the game’s autosaves. If you do a hard save of your character it will still be there BUT if you make a new character then any autosaves from the previous character are lost and become saves for whatever character you played most recently. I ran into that same issue myself.

    In terms of games dealing with race and privilege I have often wondered how a human noble would be treated in the city elf area in Dragon Age Origins. I have yet to create such a character, but since I played as a city elf I know that I would expect some of the characters to fear them, some to avoid them, and others to be outright hostile because of the human’s treatment of the city elves. I think if that was not addressed as such within the game than it was a missed opportunity.

    In terms of games calling out your character’s traits constantly, I think it is a matter of frequency and context. In Skyrim, I like that another woman in the game mentions that it is hard to be a woman in the world. It gives a feeling of solidarity and acknowledges that bit of character customization. If, however, every single NPC were to constantly point out that I am a woman, it would become tiresome. I am having that issue as my Khajiit character. So many people call me a cat or a sneak that it becomes very clear how the people in that area regard my character. I know they hate her as soon as she walks into their city. Finally, an example where I think it is used too often and becomes a distraction/offense is with the Catwoman “bitch” comments. Personally, I don’t want to play a game where my character is constantly berated for being a woman especially since I am a woman myself. It becomes a situation where my past time is now a place where I can be harassed and I don’t need that.

    I agree with you both that it surprises me that more people are not offended by the low expectations on white, male gamers. Why assume they cannot sympathize/empathize with someone unlike them? When we are in school and taking literature classes girls/women are expected to relate to the male characters in books. Why is this not a two way street? The world is a much richer place when we look at experiences beyond just our own.

    Finally, I was also surprised that my character could not rule in Dragon Age: Origins. It was definitely an unexpected slap of both racial and class supremacy that I wish was discussed more both in game and outside of it.

  2. gunthera1 says:

    One other comment –>
    Skyrim not only has female NPCs in positions of power but the enemies are also a mix of male and female characters. I think that detail helps the world feel more “real”. However, the lack of body types is glaring if you loot the armor off enemies. All the women I have seen so far have that slim hourglass figure.

  3. There are a couple of different ways in which I’d like video game avatars to go: on the one hand, so much of video game narrative is aspirational within a relatively narrow range of options, so I wish avatars let us explore a wider range of aspirations, let us be ourselves (or who we would like to be, would like to experiment with being) for a wider range of possible selves. But, on the other hand, I wish video games weren’t so single-mindedly focused on aspiration, so I also wish there were more games out there exploring differences within people in the real world, including negative as well as positive aspects of interactions that come out of those difference.

    Like Mattie said (I know on twitter, but I think also in the podcast): using alien species to represent discrimination just isn’t good enough if you want to talk about how it plays out in the real world. It’s better than ignoring the issue entirely, but discrimination is always situated, and I wish games reflected more of that, delved into details more. (Experiences in general, whether positive or negative, are situated, too – I’d certainly like to see a lot wider range of romantic / emotional interactions, too.)

  4. feministgamer says:

    I’m writing a fantasy RPG now, and there are racial tension, but, again they are with the “dark elves”, not necessarily people of color. However the color of their skin (blue) is not necessarily important to the reason they are discriminated against, but it’s still taboo to refer to their skin color as if it were important (in distinguishing them from the white elves). I would love to outright discuss real racism, but my employer would likely want it removed because of the noted marketability drop. Shame.

  5. Ms. Sunlight says:

    I’ve been thinking for a couple of days about posting about this podcast and character creators, especially after hearing Rawles talk about being able to make a facsimile of herself, but wasn’t sure just how to go about it. I’ll just give it a crack before this topic rolls off the page!

    I’m a 37-year-old woman and I’m fat. When I was 14, I became bullimic. I made myself sick for a number of years. Even up to my late 20s, I would make myself sick very occasionally when I was in a stressful or upsetting situation I couldn’t handle. I live with the consequences of this eating disorder today. There are a lot of things about body image that I just can’t deal with – I mean, I really can’t, if I try I become too upset to cope rationally.

    When I play video games, I like to try and create a character I can relate to, but ironically I often find it easier to relate to a pre-created character – even one completely different to me – than I do to a self-created avatar. When I’m creating an avatar I often feel the same sense of self-hatred that I feel about myself if I think too closely about my body, so I usually pick the preset I like the most and just go with that. I hate it when the bodies are too skinny, because I feel like a liar and a failure because I don’t look like that.

    With a pre-created character – even a male character like Geralt of Rivia or Adam Jensen – I can relate to them precisely because they do not represent me. My FemShep is the South-East Asian looking preset, and in my head I have a whole backstory for her based around picking the Earthborn and Sole Survivor background choices, but I relate to her because she’s separate to me.

    I know that this is all my screwed-up crap, but there are so many women and girls who like me have issues with their body or with eating disorders. I suppose that I just wanted to say that I have an issue with avatars and character creators too.

  6. proletariat says:

    the sex appeal slider applies to male characters in SR3, too. it makes their package bigger.

