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Creating character: customisation in video games

Each of us are attracted to different things in video games. Whether it’s open-world exploration in RPGs, massive weapons in FPS releases or special moves in fighting games, there’s always an element unique to a genre which draws us towards our preferred type.

But there’s one feature which has gradually been introduced across many of them over the years and is now a staple of gaming: the character-creation screen. Customisation options now seem to be available in most new releases regardless of genre. They might be simple decisions such as hair-style and t-shirt colour; or they could be at the other end of the spectrum, where a long list of sliders allow you to adjust every aspect of your protagonist’s appearance.

So why do we make the choices we do? Sometimes it has nothing to with visuals at all and our decisions are instead based on the fact that being a High Elf gives you increased magika regeneration and destructive powers. But it’s interesting to look at those options which are purely cosmetic and have no effect on gameplay to find out why people have picked them. Research has shown that it’s often about building a representation of a ‘better’ version of ourselves, whatever we perceive that to be.

The subject of character creation came up in one of our streams a couple of weeks ago. My other-half is currently taking part in a series of ‘master classes’, where a friend joins him each week to guide him through a game he has never played before. In Twitch chat one evening, Frostilyte from Frostilyte Writes suggested he prepare for their upcoming Monster Hunter: World session by getting his avatar ready beforehand in case he wanted to spend some time looking at the various customisation options.

I had to laugh when Frosti said this. It’s very rare that Pete throws anything more than a cursory glance at such things; he’s more likely to click on the ‘randomise appearance’ button and go with whatever comes up first so he can get into the gameplay as quickly as possible. When he does spend any amount of time on his character, he’ll choose an appearance which is very different to his own – although he’ll usually pick a male human protagonist, unless another race gives him a desired buff.

I’ve noticed that this affects how he handles his character in-game too. He’s one of the kindest people I know in real-life, is very protective of his family and friends, and has a soft-spot when it comes to animals. Stick him in a video game however and that all goes out the window. His character will be the most likely to double-cross the NPCs, blow up their spouse and hunt down defenceless creatures for fun (regular viewers of our streams will all be aware of Rubbish Dog).

I’m the total opposite of Pete when it comes to the character creation screen. I’ll spend ages getting each slider just right and trying to make my avatar look as much like me as possible (but with a post-lockdown haircut rather than the mop I’m currently sporting). I’ll always choose a female protagonist when I get the option and can’t think of anything worse than the ‘randomise appearance’ button or having to resort to picking an outfit which doesn’t conform to my taste in clothes.

As for my in-game behaviour, that’s different to how my other-half acts too. I’ll always try to imagine myself in each situation and base my choices on what I would do in real-life. Performing a completely aggressive or reckless action in a video game is rare because I’ll always think about what the consequences could be first and I prefer to stick to the paragon route. The only time I can remember doing something ‘bad’ was in Life is Strange, where I made a certain choice at the end because Chloe was annoying me.

DJ from Overpowered replied to my recent Twitter poll saying that they make their characters as different from themselves as possible, and don’t understand why some players want their protagonist to represent themselves. I guess everyone has their own reasons but it’s to do with both challenge and escapism for me. I want to see what I would do when confronted with an end-of-world scenario and whether I’d be up to the test – as well as experiencing a situation I’m never going to see in the real world.

Whereas Pete and I will always pick someone who’s of the same sex as ourselves, friend-of-the-blog Phil usually chooses female characters. He wrote in a post back in August 2019 that male leads are more typical and, in his opinion, ‘the boring option when it comes to creating compelling protagonists’. This point-of-view filters through to his race class too: I’ve played a lot of World of Warcraft (WoW) and The Elder Scrolls Online (ESO) with Phil and I’ve never once seen him select a human.

Asked whether his character preferences affected his in-game behaviour, he said: “I continue to make choices I would in real-life, definitely. Character choice appeals to me more in games where they play an active role in the story and cutscenes, such as in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla with Eivor because she’s a fully voiced and developed character. I find it more interesting to pick that option over the decades-long stereotype of the macho male hero. With a game such as ESO, I don’t really care because it’s purely visual and the avatar has no character in the game, if that makes sense?”

The most popular answer in my Twitter poll was ‘somewhere in the middle’ with almost 40% of the votes (at the time of writing). The people who responded tend to make characters who are somewhere between looking like themselves and being completely different, with several friends telling me they go for visuals over anything else. This goes back to what was mentioned at the start of this post: research has shown that we like to make protagonists who we perceive to be a ‘better’ version.

