Each of us are attracted to different things in video games. Whether it’s open-world exploration in RPGs, massive weapons in FPS releases or special moves in fighting games, there’s always an element unique to a genre which draws us towards our preferred type.
But there’s one feature which has gradually been introduced across many of them over the years and is now a staple of gaming: the character-creation screen. Customisation options now seem to be available in most new releases regardless of genre. They might be simple decisions such as hair-style and t-shirt colour; or they could be at the other end of the spectrum, where a long list of sliders allow you to adjust every aspect of your protagonist’s appearance.
What are you most likely to do when presented with a character creation screen? Create one that's...—
Later Levels (@LaterLevels) March 02, 2021
So why do we make the choices we do? Sometimes it has nothing to with visuals at all and our decisions are instead based on the fact that being a High Elf gives you increased magika regeneration and destructive powers. But it’s interesting to look at those options which are purely cosmetic and have no effect on gameplay to find out why people have picked them. Research has shown that it’s often about building a representation of a ‘better’ version of ourselves, whatever we perceive that to be.
The subject of character creation came up in one of our streams a couple of weeks ago. My other-half is currently taking part in a series of ‘master classes’, where a friend joins him each week to guide him through a game he has never played before. In Twitch chat one evening, Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes suggested he prepare for their upcoming Monster Hunter: World session by getting his avatar ready beforehand in case he wanted to spend some time looking at the various customisation options.
I had to laugh when Frosti said this. It’s very rare that Pete throws anything more than a cursory glance at such things; he’s more likely to click on the ‘randomise appearance’ button and go with whatever comes up first so he can get into the gameplay as quickly as possible. When he does spend any amount of time on his character, he’ll choose an appearance which is very different to his own – although he’ll usually pick a male human protagonist, unless another race gives him a desired buff.
I’ve noticed that this affects how he handles his character in-game too. He’s one of the kindest people I know in real-life, is very protective of his family and friends, and has a soft-spot when it comes to animals. Stick him in a video game however and that all goes out the window. His character will be the most likely to double-cross the NPCs, blow up their spouse and hunt down defenceless creatures for fun (regular viewers of our streams will all be aware of Rubbish Dog).
I’m the total opposite of Pete when it comes to the character creation screen. I’ll spend ages getting each slider just right and trying to make my avatar look as much like me as possible (but with a post-lockdown haircut rather than the mop I’m currently sporting). I’ll always choose a female protagonist when I get the option and can’t think of anything worse than the ‘randomise appearance’ button or having to resort to picking an outfit which doesn’t conform to my taste in clothes.
OverpoweredAF - DJ (@overpoweredaf) March 02, 2021
As for my in-game behaviour, that’s different to how my other-half acts too. I’ll always try to imagine myself in each situation and base my choices on what I would do in real-life. Performing a completely aggressive or reckless action in a video game is rare because I’ll always think about what the consequences could be first and I prefer to stick to the paragon route. The only time I can remember doing something ‘bad’ was in Life is Strange, where I made a certain choice at the end because Chloe was annoying me.
DJ from Overpowered replied to my recent Twitter poll saying that they make their characters as different from themselves as possible, and don’t understand why some players want their protagonist to represent themselves. I guess everyone has their own reasons but it’s to do with both challenge and escapism for me. I want to see what I would do when confronted with an end-of-world scenario and whether I’d be up to the test – as well as experiencing a situation I’m never going to see in the real world.
Whereas Pete and I will always pick someone who’s of the same sex as ourselves, friend-of-the-blog Phil usually chooses female characters. He wrote in a post back in August 2019 that male leads are more typical and, in his opinion, ‘the boring option when it comes to creating compelling protagonists’. This point-of-view filters through to his race class too: I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft (WoW) and The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) with Phil and I’ve never once seen him select a human.
Asked whether his character preferences affected his in-game behaviour, he said: “I continue to make choices I would in real-life, definitely. Character choice appeals to me more in games where they play an active role in the story and cutscenes, such as in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with Eivor because she’s a fully voiced and developed character. I find it more interesting to pick that option over the decades-long stereotype of the macho male hero. With a game such as ESO, I don’t really care because it’s purely visual and the avatar has no character in the game, if that makes sense?”
@LaterLevels Digital me has saved many worlds and lands—
ComfortablyAdventurous (@ComfortablyAdv) March 02, 2021
The most popular answer in my Twitter poll was ‘somewhere in the middle’ with almost 40% of the votes (at the time of writing). The people who responded tend to make characters who are somewhere between looking like themselves and being completely different, with several friends telling me they go for visuals over anything else. This goes back to what was mentioned at the start of this post: research has shown that we like to make protagonists who we perceive to be a ‘better’ version.
In an interview with Game Informer in June 2015, former research scientist Nick Yee explained that players create idealised versions of themselves by minimising their physical flaws and maintaining the illusion of themselves as the game’s protagonist. He also talked about ‘the Proteus effect’, a phenomenon which occurs when someone is assigned an avatar that looks different from themselves: “They conform to that avatar’s stereotypical behaviour and attitude.”
Regardless of what type of protagonist you wish to create, research has proven that being able to customise your appearance within a video game leads to increased satisfaction and a willingness to play it again. That’s good news for developers who need to attract people to their game, publishers who want to sell it and players who are looking to lose themselves in a digital world. This probably explains why character creation screens are now popping up in all sorts of genres.
What about you? What type of protagonist do you want to be?