I find myself querying this from time to time when playing games (in a totally non-racist way) and it makes me wonder about why developers make characters the way they do like why are so many videogame characters white? Why are so many leads male? Why does a female lead have to be sexy, thin and attractive?
It's not so much a question about where these videogame conventions come from I can make a fair guess about why female characters tend to look sexy, thin and attractive, and why male characters tend to be white with short hair but rather a question about why so many developers decide to stick to these conventions.
I'll start by saying this isn't a huge issue for me, I'm relatively new to the Cblogs but generally when I write about proper subjects (i.e. intelligently) I usually take the position that there's a specific problem and a specific solution, in this case that's not so true. It's more about the opinion I have that games probably would be much more interesting if we had more diversity in characters whether good or bad diversity.
So when I say 'why am I always white?' or 'why am I always a hot sexy lady in a game?' what am I referring to? Chances are you probably already know what I'm on about or atleast have noticed but never really payed much attention to the types of characters you tend to 'be' in videogames. Typically they're quite different from most 'normal' people they're incredibly attractive, witty, always active and focused, and for some reason no matter what happens their hair stays perfect!!!
I'm talking about stuff like this:
I'm not saying there's anything wrong with sexy female leads or macho white dudes who make witty quips whilst gunning down dozens of assailants most of my favourite characters from the last fifteen odd years of gaming have been from one or the other. I loves them guys, most of them fit quite well in their respective games but sometimes the sense of character can seem a little forced especially when regardless of what their in-game job/occupation is supposed to be they look like a model or a movie star.
Developers will sometimes 'squeeze' a character into an archetype, even when it isn't usually necessary, just because they feel that it would be better appealing to audiences. So, for example, rather than having that big action adventure game feature a black lead character with an interesting personal appearance and backstory they choose just to have a sort of generic, white male because they know people are used to that and won't be offended. It's not even really a race issue either, I mean when was the last time you heard a main character with a Texan accent? Or a New Yorker accent? ...Or a French accent for that matter?
Typically you don't; lead characters usually end up being drawn from a list of possible qualities, most of which make them end up seeming bland and generic, with token, secondary characters left to fill the void and add some personality. Typical hero qualities include:
Having short (usually brown) hair
Gravelly voice or silent
A slight American accent/no accent
...I'll refer you to the picture of guys above ^^^^^^^^^ YEP, that about sums it up!
I'm not going to list all the qualities because there's no hard and fast rules about character design just principles developers tend to unintentionally work by much the way TV and Film have archetypal characters so too does the games industry. Generally videogame leads are usually pretty generic typically the rule is the higher the budget the more bland, the more generic, the more 'white action hero!' a character will be if they're a man that is. Women, women typically are always sexy, attractive, well-proportioned and usually make the odd sly, saucy comment once in awhile! It's comfortable, it's something most of us who've been gaming for years are fairly content with even if it may miff us at times.
But do we need that...?
I'm not saying get rid of it completely, or that every new game has to have a completely original lead from the last afterall there's only so many times you can have a black lead or an oriental lead before that too would become clichι, and then we'll be onto developers increasingly making characters weirder and weirder to remain original perhaps the 8th Modern Warfare will include a middle-aged black male lead with peg leg and eye patch or the 40th Barbie game will include an alcoholic Chinese waiter who wears tiny shoes as the lead (Ken better watch out, Barbie's standards have really dropped lately!) seriously, before long trying to be original with every new game would get old, and people would miss familiar character types.
No, I'm not suggesting that. I'm just saying mix things up a little, trying to add little touches of originality to lead characters that make them seem more real, more unique sure the next big Lara Croft style, action/adventure game with a female lead has to include a lead who's in shape and would (presumably) look attractive naked, but does she really need to wear so little clothing? Couldn't she be a stickler for always having a safety harness on? Does she really need to have blonde or brown hair? Couldn't she have tattoos or strange piercings or pink hair...?
Likewise couldn't the next Modern Warfare cast you as a black special forces operative rather than a white one? Or a Hispanic American? He could still be British or American there are plenty of black soldiers in the British army, and plenty of black and Hispanic men and women in the American army. What difference would it make? Wouldn't he/she make for a more interesting character...?
Pretty much all these ideas are going to sound strange, because as gamers we're not really used to much diversity in our leads or even in our secondary characters for that matter. But in sticking to the 'safe zone' of blandness when it comes to character design developers are really missing out on creating especially memorable characters, afterall one of the things they seem to be overlooking with generally making most characters blandly attractive is the fact that horrendously ugly people stick in the mind just as much as horrendously pretty people do obviously with a different kind of reaction, but they do stick, and if you're trying to create a memorable narrative experience that people are going to want to pick up and play over and over again
then memorable is what you want.
So what sort of characters would be interesting/different? Well pretty much anybody who's under-represented in videogames today so basically any sort of ethnicity, women, ugly people, old people and the disabled.
