Character Customization: Experimentation and Expression

Let’s explore character customization together!

I have restarted Elden Ring about ten times since it came out last month. While this souls-like game can certainly be frustrating, I was not restarting because I was getting frustrated. I was restarting because I wanted to create a new character. Designing characters’ looks and skill sets during character customization is one of my favorite things to do in gaming. It’s relaxing and a fun way to experiment and express myself through one of my favorite hobbies. Character customization can be so much more than just customizing the in-game character you will be spending time playing. In fact, it allows you to try out new ideas and looks and perhaps, more importantly, allows you to see yourself in media, regardless of who you are or what you look like.

Video games are unique among visual media. The player is in control of what happens. This includes varying degrees of influence over how the story is told. While other forms of media, such as the Choose Your Own Adventure novels and interactive television shows like Black Mirror: Bandersnatch, have experimented with this concept, this level of influence over the story’s direction is mostly found in video games and tabletop role-playing games (TTRPGs). One of the features built into many video games and TTRPGs that puts control directly into the hand of the player is character customization.

It seemed like just about everyone was playing Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons during the early months of the pandemic. This newest entry in the Animal Crossing series was a lifeline for many who found themselves separated from their friends and loved ones during the early days as everyone was bunkering down due to the rising risk from COVID-19. We were able to visit one another’s islands and spend time playing this game with one another, which felt more genuine by the increased options in character customization and clothing that is available in this new entry. Many people created characters that looked and dressed just like them, and this helped make the connection through the digital world of this game feel more genuine while so many of us were feeling lonely in our own personal quarantines. An incredibly important development in New Horizons compared to earlier editions of the game was that clothing items were no longer gender locked; regardless of if your character was more masc or femme, you could wear whatever article of clothing you wanted.

Steal their look!: Elegant Hat, Mysterious Dress, Fishnet Tights, Vinyl Round-Toed Pumps, Evening Bag, and Pirate Beard / Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo
Steal their look! / Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Nintendo

What I found as I was playing countless hours of Animal Crossing: New Horizons was that it felt like a comfortable space to experiment with different outfit options. Genderfluidity can be daunting in real life, but the virtual world of New Horizons was a place where I could “put on” a dress, heels, a beautiful hat, and a beard and run around going about my daily in-game tasks. Other days, I might find the desire to dress up in a nice suit and tie, a frog costume, or any other number of both classic and extravagant looks. The experimentation available to me and the space to do it in without judgment (my villagers are always happy to see me!) has led me to have a better grasp on my own personal gender expression.

I have loved this customization of video games for a long time. The beginning editions of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft was where this love blossomed; I remember watching my sister play WoW, and as soon as I realized you could create your own character, I knew I had to play. It was the coolest thing to be able to create your character’s look and skill set, and I got right to work on creating my little troll shaman. I was instantly hooked on this idea, and the ability to create a fantasy character with a mystical skillset ignited my love for both character customization and fantasy games.

When The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim was released by Bethesda Game Studios in 2011, it was the gold standard in character customization. There were so many options for facial and body structure that were different across each of the available races, which include the humanoid races like humans, elves, and orcs to the anthropomorphic races like the khajiit and Argonians. This range of customization, as well as the number of options available in clothing and skills, lead to different playthrough experiences. That includes different fighting styles when engaging in combat, as well as different conversations and interactions with non-player characters (NPCs) based on your race. (For example, orcs will let you into their forts automatically if you are also an orc without a prerequisite mission to prove yourself first, while some human NPCs will be more hostile to you if you are a dark elf due to the common prejudices they hold.) The role that character customization has on the game, while not changing the innate nature of the main overarching storyline, is significant enough that each playthrough can feel unique enough that it keeps the game fresh and interesting, even on the I’ve-lost-count-of-how-many-times-I’ve-played time.

