“I was heartened by the findings which showed that people were not running away from themselves but running towards their ideals,” says Dr. Przybylski. “They are not escaping to nowhere they are escaping to somewhere.”

I took this quotation from an article in TIME magazine, and I’ve gotta say, I love it. The article argues that players use video games to create ‘idealized’ versions of themselves, which I think is true to a great extent. Games give players the opportunity to explore many different identities, some positive, and others negative. There are multiple mechanisms in games today which allow us to individualize gameplay, making it easier than ever before to align our virtual identity with our real-life one.

Here are four of the most common customizable traits:

Physical Appearance

Particularly in RPGs, players are given the opportunity to customize the basic physical features of their avatars. In The Sims, players have almost complete control over the avatar’s body type, hairstyle and wardrobe.

Gender

More and more, both male and female avatars are incorporated into gameplay. In Pokemon: Black and White, players can choose either a male or female player. Of course, you don’t need to choose the avatar which corresponds to your actual gender, although I always tend to do so. What’s great is that the choice of gender in a game doesn’t impact the skills and abilities of the avatar, although that’s not always the case. In Diablo II, certain classes are linked exclusively to gender. The Amazon and Sorceress classes, for example, are female, while the Paladin, Barbarian and Necromancer classes are male.

Morality

Many games leave the ‘moral compass’ up to the player. In Epic Mickey, for example, players can choose to eliminate enemies using either a paintbrush or paint thinner. Using a paintbrush is the more ‘humane’ way of dealing with enemies; instead of killing enemies, the paintbrush turns them into ‘good’ NPCs. Using paint thinner, however, eliminates the players outright. Interestingly, how you deal with enemies influences how certain plot points unfold in the game.

Life Ambition

The type of character you choose often influences how you play. As magic-users, mages and wizards need to try and preserve their mana. The choice of objective is also reflected in different ‘game modes.’ In most racing games, for example, players have the option of playing either tournaments or time trial, which each have a different goal. In games which give the player quite a lot of freedom, such as Pokemon, it’s sometimes difficult to make up your mind on how to play. Is it better to level up a select group of Pokemon, or try and ‘catch them all’? I’m somewhat of a perfectionist, so I never feel a game is complete until I have discovered all of the secret areas in a game, but different players have different strategies. And these strategies frequently reflect our real-life personalities.

Conclusion

Admittedly, the freedom given to players in the virtual world to explore different identifies also has its downsides. According to various media outlets, the individual behind the tragic killings in Norway was an avid player of both World of Warcraft and Call of Duty, games which purportedly helped him to ‘train’ his combat skills.

But as the TIME article argues, video games can also be a mechanism for positive identity exploration. Many video game characters do indeed possess admirable traits which are worth emulating– physical strength, bravery, intelligence and loyalty. The ability to customize our avatars– to determine their appearance, gender and personality– can actually be a means of self-discovery. And I’m so pleased to see such a large media publication like TIME covering this fundamentally positive aspect of gaming.

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