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Avataritis — On the Abundance of Customizable Game Characters 78

Martyn Zachary writes "The Slowdown has posted a new critique, 'Avataritis,' that attempts to portray the utilization of character customization as a pandemic, emotional response on behalf of publishers and developers to finding the easiest, most efficient solution to the very unique dilemma presented by the enlarging, widening player base of video games. 'No mechanisms are in place stopping developers from writing and designing heterogeneous yet fully structured, narrative-based computer games with carefully constructed and immutable, unchangeable characters.' The article discusses the emergence and role of gender criticism and research in relation to the recent proliferation of the customizable avatar. The story also dissects the very act of character creation, subsequently aiming to clarify several semantic distortions related to the terminology utilized in character creation, and in turn breaking apart the concepts of relatability and understandability, wholly differentiating the two. The overarching analysis is finally related to examples from the gaming marketplace, where many continue to corroborate apparent falsehoods and misunderstandings in relation to the utilization of the avatar. Ultimately, the writer hopes to dissuade readers, developers and players from believing that written narratives are going away as customization and emergent content are entering video games with full force."
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Avataritis — On the Abundance of Customizable Game Characters

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  • by Jane Q. Public ( 1010737 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @07:04AM (#29776577)
    Good Grid! Somebody has WAAAAAY too much time on their hands.
  • by topham ( 32406 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @07:52AM (#29776683) Homepage

    that made more sense.

    1. You make a character look like you, so you can feel like 'YOU' are part of the story.
    2. You make a character like you wish you were, to make 'YOU' feel like some sort of hero (or anti-hero)
    3. You make a character unlike yourself and not like you wish you were to give yourself a different perspective and to act out a roll.

    If the characters look (color, shape, accent, etc) has no direct bearing on the story then it's just window dressing.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rujholla ( 823296 )
      4. You make a hot character so spending an hour day looking at her run around the screen is at least more visually stimulating than #1.
      • I wish I had mod points.
    • by Kjella ( 173770 )

      4. You make a character that fits the role you want to play. Unless you really look like an ogre, that is.

      Also, uncustomizable characters really only go with an uncustomizable story. If you can be anyone from Conan the Barbarian to Conan the Librarian it makes no sense. Most MMORPGs or even RPGs are rather open-ended, you choose your skils and classes and party members and whatnot, even in games like Neverwinter Nights or Oblivion. Having an uncustomizable character is really only good for a linear game lik

    • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

      WoW has this superficially, in that NPCs treat you different depending on your reputation, race, and faction. Some of it is just "Glad to see you here, noble $RACE $CLASS", and some of it is NPC X won't give quests to RACE Y or characters who have a standing with FACTION Z.

      Maybe MMOs need to D&D it up a bit, have a CHA(risma) score or something like that... the prettier you are, the more likely some people are going to help you and the less likely some others would (i.e. a girl might be lovestruck with

      • by Thiez ( 1281866 )

        Actually, in DnD Cha != Looks. Unless you think the average Mummy (Monster Manual, Cha 15) or Gibbering Mouther (Monster Manual, Cha 13) is more attractive than the average human/elf/gnome/halfling/half-elf/whatever (Cha 10). A Nalfeshnee (Monster Manual, Cha 20, http://www.wizards.com/dnd/images/MM35_gallery/MM35_PG45.jpg [wizards.com] it's the big monster in the background) would be prettier than even the prettiest (3d6 = Cha 18) humans!

        Besides, elves don't even have a bonus to charisma so they are no more likely to be

        • by Ihmhi ( 1206036 )

          It's the best equivalent I could think of. Charisma is more the innate charm one has than anything else. But yeah, you get the point.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by phoenix321 ( 734987 ) *

            What made you think charisma is like "charm"? Then why is it called a different word then? :)

            Wiki-Grandma says "One who is charismatic is said to be capable of using their personal being, rather than just speech or logic alone, to interface with other human beings in a personal and direct manner, and effectively communicate an argument or concept to them."