In an interview with Game Informer in June 2015, former research scientist Nick Yee explained that players create idealised versions of themselves by minimising their physical flaws and maintaining the illusion of themselves as the game’s protagonist. He also talked about ‘the Proteus effect’, a phenomenon which occurs when someone is assigned an avatar that looks different from themselves: “They conform to that avatar’s stereotypical behaviour and attitude.”

Regardless of what type of protagonist you wish to create, research has proven that being able to customise your appearance within a video game leads to increased satisfaction and a willingness to play it again. That’s good news for developers who need to attract people to their game, publishers who want to sell it and players who are looking to lose themselves in a digital world. This probably explains why character creation screens are now popping up in all sorts of genres.

What about you? What type of protagonist do you want to be?

Kim View All

Video game lover, Later Levels blogger and SpecialEffect volunteer. Big fan of wannabe pirates and fine leather jackets.

25 thoughts on “Creating character: customisation in video games Leave a comment

  1. I do love a bit of character customisation in a video game. It’s something that I get a lot of grief from from one of my mates when we start any game really, him always taking the mick saying that I spend more time tweaking sliders than playing 😄 it’s true I like to spend a little while looking at the options and deciding what appearance to go with, even in 1st-person games where you barely see the character (Skyrim, Outer Worlds, Brink) but there is a satisfaction in seeing your creation in cutscenes, interacting with the game world and it’s characters.

    I normally create a character that looks nothing like me, depending on what options I’m drawn to I guess. I rarely choose to create male characters, but I don’t know why. I’m just drawn to them more, maybe because I want to be less like me than possible in a game? 😄 I often make up characters that I think might have a bit of backstory. My Fallout 4 character has a burn covering a third of her face, while my Outer Worlds smuggler has a nasty scar across his mis-shapen nose. But I suppose it is mostly down to the rule of cool and what’s available in that game

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    • I read something while doing a bit of research for this post, and it mentioned that men are more likely than women to create characters of the opposite sex when they play a video game. The author’s theory was that they were so used to seeing male protagonists that they wanted something different; while women wanted to see more females in gaming, so they chose protagonists more like themselves. Maybe there’s something in that?

      I do find the backstory thing interesting because it’s so different to what I do. My character’s are always ‘me’ – ie usually quiet and pretty boring, until something shakes up their routine. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think that’s a part of it, definitely 🙂 especially in some games where clothing or cosmetics appear differently across genders (Fallout 3 for example), it’s refreshing for the eyes to see something different.

        I have to agree that the idea of randomising the appearance is pretty damn horrifying for me too 😄

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  2. That’s very interesting! I, too, tend to create characters who look like me (sort of – I like to play with hair color lol). At the very least, I always choose a woman character. I try not to take too long customizing it but, yeah. Sometimes I do spend an hour playing with parameters lmao

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    • I know what you mean about the hair. If I’m in the stages of planning which colour to go next in real-life, I’ll choose the future colour to try it out. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting read think there is definitely something in us behaving in a way that represents the avatar we have. For example, in Mass Effect I always do 2 playthroughs. One making the “good guy” decisions, with an avatar resembling something like me, and the 2nd with a real dodgy looking character making all the “bag guy” decisions lol

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    • Not that there are any customisation options at the outset, but I tried doing this in Fable and and making a bad-guy protagonist after completing it as a good Hero. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it; I felt so bad killing innocent villagers and had to give up. 😆

      This feels like it could be a good subject for a future post… thanks for the inspiration!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. If it’s a role-playing game, where I expect the protagonist to have their own narrative and personality, I’ll make them look differently from me – I’m playing a character, not transporting myself into the game world.

    In the other hand, if it’s a game where the player character is a narrative blank slate, such as in Animal Crossing, I’ll try to make them look like me, and relate to them more directly.

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    • Here’s question for you: how do you think your TTRPG experience has shaped your outlook on RPG protagonists, where they’re a ‘character’ and not you? 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Fantastic post! Could probably wrote an entire post myself in response, but my short answer is that I take my sweet time with any and every character creator. I always play as female characters first, but, if I want to play a game multiple times, I’ll usually switch to playing as a guy at least once. I never make anyone look like me (or anyone I know). I never seek to “be myself” in a game through choices, though I do tend to go the route of making “good” choices in any first playthrough. (Niceness is universal!) And if the options present themselves, I’ll almost always play as non-human characters before playing as human characters. I play games to escape, at least in part, and that includes wanting to escape from myself!

