Tuesday, May 05, 2009
Avatars and playing pieces
In games that are sports or party games like Musical Chairs every player represents himself. But in board games or computer games we are represented by a playing piece: That can be a shoe in Monopoly, a white rectangle in Pong, or an Italian plumber in various Mario games. How the playing piece looks usually has no real influence on the game, you could take the thimble instead of the shoe in Monopoly without that changing anything. And in many games you don't even get a choice, if you want to play Tomb Raider, you have to play Lara Croft.
But then there are MMORPGs, which often start with some sort of customization, and which call your playing piece an "avatar". Not only can you dress up your avatar, but what kind of avatar you choose, and whether you dress him in robes or plate mail suddenly makes a difference to the game. So you invest more time in leveling you avatar up, and finding gear for him. What you play and what you wear might even influence what guilds you are invited to, and thus what content you can see. So somewhere along the line some people begin to identify themselves with their avatars.
The problem is that avatars aren't people, and the rules governing the behavior of people aren't the same as those governing the behavior of avatars. For example in World of Warcraft, if you do PvP, or in Warhammer Online, your avatar is a racist. Who is your friend and who is the enemy you have to kill is solely determined by the race of your and the other players avatar. Dwarves kill orcs, but they don't kill humans, except in duels and arenas. And while racism is obviously a bad thing for real people, it is a good idea for realm vs. realm game to function, because you need to somehow identify your enemies, and it fits very well with the underlying fantasy lore.
So as Wolfshead says: "Our virtual sanctuaries should be places of refuge that [are] free from the intrusion of modern day politics; we go there to role-play and escape the real world, not to bring all of its issues and problems with us." Ultimately your avatar is just a playing piece, and reading too much into his gender or race, and then projecting real world politics onto that, can only be a bad thing.