The Faces of Rust | Photo: Garry Newman, Taylor Reynolds, Rust
When you think about it, video games can be a lot like Halloween—an endless excuse for a “come as you aren’t” party. Depending on the game you are playing, you have the chance to look like anyone you want. So what happens when that gets taken away and, much like our everyday lives, we’re assigned a race and gender upon our “creation”? And what happens when you force your players to live with a change in identity?
Recently the creator of the game Rust, Gary Newman, instituted a new character mechanic: 50% of the characters (previously all male) would become female. But that 50% would be randomly assigned. And permanent. The game has done similar things in the past, randomly assigning both race and genital size to characters. (No, I don’t know why genital size was a relevant issue in this game.)
This enforced diversity has had some… interesting side effects. A choice quote from the change in race is the following: ‘”It makes me wish I’d set up some analytics to record how many times the N-word was used before and after the update,’ Newman said. ‘It was used quite a bit from what I’ve seen.”’ Let’s file that under “sentences I had to write that made me sad.” Some players of both genders are upset by the mandatory switch (including some women who have waited for female characters to be an option, and now are upset that the option exists but doesn’t apply to them). But Newman had something of a “yeah, sucks to be you” response that I can’t help but respect in its sheer honesty (and seeming acknowledgement that being a female, in fact, kinda sucks):
We understand that you may now be a gender that you don’t identify with in real-life. We understand this causes you distress and makes you not want to play the game any more. Technically nothing has changed, since half the population was already living with those feelings. The only difference is that whether you feel like this is now decided by your SteamID instead of your real-life gender.
I will admit to sometimes wishing I could log out on life and restart as a different character. One that didn’t earn gold at 77% the rate of another character.
This all raises interesting questions about what the purpose of a game avatar is supposed to be. Is it supposed to be a reflection of you? A reflection of the idealized “best” you? Something entirely different from yourself? Different research shows different answers to these questions. One study of World of Warcraft players found that men were three times more likely than women to select a character of the opposite gender. When doing so, these men were most likely to select “attractive avatars with traditional hairstyles—long, flowing locks as opposed to a pink mohawk” and even adopted slightly more emotional speaking styles, preferring to create “female avatars that were stereotypically beautiful and emotional.” However, this increased propensity to gender-switch may cycle right back to the male gaze:
In fact, it’s all about the butts. Because players see their avatars from a third-person perspective from behind, men are confronted with whether they want to stare at a guy’s butt or a girl’s butt for 20 hours a week. Or as the study authors put it in more academic prose, gender-switching men “prefer the esthetics of watching a female avatar form.” This means that gender-switching men somehow end up adopting a few female speech patterns even though they had no intention of pretending to be a woman.
So these male players don’t want to be women, they just want to watch them.
In other cases, avatar creation is about idealization. Holly Maxwell Pringle summarized earlier studies that found that players in games like Second Life built characters similar to themselves but that had idealized characteristics. Another study found that players rated the attributes of their World of Warcraft characters more highly than they rated their own. Maxwell Pringle found in her own study that individuals who already had high self-esteem were more likely to create avatars that were similar to themselves, presumably because they were already happy with the way they looked.
So at the end of the day, I don’t know what is “best” for character creation. Whether we should be allowed to delve into a fantasy world where we are ourselves, but better. Whether we should be able to walk in another woman’s shoes, but mainly for the express purpose of looking at that woman’s ass. (Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not what is best, but hey, if it means they don’t cat call actual women, I’m a bit more okay with it.) And despite my glee at the idea, I’m not even sure whether we should be forced to accept a randomly generated character, and experience the same whims of fate in our fantasy life that we do in our own lives. But I’m very intrigued by what Newman is doing, and by the results he is getting.
In an age where a female video game employee can be fired after being harassed regarding changes to a game she wasn’t even responsible for, I think the gaming community as a whole could benefit from some enforced empathy lessons.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not celebrating a brilliant little experiment in enforced empathy, she studies gender in popular culture.