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Wednesday, February 8, 2023

The Joy and Liberation of Customizing Your Avatar

Typically, I hate choosing—whether it’s what restaurant to eat at or which song to play at a party. Even swiping on potential dates inspires anxiety. I just don't know. My indecisiveness stems from my irrational fear of choosing wrongly, or perhaps it’s FOMO on other options.

At the beginning of the pandemic, this hesitation ceased to exist: I swiftly chose the Horde. More specifically, a male, Blood Elf, warlock. Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against social activities like bar-hopping with friends or meeting strangers in person who I’d met online, I returned to playing World of Warcraft to pass the time. I had stopped playing seven years ago, apparently trading one vice for another. It wasn't out of a lack of interest but rather a lack of self-control. I was unable to play for an hour without it resulting in an all-nighter.

Ironically, in an immersive virtual world of seemingly infinite options, an indecisive adult can still very much be a decisive gamer. Playing online, I no longer felt pressured by the opinions or judgments of other people. My innate desire to please others was silenced by the thrill of unleashing demonic servants to slay them. I was guided by pleasure instead of what might make others like me. To many, a gamer's identity is often limited to “person who plays video games,” but within this is a multitude of unique experiences. Players can navigate different existences and identities as quickly as it takes to change the game they’re playing. You’re able to immerse yourself in fantasy while still feeling an interpersonal connection to the avatar by controlling their actions. Players manage to lose themselves while never losing their sense of self.

When the Gamecube came out in 2001, I inadvertently began revealing secret personality interests when playing with my quadruplet twin brothers. Though our looks were fraternal, our intrinsic differences never materialized so much as when it came time to choose a character in Super Smash Brothers. Three distinctly colored user icons were placed on Samus, Donkey Kong, and Link, awaiting one player to start the match. I took a deep breath and released mine on Zelda.

"You picked a girl!" one of my brothers aggressively pointed out like I was blind.

"Oh," I said, changing the color of her dress from pink to black, as if that made Zelda less of a woman. "I just want to try her powers," I told them.

My cover-up excuse manifested when I witnessed the character swirl herself into a gorgeous sapphire diamond-reflecting shield, or when jumping and creating an explosive storm cloud, reminiscent of my favorite X-Men character, Storm. After pressing D + Down and transforming into her alter ego, Sheik, in a skintight suit resembling a masculine Catwoman, I refused to fight as any other character, despite their ridicule—until unlocking Mewtwo, who is coincidently genderless but won me over with their telekinetic abilities. Samus was the unanimous favorite among my brothers, but it would be years before they realized that "he" was, in fact, a woman in cyborg armor. Although gender is effectively purposeless—if not irrelevant—in gaming, my brothers reflected society's obsession with forcing others to choose between pink or blue.

I didn't identify as a girl, but Zelda was one of the few characters whose form and powers satisfied me. It's true you don’t need to have an attachment with a protagonist to enjoy playing them, but it takes the fun out of the game for some of us. Author Keith Stuart describes this internal conflict of identity paradox in a 2014 piece in The Guardian: "Far Cry 3, for example, is one of the greatest mainstream action-adventure games ever made in terms of its beautifully modeled sandbox environment and interlocking AI systems. But the plot is riddled with disturbing colonialist subtexts, and the lead character is a horrendous dude-bro. I don't want to identify with that shithead. The term ludonarrative dissonance is widely mocked within the industry, but it is a depressingly common phenomenon – and when players see no link between the narrative sequences and their own in-game reality, questions of identification and association become more problematic."

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For me, part of the experience was choosing characters that fulfilled a fantasy, in ways less explainable than simply choosing female characters because "I'm gay." Otherwise, perhaps, I would have tried harder with the useless Princess Peach. In a study published in Information, Communication, and Society, researchers examined the online behavior of 375 participants as they played a custom-built quest in World of Warcraft; 23 percent of the male participants and 7 percent of female participants chose avatars of the opposite sex. The study also found that gender-swapping was more likely to occur with older, more experienced gamers. Players’ reasonings varied: Men enjoyed the "aesthetic" and the attention received, while women who decided to play as male appreciated the attention not received. Players liked indulging in a different experience. Interestingly enough, men choosing female avatars were more likely to gravitate to feminine, "beautiful" aesthetics and speak with more emotional phrases and smile emoticons. Even those who did not seek to mask their identity still reinforced idealized, gendered notions of society by choosing modelesque physical traits and taking a softer, passive approach to communication. But regardless of the avatar or how a player interacted, their subconscious actions embodied the tendencies of their offline gender in areas like movement or jumping frequency.

