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Digital Dolls: Our Obsession With Making Hot Characters

I love to explore the relationship between the fictional worlds we create for movies, books, games, etc. and the real world.


I wrote an article a few months ago offering advice about how to make your characters in Skyrim more attractive. Since then, I've had a number of requests from players for slider settings for various NPCs from the game, custom slider settings, and additional tips and suggestions for characters not covered in the tutorial.

I also wrote an article about how to change your character's appearance and name on PC after you'd already started playing the game for players who were not satisfied with their original decisions.

Together, those two articles have had over 150,000 hits. Those numbers, combined with the number of requests I have personally received for assistance, has caused me to ponder our strange obsession with creating beautiful characters.


Playing Dress Up

Obviously, this obsession is restricted to a relatively small number of games, typically role-playing games and MMOs, though there are a number of other games that allow for customizing your character's appearance. It is not a new feature, by any means, though it seems to be slightly more popular than it used to be owing to the popularity of game franchises like Saint's Row, The Elder Scrolls and Mass Effect.

Giving players the ability to customize their appearance serves the important purpose of increasing the player's immersion in a game by creating a bond of identification with the character: the player is given the opportunity to inject something they have imagined directly into the game so, in a way, that character is—at least in part—of their own creation.

Typically, in RPGs, your avatar is depicted in the inventory screen and any changes that you make to your character's equipped weapons and armor are reflected in your avatar's appearance. (Skyrim is a notable exception.) This avatar is known as a 'paper doll'. Players who express an unusual preoccupation with the appearance of their avatar, therefore, are often accused of 'playing dress up' or 'playing with dolls', the implication being that such activities are less important and to a certain degree distasteful when there are 'more important' tasks at hand, such as optimizing your character's build.

But is the desire to create a beautiful character really that unusual or suspicious? Over the years I've participated in a number of threads about the subject of gender choices, character appearance, and role-playing style and come to the following conclusions about the question: Why do you want your character to be beautiful?


A Toon With a View

The most obvious answer is a prurient interest in the appearance of our characters and that intuition is not without strong justification. I am certain that this is a factor in many gamer's inclinations based on their own self-reports in various forum threads on the subject.

A typical response is along the lines of "If I have to stare at my character's back-side for hundreds of hours, I might as well enjoy the view." This observation is corroborated by the popularity of the plethora of 'nude patches' and revealing character garment mods available for download for PC gamers. For these players, the character's gender is really a matter of indifference to them from a role-playing perspective: their decision is based more on aesthetic than narrative considerations. For these players, the character is an object which allows them to have agency in the game world but for which they have no strong identification.

For the record, this response applies equally to male and female players of any age and sexual orientation. I have seen reports made by people of both genders, all orientations, and a wide range of ages who admitted that their gender choice was based on purely aesthetic considerations, so it is not something that 'boys' do, it's something that people, in general, do.


Self-Inflicted Hawtness

Although titillation might seem like a satisfactory explanation for the phenomenon, it isn't. In fact, you might be surprised to discover that I don't even think that it's the primary explanation.

In the forums, it is frequently players adopting the role of a character of their own gender that requests assistance with their character's appearance and it is very common for girl gamers to use and endorse provocative female attire. The frequency of these requests corroborates my own experience: the majority of requests for assistance with slider settings that I receive are from people who want to make a character of their own gender look better. (Wielding the mystical might of Occam's Razor, I will presume that the majority of these people are straight.)

Typically, when someone asks me for help, they don't want their character to be beautiful so that they can ogle them lasciviously, but so that they can admire their own good looks with a feeling of pride and satisfaction. I don't mean this in a bad way. I think it's perfectly natural for players to want their characters to look good, just as real people want to look good in real life. It's a basic urge that is in all likelihood hard-wired into our brains.

I think there is a very simple explanation for this: most people, in real life, are not happy with their appearance. It is rarely—if ever—possible for most people to achieve a satisfactory appearance, in their own eyes, through their own efforts. (We'll leave the psychological ramifications of this for another article.) In essence, avatar hotness is a solution to an intractable real-world problem.

Video games that allow us to customize our character's appearance provide us with the ability to solve this problem in a satisfactory way. So long as we're immersed in the game, the problem of our appearance has been resolved for us. Video games thus give us the opportunity to vicariously enjoy being beautiful in the same way that they allow us to vicariously enjoy being powerful, talented, and heroic.


