Video Games without Characters

A Response to Ian Bogost's Atlantic piece arguing for Video Games without Characters in favor of System Design.

Edited April 7th, 2015 for clarity,additional links and quotations.


Characters are not central to video games. They are not a necessary component for a video game to function. Even the player’s Avatar can vary from a detailed 3D model to a single 2D square to even a single pixel. Games — at their core — are interactive formal systems. One can change Mario into a jumping block rather than the iconic plumber, and it would be the same game. Pong, Missile Command, Tetris, and Super Hexagon are all enjoyable games without any discernable characters. It’s also true that most game criticism doesn’t center around a game’s formal systems in favor of a game’s theming or narrative.


Most of the controversy surrounding Bogost’s piece are about representation. He talks about “theories of social justice” focusing on race and gender representation rather than systems. These critics would be better served looking at formal systems rather than the race and gender of these characters, and that game developers should focus on systems and procedural rhetoric over characters and narrative. Perhaps even eliminate characters altogether.


“…an unpopular question lingers, one that Maxis’s closure calls to mind. Why must we have characters in games at all? Or, more gently put, why have we assumed that the only or primary path to video-game diversity and sophistication lies in its representation of individuals as opposed to systems and circumstances? In truth, we’ve all but abandoned the work of systems and behaviors in favor of the work of individuals and feelings. And perhaps this is a grievous mistake.”


He uses SimCity to make his point — an example of a game utilizing specific theories of economy and urban planning to simulate the workings of a city.


He is not wrong here.


System Design is like the screenwriting of game development — the blueprint from which the foundations of a game are built. However, he suggests sidestepping representation altogether by simply eliminating characters and focusing on system design.


No characters means no problems with race, religion, gender or politics.


So let’s talk about Representation as a system. A 2012 study on race and self-esteem in children found that — while children’s television raised self-esteem in young white boys — it decreased self-esteem in young white girls and african-american children. As early as six months, children recognize race, and as infants begin to develop stereotypes. Young girls and children of color internalize stereotypes, and young white boys externalize them. At young ages, children already see white males as the in-group and everyone else as an out-group. Some of this is not easy to change. It is a fact that white males hold the majority of power in the US, Canada, Europe, and Australia. White males hold the most visible power, and this is reflected in all aspects of culture — from articles about CEOs, blockbuster films, elections, children’s television, and yes — video games.


This presents an obvious and systemic problem. Children with low self-esteem that view themselves as out-groups are more likely to exclude themselves from leadership activities, and children in in-groups are likely to exclude or ignore them. Thus perpetuating the original problem.


This is changing. Slowly.


With and world leaders like Barack Obama and Angela Merkel in power — both of which have somewhat diverse cabinets — the in-group is shifting. Actors like Will Smith, Denzel Washington, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana find themselves in leading roles. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cory Booker, Hillary Clinton, Bobby Jindal, Marco Rubio are leading figures in places of power traditionally held by white men. Most of these steps could be correlated to various social programs as well as proactive efforts by minority groups to get more media representation. Progress trudges on.


With the exception of Video Games.


The majority of non-customizable player avatars are male, with a character design so generic that it has become a laughable meme. Heroes default to white men in their 30s voiced by Troy Baker or Nolan North. Bogost’s solution — to eliminate the idea of a character altogether —  is not just a mere sidestep of the problem. It further perpetuates it by saying and doing nothing. The already perceived default takes more prominence from the lack of a counter.


The example of SimCity is especially interesting to me as I entered the series at SimCity 2000. I was maybe 7 or 8 at the time. I do remember characters. There were the Sims themselves — largely invisible bits of data that would occupy or desert squares based on complex algorithms that I’d barely understood. Sometimes, they drove blue cars in traffic jams. There was the mayor — the player avatar — represented by a news photo of a capitol building And then there were the advisors. They would try to be helpful. They would praise you as you increase their funding or build special buildings, curse at you when you cut their funding. They represented various facets of SimCity life. They were diverse. A black man, a white woman, and an asian man had the mayor’s ear. They were in politics. They were stakeholders. They had a place in the system.


A photo. That’s all it took.


As these photos developed into animated cartoon polygons, they retained their diversity. Such a thing barely played a role in the Game as a Formal System — merely representations of parts of Sim politics vying for funding and control. The addition of Advisors gave the game itself just a small bit of extra flavor and character, and without them something was lost.


Chess is one of the oldest living games in existence, with versions found in India, China, Iran, Northern Africa, Russia, and Europe before being codified with international rules by the world chess federation. Chess pieces and boards today run the gamut from Middle-Earth to Star Wars. It is a formal game system weathered by time and reflective of the cultures it’s found in. The most widespread version simulates Medieval European warfare with pieces like Kings, Queens, Knights, Bishops, and Rooks. The pieces clearly represent a monarchy, with a hierarchical system represented by the agency of its pieces.

So — as a mental exercise — let’s remove this representation and focus purely on Chess as a Formal System. We have two sides of opposite color. Let’s default that to 1 and 0 to avoid representation with color. There are 16 pieces each — 8 pawns, 2 Rooks, 2 Bishops, 2 Knights — no, that’s character. Let’s designate them with A,B,C,D…etc. Let’s define them only by movement. Now, the D pieces move in an L shape and…


… differentiation of movement is characterization. Clearly the A piece — which lacks the most agency — is important as it must be protected. The B piece has the most movement, so must be important. These 8 F pieces are clearly more disposable. There’s a hierarchy in place. Even as a Formal System, representation happens. Characters exist. Chess without characters is a board without pieces.


Another, more recent example: mechanically, Battlefield: Hardline is just cops and robbers writ large. A huge playfield of a city, and a plethora of military equipment on balanced sides of cop and criminal. By most accounts it’s a competent shooter, with a mediocre campaign and fun paintball like multiplayer. Just like any other military shooter.

Yet it isn’t just another military shooter.


It’s a military shooter on the streets of a virtual city and a police force armed with military equipment. The theming — even though they tried hard not to say anything — says a lot in a time where the growing militarization of the police is a real world and timely issue. They had the opportunity to use rules and systems to say something about this level of militarization in the hands of the police. By not saying something, and creating a fun, balanced game around its theming Battlefield: Hardline gives a tacit endorsement to an increasingly powerful police force against dehumanized criminals. Just seeing how imagery mirrors the violence in Furgeson is enough to give anyone pause. If viewed primarily as a Formal System, we have a competent shooter on a huge map in order to play cops and robbers. With theming the game is something else entirely. Characters matter. Representation matters.


Turn Mario into a block and you still have an avatar characterized by mechanics — as one could see in Thomas Was Alone. Turn the pieces in Tetris into naked women and you have Sextris. Change the theme of Eastern Bloc Border Control in Papers, Please to a pleasant and colorful kitchen and you have Cooking Mama. Theme has an impact on player experience.


That said, games are seeing some improvement in using procedural rhetoric. Systems and characters are mixing together more often. Shadow of Mordor uses its nemesis system to create an entire character map around the politics of Orc society. The experimental game Facade uses a complex system to simulate an arguing couple that enact various scenes whith which a player can interact. Abstract Games like The Marriage make statements using only mechanics.


If games are art — if they’re cultural artifacts — they are mirrors to the culture that created it. Games can hold a systemic mirror to real world systems. They can be microcosms from which we can safely play with ideas and concepts as simple as capture the flag and as complex as building a universe.


In either case, the underrepresented don’t want quotas or censorship or sidestepping complex issues. We just want a piece on the board.





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