The Art of Avatar Creation

What drives players of games like “Elden Ring” to share screenshots of their avatars?

In the days after the March release of Japanese developer FromSoftware’s massively anticipated open-world action role-playing game Elden Ring (2022), I saw innumerable users, friends and strangers alike, announce on Twitter that they were beginning to play the game by posting pictures of their bespoke avatars. In the months since, I’ve continued to see people put up pics of “themselves” to update their in-game progress, whether posting where they’ve made it to or illustrating how they’ve evolved and leveled up. Posting pics of oneself in the game is also a key component of gaming communities on Reddit — for Elden Ring, a search for “my character” results in a large variety of posts.

Fans of FromSoft’s games, which also include Bloodborne (2015) and the acclaimed Dark Souls (2009) series, have formed a tight-knit online community that heavily includes representations of their avatars, the products of character creation engines that have become increasingly detailed and complex with each game installment. In parallel to these trends, character customization screens have evolved to allow for greater flexibility in letting a player devise their in-game gender, race, style, and facial characteristics, all to express whatever desires they have for their game presence, whether that’s to imitate their real-world look or conjure an imaginary one. Such features have become so detailed as to constitute more than one box on the checklist of things one must do to play a game; they’re now a distinct aspect of the gameplay experience—a vital, vivid part of game creativity and community-building.

Avatars in video games began with a straightforwardly utilitarian function: an easy mode of identification. Rules and the logic of the game world unfold around the avatar. You are Mario, and now you’ll learn to jump. You’re Pac-Man, and you must eat the dots. Over time, as interactive design has evolved, we’ve come to recognize the political and thematic implications of how avatars are implemented. More than that, we can see now how avatars can also be artistic works themselves, and how creating them can be meaningful acts for players.

Even if one does not put much thought into picking or designing their avatar, their choice can be revealing. I use a Mii character that looks vaguely like myself for my account on my Nintendo Switch. On the same Switch, my brother uses a stock avatar of Mario’s archenemy Bowser. My ex-girlfriend used a cute alpaca character from the Animal Crossing series that suited her own taste. Avatars can even become points of humorous comparison between games and other media; I’ve seen people on Twitter note how their Elden Ring characters resemble wrestlers or manga characters.

What Role Are You Playing?

Curious about how seriously people do or don’t take the character creation process, I ran an informal poll by several good friends who are all avid gamers, asking them some basic questions about how they use these features in various games. One question that especially interested me was how much they did or didn’t identify with their avatars. Elden Ring, for example, is classified as a role-playing game, but broadly speaking, in nearly all games, users play a role of some sort. The difference is whether the role is one the game provides wholly for you or if you have more of a say in what it looks and sounds like, including elements of a backstory.

My respondents were split on the question of whether they considered a user-designed game avatar as being “them” or a separate character. Kambole said, “It’s dependent on the game, but normally, it’s role-playing as a separate character. For example, Destiny 2 has character races with different histories, and I like to imagine what reactions they might inspire as I play. Same with something like Elden Ring.” Cole said something similar: “I think of my avatar as a separate character in almost every game I play. I only ever make a character look like me if it’s a life-sim-style game, like Sims or Animal Crossing, or if I’m making a system-based avatar like a Mii.” In contrast, Esther opined, “Sometimes it’s fun to role-play, but it’s rare that a game really gives the player space to do that, so it’s usually more fun for me to take things at a remove and make choices based on my own instincts.”

Limitations Despite Greater Customizability

Both Kambole and Esther observed how, despite the intricate number of options character creators have these days (some games, like Conan Exiles or Cyberpunk 2077, even allow one to modify their avatar’s genitals), there were still gaps in Elden Ring’s system. (This speaks to a broader issue with game character creation systems, particularly as they pertain to representations of nonwhite people.) Esther found, “Games almost never have hair options that look like mine (very curly, shoulder-length).” Similarly, Kambole noted, “I don’t care about an avatar being a digital facsimile of me because, more often than not, the facilities to do so — mainly with Afro hair — are lacking.”

Avatar creation also allows for flexible expressions of gender. Esther, a trans woman, said that “Games were important in getting me to initially question my gender identity. I have vivid memories of playing the Mass Effect games and Skyrim for the first time, selecting female characters in both, and wondering why I gravitated toward that choice without even thinking about it. It helped a lot by letting me ‘present’ as a woman in a completely locked-off and safe environment, and they were pretty instrumental in me realizing that I wanted to transition.” Cole, who is nonbinary, says, “I play as girls more than I used to. I’ve grown increasingly interested in femme presentation. Playing as female avatars allows for some fun self-identification.”

Players also differ in how much time they invest in these features. Esther said, “I understand the appeal of getting into the nitty-gritty, fussing with sliders that change nose shape or eyelid size, but most of the time I just want to get into the actual game. I can never make the character look exactly how I want even when I try, so I’d rather just slightly alter one of the default faces and get on with it.” Kambole concurred: “The broader strokes are what matter for me. That said, I do like playing around with cosmetic options, like tattoos and scars.” But Cole differed: “I usually spend 30-45 minutes if the character creator is super in-depth. I don’t care too much about minute precision, but I do like playing around with sliders a lot to see what happens.”

Avatar-Sharing as Creative Canvas

Cole gets at one crucial element of avatar-sharing culture: messing around. In the case of Elden Ring, whether you’re creating an appealingly animesque adventurer or trying to approximate an extant pop culture figure, the more out-there results exemplify the creative possibilities of these features. And nothing showcases this better than the long-running YouTube series Monster Factory, in which hosts Justin and Griffin McElroy have fun pushing character customization options far past their intended parameters. They’ve set a parody of a post-nuclear-apocalypse housewife upon the wasteland of Fallout 4, terrorized the most self-serious users of Second Life, and found some truly remarkable inadvertently sexual features in SoulCalibur VI. They embody the spirit of every mischievous teenager who realized that nothing was stopping them from making their avatar’s head comically large — before playing the game as normal.

It feels like we’ve only begun to tap game character-building features’ potential for creativity and entertainment. Imagine an artist taking the Monster Factory ethos even further, using these elements like a sculptor, crafting nonhuman entities no one designing these games would have ever thought possible. As character creation engines become even more robust, inclusive, and imaginative, the potential for customization will only expand.


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