A dark elf being created in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s character customization menu / Bethesda Game Studios
A dark elf being created in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim’s character customization menu / Bethesda Game Studios

Square Enix’s massively multiplayer Final Fantasy XIV is another great example of character customization due to how beautiful the options are. There is a wide range of customization options available, but the aesthetic of the game is such that these lead to particularly artistic-looking characters that fit well into the world. The expression available through the character customization of this game feels like you are creating art. While character customization does use existing tools and assets in the process of creating these characters, it does not invalidate the achievement of creating something aesthetically pleasing for ourselves. And having a character that makes you happy will increase your enjoyment of the game.

Character customization has improved and expanded in recent years due to the improvement in technology but has always been an important part of many TTRPGs like Dungeons & Dragons. As I have previously written about, I have recently begun exploring Dungeons & Dragons rather obsessively. One of the things that have led to my hyper fixation on this game is the character customization and the wide number of options available, as well as the ability to homebrew to infinitely expand your options. The class options, spell choices, and the varieties in the races available to choose from have led to many characters that I have been crafting and creating. The self-narrative nature of Dungeons & Dragons, where you are personally making decisions and narrating the dialogue for your character, means that it is not just the look and skills of your character that you create, but the backstory, personality, and more. This sheer magnitude of options means that you can create characters that range from self-inserts to characters diametrically opposed to your own personality if you so choose.

One of the important roles that character customization plays is in diversifying our game media. While there is certainly an argument that by relying on character customization, game designers no longer feel obligated to make games centering on minority or marginalized groups, character customization does allow the player to see themselves represented in the game they are playing. This means whether it is a high fantasy, an epic sci-fi adventure, or even a game set in our regular world, the player can be the hero of the story. For many marginalized groups, in particular, there is so little media that centers them, and often when it does, it is around the pain that members of that group experience. In video games with character customization, you can create a character who is of any gender or any race, for example, and they are still the heroic champion of the world they are in. In this vein, the Pokémon games introduced some character customization in the sixth generation, and many have found that they can finally see themselves represented in this popular game series; while the customization is limited largely to skin tone, hair, eye color, and clothing, just the basic ability to alter your character’s appearance to better align without your own appearance can increase the personal connection you have with the game.

There is certainly additional work that needs to be done in the realm of character customization. Elden Ring has recently been caught up in a controversy that despite an overwhelming number of character customization options that include darker skin tones, there are no afro-textured hair options; black players can create black characters but are forced to choose from a selection of hairstyles that are not natural for many black people. This lack of afro-textured hairstyles is particularly concerning in 2022, as the US Congress is currently considering a bill known as the CROWN Act, which would finally ban discrimination due to natural hairstyles, such as locs and afros. Similarly, many games lack cultural and religious head coverings, such as hijabs and pagris, either in the initial character customization or at all.

Character customization also lacks disabled options in most games. Most video games’ customization options might include the appearance of blindness in your eyes, but that is where the disability options usually end. Disabled characters are appearing more often in video games, so hopefully, advancing technology will see disability options in character customization in the future. Luckily, the freedom of choice in TTRPGs allows for a variety of disabilities to be represented in these games, either just in the physical description of these characters or through tweaking game mechanics to better represent the day-to-day experiences of disabled folks.

Hero Forge, which makes custom miniatures for TTRPGs, has introduced a number of disability options /
Hero Forge, which makes custom miniatures for TTRPGs, has introduced a number of disability options /

There is a risk that character customization brings to these games: the further propagation of stereotypes. By providing a wide range of character customization options to encompass the diversity of the player base, these game designers created the unintended consequence of handing players the ability to create characters that adhere, intentionally or unintentionally, to stereotypes for that race, gender, and more. As such, diversity needs to not only exist in the character customization options but in the broader world of the game, they are created. The inclusion of diverse NPCs in both the main cast of characters and in the broader world of the game is critical to combat many of the harmful stereotypes that video games have often been responsible for perpetrating.

Character customization is an incredible feature that has really helped elevate video games to a unique status among our visual media. Creating characters is a fun experience that can lead to players seeing someone who looks just like them go on to defeat the big bad, become the hero, or solve the mystery. It is also a great way to experiment with fluidity or looks, as well as a great medium for artistic expression. So boot up your favorite video game and create the characters of your dreams!

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