Pushing the Modern Warfare thing a bit further, what about playing as a female soldier? - perhaps a support soldier forced into a front-line role who must cope with special forces operation or even just regular combat operations. It might sound a tad ridiculous but no more so than the Russians attempting to invade America in the second one was. Plus it'd certainly make for a compelling story-line perhaps even bringing in more female gamers, and since MW main characters don't usually say anything when you do play as them it really wouldn't make much difference to the feel of the game.
Alternatively, what about a black lead? Or a black female lead? I feel like this is an obvious choice I mean we're used to a lot of secondary characters being black or oriental to add some balance to games but what about a black lead? Typically there haven't really been that many games involving black female characters as playable characters (Resident Evil 5 being an obvious exception) though even in the case of Sheva her part in the narrative was mostly sidelined by Chris hogging the limelight. Alternatively the lead could be any number of nationalities or ethnicities when's the last time an ethnic Armenian took the lead? Or a Mongolian woman?
Appearance is also an issue in games like I was saying: Women in videogames are super hot ridiculously, stupidly hot, now this may appeal to the average horny teenager but it's not very realistic and doesn't really represent the kind of real people who play the games these 'super hotties' are in.
Now, woah, woah, woah your horses, I'm obviously not saying every game from here on out most have ATLEAST one Beth Ditto sequence.
Totally and EMPHATICALLY not
that would be horrendous, rather it'd just sort of be more interesting if some of the girls in games didn't look like supermodels is that too ridiculous a thing to say...? I feel sort of dirty now, like I've violated my oath to the Gaming Hierarchy or something. I mean it's sort of taken for granted that all girls in videogames will be stunningly hot, wear very little clothes (even in the depths of winter) and usually like to make suggestive comments constantly... but at the same time it's not very realistic. It's fantasy. Not that we shouldn't indulge in fantasy from time to time but more normal looking people in games would probably help establish them more as a serious medium.
*DROOLS* ^^^^^ Realistic representation of woman!!!!!! : O
It's also strange that there aren't more scarred or disabled characters in games given that many of the biggest sellers are FPS and a lot of them war FPS, it's odd that more games don't tackle the issues that arise from warfare and people generally trying to kill each other, such as horrific life-long injuries.
Probably the only character I can think of who is historically characterised as having been dreadfully scarred is that of 'Zhou Tai' in Dynasty Warrior, based on the historical figure of the same name, a general who served in the Wu army. At some point in the service of Wu (and this actually occurs in the book) Zhou is grievously wounded in protecting Sun whatshisname (that bit's not that important.) What's important is that the book is vague about him being scarred - apparently dreadful wounds were inflicted on him but it's vague about the amount and where, and since Koei have to try and make each general in Dynasty Warriors as unique as possible they tend to pay attention to every little detail from the book (especially since most generals are described in little more than a sentence or two.) So though they have some need to be faithful to the source text they have near enough complete creative freedom and it's basically upto Koei what to include or exclude and how faithful to the book they want to be, and in Zhou Tai's case whether to include and where to put the scar(s).
Koei have interpreted this in different ways in pretty much every iteration of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms games and the Dynasty Warriors series. Here's their 'designer scar' version from DW 6:
And here's the slightly less attractive alternative interpretation from ROTK 9:
In the first he strikes quite an attractive figure with the scar appearing quite superficial really, and to be honest he kinda looks like a Japanese male model who's had plastic surgery to intentionally give himself a 'cool' scar. The second one, not so much, apologies for the quality of the image it was the best I could get, but you get the sense that he's a grizzled veteran, and more of an interesting character. He also has a plainer, more natural oriental appearance he does look like he could've been a Chinese general. Something else you can't really tell from the quality of the image is that his face is potmarked in the second-one I guess to imply the injuries he's sustained...? Overall he has one of the most interesting and unique portraits in ROTK 9, and that makes him fairly memorable.
Anyway, moving on... let's talk about AGE:
Don't get me wrong I hate old people as much as the next guy, but they do sort of feel under-represented in games somewhat sure you get the odd one, but come on there's are loads of the buggers out there!
To be quite honest I don't really know where old people could specifically 'fit' into games I'm sure must people would be creeped out by elderly love interests and nobody wants to play as an old person because you'd probably be really slow and tired a lot. I guess if somebody wanted to do either of those ideas they might sell a few more copies ...
Yeah... ok, so maybe not.
But generally I think they sort of fall into the same catchment as the rest of the groups that I've talked about - even though I can't immediately see potential areas where older leads could be implemented (since, let's face it most games are about doing really active, exciting things), it's still possible that say a detective game like LA Noire, or a movie game like Heavy Rain, could feature prominent older characters who could add some character to a game.
I think the problem is developers tend to focus on making games as if they were porn - everything has to be appealing to the eye: the graphics, the controls, the interface, the story, the characters. Things have to grab you immediately and make you WOW!
otherwise they're not considered good enough, when what we really need to develop is a sense that games can be more mature, and potentially less visually attractive (less models running about in skimpy clothing, less male action heroes) yet still be intellectually and creatively attractive - because afterall uniqueness and originality can be just as much of a pull as the superficial aspects of a game, they just do it much more subtly.