            When I remember where charisma checks were usually encountered in various RPGs, it was always in persuading or influencing other characters to do your bid

          • Adolf Hitler was extremely charismatic, but definitely not charming. Unless you find angry yelling charming.

            "Charisma" is a very well-established concept, long before Dungeons and Dragons adopted it. I'm not sure why you're having trouble with it.

    • by Chemisor ( 97276 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @09:23AM (#29776969)

      4. You make a naked hot girl to wander the wasteland and fight supermutants with her bare hands. Because it's no fun to spend hours upon hours staring at some guys ugly butt.

    • by Sgt. B ( 926642 )

      I agree with your points but I don't think that's what the article is about. The article is questioning character 'creation' making players feel God like. It also asks if the unique characters take away from a good story because you can't write a "one size fits all." I think these ideas are simply wrong. I don't think I'm giving birth or creating a new life form. I'm playing myself in the game much as an actor is playing a role in a movie.

      As far as storyline goes, look at Guild Wars and Aion. They render th

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Nekomusume ( 956306 )

      4: Making the character up to be a hot guy/girl of "your type", so that you can stare at eye candy that actually suits your own tastes. ("If I'm going to be staring at this character for the next 50+ hours, it might as well look good")
      5: Making the character up to be a fashion doll. ("screw the stats, I want the awesome looking armor")
      6: Making the character up to look like anything other than a standard video-game hero(ine), who tend to be carbon copies of each other.

    • by Keill ( 920526 )

      I was tempted to write another really long post about this in relation to the paper I'm working on, (Story Writing in Computer-based Role-Playing Games), but I'm afraid I really can't be bothered.

      So instead I've been trying to think of a good analogy instead...

      This is like someone complaining about the instruments used in a variety of movie soundtracks, saying it badly affects the story the film tells if the viewer has a choice about what type of soundtrack they wish to hear.

      (Not sure if that is the best an

  • Tsss... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Jerry Smith ( 806480 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @07:52AM (#29776685) Homepage Journal
    And all that time I thought people were going for a funny picture, silly me!
  • by CrazyJim1 ( 809850 ) * on Saturday October 17, 2009 @07:59AM (#29776713) Journal
    One reason I purchased CO was to see what people make with the Avatar customization. It breaks what we think is standard for MMOS. You think if you find armor, your avatar should change, but they don't do it this way. They let you pick what your avatar looks like and you stick with it. It makes sense anyway considering most games have an OP Armor set that everyone wears and looks the same end game. I give them points for thinking outside the box.
    • Hopefully, once they get a couple releases under their belts, they'll have more costume options. Right now there's a lot of option areas, but not a lot of options in each. And a somewhat unhealthy percentage are beast/animal options. Were I a furry with delusions of heroism, I'd be in heaven. But...

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by Blakey Rat ( 99501 )

        Yah I noticed that too. They seem to have some furry artists on staff or something, because they put a *lot* of attention into the werewolf/cat-person/antlers/etc options. Or it might have just been a lack of creativity elsewhere, "I can't thing of any other style of legs... well, let's put in the werewolf option I guess."

        The part that bugged me is that the only textures available were (IIRC) "Metallic", "Leather", "Cloth." That's it? You have 40,000 werewolf options, and you didn't even bother making a "Fu

    • Although the applications are somewhat limited, I really had fun with the concept in some EA Sports games (Tiger Woods in my case) where you could upload a picture of yourself and skin the character. It was pretty easy and looked mostly like me. It was a heck of lot easier than spending 3 hours trying to tune an avatar with sliders. I suppose there's too much opportunity for mischief however for this to make it into MMORPGs.

