Impossible Identities: The Limitations of Character Creation Systems

Presented at the 2017 Digital Games Research Association conference in Melbourne, Australia.

Please also read the extended abstract here.

Also see Barker's 2016 work on character creation and chronic health conditions from DiGRA Queensland.

If you use a screen reader, go here to access a version of this article with full slide descriptions.

Alayna Cole, University of the Sunshine Coast, email a cole at usc dot edu dot au, twitter at AlaynaMCole. Dakoda Barker, University of the Sunshine Coast, email d barker at usc dot edu dot au, twitter at JiroJames. Jessica Zammit, University of Wollongong, email j zammit at uow dot edu dot au, twitter at ZammitJess.

Character Creation Systems: What are they good for? More interesting and nuanced narratives. Claim to grant the player freedom. Environment still controlled by the choices of the designers.

While pre-designed characters allow players to identify and empathise with the lived experiences of these characters, the blank slate offered by player-created characters allow for 'projection'.

Character Creation Systems: What are they good for? It is important for developers to understand what they should include within their character creation system. When discussing representation, it is important to consider the differences between 'pluralism' and diversity, repeating what users already know or see versus exposing audiences to diversity (Shaw, 2010).

Character creation systems are not the best method for incorporating diversity in games; however, it is still important to incorporate diversity into the character creation systems that will inevitably continue to be used in games.

Character Creation and Diversity Pros and Cons. Pros, allows players to participate in self-guided experimentation regarding their identities. Cons, Players often recreate familiar characters rather than exposing themselves to unique perspectives, conscious or unconscious restrictions by the developer make some player feel unwelcome.

There are pros and cons to using character creation systems in relation to diversifying games. In particular, even when a player creates their own character, often game systems are designed to interact with that character in a 'default' way, so even if you do choose to play a minority, it is difficult to truly feel that this is occuring, as the game system will not respond to you differently.

Then Why Are We Here? Character creation systems might not be the best approach to diversity but that's not all they're used for! Games are going to continue incorporating character creation systems. Users are going to continue enjoying customisation mechanics. What do users want in a character creation system?

Representation Surveys 2016. 158 participants. 2 Weeks. 15 qualitative, broad, foundational questions. Character creation questions. Which game has your favourite character creation screen/system? Which game has your least favourite character creation screen/system?

Represent Me's 2016 survey was very preliminary, and used to inform the creation of the original database. Two of the questions asked about character creation systems, and inspired further study. More information about this survey is available here.

Preliminary Findings. In the 2016 survey, participants prioritised character creation systems that were most capable of creating a character they identified with. Many indicated a sense of shame around their preferences, saying things like 'Weirdly' or 'Strangely enough'. Games that imposed limitations and restrictions on identifiers were criticised, particularly in terms of gender and body type. Interfaces that asked players for their preferred pronouns rather than making assumptions based on gender choice were praised. The Sims 4's updated character creation system was favoured by the most respondents 17%.

2017 survey. 6010 participants. 1 week. 35 question, which were qualitative and quantitative, more specific than 2016, built upon the 2016 survey but were still foundational. 2017 character creation questions. What details would make you love a game's character creation screen/system? Why? What is an example of a character creation screen/system that you love? Why? What details would make you dislike a game's character creation screen/system? Why? What is an example of a character creation screen/system that you dislike? Why? On a scale of 0 to 3, how important do you consider: diverse sexuality options, more than one gender option, more than two gender options (including nonbinary genders), diverse pronoun options, diverse race/ethnicity options, diverse body type/size options, options for involuntary skin markings (blemishes, freckles, scars), options for voluntary skin markings (tattoos, piercings), options for visible chronic health conditions and disabilities (vision impairment, loss of limb, wheelchair use), realistic graphics. Do you consider it important to be able to play as a character similar to yourself (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, body type etc) in games that have character creation screens/systems? Why/why not?

Findings from the 2016 survey led to the creation of a second survey earlier this year. It was still seeking preliminary data, but asked more questions, including some more specific and quantitative questions. Many of these were regarding character creation, and led to some interesting findings. More information about the 2017 survey can be found here.

Preliminary findings. Importance of aspects of character creation screens/systems. Participants in the 2017 survey prioritised diverse body types and having more than one gender option. Participants cared less about queer representation (diverse genders, pronouns and sexuality).

Players who already have an interest in diverse games care about seeing more options in their character creation systems fairly evenly, and (unsurprisingly) more than those who do not believe that diversity in games is important. Both those who do and do not care about diversity indicated that character creation options are more important than "realistic graphics".

Statistics support that people particularly care about the representation of identities similar to their own. Those who identify as a sexuality other than straight care about diverse sexualities in character creation systems, just as those who identify as not cisgender care about diverse gender identities and pronouns in games.

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