I am one of those people who loves character creation and can spend ages playing around with all the different options. I generally start any game by attempting two different things: I try to make a character who looks as much like me as possible, and then I try to make a character that looks appealing, but as unique as possible from what the majority of other players are choosing. In games that have a choice of different races, that usually means that I’ll choose an underplayed race; in games with limited or no choice of races, I’ll try to find some variation of customization that is uncommon.
Character creation and customization is an area that I think can have a very strong impact in whether a game seems welcoming to women or not. Although this really applies to both genders, it’s been my experience that women are much more likely than men to identify more personally with their character’s appearance, and therefore to feel more uncomfortable if the customization options cannot create a character they would like to represent them. I recall looking at one game’s character creation options for the female characters, and discovering that the only appearance options for the female characters were best described as “hot”, “bimbo”, and “hooker” while the men got to choose from three body types which varied from “skinny geek” to “muscular” to “incredible hulk”. The male character choices varied in body weight by at least 100lb and had completely different body types; the female character choices varied mainly in breast size and degree of lack of clothing. Confronted with these choices, I opted to give this particular game a miss entirely. Not only was I not happy about representing myself as any of the available appearance options, I also felt that they were a telling comment on the attitudes of the game’s designers towards women in general, and one that I strongly disliked.
In multiplayer games where others are seeing only the in-game character that represents us, the appearance of that character is extremely important. Humans are hardwired to draw instant and unconscious conclusions about other people based on their appearances, and if the only thing I have to represent me within a game is my character’s appearance, then I want to be absolutely sure that I’m comfortable with the way it represents me. If I am not given sufficient customization options to give me a choice that I’m comfortable with, then I’ll never really feel truly comfortable playing that game — or, as in the previous example, I won’t play it at all. Didn’t include any female appearances that don’t look provocatively sexy? Those who prefer not to represent themselves as blatantly sexy will not feel comfortable in your game. Didn’t include any skin tinting options except caucasian? Those who prefer not to represent themselves as pale skinned will feel unwelcomed in your game. And so on. Of course, it’s good to have the option to look sexy … but to be forced to do so all the time against one’s will is an entirely different thing.
As a game designer, I know very well that there are time and cost limitations that affect the choices games allow in character customization. Vary the body types too widely and you add an ongoing extra cost in ensuring that all new clothing fits all the body types. Vary the skin tones too much and you may come across odd tinting issues that make your characters look really bad when players try to tint to extremes. Add too many customization options and you may add lag when large numbers of players are in the same place and their compters have to render all of each others’ customizations. All of these are choices that design teams (or key people in them) decide how to deal with in each game, and every game will have different factors that influence what gets included. The fact that one particular option was not included doesn’t necessarily mean there’s any conscious discrimination or statement being made.
The fact remains however that the character creation options do still reflect the priorities and attitudes of the game team. At some point someone still decided, “THIS appearance option is the one we will do first, and THAT option is just not important enough that we can’t launch without it.” It may not have been maliciously intended, but it still represents what ultimate value judgments were made about what was seen as an essential feature and what wasn’t. More important, it’s irrelevant to the customer whether there was a technical restriction that meant you had to exclude certain options: they don’t know that, they simply see what made the final launch product. The customer enters the game, and can feel either comfortable or excluded before ever leaving the character creation screens.
I know from personal experience that character customization options can make or break a good game experience for me, and I doubt I’m alone in that, but I wonder how many game companies actually sit down and plan out this very important first impression. If we ensure that more women feel more comfortable wearing the virtual skins of our virtual worlds, would it ultimately translate to more women playing for longer, and a lower barrier of entry for women who are newcomers to gaming? I don’t know the answer to that, but doesn’t it seem worth investigating further?
Emily “Domino” Taylor