“Caitlin, please, just pick a name.”
It’s a Friday night and I’m playing Divinity Original Sin 2 with two of my girlfriends. We’re all huge fans of the franchise, but this is our first time playing the game together. They’re ready to start.
Me? I’m busy agonising over whether my character should have a killer bob or flowing tresses, pondering whether she would have a bad arse scar from her adventuring days or perhaps a mysterious name like “Mithrellye” and, very importantly, making sure to choose the appropriate instrument.
This isn’t the first time I’ve laboured over character creation. While I also love games with a set character like Tomb Raider or The Witcher, I find creating my own character from scratch one of the truly unique parts of what makes games so immersive. However, over the years I’ve also started to notice a bit of a trend with all these characters I’ve created.
To put it bluntly, they all look like me. Or at least, a slightly more idealised or cool version of me. I have three playthroughs of Mass Effect, and all three Shepards look like they came out of the same weird clone factory. Line up my Dragon Age characters and you’ve got yourself a pretty challenging game of spot-the-difference.
All these characters might have different haircuts or names, but the similarity is hard to ignore. Once I realised this, I started wondering why. Is it vanity, identity transference, or something completely different at play? From talking with friends, as well as trawling my way through research and the depths of some sketchy Reddit threads, it seems that I’m certainly not alone in this approach, but there are also many players who take the opposite view.
For those of us who choose to make avatars that resemble ourselves, the most repeated and obvious reason is that often we want to be able to imagine ourselves in the game and story. We want to pretend it's us liberating the mages in Dragon Age, saving the universe in Mass Effect or slaying all the dragons possible in Skyrim. To do so, it helps to have an avatar or character that accurately reflects and represents us.
For those who choose to play as some other self, the reason is often the exact opposite. Games act as an opportunity to be someone else, to roleplay a completely different character or to put yourself in the shoes of someone whose experience is different to your own. You can see this in the significant proportion of men who choose female avatars 1 with reasons ranging from a classic “they are aesthetically nicer” to “variation” from their standard everyday life.
We all play games for different reasons, whether it’s a form of self-expression, an opportunity to be someone else or a chance to be the space cowboy you’ve always wanted to be. During creating our characters for DOS2 one of my girlfriends commented she wanted to play as Fane because she wanted to try being “a skelly boi”. On the surface this was because obviously skeletons are cool, but when I asked her later she mentioned she thought playing a character so different from herself would encourage her to alter her play style and get something different from the game.
Meanwhile, I’m stuck trying to figure out if I have more of a heart or round face.
Caitlin Cronin is a games expert at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI), a Melbourne museum dedicated to the intersection of art and culture in film, television, and games.