Considerations | Avatar à la Mode

by Anahita Safarzadeh

Illustrated by    Madeline McMahon

Illustrated by Madeline McMahon

Black hair; not too short, not too long, not too curly, not
 too straight. Brown eyes; almond shaped? No, this time I’ll go with the raised eyebrow, piercing through the left and a scar 
on the right. Lips; pouted, full, and red, much like my own. I’m torn between red hair, blue hair, or white hair, but I settle for jet black. I try to make an oval face, nothing looks right. When I get to the body I’m all but lost; her boobs are too big to be an asset in battle, and although I think the little girls are cute, they are also unrealistic. So I settle, as I always do, on an avatar that looks just like me. Sometimes it’s male, sometimes it’s a dark elf— never human, but always with that olive brown skin and hint of a confused perspective. It seems trivial—why does it matter what your character looks like when you’re about to hack
 and slash you’re way through the worlds of Final Fantasy, Skyrim, or League of Legends? Those opening cut-scenes are why I started gaming, after all. Building my avatar off the preset knowledge of the universe in which this game resides is what makes my experience with each game so unique. Many games have lost me during a cut-scene where there was poorly built narrative, or poorly completed graphics.

Playing Skyrim, I spend hours gathering, trading, and hunting 
in order to dress my character in a manner
 that appeals to my nerd fantasy of being a crime fighter while wearing 
the most haute-couture this world has to offer. 83 hours of gameplay later, I realize that if I do wish to upgrade my outfit, which, at this point, is basically
 a nipple cover, spiked shoulder pads and assless chaps, I have to spend more in game currency. Hunching over, a bleak chill runs down my spine. Is this too close to reality, the fleeting sense that I can never financially or culturally catch up to the latest trends in fashion? A nauseous wave of nostalgia sweeps over me; children laughing at my hairy legs—which no amount
 of fabric can hide, and a powder-blue Gap sweater hand-me-down. This is 
the garment I can afford, but here in the game I could have been a star.
 No one cares about an avatar running around in practical armor, anyways. Not if it’s female.

The pervasive shadow of sexism over these games has me wondering, too, whether I should stop playing them altogether. This thought probably crystallized while watching Quiet (the mute female sniper and assassin from Metal Gear Solid V), shuffle through industrial gameplay with a thong and string bikini top. The game’s creator, Hideo Kojima, voiced that it was Quiet’s background and medical history which made her unable to wear clothes or speak. It’s intriguing to think about characters who are beyond what we see on the screen. On another level, though, it’s bullshit. In this case, if Kojima got his idea for a character whose life was saved by a parasite, ending in their handicapable appearance, that’s brilliant; but we can also alter the condition so it’s less sexist.

If female-identifying characters can run around
 half naked in heels fighting crime with impossibly long hair, then why are there not as many flying penises and topless warrior characters? Perhaps it’s impractical and too dangerous to leave your dick hanging out while fighting ogres and golems. Several years back, a favorite character from the Final Fantasy universe had her big break with a Louis Vuitton campaign. Claire Farron, aka “Lightning,” sported a pink leather jacket and post-apocalyptic leather clutch. On a collision course set for Cocoon, I was an atom bomb, ready to shop and play all at once, seeing my Final Fantasy come to life. That ship sadly sailed in 2016 when Lightning finished her resume off with Prada, never to see our pink-haired protagonist again. Was she too androgynous, too sexy? No, the look was perfect, what was the issue and why was no one biting? A possible hypothesis: fashion is a world still occupied by the house of antiquity.

But, if history has shown anything, it is that clothing 
has personality, and personality has influence. The creative redrawing of these worlds is what leads to ever-changing fashion and graphic aesthetics. The available material resources, technology, and people are what artists draw from. I ask Dmitri Roujan of Bandanna Bandit Games to shed some light on the matter of fashion in video games. “Art of all kinds inspires other artists and, in turn, their art, which includes fashion and games,” he says. “It’s all iterative in 
the end.” He explains that the amount of intersectionality depends on how much of the audience is shared between genres. “Games have had their roots in nerd culture, and share a lot of design with film and comics; not surprising that games have had historically sexist depictions of female fashion, given that the aesthetic came from ’90s comics made largely by straight white males targeting teenage hormone-driven straight-white males.” Simply put, as the mainstream changes, so too do the industries into which it feeds.

So I wonder, as I toggle through this new world, is my avatar trying to say something? Does video game fashion encourage cosplay? I hear a small voice in my head: Yes. Illustration and character design work to please and inspire. There are cosplay artists who surpass runway designers in the physical recreation of their game idols. However, since 48% of gamers are adult women, there is likely more sex politics at play here, where women may gain access to power through virtual realms. We may ask, What does an industry, more saturated by women, mean for the future of video games? 
I imagine, and quite easily, that someone sitting behind
 the screen has more confidence than someone interacting face-to-face. The worlds of class, gender, and race divide and dissipate with the freedom of online expression. Does sexy still mean bad? Does it still objectify? Regardless, it does gamify.

And like a dream, I am killed by a robot hoplite into 
the May of the Abyss, distracted in my own thoughts by the cause and effect of gaming and commodification. As I die,
 I look over to my TV to see an Army commercial. I realize that any paranoia I may have had about the gamification of other industries is nothing threatening. The real threat is something worse; if we don’t utilize the technology we have, or channel our abundant global knowledge, then perhaps that pervasive shadow might cast over us, our Christian Louboutins melting into the runway while we’re stuck on the red carpet in our closed-mindedness.