  • ...and after reading that summary -- a good chunk of it anyway, the coherent, least pretentious parts -- I'll be happy never to see anything about the site or him posted here again. This is the stuff which gives geeks and nerds a bad name, even among geeks and nerds. Christ Almighty, makes me want to go outside and toss around a football while tivo'ing American Idol.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      I concur.... my first thought upon (trying) to read the summary was that perhaps April Fool's Day had come sooner than expected, but then I realized that even the worst April Fool's Parody couldn't touch this guy... he's in a league of his own. My brain still hurts from the onslaught.
      • Every field has its jargon, and writing about writing is no different. These words are used for specificity, as well as to avoid repetition, and boredom (on the author's part, at least). People write like this to show off, yes, but it also takes a lot of effort to be so precisely complex. If this was a serious academic paper rather than a blog entry it would be edited to read a little more efficiently, but at some point you can't break down concepts any further without either watering down the idea or takin
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by m.ducharme ( 1082683 )

          Hopefully if it were being edited for an academic paper, he would not get to assume the points he's trying to prove.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by pjt33 ( 739471 )

          People write like this to show off, yes, but it also takes a lot of effort to be so precisely complex.

          Precise writing looks a bit like this. People who don't have the ability to write precisely but want to look intellectual also write like this. I think this article falls into the category of "trying to appear intellectual" rather than "writing with precision". To illustrate, consider the definition of "avataritis":

          the video game industry’s highly emotional, pandemic response to finding the easiest, most efficient solution to the very unique dilemma presented by its ever-widening player base.

          So we get from this:

          1. The player base of video games is ever-widening. Simple, plausible.
          2. This presents a very unique dilemma. "Very unique" isn't really a hallmark of precise writing, but more to
    • Seriously.
      Gayest. Article. Evar.
  • by NoOneInParticular ( 221808 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @08:05AM (#29776723)
    Can someone please translate the summary into English?
    • by debrisslider ( 442639 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @09:20AM (#29776953)

      Remember how Time's 2006 Person of the Year was YOU? And everyone hated it and thought it was a terrible choice, because user-generated content is often idiotic, base, lowest common denominator, whatever (not trying to be biased, that's just how I remember this place reacting)? That no one cares about your stupid band, your podcast, your profile, or your feed? That the average web user's narcissism might not be the best method of content generation, that social networking concepts were being shoehorned into places for sake of bandwagon jumping, at the expense of added noise and reduced quality content?

      In other words: do you really need to put your face on Mario's body? Does that truly enhance your game playing experience? Should game storylines be written around a shallow method of providing a surface-level customization for added 'personalization'? The article takes issue with inappropriate uses of character customization, a trend that has begun to spread from its traditional place in choice-and-consequence RPGs (Fallout, not Final Fantasy) to pretty much any kind of game (often, seemingly randomly), a move that has begun to change the manner of storytelling in video games. The author thinks that this customization, in attempting to bring players further into the narrative, is actually alienating them by presenting them with meaningless choices, confusing identification with understandability, distancing the player from whatever intent the storyline has by introducing surface-level similarity at the cost of a more coherent characterization of the game's hero. Think of the Time cover writ large; a mirror over the face of a video game's protagonist. If there were a technology to easily switch your face with that of an actor's in a movie, would that help you understand the film or extract any additional meaning from it? Does every story need to be turned into a choose-your-own-adventure with branching paths, at the cost of a greater unifying vision? And what purpose does customization serve in the cases where there are no branching paths, when it is thrown in because of market trends?

      Assuming you care about video game narratives at all, let alone as any sort of art, of course. I don't think slashdotters are the right crowd for this kind of article. You need a few years of undergraduate literature and film classes to write like this, I don't think this place has the background in narrative theory necessary to be interested in the points this guy is making. Frankly, you guys should consider yourselves lucky not to understand this guy's writing, it probably means you are gainfully employed.

    • I'm a comp lit major so I'm wordy and like to argue about other people's words mean and even my own. I'm concerned about racial/gender stereotyping like all comp lit majors.

