Digital Dolls: Our Obsession with Making Hot Characters
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.
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 request 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, then, 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. Creator's 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!
And 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.