What drives players of games like “Elden Ring” to share screenshots of their avatars?
In the days following the March release of the highly anticipated action role-playing game from Japanese developer FromSoftware Elden Ring (2022), I saw countless users, both friends and strangers, to announce on Twitter that they started to play the game by means of post pictures of their custom avatars. In the months that followed, I saw people posting pictures of “themselves” to update their in-game progress, whether they where they came or illustrate how they have evolved and leveled up. Posting photos of yourself in the game is also an important part of gaming communities on Reddit – for Elden Ringa search for “my character” returns a wide variety of messages.
Fans of FromSoft’s games, including: bloodborne (2015) and the critically acclaimed dark souls (2009) have formed a tight-knit online community that contains strong representations of their avatars, the products of character creation engines that have become more detailed and complex with each game installment. In parallel with these trends, character customization screens have evolved to give players more flexibility in determining their in-game gender, race, style and facial features, all to express their desires for their presence in the game, whether that be to imitate their real-world look or conjure an imaginary one. Such features have become so granular that they form more than one box on the checklist of things you need to do to play a game; they are now a distinct aspect of the gameplay experience – an essential, vibrant part of game creativity and community building.
Avatars in video games started with an obvious utilitarian function: an easy way of identification. Rules and the logic of the game world unfold around the avatar. You are Mario and now you are going to learn to jump. You are Pac-Man and you have to eat the dots. Over time, as interactive design has evolved, we have come to see the political and thematic implications of how avatars are implemented. More than that, we can now see how avatars themselves can be works of art, and how creating them can be meaningful acts for players.
Even if you don’t think much about choosing or designing their avatar, their choice can be revealing. I use a Mii that vaguely resembles myself for my account on my Nintendo Switch. On the same Switch, my brother uses a default avatar of Mario’s nemesis Bowser. My ex-girlfriend used a cute alpaca character from the Animal Crossing series that suits her taste. Avatars can even become points of humorous comparison between games and other media; I’ve seen people comment on Twitter how their Elden Ring characters resemble wrestlers or manga characters†
What role do you play?
Curious about how seriously people do or don’t take the character creation process, I took a casual poll among some close friends who are all avid gamers and asked them some basic questions about how they use these features in different games. One question that particularly interested me was to what extent they identified or did not identify with their avatars. Elden Ring, for example, is classified as a role-playing game, but in general, users play some role in almost all games. The difference is whether the role is one that provides the game entirely for you or whether you have more of a say in how it looks and sounds, including elements of a backstory.
My respondents were divided on whether they viewed a user-designed game avatar as “them” or as a separate character. Kambole said: “It depends on the game, but normally it’s role-playing as a separate character. For example, Lot 2 has character races with different histories, and I like to imagine what reactions they might elicit as I play. Same with something like Elden Ring.Cole said something similar: “I think of my avatar as a separate character in almost every game I play. I only make a character look like me if it’s a life-sim-like game, like Sims or Animal Crossingor if I create a system-based avatar like a Mii.” Esther, on the other hand, opined: “Sometimes it’s nice to role-play, but it’s rare that a game really gives the player the space to do that.” , so it’s usually more fun for me to take things a step further and make choices based on my own instincts.”
Limitations Despite Greater Customizability
Both Kambole and Esther saw how, despite the complicated number of options character creators have today (some games, like Conan Exiles or Cyberpunk 2077even allow someone to modify their avatar’s genitals), there were still gaps in it Elden Ring‘s system. (This speaks of a broader problem with game character creation systems, especially since they involve representations of non-white people.) Esther found, “Games almost never have hair options that resemble mine (very curly, shoulder length). ” Likewise, Kambole noted, “I don’t care if an avatar is a digital facsimile of mine because, more often than not, the facilities to do so — mainly with Afro hair — are lacking.”
Creating avatars also allows for flexible expressions of gender. Esther, a transwoman, said: “Games were important to me initially questioning my gender identity. I have vivid memories of playing the Mass effect games and Skyrim for the first time, selecting female characters in both, and wondering why I was drawn to that choice without even thinking about it. It helped a lot by letting me “present” as a woman in a completely enclosed and safe environment, and they were quite instrumental in helping me realize that I wanted to switch.” Cole, who is non-binary, says: “I play more like girls than before. I have become more and more interested in the presentation of women. Playing as female avatars makes for some fun self-identification.”
Players also differ in how much time they invest in these features. Esther said: “I understand the appeal of getting into the core, fiddling with sliders that change the shape of the nose or the eyelid, but mostly I just want to get into the real game. I can never make the character look exactly like that.” see if I want to, not even if I try, so I’d rather change one of the default faces a bit and get on with it.” Kambole agreed: “For me it’s about the broader areas. That said, I like to play around with cosmetic options, like tattoos and scars.” But Cole was different: “I usually spend 30-45 minutes when the character creator is super in-depth. I don’t care much for minute precision, but I do like to play with sliders to see what happens.”
Avatar sharing as a creative canvas
Cole gets to a crucial element of avatar sharing culture: messing around. In case of Elden Ring, whether you are an attractive anime adventurer or trying to approach an existing pop culture figure, the more results illustrate the creative possibilities of these features. And nothing shows this better than the long-running YouTube series Monster factory† in which hosts Justin and Griffin McElroy like to push character customization options way beyond their intended parameters. They’ve posted a parody of a post-nuclear apocalypse housewife on the wasteland of… precipitation 4, terrorized the most self-serious users of Second Life, and found some really remarkable, inadvertently sexual features in Soul Calibur VI† They embody the spirit of every naughty teenager who realized that nothing could stop them from comically making their avatar’s head big – before playing the game normally.
It feels like we’ve only just started harnessing the potential of game characters for creativity and entertainment. Imagine an artist de Monster factory ethos even further, using these elements as a sculptor, creating non-human entities that no one who designs these games ever thought possible. As character creation engines become even more robust, inclusive and imaginative, the potential for customization will only increase.