The way their interactions transformed online emphasized the significance of the pretense in gaming of feeling authentic and stimulating. Men had no problem choosing a troll or a goblin when playing as a male character, but when switching to a female player, they designed sexualized avatars as though choosing a prospective romantic partner. Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson writes in a 2014 article about why he chooses female characters: "Physically speaking I'm attracted to women, but that's not usually what drives me when I'm rooting through my virtual skin closet to decide what I'm gonna wear to the big bash. I guess, though, the long and short of it is that I'm already me in real life. I like the idea of seeing worlds—far flung or close to home—through other people's eyes. Video games let me do that, even if only on a very low (and oftentimes not entirely indicative or realistic) level."

Reaching adolescence, I found refuge in massively multiplayer online (MMO) gaming because of the freedom the genre offers, not just in avatar customization but also in creating unique virtual experiences. Every battle, encounter, and action is original to each user, and while many will have the same in-game experiences, none of those experiences will be exactly alike to the player. Not to mention the ability to act alone, without playing alone. Grayson verbalizes what I didn't know how to explain to my brothers, that gaming isn't only a space for self-actualization but where a person can escape the limits of their body and associated experiences, similar to how women enjoy male avatars as an opportunity to break free from the stereotypes and treatment of their gender.

As Grayson notes, "At the end of the day, people aren't the flesh suits they wear, regardless of which dimples, curves, and protrusions they might have. They're people—maddeningly complex amalgams of wants, needs, dreams, and desires." But MMOs offer the chance to escape the flesh that in the real world can feel suffocating, while giving the "wants, needs and dreams" a chance to breathe without requiring an explanation.

So the omnipotent power you have over your avatar's identity and what they do offers an opportunity to be as much like yourself (or not!) as you desire, to fulfill fantasies that make the exterior malleable yet anchored to your will. Games become a space to explore different behaviors, with the safety net of the avatar being separate from the self. I feel empowered making virtual decisions as a reprieve from my IRL paranoia or without facing the consequence of ripple effects from third parties. Game Informer journalist Hershall Cook asked, in 2015, the Devil's Advocate question to anyone who knows the pain of spending hours on character creation screens: "Does our in-game avatar affect how we play? If playing as myself, for example, do I become more invested in my character and therefore avoid dangerous situations that might result in his death? Does playing as the opposite sex affect how we interact with our teammates in online multiplayer? Will creating a character covered in scars encourage us to act recklessly? Does my avatar's jawline affect whether I fight with a sword or cast magic spells?"

The short answer is yes, but it’s more complicated than that, and really comes down to the individual player.

Players like myself consider certain personal qualities more negotiable than others. No avatar I've ever created has had brown eyes, but my pitch-black hair color typically stays; I don't even like playing brunettes. We're allowed to carry familiar parts of ourselves into this digital life while still creating a being that feels new. Likewise, I find fighting melee to be intolerably dull. A druid in WOW might technically do more damage mauling opponents transformed as a cat, but I prefer making it rain hellfire as a mage. Regardless of each faction's strengths, picking what feels right will enhance the player experience. These choices allow us to form personal bonds with our avatars, simultaneously pushing the fantasy forward.

For once, wanting to change yourself doesn't signal some insecurity or lack of self-confidence. In fact, uninhibited experimentation invigorates self-confidence and a sense of individuality in your offline self. In a realm that connects millions of players worldwide at once, it's the only place where noobs are typically the only victims of bullying. When you're dealing with blue or green skin colors, black will hardly inspire controversy. No one is worried about your avatar's looks, weight, and features when they're too busy customizing their own. If anything, the ability to design ourselves into anything desired is a reminder physicality is the least of what comprises our shared humanity. Instead of bones, blood, and skin, every player online reflects the limbs of knowledge, opinions, cravings, and experience.

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