The Joy and Liberation of Customizing Your Avatar

Typically, I hate choosing—whether it’s what restaurant to eat at or which song to play at a party. Even swiping on potential dates inspires anxiety. I just don’t know. My indecisiveness stems from my irrational fear of choosing wrongly, or perhaps it’s FOMO on other options.

At the beginning of the pandemic, this hesitation ceased to exist: I swiftly chose the Horde. More specifically, a male, Blood Elf, warlock. Once the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned against social activities like bar-hopping with friends or meeting strangers in person who I’d met online, I returned to playing World of Warcraft to pass the time. I had stopped playing seven years ago, apparently trading one vice for another. It wasn’t out of a lack of interest but rather a lack of self-control. I was unable to play for an hour without it resulting in an all-nighter.

Ironically, in an immersive virtual world of seemingly infinite options, an indecisive adult can still very much be a decisive gamer. Playing online, I no longer felt pressured by the opinions or judgments of other people. My innate desire to please others was silenced by the thrill of unleashing demonic servants to slay them. I was guided by pleasure instead of what might make others like me. To many, a gamer’s identity is often limited to “person who plays video games,” but within this is a multitude of unique experiences. Players can navigate different existences and identities as quickly as it takes to change the game they’re playing. You’re able to immerse yourself in fantasy while still feeling an interpersonal connection to the avatar by controlling their actions. Players manage to lose themselves while never losing their sense of self.

When the Gamecube came out in 2001, I inadvertently began revealing secret personality interests when playing with my quadruplet twin brothers. Though our looks were fraternal, our intrinsic differences never materialized so much as when it came time to choose a character in Super Smash Brothers. Three distinctly colored user icons were placed on Samus, Donkey Kong, and Link, awaiting one player to start the match. I took a deep breath and released mine on Zelda.

“You picked a girl!” one of my brothers aggressively pointed out like I was blind.

“Oh,” I said, changing the color of her dress from pink to black, as if that made Zelda less of a woman. “I just want to try her powers,” I told them.

My cover-up excuse manifested when I witnessed the character swirl herself into a gorgeous sapphire diamond-reflecting shield, or when jumping and creating an explosive storm cloud, reminiscent of my favorite X-Men character, Storm. After pressing D + Down and transforming into her alter ego, Sheik, in a skintight suit resembling a masculine Catwoman, I refused to fight as any other character, despite their ridicule—until unlocking Mewtwo, who is coincidently genderless but won me over with their telekinetic abilities. Samus was the unanimous favorite among my brothers, but it would be years before they realized that “he” was, in fact, a woman in cyborg armor. Although gender is effectively purposeless—if not irrelevant—in gaming, my brothers reflected society’s obsession with forcing others to choose between pink or blue.

I didn’t identify as a girl, but Zelda was one of the few characters whose form and powers satisfied me. It’s true you don’t need to have an attachment with a protagonist to enjoy playing them, but it takes the fun out of the game for some of us. Author Keith Stuart describes this internal conflict of identity paradox in a 2014 piece in The Guardian: “Far Cry 3, for example, is one of the greatest mainstream action-adventure games ever made in terms of its beautifully modeled sandbox environment and interlocking AI systems. But the plot is riddled with disturbing colonialist subtexts, and the lead character is a horrendous dude-bro. I don’t want to identify with that shithead. The term ludonarrative dissonance is widely mocked within the industry, but it is a depressingly common phenomenon – and when players see no link between the narrative sequences and their own in-game reality, questions of identification and association become more problematic.”

For me, part of the experience was choosing characters that fulfilled a fantasy, in ways less explainable than simply choosing female characters because “I’m gay.” Otherwise, perhaps, I would have tried harder with the useless Princess Peach. In a study published in Information, Communication, and Society, researchers examined the online behavior of 375 participants as they played a custom-built quest in World of Warcraft; 23 percent of the male participants and 7 percent of female participants chose avatars of the opposite sex. The study also found that gender-swapping was more likely to occur with older, more experienced gamers. Players’ reasonings varied: Men enjoyed the “aesthetic” and the attention received, while women who decided to play as male appreciated the attention not received. Players liked indulging in a different experience. Interestingly enough, men choosing female avatars were more likely to gravitate to feminine, “beautiful” aesthetics and speak with more emotional phrases and smile emoticons. Even those who did not seek to mask their identity still reinforced idealized, gendered notions of society by choosing modelesque physical traits and taking a softer, passive approach to communication. But regardless of the avatar or how a player interacted, their subconscious actions embodied the tendencies of their offline gender in areas like movement or jumping frequency.

The way their interactions transformed online emphasized the significance of the pretense in gaming of feeling authentic and stimulating. Men had no problem choosing a troll or a goblin when playing as a male character, but when switching to a female player, they designed sexualized avatars as though choosing a prospective romantic partner. Kotaku reporter Nathan Grayson writes in a 2014 article about why he chooses female characters: “Physically speaking I’m attracted to women, but that’s not usually what drives me when I’m rooting through my virtual skin closet to decide what I’m gonna wear to the big bash. I guess, though, the long and short of it is that I’m already me in real life. I like the idea of seeing worlds—far flung or close to home—through other people’s eyes. Video games let me do that, even if only on a very low (and oftentimes not entirely indicative or realistic) level.”

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