  7. Deviija says:

    I took the Saints Row 3 Initiation Station video in a different light. True, the actresses in the video are porn actresses (obviously aiming for a certain audience familiarity/attraction), and the set-up of them talking on the phone could give the image of phone sex operators like Rawles was saying, but what the women were actually *saying* had me view it as camp and poking jokey fun at the industry/main characters of games. They were bantering about how terrible and boring it is for all the main characters of games to be bald white dudes with tribal tattoos. And the game/narrator went on to assure them that in SR3, you can customize and be whomever you wish to be — male or female. Those things in themselves helped me actually like the video and see it as humorous all around rather than uncomfortable or creepy or outright pandering for titillation’s sake.

    I’m not saying that it is great by any means, but it isn’t something that upsets me too much. I’m more annoyed that THQ/Volition/the SR3 team hired pornstars to wash people’s cars, saying lots of sexual innuendos apparently, at one of the game events. RPS did an article about it here: I also wrote to THQ and Volition about it.

    Oh, and as to the Sex Appeal slider? This is why I love it, personally. For women, the sex appeal increases bust size. For men, it increases their crotch/bulge. And I will just add that the crotch/bulge is the most anatomically outlined and defined bulge that I’ve ever seen for a male character in a game. Ever. It is over the top, yes, but I think it illustrates how ridiculous and silly the sexualization is within our games. By showing the equivalent — or at least close to it — of outlandish objectification/sexualization on men’s bodily proportions, it may at least give a compare/contrast for people that don’t really think of such things as an issue.

    Skyrim. I completely agree about the game calling one’s traits out repeatedly. As a Khajiit as my main character, I did not really run into this often in the beginning portions of the game. Only after playing the game for some 60+ hours have I really noticed that enemies in battle would call my character ‘cat’ in derogatory terms. Or NPCs showing their racial prejudices. My Khajiit is male, so perhaps trait-specific insults/dialogue would be even more pronounced if I were a lady PC. Having the added layer of people calling out my PC as a woman on top of racial and profession prejudices might have it seem more of a constant issue (and it’d drive me up the wall as well, since gender-specific insults and prejudice against women in our games bugs the heck out of me).

    This reminds me of the Skyrim article we had on the Border House recently, where it talked about the awesomeness of lady characters in the game and the broad range of characterization and portrayal. I agree that there is a wonderfully diverse world of women in the game. However, after playing it for so long and reading so much of the dialogue, I am beginning to wonder if it is really as great as it is. What I mean by that is that I think there is a distinct schism between what the world presents to us, the player, versus what the world in-game actually represents as a society. The world in-game seems very male dominated and male-centric; very patriarchal. The women we run into in the game, diverse as they are, seem to be more exceptions to the standard quo rules of Skyrim and society rather than anything based out of equality or egalitarian social mores.

    Whether it is purposely vague in order to not infringe upon a (woman) player’s enjoyment of the game or just oversight by the developers, I cannot say. But it really does seem like there is a big rift between what the game presents to us versus what the game’s society and lore actually says about the region itself. Is that a cop out to leave it so vague rather than delving into social issues? I cannot say either. Perhaps it is for the better since it may be handled poorly. The same can be said about this same-sex marriage and coupling aspect of the game. We are free to marry whomever we wish, regardless of sex and race in Skyrim. However, how often do we *see* interracial couplings, let alone same-sex ones among the important and non-important NPCs? Never as far as I’ve seen in my 180 hours of gametime. Which is a real shame. So therein, too, there is a distinct divide between what mechanics and freedoms the game, as a game, is offering the player and what actually may be acceptable/normal/represented in the society itself.

    Anyway, as a Khajiit, there is a defacto stance that they’re all thieves and drug-dealers/drug-users. Very looked down upon as dregs of society. So running into that prejudice right off the bat on some of the ambiant or NPC dialogue… it does get tiresome, yet it does make it very apparent of what ‘baggage’ there is surrounding Khajiit. If you ally with the Thieves Guild yet never steal anything, or level up your sneak/thief skills, I think the game automatically has the NPCs/guards view you as a thief and sneak. So some of the ‘calling out’ of the PC may directly deal with stats and numbers rather than anything else in the game. I like that the game recognizes what I’m doing, yet there are obvious flaws like that that affect this kind of system, too.

    I, too, definitely get the feeling that the game seems to treat the white privileged male (Nord) to be the default. Many amusing parallels can be drawn to our real society about that… But yeah, a lot of the racial prejudice lines or the acknowledging that you are something *other* than the default feels tacked on in most places. If it is even acknowledged at all. My Khajiit went to join with the Stormcloaks at first, and the fellow pressed him on why he, a non-Nord, would want to join the Stormcloaks. That was somewhat interesting… but ultimately not really meaty. In the end, through talking with other NPCs, my Khajiit learned that Stormcloaks are racists and hate elves, Argonians, and Khajiit, and have terrible views on them. Again, more parallels could be drawn politically and socially between Nords (status quo, privilege) and the Others (minorities). But I digress.

    I like Skyrim, but like Mattie and Rawles were chatting about, I’d like it much more if one of the other races were really given a game. Something not stereotypical white medieval fantasy based, for example, like Skyrim and the Nords represent. Redguard could be really interesting. Though, to be honest, I really don’t like the human races element that The Elder Scrolls deals with. It hits a little too close to home with real world issues and it gets rather troubling in a game setting, imo.

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