Why Isn't Anybody Staring?

But I think our fascination with hotness goes beyond our voyeuristic tendencies and the desire to be beautiful for beauty's sake, because if there's one thing that players who like to make their characters look good love to do, it's share their characters with others via the ubiquitous social artifact, the screenshot, or by parading their avatars online in multi-player games.

Screenshots of beautiful characters and beautiful avatars in MMOs enhance our own social status by conferring on us a glimmer of the character's beauty. By creating a character of striking good looks we can direct viewers to our own consummate taste and aesthetic sensibilities. We can use the character's beauty, in other words, to enhance our own online appeal.

This frequently leads players from making merely beautiful characters to characters of unusual or arresting beauty: characters who draw our attention not only because they have nice features, but because those features are enhanced by unusual markings, elaborate hair-styles, or outlandish attire. (Often, players go to the other extreme, creating characters that are particularly repulsive or brutal-looking, but the motivation is the same.)



Characters with this kind of appeal typically have stories to go along with them. Creators can't help but think about the personality and history of the character as they're designing them as they struggle to uncover what is unique or engaging about that character. Engaging characters with a history and personality? That's starting to sound dangerously like some kind of art form. Are screenshots of beautiful game characters the sketchbook doodles of the new millennium? Are they some sort of gateway drug leading to the creation of stories, novels, Machinomics, and Machinima?

I think anybody that is concerned about the appearance of their character is somewhere on this path to artistic invention. It may be prurient, at first, or blandly narcissistic, or just plain shocking, but as one develops and refines one's skill at molding digital clay one naturally becomes increasingly interested in the creative ends toward which one can direct their energies. One develops a genuine interest in and appreciation for art.

One also develops real-world skills. It isn't long before just making your character look good isn't enough. One has to learn about lighting, color, and composition to make screenshots that really stand out. In the pursuit to create gorgeous screenshots, proto-artists learn how to use image editors and modeling applications, and even pick up rudimentary animation skills. Attention turns away from the character itself to secondary image elements, like background textures, props, and environmental effects.


You've Unlocked a New Achievement: Artist!

I think this is why it is important that games give players the ability to shape their characters.

While giving players the ability to inject themselves more fully into fictional worlds and solving the problem of beauty are useful and desirable in their own right, customizing characters does more than this: it helps to liberate players from the narrow objectives of the game and inspire interest in the beauty of the real world and the creation of real art. It is a stepping-stone, in other words, to real artistic interest and ability.

And I don't think that's at all bad.

Are You a Tweaker?


j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on January 09, 2013:

@carl: I'm pretty much the same way. The more freedom the developer gives me, the more I like a game in general. Freedom to create, explore, solve problems my own way, choose alternate narrative paths...all things I really enjoy, and I'll put up with weaker narratives, less polished graphics, bugs, and clunky gameplay to get those experiences.

Character customization is a relatively simple mechanic to implement because it has no tangible effect on gameplay but it can make a world of difference to the player's investment in the game. I wish it were a standard feature in most games. Then again, I'd probably just end up spending more time gaming and less time working. :)

Thanks for the comment.

carl on January 08, 2013:

I already am an artist and I like the conclusion you've come to.

Creativity is basically the reason why I'm not interested in games that don't allow you to customize your character, including their looks. Skyrim, on the other hand, I can play for hours despite being pretty bored with the story and dialogue by now, because every new character makes a different game.

darkdragon on August 10, 2012:

I relies this has little to do with the the discussion at hand but how the hell did you make a dark elf look good that's so amazing

j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on July 24, 2012:

I couldn't have said it better myself, YourHero: beautiful is generic. I see plenty of modded characters that have flawless skin and perfect makeup and hair and I just find them boring and lifeless. I like my characters to tell a story, to reveal themselves through their imperfections. Your character's personality and history should have an impact on their appearance. Thanks for reading and replying.

YourHero on July 24, 2012:

I don't spend too much time customizing character appearance, but I do try to make my character's look fit the concept I have for them. I make all kinds of characters, but I like them to be unique in some way. Beautiful is actually quite generic in virtualand..

Almost every pro-wrestling game since the late '90s have had detailed customization as well, and i've played a few of those. Made all kinds of zany characters.

j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on July 10, 2012:

@Shaun: I play characters of both genders, but I'm always glad to have the option to play a female character. I think there are a lot of reasons for people to prefer playing a character of the opposite gender and the more of these reasons you have, the more likely you are to do so.

