WisCon Panel “My Shepard: Avatars, Subversion and Identity in Video Games”

This past weekend meant WisCon – a science fiction feminist convention held in Madison, Wisconsin. There were several video game related panels this year. A panel titled “My Shepard: Avatars, Subversion and Identity in Video Games” had the following description:

Fantasy, science fiction and video games provide a participatory art form that an question, reinforce or ignore our cultural and biological assumptions. How does performance, gender, identity and shared world influence our social relations? Which games have pushed our understanding of self, and what can we do in the future to take it further? How have we, personally, balanced critique and joy for these specific games?

I am sharing my notes from the panel and audience discussion. I tried to arrange the notes into sections but this will be more disjointed than our usual posts.

An image from the character creator in Saints Row: The Third showing a feminine avatar with a beard.

Identity matches avatar

- Some of us create characters that mirror ourselves within game. This can be true both in terms of physicality and/or personality.

- Can this be a need to validate ourselves and our life choices?

- Is this an attempt to see ourselves represented in media?


Avatar very different than personal identity

- Do some of us change our personality when we play an avatar who appears very different than ourselves? Are we more assertive than real life when playing a tank or less assertive and more helpful than personal inclination when playing a healer?

- It can be fun to be something new and different than what we live every day.


Avatar unable to match identity

- There is a lack of accurate representation for options different than an assumed default. The game makes you feel as though you don’t belong.

- Yet, we sometimes love a piece of media despite it telling us that we are not the target audience.

- When we don’t see ourselves we may sometimes cling to any small piece of representation we can find even if it isn’t perfect. Example: draenei in World of Warcraft as space babe (Space Babe being the mascot of WisCon)

- Characters are limited based on the systems that developers put into the game. Gnome skin tones in World of Warcraft are all very light shades.

- A lack of realistic options can be frustrating. Race is more than a slight palette swap of a handful of skin tones. What about hair options, facial structure, etc? “I like variety, maybe I don’t want a character that is one of three shades.”

- Some good character creation systems: Dungeons and Dragons Online, Star Wars: The Old Republic, Saints Row: The Third

- Demon’s Souls had a masculine/feminine slider for facial features

- World of Warcraft critique: a lack of darker skin tones on the Alliance side but the Horde side as caricatures of cultures (Tauren as Native American)


Safe place to play

- Because games allow us to use different avatars it can be a safe space to play with identity different than our own.

- Game space as a free space to try on personality/ physicality that has no real world penalty. You can be evil in games but are not hurting or affecting anyone in real life. You can play as gender queer or trans to see how you feel within that role.

- Games can act as sandboxes where it is safe for us to play.

- Games can give us a place to explore our own identity and self. You find out a lot about how you think and feel about the world when you role play and create backstories.

-”Meeting your shadow self” -> When playing a character differently than how we usually view ourselves, we may find out that some of their personality is in fact a part of us as well.

- Playing different roles can be like stepping into different subjective views of the world. How does this change our perspective of real life?



- Other people’s perceptions and stereotypes come into play in multiplayer games. You are playing a female character with one personality but others assume something else based on their own bias.

- We project/story tell within the design limitations. “You can find identity even in the absence of story.”

- When games only present archetypes and specific classes, do we or others start to see the world in those limited choices?



What are some of your thoughts on avatars and identity? Did any of these comments ring true to your own experiences or make you think differently about avatar choices?

14 thoughts on “WisCon Panel “My Shepard: Avatars, Subversion and Identity in Video Games””

  1. I always find it difficult to create an avatar I feel represents me in online spaces like Gaia Online’s ZOMG MMORPG and Zynga’s YoVille as the base mannequin is so very skinny. I’ve come to terms with my broad frame in real life and am upset when I can’t be “me” online

  2. Although I haven’t played it since 2005, Tiger woods golf had the most intense character creator I’ve ever used. you can customize everything from hair color to including that scar from the time you fell off the slide in the 2nd grade.

    As a chubby dude I wish I could be chubby in games. Most choices are either waluigi or I can look like astaroth from soul cailber

  3. What I enjoy the most, is possibility of playing an androgynous looking avatar. I admit also, that prefferably male androgynous avatar, but I play females often. The thing is, that’s its rarely possible, even if there is possibility of changing facial appearence, the bodyshape is always the same, and that’s important part for me too. I’d wish for possibility of setting my female avatar to having smaller breasts, and perhaps more atheltic build, or chance of playing a male that is slender with delicate features. It happens, but rarely. Have to say I sometimes play a very questionable games in content, just because they allow me to indulge in one of those.

    1. “I sometimes play a very questionable game in content[...]“-shuu

      Hi, I’m KA101, and I play WWF SmackDown, 1 & 2.

      For those not familiar with the USian World Wrestling Federation/WWE (you’re not missing anything), they’re a patriarchially macho TV program which features overly dramatized wrestling matches of dubious legitimacy. In practice, it could probably be regarded as a Macho-Manly* soap opera. These particular games were made circa 2000, which was a particularly Edgy and Sexy** period.

