Video games generally make poor mirrors. Chances are, when you look at the characters you control in most of your favorite games, they don’t look much like you. Your odds are a bit better if you happen to be a straight while male, and even more so if you’ve also spent some time in both the gym and the military. Most everyone else, though, is left playing characters who barely reflect their own experiences.
Some people have started to make a fair amount of noise about that. I could draw on any number of examples here, but let a single, recent essay by Kill Screen Daily‘s Jamin Warren suffice. He describes the aesthetic jolt he felt when, at the end of playing Dead Space, the on-screen avatar finally faces the player unmasked. “This was the man I had embodied for a dozen hours,” writes Warren,
and there was a jarring disconnect between the man that I am and the man that I had played. He didn’t look like me and the immersive connection between me and Isaac stuttered a bit. He was just an avatar.
The delayed revelation accounts for much of that jolt, but only because it packs into an instant the cultural distance many players feel continuously in other games. They want to see more diversity in video game, to be able to play as characters that represent them more accurately. Some of them understand those demands as part of a larger cultural struggle to coax Western media into abandoning the message that the story of civilization is the story of white men getting everything done. For others, it’s much simpler. They’ve invested just as much into video gaming as you have, and they’d like to see their games acknowledge that.
If you’re a white, male happily playing your video games, you might be inclined to shrug all of that off. After all, that’s their problem, right? But maybe the overwhelming wealth of straight white male characters creates a different problem for you—one not of representation but of isolation. Allow me to explain.
There are still, you may be encouraged to know, some psychologically-inclined folk who continue to describe themselves as Freudian, but for the most part, the field has moved on. Too many of Freud’s ideas have been controverted by our increasing grasp of neurology or challenged by competing schools of thought. One idea that’s held up better than others, however, is the premise that, as infants, we have to teach ourselves not to be solipsists.
It was through the work of a British Freudian, D. W. Winnicott, that the idea made its way from psychiatry to pediatrics. In an essay titled “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena,” he summarized the basic hypothesis that most young children start off assuming that everything that appears in their experience is an extension of the children themselves. After all, if you cry and an adult appears to fix whatever it is you’re crying about, it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that you simply willed the adult into being.
Before long, though, most children will develop an attachment to a doll or figure of some kind—maybe even just a blanket—which allows them to practice the notion that there are other agents in the world. As he or she grows older, the child will play at attributing to that object ideas and desires that are “not-me,” and others can introduce an element of negotiation into the game by suggesting that, if the doll is really “not-me,” then maybe it wants something baby doesn’t.
That “not-me” object is transitional in that it provides a step between what the child wants and feels, and the recognition that other people have their own agenda and experiences. That places it, Winnicott goes on to argue, in a third part of human life, neither wholly internal nor external, subjective nor objective: “an intermediate area of experiencing,” he wrote, “to which inner reality and external life both contribute.”
“Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena” is fascinating in part because you can see Winnicott trying to put aside some of the trappings of classical Freudian psychology. He makes frequent reference to the oral and genital stages of psychological orientation mostly to note that he’s not really talking about them. When he writes that, “to some extent these objects stand for the breast,” you can almost seem him nodding solicitously to the deans of Freudian thought before going on to add, “but it is not especially this point that is under discussion.” He’s eager to get on to what a pediatrician can actually observe when he spends time with children and their mothers.
One such observation was significant enough that he felt compelled to italicize it. “Gradually in the life of an infant teddies and dolls and hard toys are acquired,” he wrote.
Boys to some extent tend to go over to use hard objects, whereas girls tend to proceed right ahead to the acquisition of a family. It is important to note, however, that there is no noticeable difference between boy and girl in their use of the original ‘not-me’ possession, which I am calling the transitional object.
That’s because the importance of the thing is its use in helping the child practice the distinction between self and world. With the gender-aligned toys that come afterward, the point is just that: alignment. It isn’t just that there are things in the world that aren’t you. Rather, some things in the world are thus rather than so, and it’s important to signal that you’re one rather than the other.
It’s worth noting that Winnicott stops short of supposing that boys and girls naturally and invariably tend toward the toys assigned to their gender. That leaves open the possibility that their preference for one or the other is, in perhaps more cases than we generally acknowledge, a matter of what’s been pressed upon them.
For the thirty-somethings among us, the flip-side to Jamin Warren’s Dead Space jolt was the moment at the end of the original Metroid when it’s revealed that all along you’ve been playing as (gasp) a woman. It’s a brilliant moment in video gaming not just because it subverted the adolescent expectation that a sci-fi bounty hunter would be male, but moreover because, having tricked a largely male audience into playing as a female character, it then gives you the opportunity to play that game again, this time with her gender fully acknowledged by her onscreen representation. The only pity of it is that Metroid had to trick some players at all.
Which brings us back to the fact that video games don’t make great mirrors. One way of looking at all of this is that video games end up being a way to press certain approved identities onto people—”this is what a hero looks like.” If certain innate traits, like skin color or a certain chromosomal arrangement, mean you don’t happen to look like that, then maybe the implicit message is that you’re just not cut out to be hero. But we’ve been looking at games that way for some time—you get that by now, right?
The trickier point is this: We don’t have to play for alignment. The characters we play in games could also be transitional objects. They could allow us to play experiences that, due to accidents of birth, are normally barred to us. We do that already to some extent. You are, after all, not a space marine. But a great many of us seem more inclined to play outside of our own experiences when the “not-me” on offer is a fantasy of power and expertise. When the avatar is the sort of person we might conceivably meet, we’re noticeably more reticent.
That’s too bad. Playing your onscreen avatars as “not-me” can be an opportunity to reacquaint yourself with a fact with which we too often lose touch: the reality of other people. As a transitional object—responding to your commands but not quite an extension of your will—the avatar lets you inhabit a space somewhere between the person that you are and the person that you’re playing. Addressing the world through someone else’s perspective can be a strangely liberating and empowering experience. For a group of people like affluent, straight, white male Westerners, who are already on the receiving end of privileges so automatic as to be nearly invisible, it’s one of the few remaining sources of liberation and empowerment still left largely untapped.
The same goes for everyone else, of course. A black woman might have something to gain from playing a game through the eyes of a white male “not-me.” The difference is that she hardly has a choice in the matter. Pick a game out of sack, and chances are it will let her play as a white male. Less certain is the possibility that it will let her play as anyone else. White male alternatives are already so common a part of video gaming, that playing as a black woman is bound to be a novel experience—even for a black woman. And if it’s a novelty to her, how much more so would it be to everyone else?
That said, there have been, in recent years, a number of releases that offer straight, white, male gamers the opportunity to play other identities. Many of them were designed by indie studios or lone designers. Papo & Yo was highly vaunted for settling players into the perspective of Quico, a young boy who must navigate through a surrealistic world designed to evoke the favelas of South America. Critic and designer Mattie Brice recently released an RPGMaker game, Mainichi, as an experiment in conveying her daily experiences as a transgender woman. Those efforts are helping to provide opportunities for players to step outside the limits of their own subjectivity. All that’s lacking is a widespread sense that the opportunity to play “not-me” is as important for straight, white males as playing “me” is to everyone else.