      Despite this, I'm not sure allowing character customization is a good idea. First, there is the familiar tradeoff of depth vs breadth, so customization leads to shallower stories. Second, customization is a cop-out in the war against stereotyping. It feels like I can't call a game racist if I can choose my race, but this isn't very s

      • I think that this depth/breadth dichotomy is misleading. It's not a given that a game with character customization necessarily leads to shallower stories. In fact I can definitely think of examples where the customization enriches the narrative. WoW, Oblivion (and other Elder Scrolls fare) and to a lesser extent NWN are all heavy on the narrative, while having rich customization controls. In those games, the avatar you create impacts the nature of the narrative you as gamer experience, and playing multiple

        • by Z8 ( 1602647 )

          Do you think that having one avatar in WoW or Oblivion would make the story richer?

          Assuming you don't play through it multiple times, why wouldn't it? To take an example, if you can only be a dwarf male fighter, the writers would only need to write dialog based on that instead of contemplating every possible combination of race, gender, and class. The developers could then shift those resources (which the male dwarf fighter player gets no benefit from) to writing deeper dialog.

          I see what you're saying if

          • Assuming you don't play through it multiple times, why wouldn't it?

            Many people do play through those games multiple times.

            The developers could then shift those resources (which the male dwarf fighter player gets no benefit from) to writing deeper dialog.

            They could, but really, often they don't. I don't think the story line in any of the first person shooters is any richer than the story lines of MMO's like WoW or games like Oblivion. Quite the opposite in fact. My argument isn that character customization leads to richer worlds, just that the thesis of the article assumes that it necessarily leads to narratively impoverished worlds, and this is demonstrably false.

            I see what you're saying if you require multiple play-throughs.

            Keep in mind that it's often the player

    • "Some people you don't care about are saying that character customization is used to keep from having to write story, we don't HAVE to have customization. Some gender studies people are looking at video games. Relate-ability and understandability are two different words! Game markets sell you the LIE. Stories can't and won't be replaced with customizable avatars and content."

      Even from an academic paper standpoint this is a bad abstract/introduction. An abstract should say what the objective of the paper i
  • Standardize Avatars? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by RyoShin ( 610051 ) <tukaro AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday October 17, 2009 @08:17AM (#29776753) Homepage Journal

    Reading his writing (but ignoring his conclusion), I got wondering why we don't have some sort of standardization for avatars. All three major consoles now have some sort of system avatar, customizable to various degrees. These don't always make it into the games you play on them, but even when they do they tend to be very basic avatars, whereas many games have a huge number of options (and combinations thereof.) Considering how many games are giving us customizable avatars, and the rate with which they are coming to represent us online and in-game, it would seem the next logical step to create a method whereby someone can import a custom set into a game, and then tweak it from that base template, ensuring a mostly heterogeneous style over all the games they play.

    This doesn't mean that developers would be limited by options, nor that they can't do micro-customization. For instance, a game that offers your character a Fu Man Chu would mark such a beard style as part of the "Small Beard" class/group. If a game does not offer that style, it chooses the default "Small Beard" style. Along with this standard, which would incorporate as many customizations as possible (and likely keep updating its database), there could be a set of open-source models based on the standards, which developers could then import into their game, customizing as desired. This would increase the potential of having a similar character from game to game.

    There are some sequels that read on older games, and thus would likely incorporate customization, but I'm surprised this doesn't seem to be on even on a developer/publisher level--standardizing such a thing would seem, at least to me, to save a lot of time developing, as well as be supportive of return business.

    • I didn't want a damned avatar for Xbox360, but the bastards ground me down with the annoying pop-ups everytime you'd turn the damn thing on. I ended up making the most non-descript avatar I could.

