This is an awkward time in game development. It’s a moment where more people than ever before are playing video games. No longer is it realistic to claim that any one group, gender, race, religion, or country makes up the majority of gamers. The gaming community now contains people from all walks of life from just about every country in the world. There are arguments about which markets matter the most based on size, but as far as actual gaming audience is concerned, it’s pretty much everybody.
This diverse array of gamers is a good thing for many reasons. But because of the selfish narcissism of most people, especially gamers, we’re also seeing some terrible repercussions because of this diversity. Today, more than ever before, people (not just gamers) have gotten it into their head that they matter a majority of the time. Things like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube have given everyone a voice and for some reason that has led every asshole with a smartphone into believing that their opinions matter and that all works of entertainment should be tailor made for them specifically. And when it’s not made for them they whine, organize, riot, and literally destroy people’s careers and lives.
I’m not talking about any one particular group here. Because so many groups are guilty of this new brand of arrogance. White men, homosexuals, racial minorities, women, and so on. All these groups and many more have on numerous recent occasions complained about a specific game or the industry as a whole simply because it did something they didn’t like or didn’t focus on their identifying group. Even not including a particular group in a game can cause an uproar. The problem with all this is that it has led many developers to try to work around the problem in ways that are easy and shown to be effective for basically all types of gamers. For me one of the worst ways this is being done today is with character creators.
Character creators are an interesting problem because they come from the best intentions. In many ways they’re the perfect form of escapism. When a game has a good character creator, you can literally put yourself in the game or be whoever you want to be. The problem is that this is mostly superficial. Let me clarify that moving forward, all mention of games in this post will refer to plot based campaigns. Multiplayer PVP scenarios are pretty much irrelevant to this particular discussion other than in the fact that they only add to the problem I’ll be addressing in a roundabout way. Multiplayer plot based campaigns are completely relevant though and definitely should be considered when thinking about this topic.
Arguably the most important thing about a plot based campaign is the story. I said story there instead of plot because there is a difference. A game can have an amazing plot but if the story isn’t told right then the experience of the campaign will ultimately fail. The way a story is told, the way the characters interact, and the reasons behind why things happen in a story are all important parts of the experience. Think about any game with a good story and imagine if things where presented differently. Let’s use The Last of Us as an example. A game that’s often championed for having such an amazing story. Now imagine for a second if the game had done just a few things differently. All other things being equal, how would people have responded to the story if Joel had lost a son instead of a daughter, it’s revealed that Ellie will have to die to save the world at the beginning of the game, and/or Joel was Asian instead of Caucasian? I think most people would agree that while the gameplay would still be good and the plot would still be interesting, the overall experience of the story would be much less powerful if even just one of those three proposed changes had taken effect. The drama of the story comes from the fact that Joel and Ellie connect on a familial level because she reminds him of his deceased daughter. And the fact that he believes the world can be saved without her having to die from the beginning is what allows that connection to form by the end, literally sacrificing the rest of the world as a consequence of that connection. But in a scenario where you could create your own character, that story would be considerably less powerful.
Joel and Ellie aren’t blood relatives. It would have been completely believable and possible for a Black, Asian, Latino or member of any other ethnic group, man or woman, heterosexual or homosexual to be put in the scenario of Joel. The story is that random survivor is tasked with escorting a random girl across the country. Either character could have been any mixture of identifiers and the story would still make perfect sense. But any significant change of profile could drastically reduce the impact of their relationship and by extension story. Therein lays the problem with character creators. They hurt the story in a game. Because no matter much effort a developer tries to make a character neutral story, it will never be as good as a targeted narrative. It’s literally impossible to do.
Modern Tomb Raider games are so powerful because of the vulnerability assumed by a young Lara Croft, a Caucasian female from a wealthy family whose biggest problem was losing her father at a young age. Imagine how much less impressive the character would be if she was a South American boy from Brazil who grew up in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. Now I’m not saying that a great story couldn’t be told starring a Brazilian male from humble beginnings. I’m just saying that the impact of the story in moments where men trapped on an island capture the character and threaten various physical abuses wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if he was the protagonist. That’s what storytelling is: Putting characters in situations that are impactful for them, not you. You as the audience are supposed to put yourself in the shoes of the character. Not the other way around.
