It's just a game.

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It's just a game.

by Caitlin Trujillo


Can a video game be art? If the definition of ‘art’ is nebulous, many will agree to disagree. Regardless, video games are, at the very least, a prominent pop culture medium. Role playing games (RPGs) -- which often allow video game players to create and customize their own characters, down to their appearance, gender and personality -- make up just one popular gaming category. But RPGs are also curious in that, by allowing such a degree of character customization, they can open up a game’s narrative and allow players to, in part, rewrite the story. By their nature, video games are a dialogue between the game developers and their audience.

For my project, I used screen caps from two video game series -- Mass Effect and Dragon Age, both created by the game developer BioWare -- as examples of how RPGs often hand over important storytelling components like character development to players. My purpose was to show how an RPG might therefore partly redefine ownership: Players can customize the games’ protagonists to their liking and make them unique and distinct. In particular, I focused my project on how this can foster more diversity in popular culture, allowing players to create protagonists and heroes who are also women, people of color, and/or queer. (This option for customization is not unique to Mass Effect or Dragon Age, but I chose these two series not only because their games often incorporate social justice themes into their narratives, but also because they have sizable fan communities devoted to social justice dialogue within and beyond the games.)

Process — and Caveats

In order to accomplish this task, I searched Internet fan communities devoted to the series -- message boards and blogs, such as the official BioWare Social Network and Tumblr -- for screen caps of fans’ personal, customized protagonists. (It is common for fans to share their characters online, either to provide inspiration for others or simply to discuss the different takes people have on the games’ main characters.) The screen caps are all images of in-game material, such as cinematic cut scenes or quick screen grabs of idle characters.

However, there is another component to my project. Though players may customize their characters, the developer has to consider marketing the games. With that often comes the necessity of choosing how a game’s main character should look on the case or in promotional posters. Unsurprisingly, the three Mass Effect and two Dragon Age games in existence have been advertised with what the gaming industry believes will appeal to the average video game player: people like them, people who are the “default” in society -- white, heterosexual men. Though players may alter how the protagonists look and behave in their own games, a default preset character is almost always used, either for advertising or as a starting point in character customization (often both).

To show this duality, I superimposed onto the screen caps images that were taken either from official advertisements or games using the default character appearances. I altered these superimposed images’ transparencies to give them a watermark look. My intent was to make the “default” images just visible enough to slightly distract the viewer from the underlying image without completely destroying what lay beneath. The “watermark” images are therefore not a block on player ingenuity or expression, but instead a reminder that -- intentionally or not -- the developer has canonized a particular view of the game. Choice is thus not a complete illusion, but the action of owning those choices is, to a degree, limited.


I opted to display my final images back on the course wiki instead of printing them out because of their inherent reliance on technology and social media. I posted them as a blog post ancillary to this project page, with the simple title of "BioWare characters" because I feel it reflects the straightforward nature of sharing custom characters via social media. Somewhat ironically, this draws attention to my larger question of authorial intent. I have been wondering if Barthes was right to consider the author dead if RPG players can have such an effect on a game’s trajectory through customization, as well as the marginalizing effects promotional advertizing can have on not only players but also whole social groups. One might argue that the “death of the author” is what’s allowing these alternative takes on RPG protagonists that differ from the developer’s default (though that ignores that it was the developing company itself that handed down that opportunity for customization). Nevertheless, I have posted these screen caps of other players’ characters to the wiki as part of my art project, thus appropriating their personas to a degree.

To circle back to my beginning question: Is an RPG a piece of art in spite of, or because of, its altering message or trajectory? Are default settings more authentic? And does their existence dilute their offerings of choice -- or, alternatively, offerings of targeted ownership?

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