I was thinking about the question of times when I’d played a role unlike myself in games and came to the conclusion that there were two entirely different ways this can come about. On the one hand, there are the times when I’m forced into playing something other than myself because that’s all that the game offers. All too often, I’ll be playing a thin, able-bodied, straight, white male, not by choice but by default. When this happens, I generally don’t even try to get into the head of my character. He’s just some pixels on a screen which I am guiding around.
On the other hand, there are the occasions when I choose to role-play as someone that I am not because it provides an experience I couldn’t get in the real world. Sometimes, this can be as simple as choosing to play a game where the player character is an expert martial fighter or a genius strategist, since I am neither. Other times, I’m choosing to play a character who is physically unlike me, such as my Elonian characters in Guild Wars both of whom are women of colour because this fits the game lore better, whereas I am white. Still other times, I choose to play a character who is of a different personality to me. Maybe someone more gregarious, someone more overtly feminine, or someone with a shorter temper.
For me, this last is the most interesting. If a game is well written, and I’m in the right frame of mind, I can really get into my characters head. It’s a bit like method acting, only in this case, it’s method gaming.
”]One particularly memorable case of this came for me when I played Dragon Age: Origins. There, I was playing a female character (as I usually do when I have the option) and I decided that of the romance options available to me, I’d woo Leliana. Now, normally, this wouldn’t have been my first choice. Leliana is not my type at all. However, seeing as how she’s female and the other two options were male, she was the closest to my type that I was going to get.
And so, I decided that while she may not have been my type, she was my character’s type. The relationship I chose to pursue heavily influenced the way I saw my character, the way I identified with her, and the way I played the game.
One of the consequences on this was my character’s take on religion. In real life I am an atheist, and by default, that usually carries over into my game characters, who tend to be wary of churches and religious institutions. Leliana, though, is not just sympathetic to the church, but is a devout believer and a member of the Chantry. She also claims to have had visions revealed to her by the Maker.
And so, my character also became religious. At first, she was receptive and open, and as she talked more with Leliana and grew closer, so her faith also strengthened. In my head at least, their shared beliefs were a large part of the bond between Leliana and my Warden that ultimately led to them becoming lovers.
Of course, my character’s religious convictions weren’t confined to her interactions with Leliana. They also guided her other choices when dealing with sacred artefacts, the church, and with magic. When I played, I was no longer Rachel Walmsley, atheist. I was Rhoswen Cousland, devout believer.
This was fun and interesting for me in its own right, but looking back on it now, I think there’s an additional lesson to take from all of this. One of the reasons why I was so effectively able to identify with a religious character is that the religion portrayed in the game was not the same as any religion in the real world.
Well, of course it wasn’t the same. Why would it be? This is a fantasy world with magic and elves; it would make no sense at all to insert Christianity into Ferelden exactly as it is in our world. I can say with certainty that if the game replaced the Chantry with the Christian Church, elves with Jews, and the battle against the darkspawn with a crusade against Muslims that I would not have been able to enjoy the game anywhere near as much. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have played it at all.
Of course, by not having our real-world religions, this made the game-world resemble Europe of the Middle Ages a whole lot less. But so what? That’s a good thing, surely. By not adhering to the real world, the game allowed me to experience being someone with a character, personality, and religion different to my own. If I’d been playing an actual historical RPG set in actual Middle-Ages Europe, I doubt I’d have been able to immerse myself the same way.
Developers have no difficulty recognising that adherence to historical accuracy is not necessary in this one aspect of their games, and yet they feel compelled by it in other areas. Misogyny, racism, and homophobia – amongst others – are all excused on the grounds of historical accuracy. That this is nonsense is unlikely to be news to readers of The Border House, but I think that comparing it with how religion is portrayed in games of this nature provides a stark and instructive contrast.
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