The problem with plot based games using character creators is that either the game is written for a specific character/audience, usually a heterosexual Caucasian male, and then blanket applied to all created characters regardless of important details like race, gender, and sexuality, or the game is written in such a way that nothing personal ever happens. Take Far Cry 5, which I can’t wait to play. The story of a deputy going into rural Montana to stop a predominantly, if not exclusively, White cult that is literally kidnapping and sacrificing people to their image of God. The game will have a character creator that will allow for male and female characters of any race. Now I don’t think it’s ridiculous to assume that if I, an African American male, walked into rural Montana today that I would probably be treated differently than either a Caucasian or Latino male and even more differently than a female of any race. And if that part of Montana was being run by a redneck cult, I believe that would be even more noticeable. Unless of course the cult genuinely has no preferences for their victims because their god told them that all people who aren’t in the cult need to be equally discriminated against and they were all pure and true believers/followers. But let’s be honest and admit that all people would not have the exact same experience walking into rural Montana. Having not yet played the game, I cannot say for sure if Ubisoft has done anything to differentiate the experiences of created avatars based on race and gender among other identifiers in this newest Far Cry. But I can say that in general most games don’t. Especially those from Ubisoft. I played The Division as a Black male. I didn’t experience anything that called attention to the race of my character. Sure the game is set in a post-apocalyptic virus state but it’s still New York City. Someone would say something about race at some point. They wrote the story as if all people are exactly the same. For the most part, that’s what happens in games with character creators. And it’s the least effective means of storytelling a majority of the time.
Some companies do put in the time to at least try to differentiate characters you create in their games. BioWare, specifically with Dragon Age, is a good example of this. The ability to choose things like origin, species (which is different from race in reality), and sexual preference all help to differentiate the gameplay experience of each player and try to tailor an experience relevant to their avatar. And they do a decent job. But part of the reason they get away with it is that they create games with scenarios where human differentiation doesn’t really make sense. In both Dragon Age and Mass Effect, you have multiple species of people living among each other. There are prejudices. There are questions about species mixing and sexuality. There are ethical and moral issues that players are forced to make decisions about and then hear the opinions about these choices from various NPCs. But none of these moments take into account current real life human experiences, because they don’t really have to. People today may differentiate based on skin color, but I can guarantee you that if tomorrow five other sentient species of alien races started living on this planet basically all people would stop seeing human race as an issue. You’re not gonna think twice about the Black guy down the block endangering your neighborhood when your next door neighbor is a giant walking lizard that can lift you off the ground and rip you in half. Human racism makes no sense in these scenarios. Hell, it barely makes sense in current real life scenarios. The games still have racism, but it’s never between members of the same species.
That’s how BioWare chose to deal with the problem of balancing out character creators and narrative. It works, but not every game has aliens and sentient non-human races. That trick won’t work in Far Cry 5. That game will most likely just suffer from bland character experiences and rely heavily on the enemies being so interesting that you ignore the fact that your own character is having a pretty much vanilla experience. What’s sad though is that people are happily championing the spread of character creators in games. All these minority groups are happily accepting White male characters with coats of paint rather than demanding games with plots written for their group. For me that’s a problem, not only because I do want to see more actual games starring Black protagonists but also because I play games for the story. And I don’t like bland plots that aren’t personal. In a PVP scenario I love creating my own character. In a game that pretty much has no real story like Dark Souls, character creators are fine because that’s pretty much all gameplay anyway. But when a company is trying to sell me a plot as the main selling point of the game, I expect a well written, personal, and realistic story. That story doesn’t have to be about someone I personally identify with, but it needs to be good. But there’s the rub. Most people today don’t seem to have my open minded tolerance for games that aren’t made for them specifically. They would prefer superficial experiences where they can take screenshots of their avatar looking the way they want so they can post them on Twitter rather than experiencing an Oscar worthy narrative. For me that’s a problem.
The issue of diversity in video games is definitely an important one. But I would never agree that it’s so important that general quality of single player campaigns should go down as a result of trying to fix that issue. Instead I think this should be seen as an opportunity for developers of all sizes to make more games with more variation between them. Rather than try to make a game for everyone that no one will love. Make everyone their own game and everyone should be happy with their one game (a year). Not every game needs to be for everyone and not every group needs to be represented in every game. Instead when groups are represented in games it should be done to the highest possible quality and realism. That’s why for me the modern proliferation of character creators in games isn’t a good thing. I’ll take one well written game starring a Black guy over five empty games where I can pretend the character is a Black guy any day. Thoughts?