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.
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?