    • by khallow ( 566160 )
      I can see the advantage of importing a custom avatar. There are certain things, names, and characteristics that I often import into a game anyway. Bundling them together would be an interesting feature. But at the same time, I just don't see a good way to do that without crippling the freedom of the game designers. After all, if they come up with a far better avatar creation system, I might rather just start fresh than import my stuff.
    • You'd have to define some sort of "base set" of attributes and props, and game makers wouldn't be able to add their own-- otherwise they'd ruin the portability. For example, say Xbox adds a Halo logo shirt, and you put one on your avatar. Now you buy a PS3, and try to port that avatar into Home... what happens to the shirt? Most likely it'd just turn into a generic one, meaning your avatar isn't portable after-all.

      You could *potentially* standardize the format that clothing/props/expressions/facial features

  • No, this is not a very unique dilemma. It's only a little bit unique. I've seen many dilemmas which were much more unique than this one.

    In fact, on a scale of 1 to 1, where 1 is only a little bit unique, and 1 is completely unique, I would say this particular dilemma rates only a 1.

  • by SmallFurryCreature ( 593017 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @09:55AM (#29777219) Journal

    I got the feeling this guy is in marketing. There was something being said, but it was lost in all the frills.

    The english language is not a wedding gown, it doesn't get better the more lace you add. It is instead a thong. Less is more.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by gbjbaanb ( 229885 )

      The english language ... is instead a thong. Less is more.

      Wt u say, lss is more. R u sum prof of English thn? I thk u r wrng, more is ok fr a lang tht expands all t time. :)

    • I was reminded of Richard Feynman's story about how he couldn't make head nor tail of what his literature and philosophy professors were writing about, so he wrote about what he wanted to, dressed it up with some of the jargon, and got A and B+ on his papers anyway. There's no content there, it's all about making the psychobabble sound right.

      • With all respect to the fantastic Mr Feynman, none of my philosophy lecturers cared what I wrote in my essays as long as they were intelligent and intelligible (I imagine his were). Regurgitating the textbook was a sure way to get a C.

    • It's more in the tradition of literary criticism or comparative literature. For whatever reason, those people feel the harder to understand that writing is, the better it is. Simple writing is just for when you want to communicate with the masses. Seriously, I've had that conversation with them.
      • by Reapy ( 688651 )

        I've observed this too. I think it is why I used to stay away from 'the classics' where people seemed like a story could only be good if it was difficult to understand. The summary of this thing read like some 17 year old's AP english paper. He knows a lot of SAT words and what they mean, but just doesn't quite know how to lay them together in a readable format.

        On top of that it seems like his point is the usual academic BS where they think that people treat their entertainment seriously and there is some d

  • Customizable characters are essentially a form of skins. I wholeheartedly agree with this thought on the subject from jwz.org [jwz.org]:

    Makali wrote:

    Whenever a programmer thinks, "Hey, skins, what a cool idea", their computer's speakers should create some sort of cock-shaped soundwave and plunge it repeatedly through their skulls.

    I am fully in support of this proposed audio-cock technology.

    As far as I'm concerned, any time spent customizing a character and not playing the g

    • The character is not a "skin", not part of the user interface. A character is part of the content. The user interface, the skin, is in the controls, the dialogs, the framing of the game. Skins don't need to be customizable by the user interface, either. I've used the programs JWZ is talking about. Creating a new skin is like creating a complete new UI from scratch. Nobody bothers with it... they still have to suffer from the restrictions and limitations built into the UI to support skins.

      All video games are

    • Re:Skinning (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Blakey Rat ( 99501 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @05:41PM (#29780129)

      JWZ is a software engineer writing about usability. He's not writing about video game characters.

      Do you seriously think those two things are equivalent?

      As far as I'm concerned, any time spent customizing a character and not playing the game is wasted.

      And I think crafting in MMOs is boring, and thus wasted effort on the part of the developer. But guess what? I'm not the *only* person who plays the game. Ditto with the alchemy system in Oblivion, but I'm sure there are thousands of gamers who really appreciated it.

      This is going to blow your brain, but Champions Online released their character creator as a demo, and I spent ages doing nothing but customizing characters, and enjoying it.

      So in short, you're wrong and also an ass.