      *Those familiar with the WWF may recognize a pun here. Oh yeah!

      **Read: male-gaze and lots of it.

      Character generation in both is pretty good. SM1 doesn’t give a lot of avatar-design freedom, but the weight slider is pretty expansive and the quasi-RPG first-year is pretty good. SM2 gives a LOT more freedom, and in particular allows presenting as either masculine or feminine, with the only difference being that feminine bodytypes (Type B, unfortunately–masculine are type A) have developed breasts and are required to wear a T-shirt class clothing item.
      Gendering the character is a separate decision, and “???” is an option. Selecting it allows the character to compete in both the Women’s & the non-Women’s divisions, but makes a lot of personality traits worth 0 points.

      Unfortunately, the game still comes from a place of sexism and sexist male-gazing is pretty much unavoidable.

        1. Worse–all the stock women characters were/are actual people. Namco exploiting Ivy (et al.) is one thing, but at least they don’t have to live with it. Chyna et al don’t have that luxury.

          And frankly I’m not at all sure what to make of Debra, whose entire schtick was that she was Beauty2k compliant*, knew it, and–in-character, at least–encouraged male-gazing. Owning one’s sexuality (well, at least in theory) is certainly a positive thing…but awfully *convenient* in the context, I guess? Gagh.

          *Not sure which feminist site coined it, but not my invention.

    2. > shuu: “What I enjoy the most, is possibility of playing an androgynous looking avatar.”

      I remember Saint’s Row 2 was great for this. There was a slider for MasculineFemine body shape, where the middle area was indeed androgynous. Saint’s Row 3 didn’t have that, although you could get close with the “sex appeal” slider and other adjustments.

  4. Yes, a lot of this rings true. Especially in regards to human characters in fantasy too often defaulting to white (or sometimes ambiguously brown) and quasi-European. (Say what you will about Rift, but Ethians are kind of a nice departure from that mold.)

    I also agree with the comments about physique options and the lack thereof.

  5. And, to relate to the actual topic:

    Frequently can/do create avatars based on self
    Annoying when I can’t find a good enough beard (mine is 16″ long; significant personality marker)
    Personality comes through even where avatar deliberately doesn’t match self
    Some aspects of self are easier to express in avatars
    Some aspects of self, though expressed in “safe” game-space, aren’t nice and I’d rather not express them (the whole “you become what you pretend” thing)

    Storytelling within context of the game (sometimes in defiance of the game’s plot, which tends to create dissatisfaction with the game)

    So, I’d basically agree with the panel.

  6. What of less commercialised, avatar based multiplayer things and visual chatrooms, like Habbo or Second Life (using the defaults rather than an add-in model/skin)? And facebook games? I’ve found their character design options to be interesting … sometimes a touch disappointing, but not always. All of them do have some restrictions, but e.g. it’s possible to make a fairly androgynous (or gynandric :) character in the first two at least.

    I guess the justification may be that if you’re trans, you’d likely rather just play full-on as the gender you better identify with? (Cis here, so I may well be talking out of my rear…). Though it’s not specifically defined as masc/fem with a single slider or whatever, with sufficient tweaking you can make a vaguely masculine looking “female” avatar, and a femme “male” one (as yet, no outright “neuter” or “intersex” choice though… OK it’s fine to have a 3rd party modded furry hermaphrodite skin in the adult areas but we don’t want difficult subjects scaring the kiddies outside of that), and without revealing what you’re “supposed” to be it should be fairly difficult for anyone else to tell.

    (I prefer to choose neutral identities when I can, online, largely for anonymising reasons, but also because I generally interact with the web as a directly intellectual thing that bypasses our fragile flesh and all that, and it avoids strange colourings of how people may deal with me by making general assumptions based on sex/gender, race, age, nationality etc, something which I sometimes encounter when using Facebook and the like. (Apart from the occasional lapse where hormones take over and require use of incognito mode that is :p))

    A strange variation in one Facebook game I played is where there’s a very definite and limited binary gender (and gender-sex linked) choice for your avatar, and you can’t even pick its age or race (which vary according to what your start class is, and if you switch to a different one)… but you can switch back and forth between the two as much as you want (I deliberatey switched once per game turn after learning this and wrote my character backstory to include some kind of gypsy-pirate curse which had gone on so long they couldn’t remember their birth sex – although it requried an FB ID to log in, it didn’t reveal your real name or any aspect of your profile in-game, so it removed some of the weirdness factor), and there’s a wide range of “costumes” (bought for game points or real-world money) to dress them up in ranging from androgynous or even slightly cross-dressy, to full on stereotypical hyper masculine / hyper feminine with plenty of bare pecs / OTT armour / plunging cleavage / bubble butt etc. Player’s choice… (The defaults being tame, but stereotypical)

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