I think one of the most important factors in that decision, and one that is not generally well understood, is the difference between using your character as a proxy for yourself, and using the character as a literary object. If every time you play Skyrim you are imagining that you ARE that character (ie. using them as a proxy for yourself), you're going to have a harder time playing the opposite gender, and if it's the only way you play games, you might have trouble understanding why people play characters of a different gender.

If you're like me and you play Skyrim not to identify as that character, but to create a character different from yourself and to create a narrative around them (ie. using the character as a literary device), playing a character of the opposite gender is not hard or even unusual. It's just a character that you find interesting. I've always been attracted to strong female characters, like Ripley in Aliens and Scully in X-Files, so creating a strong female character doesn't seem odd to me: I'm creating a narrative about that character, not pretending that I am that character. It's the same thing you do when you're writing a novel or screenplay. If I happen to come up with a cool concept for a male character, I'll gladly play that character instead.

The other factor that people often overlook is the fact that it is easier to care about characters of the opposite gender (or the same, depending on your orientation). We seem to be hard-wired that way. (Judging by the way my gf reacts when her favorite male characters in tv shows are threatened. :) )That desire to protect adds an emotional charge to the experience. I work harder to protect my female characters than I do my male characters because I don't want bad things to happen to them with more intensity.

The more obvious factors are the desire for novelty (since, as you mentioned, there tend to be far more male protagonists than female protagonists in video games), and the aesthetic factor (people of the opposite gender are just nicer to look at; again, depending on your orientation).

The last reason is a little more complex and psychological: who would you rather spend your time with? Most guys would rather hang out with other guys, but there is a sizable minority that would rather hang out with women. If that's true in RL, it's going to carry over into your gaming experience as well.

Like I said at the start of the post, if you have enough of these reasons working together at the same time, it's not surprising if you always gravitate to playing female characters if you're a male, or male characters if you're a female. I don't think any of these reasons are odd or suspect, they just seem odd to someone with different motivations.

Shaun on July 07, 2012:

Good article, I was hoping to find an awnser here as to why I do what I do In almost any Video game whith sex choice I always pick female even though Im male (The on exception is Mass Effect I tried to make myself and I mean c'mon im never gonna get to have fun times with Yvonne Strahovski in real life so I did it in ME instead) and straight but I don't think I did. Wish I knew maybe its because Im sick of over masculinity in video games (Im loking at you Gears of War) where all main characters are males, maybe I just want it to be a good looking ass kicking female instead of some manly man. Either way good article.

j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on June 03, 2012:

@illahstrait: I'm more of a philosopher than an artist, so I tend to examine everything I do very critically. Not always a good thing. Thanks for reading.

illahstrait on April 11, 2012:

Your article was very well written and even somewhat inspirational. As an artist I seldom think of the reasons why I do certain things, I just do them based off instinct.

Symph on April 01, 2012:

I too play mainly in third person. I still am undecided to use first person or third for bow though,I can do well in both, but I think first..well MAY be more fun, but third person, I can see my character :D

TomAraya81 on April 01, 2012:


i play most of the game in 3rd person (except when i use my bow) and i like to have a character (male or female) that looks good in everything: face, eyes, body, hair, armor, weapons. btw i love to tweak the world as well with some good improvement mods. :)

i always did that since morrowind...

j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on March 28, 2012:

@William: I don't know if you are in the minority. There are a lot of people who share your opinion. I tweak my character constantly, but I used to draw all the time, before I ever got into video games, so it's probably just in my nature. I spend most of my time in 3rd person playing Skyrim, Oblivion, etc., and just switch to 1st for using ranged attacks (for the most part). LOL at the Mario Kart reference. Thanks for reading.

William157 from Southern California on March 28, 2012:

To your point about people making avatars that are their same sex, but prettier: One of my female friends simply refuses to play any character in any game that isn't a hot female. I have to say it really limits her options in games like League of Legends or Mario Kart.

I'm probably in the minority here, but I personally don't see the point in customizing a character ad infinitum in games where your character isn't seen much. In games like Oblivion and Skyrim, most of the game is played in first-person.

Though, when I played Skyrim I did make the most ugly, scarred characters I've ever seen in the game, roleplaying that he was the scourge of the land.