It's also that time of the year when diet and fitness programs advertise on TV, and we are encouraged to support various charities or programs. We make resolutions aimed at improving our person or our society. We have constant input and criticism of who we are and how we present ourselves to the world and with the current culture of collectivism and the internet, increasingly our personal choices are representative of our gender, race, sexual orientation, sexual identification, religion or ideology. Incoming twitter bomb on the woman who dares to tweet that she wants to lose weight and get a boob job in 2016!
However, in video games we truly do have a larger venue for expressive freedom that is less subject to public scrutiny. We are unlikely to become famous as non conformists, nor are we as likely to be denigrated. Are we closer to our authentic selves when we play games - particularly games that allow for character creation and a measure of self determination such as WRPG games like Elder Scrolls, Dragon Age, Fallout, WoW, etc.?
We have a choice to be anyone we want to be. Games usually provide choices of male or female, though increasingly some are providing "gender sliders" and even our choice of male or female usually offers gender variances. We can choose to be a slender male wood elf with long flowing hair and delicate features wearing a robe or we can choose to be a tall, large, bald female Nord who wields a sword and wears heavy armour. There are all kinds of choices regarding gender and gender presentation in games (and this dates back to the very early WRPG games). There are often racial options, and we are not bound by the current rules of "cultural appropriation" where it is now deemed inappropriate to wear another culture's attire or present as another race (I love the look of Saris, and do wish more games gave us multicultural options for attire.. but sadly, developers too may soon be accused of "cultural appropriation" if they allow us too much freedom in our digital worlds instead of sticking with purely fantasy cultures). In video games we are offered currently offered freedom with no judgment. We can be another race, and can often choose hairstyles or clothing styles of another race or culture. Want to wear dreads or an afro on your white character ... no problem. Want to have long blonde curly hair on your black male character... go for it. Sexual orientation is also flexible. Some games offer romance options and allow for varying sexual preferences, however most games treat us all as asexual... which is usually just a reflection of the technical limitations of games. Regardless of our choices of gender, gender presentation, sexual orientation, or race... we are usually treated as a "hero"... which really isn't a bad thing because in every day life, a large, muscular, bald female with a bad attitude in masculine attire is more often feared than respected. Most of us live lives undistinguished by fame, so being a hero (or sometimes even a villain) in a video game can take us outside of the morally gray lives we live into a realm of the simplicity of being a purer version of good or bad. Do our choices reflect a truer version of our authentic self?
(10 minutes with ESO's character creation can make this magnificent non-sexualized female character)
Many games offer a measure of freedom... to explore, to kill everything, to run or sneak past enemies. I'm noticing in ESO that I simply can't pass by someone else involved in a battle... I simply have to stop and help. The person can be several levels higher than I am and probably quite capable of defending themselves against the horde of enemies they seem to have attracted, but even if I stay in the background and lob a few arrows and healing spells, I find I have to stop and help. Possibly this is part of my "authentic self". I have choices and certainly no one would judge me for riding past this little battle while on my horse pretending that I just didn't notice. I was the same in MAG where I would often risk my own little digital man's life in order to revive a teammate or even to bolt towards certain death to cover a teammate while they took an objective to help the team. Would I rush into a burning building to save a stranger... I honestly have no idea! I also tend to find that like the crafting professions so that I can make outfits (and I usually want my outfit to somehow match). How I look is apparently more important than potions that provide boosts to my skills or abilities. Does this reflect the values of my authentic self? (Am I shallow and care more about how I look, rather than my skills?)
Is the concept of our "authentic self" even a reality? When given freedom to explore other options, I invariably choose an idealized reflection of myself in video games. I'm an older, heterosexual, white woman with graying hair. I enjoy being a woman and "performing" as a female... with pretty clothing and makeup which I find allow me to better express my individuality and even my moods. I don't feel bound by other female gender roles and tend towards being aggressive and usually choose killing over stealth or charm. Do my choices in video games reflect who I really am (am I naturally aggressive?) When given a choice to wear glasses on my character I often opt for this because in real life I wear glasses... since about the age of two. (When I was learning to walk I fell down a lot because I couldn't see objects in my way, my parents weren't sure if I was stupid or blind... turned out I had really bad eyesight). I don't like glasses, but accept them.. and even in my idealized world of games, I usually wear them when given a choice. I like who I am and am comfortable with who I am... but can we ever be our authentic selves given social influences, parental influences, culture, media and even laws? Is our authentic self constantly changing? I'm different from my 20 year old self, and I'm different even based on my moods. Is there a base of authenticity within me that is not influenced by external factors? Is being your authentic self really just being happy with who you are, even the negatives, and even if you conform to gender stereotypes or identify yourself based on your role in society (being a father, a lawyer, a son, daughter, feminist, communist, naturalist, terrorist or whatever). Is performing the role of a wife in my real life, something I've done almost half my life now, really performative if it makes me a happier, more complex person, and makes me feel more complete and closer to my authentic self?
Do the freedoms of character creation or my choice of actions offered in the context of the virtual world of video games reflect who I am, who I want to be, or who I could be? If I look closely, can I see reflections of my authentic self better stripped from the confines of societal expectations? Then again, maybe the question and possibilities is more important than the reality. While those freedoms are still limited by technology and developers, it still offers so many possibilities not found in the real world... and it's just fun to experiment. Movies, books, TV shows and video games can all offer compelling stories and interesting characters, but video games are unique in their ability to let each of us contribute to the creation of our own main character, to choose our actions and even create our own stories in many games. I love that some games continue to expand on this unique quality of gaming.
... then again, maybe I'm just being a pretentious shit and it really doesn't matter because games should be fun, entertaining and escapism from real life! :)