Racebending, Heroes, and what your Avatar says about you.



There’s a reason I prefer western RPGs to JRPGs… well, actually there are several, but only one I’m going to talk about here. I like the ability to craft a hero of my own design, something far more often seen in western games. I like to make choices in the my appearance and dialogue, to have a vast field of options open to me. I like to have the choice to play as a malevolently evil sorcerer, complete with Ming the Merciless beard, a burly and stalwart Warrior, protecting his friends with his might, or a lithe and slippery thief, whose allegiances are never fully known.

Yet it never turns out that way. Given the option to customise my character in actions or appearance I nearly always end with the same template.

He is a good man in a tough world. He takes the path of good, but he is no Lawful Stupid Paladin. He does not smite evil indiscriminately, but he is no pacifistic hippie. He values the lives of others, and will risk everything to save them, but he is capable of making sacrifices if necessary. He respects the law, but will go outside it if he sees it as unjust. He will make morally dubious choices in pursuit of his goal, but nevertheless has a line he will not cross. He’s usually an older man, a grizzled veteran, often bald, almost certainly with some sort of facial hair.

He’s also black.

This is my attempt to explain why.

So, why does a white middle class Englishman always play as black player characters? Well, to explain it, I have to tell you how it started.

It started much the same time my introduction to RPGs started, with Baldur’s Gate 2. There were a fairly limited number of character portraits available in the game, and fewer still would actually look anything like the character you could create, there were a few false starts along the way, but the character I eventually finished the game with was a sorcerer with the face of the NPC Valygar, a deadlocked black man with a beard and an intimidating glare. I played a little with Neverwinter Nights after that, never really getting very far, but my two most prominent characters were a new version of my old BG2 character and a black female ranger, who I never really connected with, for reasons I’ll expand on later.

The first

The first

It was probably Knights of the Old Republic that cemented it, this time, rather than playing around with several combinations I ended up taking one character from start to finish. Surveying the various heads on offer I found most of them goofy looking, and settled on a young black man with a shaved head to represent me in the game, I think it’s perhaps this game, and my chosen reaction to a certain galactic sized twist I won’t reveal here, that truly characterised my player character beyond generic heroism, his goodness became almost an act of defiance against a universe in which the temptation to do turn dark, break with the law or simply stand aside was everywhere. In my mind he came to stand up for NPCs not merely in order out of a desire to see the next side quest, but because he simply could not stand idly by, he had to help because he could, not because you needed his help, but because you could give it.

It is the second KOTOR game which truly changed the way I thought about my hero for one very simple reason, this was the first time anyone ever noticed the trend. Of course the instant anyone pointed it out it became a self fulfilling prophecy, the moment someone said “Dante only ever plays black characters” it was certain that I would do so, if only for comic value. Since then this trend has expanded far beyond merely Bioware RPGs, I’ve played a Redguard in Oblivion, a black ‘Bishop’ in Rainbow 6: Vegas 2, I play as Louis in Left4Dead and a Haitian mercenary in Far Cry 2, most of my characters in the MMO showdown were black, and I lament any character creator that does not give me that option. But in making me aware of this quirk, it also made me wonder why I chose it and every other constant in my character, beyond the joke, was there a reason my characters looked and acted this way?

The answer would come, unsurprisingly, from another Bioware RPG. Mass Effect allowed me to realise the my ideal hero in both looks and attitude (pictured) his craggy, worn features, shaved head and prominent beard contained elements of all my previous characters, similarly his defiant, determined need to fight against injustice had evolved over time. And it was here that I recognised him, this hero who I had taken through so many adventures, it was here that I realised that the face I had so carefully crafted belonged to another, one of the earliest heroes to truly inspire me as I grew up.

Seperated at birth

Seperated at birth

Captain Sisko was one of the first heroes I felt was truly mine, he wasn’t perfect, he didn’t always get it all right, he was capable of surprising darkness, he felt real in the sense that he was fallible, but heroic despite that, perhaps even more because of it, because that’s what it would be like for a real person who had the mettle to be a hero. He wasn’t the only hero of that kind I encountered, I think Sir Samuel Vimes of the Discworld books impressed as much upon me the greatness of fallible heroes, but he was literary rather than visual, and thus Sisko’s image has indelibly attached itself to my own concept of heroism.

I, for one, have never gotten very far attempting to play as a woman, or an evil character, the distance from my heroic ideal means I lack the connection to the story I had before, and the game becomes a sandbox of mechanics rather than a genuinely absorbing experience. Tom ‘Pentadact‘ Francis by contrast is almost always female, and is capable of some horrific acts of evil violence in games, something I myself would balk at. Does the change of gender distance himself from his character, making them capable of actions more divorced from his own? Or does he still get a connection? Is his heroic ideal female? And if so, who is she inspired by? Chris Livingstone’s Livingston (sorry Chris) ‘Living in Oblivion‘ blog is about him deliberately subverting the game mechanics of Bethesda’s freeform RPG, and his chosen avatar for this endeavour is also a subversion, an ugly and misshapen being borne of twisting the character creator to it’s logical extremes, once again his choice of avatar reflects the kind of game he wants to play.

Joseph Campbell once spoke of a hero with a thousand faces. Well I have a thousand heroes, all with one face. He’s doggedly trekking through the wasteland, he’s flying around the galaxy, he’s fighting terrorists and battling orcs, he’s a hero for all the ages, and he’s all mine.

Who is your hero? Why do they look and act like they do? I’m interested to know if anyone shares my affliction, please talk about your own experiences in the comments. Or if you have a blog take a stab at your own article and I’ll link to it from here.


Dante is still not black. Nor is he that kind of Star Trek fan. You know the ones I mean


1 Response to “Racebending, Heroes, and what your Avatar says about you.”

  1. 1 Mike
    February 18, 2009 at 9:39 am

    Strangely enough, the character that I create to as close a degree as possible in every game where I am allowed to do so, carries the name Roy McArbera. He is always as short as possible, with long ginger dreads and occasionally a beard. He has beefy, blacked-out sunglasses and his attire is always completely white, and adjusted to resemble a straight jacket as much as possible. In pretty much every game I have brought him into he’s been incredibly evil.

    Interestingly, the first games I created Roy in were WWE: Day of Reckoning and NHL Hitz 2002, both on the gamecube.

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