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Customising the Player – Building a New Video Game Identity

Nur Adlina Abdul Rahman

Despite adoring video games, I hesitate to call myself a “gamer”. There’s no real criteria for being one, of course, but video games have played a significant role in my life. I first got my hands on a Gameboy after my older brother received one for his birthday, and I made damn sure that I did too. I recently studied video games while on exchange, designing and building a small one as part of the coursework. I’m hosting a video game themed party soon, for Pete’s sake.

Yet the label “gamer” doesn’t feel like it’s mine, as though it doesn’t fit me.

Gamer identity is complex, but it shouldn’t be. What if you’ve held a controller, enjoyed it and felt like games are important to you? Congratulations, you’re a gamer. The title of “gamer” can – and should – belong to anybody who wants it.

Diversity has always existed amongst those who play video games, and it is only growing. Research in 2016 shows that women make up 41% of the gaming community. As at 2015, one third of gamers in the United States came from an ethnic minority background. Japan featured in the golden age of video games by producing entities such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, and remains heavily involved in the industry today.

The complexity of gamer identity comes from the people who have a rabid possessiveness over it, who see gaming as their niche activity that others could never appreciate. Many of the first gamers were the nerdier kids who found a safe haven in arcades, where gaming became an outlet that paired well with their fascination of technology. Though the demographics of gaming are completely different today, the stereotype of a skinny, pimply white boy in glasses is one that has remained.

Gamers pride themselves on being different, and perhaps that’s why diversity is seen as an enemy to much of the community. If there was greater representation in gaming, all of a sudden there would be no unique gamer identity. Without it, people lose their exclusive way of setting themselves apart from the crowd, becoming much more normal. Shock horror!

I’ll never justify some gamers’ quest to keep the community exclusive, but I can understand it. More than any other medium, gaming is a personal experience. Books allow you to read a character’s thoughts as if they’re your own, but it’s not your story. Film and television add the immersive elements of visuals and sound, however you’re still an outsider with no control over the characters and events. Video games have the aforementioned intimate connection with the protagonist, sound and images, but give the player the opportunity to interact with a new world. Whether or not a player’s choices make a difference to the game’s end, they’ve made the experience their own by taking the game in the direction they wanted to, within the limits of the code. With virtual reality increasing in quality and popularity, this immersion is becoming greater. It’s no wonder that people feel that games are closely linked to their identity, and feel that they have to protect it.

As a result, when others criticise games, ask for representation, or suggest any type of change, it is perceived as a personal attack on the gamers who have enjoyed the status quo. Such controversies have brought out an ugly side of the community that is incomparable to other industries. I’m referring to the #Gamergate movement of 2014. One of the women targeted, Zoë Quinn, had published a text-based game Depression Quest, where the player makes decisions as they navigate their day-to-day routine while living with depression. The game is based on Quinn’s personal experience and is a pay-as-you-feel purchase, with part of the profits going to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. After its release, Quinn received a barrage of death and rape threats, and even fled her house after somebody leaked her personal information. The same people who often throw out the phrase, “if you don’t like it, don’t play it” couldn’t follow their own advice, opting to harass somebody from afar.

Exclusivity contradicts the very heart of video games. If gaming is about escaping the real world for something different, then diversity within the industry provides more opportunities to do so well, bringing fresh ideas and perspectives. Why is it that gamers are so willing to jump into a fantasy world with dragons, but not play a game with a protagonist of a different gender, race or sexuality?

Maybe it’s too confronting. Undertaking a dangerous, fantasy journey is a nice kind of stress, because as soon as the controller drops from your hands and the console is switched off, the dragon no longer exists. Perhaps facing harassment when playing as a woman or person of colour is worse because for once, you see yourself reflected in the villain more than the hero. While these experiences might not be light-hearted fun, video games ceased being mindless entertainment a long time ago, often delivering emotional blows to their audience. Surely then, games can bridge gaps between people and build empathy, which should be utilised. Art, after all, can change the world.

But while diverse representation could show a harsher side of the world, it is does not prevent games from being enjoyable. Life is Strange, one of the most critically acclaimed games of 2015, features two female protagonists, both of whom experience same-gender attraction. A lighter and more humorous example is the dating simulator Dream Daddy, whichlets you play as a dad dating other dads in your cul-de-sac, several of which are people of colour. It received a 9/10 rating on Steam. Diversity often enhances games, instead of holding them back.

Even so, better acknowledgement of forgotten members of the community doesn’t mean that the games themselves have to change much, as conflicting as it sounds. Women are already playing them. Ethnic minorities are already playing them. LGBTQIA+ identifying people are already playing them. That alone says that there is pre-existing appeal to the content we already have. In the latest game in the Professor Laytonseries, a female protagonist was cast for the first time. The change is speculated to be because the creators realised that the majority of their fan-base was female, and wanted to create a game to suit that demographic. While most people loved the new protagonist – impressive given she had to live up to her predecessor – the game’s overall atmosphere changed for the worse, losing the fantastic and borderline absurd feeling of previous instalments in the series to become cutesier. Having a female protagonist was a fantastic step in the right direction, but everything surrounding her was altered when it shouldn’t have been.

And that’s the key point – we’ve always been here, and we like what is being produced for the most part. Though there are elements of games that need work, above all else it’s the culture surrounding the medium that needs to change, so one sort of gamer is not regarded as being superior to another. People shouldn’t be interrogated in order to prove their gamer identity, and shouldn’t face online harassment the second their race or gender is revealed.

The heroes stick up for those who are pushed aside. Why shouldn’t the players do the same?

The writer would like to acknowledge and thank Rebecca Stirrup – who teaches at the University of Leeds and is completing her PhD on Gamified Education – for taking the time to chat with her about this piece.

Maddy Luke

The author Maddy Luke

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