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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Is It Bad To Treat Video Games As Digital Mirrors?

When I was a kid I used to spend much of my time lost in my own personal world of fantasy. My over-active imagination combined with my love of books, movies, and games kept me busy for countless hours, slaying imaginary dragons with imaginary swords, exploring imaginary castles with imaginary companions, maybe even saving an imaginary princess or two along the way….

As I got older and my interest in gaming became more in-depth, I naturally began transposing my personality, characteristics, and even physical traits onto the characters I played and vice versa. When I finally got to play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on my shiny new Nintendo 64 (the first console I ever owned), I imagined it was *me* getting to wield the Master Sword and save Princess Zelda from the clutches of Ganondorf. 

After playing Final Fantasy X for the first time, I began rolling up one leg of my pants just like Tidus. During my time with Sega’s Dreamcast, my obsession with Shenmue became so great that I started walking around with a pencil and notepad, jotting down clues and notes for imaginary mysteries in my head. 

 Even today in games such as Skyrim, Mass Effect, and Guild Wars I still can’t help borrowing traits from my own complexion when creating my characters. Looking back at my habitual self-insertion both now and when I was younger, I remember feeling embarrassed and ashamed. I mean, who would want to hang out with a guy who daydreams of fighting epic space battles against the Reapers or slaying dragons as the world’s last Dovakin?

But then I began asking myself why I was ashamed. Why was it wrong to want to be like Link or Commander Shepard or Tidus or Ryo Hazuki or whoever? I hate to use a term as clich├ęd as “I blame society” but really there wasn’t any other logical answer. Popular media had conditioned me to be ashamed and embarrassed for idolizing “fantasy” characters. Time spent in public schools made me all too familiar with terms such as “geek”, “nerd”, and “loser.” Even today there is a growing stigma against white male game protagonists and the gamers (like me) who enjoy playing as them.

Again I find myself asking why exactly I should be embarrassed or ashamed for preferring characters who tend to have similar physical and emotional traits as my own. Personally I have no problem with female protagonists or black protagonists, Asian, Hispanic, whatever. In fact some of my favorite game characters of the past decade such as Connor from Assassin’s Creed III, Wei Shen from Sleeping Dogs, and Faith from Mirror’s Edge are about as far from the typical “white male” stereotype as you can get.

I’m not really convinced that playing up one set of demographics means we have to shame and stigmatize another. There’s plenty of room within the vast world of video games for characters who are white, black, male, female, and otherwise. We shouldn’t be treating game developers like the nerdy kids at school just because they happen to create an abundance of characters that pander to the white male demographic. I think a much better approach would be to facilitate better communication between what minority groups want and how they can be better integrated into mainstream games.

Somehow there’s this conception that all game developers want to do is make tough burly white male action heroes and women with curves and big boobs. I say if we want the industry to grow up so badly we should be ready to grow up with it and stop slapping the same accusatory labels onto game developers that we so vigorously claim they slap onto us!

At the end of the day, I think we all enjoy being the hero in the games we play; no matter what shape, gender, or color that hero happens to be. Video game characters in particular can often act as digital extensions of our personalities and we shouldn’t be ashamed to embrace that fact simply for being white, male, female, or whatever.

Follow me on Twitter at @NateHohl and check out my other articles here at 'Thoughts of a Gamer' and at vgu.tv.

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