  • No mechanisms are in place stopping developers from writing and designing heterogeneous yet fully structured, narrative-based computer games with carefully constructed and immutable, unchangeable characters

    The mechanism in place is called a "cash register." Stories with immutable characters are worth $7 to $20 whether it's a movie in the theater or a book at the store.

    For me to cough up $50, the story must adapt to me. Starting with the characters.

  • by strech ( 167037 ) on Saturday October 17, 2009 @03:24PM (#29779295)

    The short version of the argument is that allowing a lot of character customization
    a) Can't fully achieve the goal of having the player "become" the character, as the gameplay and narrative of the game provide their own limits;
    b) Doesn't really solve the problem of the interaction of race and video games; and
    c) Limits the games, because it prevents them from using meaningful character details as driving the narrative, gutting it.
    This misses the point to a great deal;

    For (a) All creation has limits but that doesn't make it valueless or not an act of creation; even if the limits are that born within a game system.

    For (b) it's true but character customization was never really aimed at solving the interaction fully.

    For (c) not all details of a character limit the story of a game (would it really matter if Gordon Freeman was black?) and if a game is anything other than a railroad it needs to branch at some point anyway, so the branching of a game in response to character creation (see Dragon Age's multiple origin stories) is not a meaningful limit of narrative.

    In longer form, his argument is full of holes in general; he starts off by begging the question, complete with passive-agressive "I'm going to get modded down for this, but" bullshit:

    Now, to offend half the blogosphere offhand: For the purpose of this article, we will consider avatar customization a convenient narrative cop-out. We shall also assume that no mechanisms are in place stopping developers from writing and designing heterogeneous yet fully structured, narrative-based computer games with carefully constructed and immutable, unchangeable characters.

    So he assumes the practice he's complaining about is the only thing stopping him from getting the games he wants (it isn't, but I can see the assumption as useful for purposes of argument) and then assumes the practice he disagrees with is valueless (it isn't). He even admits that in terms of narrative etc he's dismissing the value with nothing more than the word "seems":

    (Obviously, there are occasions wherein the “tabula rasa” scenario is a fully motivated one, either by its ludic or narrative function, but assuming this to be a default state to be aspired to seems ultimately misguided beyond the MMO.)

    As he asserts this without evidence, I'll dismiss it with little more (At very least, games in the line of Fallout or (from what I know about it) Dragon Age are clear examples in opposition to this).

    He goes on for a while about minorities and gaming, nothing that minorities are underrepresented in gaming, and that the common approach of reading % of characters as a measure of this is a bit of tokenism and misses the point – that the experience of growing up white and growing up, say, Latino are different and this affects a lot of things in subtle ways, and just changing a character's skin isn't going to reflect these ways. And that making this irrelevant works against both the white and Latino's experience. This is true as far as it goes, but it really doesn't have much to do with character creation:

    a) I've always thought the % studies as a quick and dirty measure of how much of the creators are working to take those experiences into account. If the numbers are heavily lopsided, then it's a sign the probably aren't; if the numbers are more even there's at least a chance they are.
    b) More importantly, the ability of a trait to help someone connect with a character isn't necessarily connected with the importance in the game world. To paraphrase from a shadowrun sourcebook, “Who cares about the color of someone's skin when the guy over there is a rock with hands as big as your head?” This is even true for characters set initially in our on world (c.f. Gordon Freeman). So the race of the character could end up being meaningful for the player and not meaningful for the game world.
    c) Even where it is relevant, it can be bra

    • by DavidTC ( 10147 )

      He goes on for a while about minorities and gaming, nothing that minorities are underrepresented in gaming, and that the common approach of reading % of characters as a measure of this is a bit of tokenism and misses the point – that the experience of growing up white and growing up, say, Latino are different and this affects a lot of things in subtle ways, and just changing a character's skin isn't going to reflect these ways. And that making this irrelevant works against both the white and Latino's

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