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    • I’m genuinely surprised at how many people have said they create their characters to look as different from them as possible. Although I’m not entirely sure what I expected, I thought there’d be more people like me who try to recreate themselves. I guess players escape in different ways: some want to get wrapped up in the protagonist and their story, while others want to lose themselves in the world.

      I’m with you on the *good* thing though. I always make the good choices first… and then find it incredibly difficult to be bad because I feel so guilty about my choices. 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  6. This probably explains why I like to play small character races when given the option. My personality likes to be hidden and out of the way of other people, but show that I have enough strength and wit when defending for myself. A good example is in Final Fantasy 14 where I am a Lalafell who specializes in magic, healing, and support. The combination is a perfect representation of me because I like to be hidden, but will support everyone around me as much as possible; even though the character looks nothing like me. Any other game that I play never looks like me anyway since I will 99% of the time just create a ridiculous character that will bring me humor.

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    • That’s interesting… you create a character like you in personality but not in look. I’d never considered that while writing this post but it makes total sense; strength, wit and being supportive are great qualities to have so it’s no wonder you’d like to see them in your protagonist. I tend to pick small characters too, but that’s because I’m short in real-life!

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  7. I always prefer to create a far better and much cooler version of me! The thing I like most about video games is they usually give me worlds I can save and people I can help. It really adds to that if *I’m* the one doing all the things.

    If I’m doing an evil playthrough (usually only for trophies) I’ll make character completely different from me (and I still feel bad but gotta get those trophies).

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  8. I love character customization. And it’s usually some form of self, or an original character I keep in a codex. Sometimes upon making myself I will make myself wayyyy cooler than I am in real life, but other times I try to make someone who looks really normal, because that’s what life is I guess and it’s some sort of weird coping mechanism. I never hit randomize.

    I also like when a character is established by the lore though, because that can help with having a better background as well. However, regardless of which situation I’m in, I still try to act like myself. I do this dorky thing where if I am an established character, I try to make the voice of the character as long as I am playing them. It’s…super dorky. Haha

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    • No… that’s not dorky at all. I bet there’s a god chance most of the people who have left comments on this post do character voices. I can’t say it’s something I never do! 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I like customising, and have found as I have gotten older I actually go more and more different to my own self when it comes to customisation. For example, I now often choose the female option when possible (take Pokémon or Dragon Age as an instance of this) as I find them more compelling and to have more creative variation in their designs and outfits. However it is sometimes dauting when you are ready to start a new game and are then shown a complex creation screen, as I feel the need to spend a long time crafting my character before actually getting into the game XD

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    • Yeah, there needs to be that sweet-spot between enough options so you feel like the character is yours but not too many that you start feeling overwhelmed. In games like ESO, I’ve been known to spend my entire first session with a new protagonist just on the creation screen…

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  10. I’m always attracted to the character customization screens, especially in RPGs. Like you, I’ll really take my time creating my character until I’m certain I’ll want to play as that character for the duration of the game. I think when it comes to figuring out the look of my character it sort of depends on how I want to play it. Sometimes I might create a character that looks nothing like me or I might create one that sort of looks like me. As for how I make decisions as my character, I tend to think in terms of how I might make those decisions in real life. With Mass Effect I played as the Paragon Shepherd all the way through and never took the Renegade route. For some reason it didn’t sit right with me being bad and doing really backstabby things, even if it’s just a game. Although, it would be interesting to go back to these games and see if I can get through the end of it never taking the selfless route. Great post!

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    • I do exactly the same when it comes to making decisions in games. Regardless of how outlandish the situation is, I think to myself: what would I do if this were happening to me in real life? There are a few releases where I’ve consciously tried to do the opposite and make my character as bad as possible… but I’ve never been able to finish them. I just end up feeling too guilty about the decisions I’ve made and then not having fun.

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  11. I suppose when being the hero of the story I try to create the “best me” and normally choose that path in the game too. Occasionally I might deviate from that but it really depends on the game – GTA Online for example my character looks like an evil Blues Brother which I don’t have the clothes size of musical talent to mimic in reality. 🙂

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