I Am Not My Hair: On the Politics of Character Creation in Games

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We mentioned thiis on in episode 14 of the podcast, but I thought that I would take a few minutes and revisit it on the blog. Denis Farr over at The Border House blog recently wrote an interesting post on the politics of hair in video games. He talks specifically about how difficult it is to customize game characters in games when you want an African American character, especially one with natural hair.

This is something that I have thought about a lot over the last 11 years or so. The issues of customization in games has always been an issue in the back of my mind. That was until 2000 when I became addicted to The Sims. I had it bad and I was finishing my dissertation, job searching, packing, and moving from Michigan to Indiana. I did the only thing a responsible gamer could, I gamified my chores (yes, I know, I just said the “g” word). I rewarded myself with The Sims…write 5 pages=play an hour, finish a chapter=play an hour, pack a box=play an hour, finish a job search task=play an hour…and if things got rough? Take a shower=play an hour. I played lots of sims. I made sims that looked like colleagues, friends, and even family members. At least I tried to. That’s when I noticed it. You could only make your sims’ skin so dark, their bodies so big (as in fluffy, not tall), and the hair so kinky. And the biggest deal for me? If I made my sim a woman I could only wear girly clothes. The jeans were low riding hip huggers or capris and all of the shirts (even the sweatshirts) were tapered at the waist to show a waistline that I didn’t have. Maxis was forcing me to femme it up, even though it allowed me to simulate a lesbian relationship, cohabitate with my sim girlfriend, and adopt children with her we had to be lipstick lesbians who were light complected and far thinner than I had been in a long time. It was like being caught in a bad Lifetime (or porno) movie.

In 2004 I got my hopes up when Maxis released The Urbz. Yeah, the title and concept was problematic…it was Sims in the hood. I bought it for the Nintendo DS in an attempt to avoid being stuck in front of the television for long periods of time (like that would help). I still remember it like it was yesterday. I wanted an African American female sim with natural hair that looked even the slightest bit like me. What I ended up with was a light complected brown sim in a black mini skirt, combat type boots, with afro puffs (see, I told you that I remember it like it was yesterday). I was pissed. There was nothing about that sim that reflected who I was. She was even more offensive because this was the designers’ idea of what an “urban” African American girl looked like. Now, I was an urban African American girl (albeit not a straight one) and I knew plenty of other urban African American girls and none of us looked like that.

This is not to say that things have not gotten better in the last 11 years, but really how much better have they gotten. When games like Brink give a 102+ quadrillion custom options for male characters is it so much to ask that a dark complected, natural haired, plus sized, African American, lesbian be able to pull together a few options that make an avatar look something like her? Is it really so difficult to believe that not every gamer hoping to see a bit of herself in the game is a fiery headed beauty like the surprisingly popular default FemShep in Mass Effect 1 & 2 (and I won’t even touch Bioware’s latest little beauty pageant which totally killed any good will that they garnered with folks like me for deciding to put FemShep on the cover of the collector’s edition of Mass Effect 3 anyway).

Denis Farr is right. There is much to be said about the politics of the choices available for the African American avatars, but there is much to be said about the queering of said avatars and the ways that all of these things intersect in games and marketing as a whole. I am waiting for the day when not only are there more options for skin color, body type, and hair texture/style but also the freedom to choose clothing from the male or female wardrobes for our characters regardless of the sex that we choose for the avatar at the start. So until that day comes those of us that don’t fit the typical beauty standard or find ourselves on the other side of the “alternative” line will either have to work with skins mods or make due with mini skirts and afro puffs in an attempt to see just a bit of ourselves in the narratives we create and play on the screen.

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One Response to “I Am Not My Hair: On the Politics of Character Creation in Games”

  1. I’m a fat, mixed-race (half Pakistani, half French-Canadian) middle-aged male who mostly dresses with “geek” signalling. I also find it hard to create myself in games, and frustrating. It’s good that more games are giving options of different skin complexions, but in a lot of cases these are “black” (but lightly-complected, as you say) or “white”. Even disregarding the mixed-race aspect, it’s very rare to be able to play an Indian or Pakistani. If I want something even vaguely close, I can choose the hispanic character, in some games, if they offer even that. Sometimes there are a number of skin hues that you can custom pick, and if that’s the case, I can often find one that’s kinda close, which is luckier than many people get. The big one for me (literally) is that it’s almost never possible to be fat. Even in games that allow it, their definition of “fat” is not really mine or the “real world’s”. Also, while fat female avatars (rare though they are) often scale sort-of-credibly, fat male avatars more often than not suffer from the “I have a bowling ball in my belly,” syndrome — their legs and arms don’t get thicker and their frames don’t adjust at all, they just grow an increasingly large round belly.

    The other thing, as you point out, is the clothing. In a lot of systems, the *only* clothing available for males are variants on the “tight shirt fitted jeans Jersey shore look”. In Sony Playstation Home, I wound up just creating a female character, even though that’s problematic in itself, because it was possible to make a slightly-more-realistically-fat, geeky-looking woman, rather than a guy who looked like a reality TV dropout with some sporting goods tucked under his shirt.

    On the one hand, I don’t really get why companies don’t believe that people want to make themselves in games, even after people keep telling them that, over and over. However, what’s even worse is that if the answer is that people play for fantasy and escapism, the message is that whoever you actually are, these are the people who you should want to be.