When I talk to people about the need for more female, NB, and trans playable characters in video games, I tend to get the same response: “Well, what about ‘x, y, z’ game? It lets you make your own character!” This is a complete non-answer to a very real problem, and a dismissal of my feelings and concerns. It’s saying that, because a handful of games allow me to create either a male or a female main character, I should be content that the default character on the box is the same cisgender white man in every game. It’s saying that representation doesn’t matter in games so long as I’m able to create it for myself.

This mentality shifts the responsibility from the developers to the players. Rather than encouraging game developers to expand their audience and create more diverse characters, it forgives them for their short-sightedness. “It’s okay that game developers never consider you the norm,” these respondents seem to say, “because at least they let you insert yourself.” But this ignores the fact that the game wasn’t made for me, that the world wasn’t designed with me in mind, and that every part of the game will reflect that, whether the developers intended it or not.

Video games are, by design, a very personal experience. You are placed into the shoes of a character—or a group of characters—and the lens through which you experience the game world is that of their perspective. Your choices, your actions, and your feelings are all focused through this central lead character. The way the characters in the game world respond to you is based on this main character.

So why don’t customizable main characters make the cut? What makes them so ineffective at representing a more diverse cast of characters?

A Responsive Game World

The world around you is influenced by who you are as a person. Your past experiences, your gender identity, and how you present yourself invariably influence how people interact with you (for better or for worse). Stories become far more personal when you, as the player, are able to relate to the position of the main character. Creating a character with a defined history, identity, and personality allows the game world to build on these character traits to make a more diverse game experience.

Let’s take a look at an example. Mass Effect is a game series where your character, universally known as Shepard, is entirely customizable, from gender to skin color to voice. You determine Shepard’s personality traits through a dialogue tree and a series of in-game choices, but the choices you made for their appearance at the start hardly matter outside of dating options. Play a male Shepard and you can date Miranda. Play a female Shepard and you can date Garrus. To accommodate your freedom of choice, almost every reaction in the world is neutral. Dialogue might vary ever so slightly for some NPCs, but as far as the world is concerned, you are a blank slate, and all reactions to you—and all of your character’s reactions to the world—are neutral.

The problem with customizable characters is that, to accommodate a broad range of possible experiences and character combinations, the game world feels flat and impersonal. In some cases, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The neutral response from the game world is vastly superior to a world that drastically changes if you are playing a woman instead of a man. But by choosing to have an open world where all responses are neutral, developers limit story and character growth, opting for an easy solution to the problem of diversity. A story with a defined main character not only allows for personalized interactions and friendships, it allows for character growth both from the player characters and the NPCs around them.

This doesn’t mean that games shouldn’t have customizable main characters. There is absolutely a place for this in games, and having that customization means that players can feel comfortable as their character when they aren’t given any other choice. Likewise, story and character narrative aren’t always a focus of the game world—such as an MMO, or games like Dark Souls—and in those cases, character customization is great.

Angela from Silent Hill 2, addressing James and his desire to help her. Silent Hill 2, Konami, 2001.

Angela from Silent Hill 2, addressing James and his desire to help her.

Who You Are Shapes Your Story

Representation and diversity means creating games that explore the experiences and perspectives of a wider range of people, because who we are, how we choose to identify ourselves, and how the world perceives us are a critical part of our story. A game that lets you make a female-presenting character that you decide is trans is a perfectly valuable but vastly different experience from a game with a set, defined trans woman as its lead. That identity shapes and defines the story for that character, and it’s a hardly explored voice in video games.

While gender and identity aren’t the core themes of every game—nor should they be—it’s undeniable that identity plays a part in every story. A solid example of identity shaping a world is the Silent Hill series. The story Team Silent tells between Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 varies because of the differences in experience between that of a middle-aged man and a teenage girl. Silent Hill is a vastly different world through the eyes of James Sunderland than it is through those of Heather Mason.

Silent Hill 2 is clearly defined by the fact that James is male. The monsters, the world, and the characters are all shaped by James’ masculine identities: the husband, the protector, the strong male figure. Unlike Mass Effect, the characters don’t respond in a neutral way so as to leave open all possible character representations. They get personal, they react to James because of who he is—Angela mockingly asking if James will “take care of her” and try to “fix her,” and Maria appealing to the stereotypically male desire for the more promiscuous version of his wife, for example.

Silent Hill 3, likewise, takes the horror of Silent Hill and twists it from a woman’s perspective. The horrors Heather faces have clearly defined themes of fertility, identity, and motherhood. Even the minor, missable interactions focus on the fears of a young woman, exemplified best with the mysterious caller in the hospital who has clearly been stalking Heather, obsessed with her every move—a fear many women can tell you is very, very real.

The point I’m trying to make is that the clearly defined identities of both James and Heather make the stories of Silent Hill 2 and Silent Hill 3 what they are. Without those identities, the story wouldn’t be the same. By creating defined characters of specific gender identities and orientations, Team Silent is putting the player into that headspace, letting them see through that character’s eyes. Heather’s stalker is even more real to me because, as a woman, I’ve dealt with the exact same kind of voicemails and letters. I can connect with her fear because I’ve been there.

Emily or Corvo

There’s a third, underutilized option with game development that I want to mention as well: multiple, predetermined main characters for the player to choose from at the start. This differs from customizable characters because the choices you are given are often unique and pre-determined, their names, histories, appearances, and emotions already defined. Allowing the player to select between Minako or Minato (Persona 3 Portable), or Emily or Corvo (Dishonored 2), gives the player choice in how they want to be represented while still allowing the game world to react to that character in a more meaningful way.

This option does not replace the need for more default, diverse leads, either, but it’s a notable third choice that game developers should utilize more frequently.

Being the Default

When game developers define the character’s gender, sexuality, and personality up front, the story can build on that, and players are now fitting the narrative into that framework. By expanding games to a more diverse group of lead characters, more players can see themselves in a game, and more players can experience the lives of someone whose identity differs from their own. Diversity provides greater depth and meaning of experiences.

It is also worth mentioning that, as a player, seeing a main character in a game who looks like me, acts like me, and loves like me is a huge and important step to broadening the inclusivity of games. This goes beyond being able to experience the world through a character more familiar and personal. It lets me know that someone, a game developer or a writer, saw me as the default, rather than a paid DLC option.

Representation matters, and while important and expected, customizable characters don’t replace that.