Coordinator's Note: The accompanying video clip contains some nsfw audio.
There are two major trends in contemporary avatar development: first, the creation of canvases onto which the gamer can project identity; second, the emphasis of the protagonist’s “realness.” In the first case, avatars provide visual signifiers of difference, but fail to create a “lived-in” sense of identity. In the second, as demonstrated in the newest Tomb Raider, avatars compulsorily perform slated identities. Despite 3D graphics, the identities represented by avatars remain fairly flat.
Customizable avatars suggest gamers can create an avatar of their own making. Should the gamer wish to be muscular, mustachioed, reptilian, or an Asian woman (as in the Saints Row series), these options are available. Such menu-sequences lend an identificatory freedom beyond the white male Mario/Mega Man archetype and addresses the visual paucity of female roles, especially ones of color. However, while decentralized protagonists are advancements in videogaming, these buffets of traits promote post-race and post-gender politics, in which visual appearance is irrelevant and political realities are placed alongside the fantastical (see World of Warcraft).
In contrast to gamer-constructed avatars, Tomb Raider offers the non-customizable Lara Croft. In the latest release, both the narrative and Lara’s characterization center around “realness”; in fact, the game begins with her preparing to star in a reality TV show. Since her last franchise appearance, Lara has received a “reality” makeover: she has apparently had a breast reduction, now trembles from cold, and is vulnerable to unwanted sexual advances (if she fails to resist, she is strangled to death). These attributes and vulnerabilities are said to constitute a “more real” character. Tomb Raider writer Rhianna Prachett notes that Lara’s involuntary trembling stresses humanity, not femininity.
Yet because Lara remains the most recognizable female protagonist in contemporary gaming, she carries a substantial representational burden. Adam Jensen or Sam Fischer don’t sob or feel cold. Enemies, especially after taking an arrow to the head, don't say, “Damn, he’s a good shot!” In the context of these stoic, rugged, militaristic male stars (see Hitman, Halo, and Call of Duty), Lara’s “realness” seems excessive, if not over compensatory.
I appreciate the investment in empathic techniques, but more work needs to be done in the genre overall before “humanization” can extend beyond “feminization.” Until there are more holistic representations of race and gender, there’s still ground to cover concerning identity and identification. As it stands, lived differences remain contentiously in play.