According to this project by Tegan Harris, there are 5 main types of characters which gamers create to represent themselves:
- the true self
- the heroic self
- the powerful self
- the fantasy self
- the random character
The “true” self, according to Harris, is a virtual representation of the player’s self-perception but may not equal the perception others have of the player. The “heroic” self is also a representation of the “true” self but with all positive or all negative attributes greatly exaggerated. The “powerful” character is designed to be effective within the realm of the game: gaining levels, completing quests, and completing the game. The “fantasy” character represents the “true” self but shows “aspects of the player… that are completely [unfeasible] in the real world.” The “random” character is not built toward any goal but it just an interesting choice for the player and serves as a distraction from the real world.
“Sure, explaining why we adopt the avatars we do is sometimes easy: we decide to look like an elf because elves get +5 Intelligence and we want to max out our mage build. Put that one in your thesis and smoke it. But what about virtual playgrounds where we have options that aren’t constrained by the game’s mechanics?” -James Madigan, The Psychology of Video Game Avatars
So that is the point I would like to focus on today. How do the varying selves that Harris outlined apply to the problem proposed by Madigan. For that, I feel the best game to look at is Little Big Planet(LBP), a platforming game based around collecting prizes and customization. Where the customization runs wild and the clothes don’t matter. No really, they don’t. That’s how my sack girl can wear the laciest of costumes and not trip and fall.
This is one of my many saved costumes. It’s usually the one I wear when I play with my friends and family. There is a lot of pink on this costume, so let’s start there. Pink is stereotypically a female color. It is delicate and friendly. It is combination of red, the color of passion and primal nature, and white, the color of purity. This costume even has nice rounded fairy wings and large white polka dots, which as we know are circles, and as I have explained before: circles are safe, squares aren’t really safe, and oh-dear-God don’t touch triangles they’re all trying to kill you. But what self does this represent for me? I only have control over the costume, and there is no warrior build and no reason to wear mystical armor to boost my mage talents-so why do I have pigtails and bunny ears?
Ah, my true self. I was born in the year of the rabbit and I’m a big fan of the Chinese zodiac (it lets me call my sister a rat and my mother a horse, best thing in the world). And I bet you wouldn’t figure it out on your own so I’ll just go ahead and tell you: I like pigtails. Within the constraints of the game, I can’t create the heroic, fantasy, or powerful self characters because they involve character traits which are just not present within platformers (least of all LBP, so we’ll touch back on these selves in another post). But I can certainly create something I find interesting.
These costumes show things I’m interested in but they also show something else: my level of skill. The red haired sack girl with bat wings and the sack girl in the Russian outfit are wearing costumes that are only available in the final and most difficult levels of the game.
Some times my costume choices are to show my expertise, but most of the time they are a structural choice. My mother’s characters are usually green, my sister’s characters are usually tan, and my light pink character with white bunny ears tends to stick out making my character easier to follow when we all play together. The same is true of option #2. The bright red hair makes the character stand out from the background.
In a world of customized characters, the choices are not necessarily about what represents the user but what the user can see.