Culture Bytes: Identity in Video Games

Let's face it, identity's a pretty big deal in contemporary life and, with the greater understanding of the human psyche and emotions giving more mainstream empathy to more social groups through awareness and enlightenment, this looks set to continue. But, in this article I don't want to talk about the labels or identities that form our social group - the labels society uses to divide us and advertisers use to target us. I want to talk about the things that make us us. To be more precise, I want to talk about identity within video games, whether, in this fictionalised environment, real personality matters more than social identity. So, what do video games show us about identity and can we find our own within them?

Let's preface this a little. Video games are a fairly new medium and expecting them to give us the ability to "find ourselves" in them is a lot of pressure for so young an arena of expression. Mankind has most likely always told stories with characters, but one of the oldest forms of this is theatre (at least in terms of fiction being considered art made for the consumption of a commercial audience), specifically Ancient Greek theatre. In Greek Tragedies characters brought about their own downfall through human traits; faults that they could not overcome. The eponymous heroine in Sophocles' Electra yearns for revenge after the death of her father. Obviously her revenge stems from love, but she chases her super-objective so doggedly that she kills her mother only to find no solace, increasing her grief. Although an extreme example, Electra is a surprisingly palatable character; we all have faults that we cannot overcome and seeing Electra's own faults make her easy to sympathise and identify with. Jumping forward a few thousand years to 1951, we see the publication of J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. With many discovering the book, to this day, in their formative teenage years (the years in which we start to discover who we really are) the teenage protagonist Holden Caulfield has become something of an icon. The worries Holden has are shared by many, teenagers and adults alike, men and women, the wonderful humanity and confusion of Holden crossing the social boundaries of sex, gender and age to give millions something to identify with and see themselves in. Considering fiction has such a rich history of helping audiences find themselves, or at least mirror parts of them, maybe it isn't such a tall order to expect video games to do the same.

Admittedly, it's difficult to find our own identity in some of the older games; unless you happen to be a frog trying to make it's way across a perpetually busy road, Frogger isn't exactly going to speak to your soul. But as games became more complex and began to tell more interesting stories, there became a need for characters and, ultimately, more and more three-dimensional ones (in an emotion sense, I'll leave the graphics for someone else to tackle). Despite some of the worst voice-acting and dialogue of all time ("I was almost a Jill sandwich!") the Resident Evil games released on the Playstation gave the world some characters who were surprisingly easy to identify with. In Resident Evil 2, Leon Scott Kennedy faces a zombie outbreak. It also happens to be his first day working in the local police department. Leon's situation might seem an alienatingly extreme one, but hear me out. Everyone, no matter what race, gender, sex, age or any other social group you identify with, has had to do something for the first time and been completely out of their depth. It might have been your first day of school, first time having sex, or maybe it was the first day of your new job and there happens to be a zombie apocaly... oh. My point is that Leon's extreme situation is surprisingly relatable, especially considering that he does what nearly everyone in that situation would do; he does the best he can with the resources he has. Leon's plan, as he recounts to Claire Redfield, is very simple, "Let's split up, look for survivors, and get out of here." Although this is his duty as a police officer (he's in uniform and on duty, lest we forget. I think working regulations state he earns time-and-a-half for dealing with a zombie outbreak, though I'm not entirely sure about this law), we also see a staggering amount of humanity. He could quite easily leave Claire behind and worry only of himself, but decides to keep in contact with her over the walkie-talkie. We also see this in his relationship with Ada Wong, constantly trying to keep her safe and stop launching herself into trouble. In terms of pure survival, Leon has nothing to gain from helping anyone else get out alive, however he does this throughout the series. This isn't just because he's a police officer, but because he holds human life in great esteem. This is something that the audience can identify with; not just the fear of death, but Leon's belief that human life is sacred - the need to keep others alive and Leon's own humanity alive.
Sticking with Resident Evil 2 for a moment, we see a very similar humanity in Claire. As she tells Leon in the wonderfully clumsy line of dialogue, she has "come to find her brother; Chris" (perhaps not the most pertinent information when escaping a hoard of the undead). As much as Claire is driven on through the game by her own survival (and later on assuring Sherry's) her main motivation is to find her brother. We can surmise from this that the most important thing to Claire is her family, a theme that will ring true with many in the audience - giving them yet another character to identify with.

Let's move away from zombies (sound advice in a zombie outbreak, by the way). One of my favourite characters is Sora from Kingdom Hearts. Sora spends idyllic days playing with his two best friends on a tropical island. They race, have existential teenager conversations (remember those?) and have play fights, always competing with Riku (you know that kid who was better than you at everything?). Their world is then invaded by Shadows (the enemies in the game) and destroyed. Sora escapes the destruction but is left with an important question: where are his friends? Essentially lost in the universe, Sora sets out to find Riku and Kairi, recruiting more friends along the way who become equally important to him. These are Donald Duck and Goofy of Disney fame, yet don't be fooled; their friendship is deep, genuine and, ultimately, surprisingly mature. Sora is a truly caring and three-dimensional character who experiences a range of emotions, from the joyous company of his friends, the sorrow at their loss, the bitter sting of betrayal and his furious revenge; we can imagine ourselves in his situation. We've all felt lost and found solace in the people around us because, really, is there anything more important than the people we love? A character as caring and empathetic as Sora is perfect for seeing ourselves in.

But, although there are plenty of characters to identify and see similarities with, it's not quite the same as finding ourselves. It's a profound thing to read a book, watch a film or listen to a song and say, "This is me - this is how I feel", but it's part of the human experience for it to happen. This is exactly where the great range of video game characters comes in and, wonderfully, the great range of characters you can find in a single game. If we examine RPGs we can see an overarching trend of many playable characters in the main party and, in the best of these, the characters are staggeringly varied. Take Persona 4; each character in the main party is distinct, yet three-dimension. In terms of social identity alone it's a masterpiece - straight characters, characters on the LBGTQ spectrum, male, female, a host of ages, I could go on - BUT the only good representation of anyone is to show them as a fully formed individual who is more than their social identity. For instance, my favourite character is Naoto. Naoto's a trans* character; biologically female, but identifying emotionally as a man. Now, I'm a cisgender man, but I identified more with Naoto than any other character in the game; this is because Naoto is more than just his social identity. He's also highly intelligent, confident, determined, hard-working and surprisingly fragile - none of which have anything to do with his social status. But, if that doesn't sound like you, we have Yukiko, practically a binary opposite, or Yosuke, or Chie, or Kanji or any member of the group because it's so diverse. We can see ourselves, our own personality in these characters - the things that make us us. Certainly to my mind, Persona 4 could quite easily qualify as the video game equivalent of Catcher in the Rye.

However, we can also learn about ourselves through ourselves. Take the blank canvas of The Sims - do we not make our sims in a way that to us, as the creator, is appealing, real and relatable? Is the way we treat other sims not due to how we as the player perceive them? In MMORPGs do we not create our character because, in this exciting fantasy realm, that is how we wish to portray ourselves? Moving towards zombies again (unsound advice - don't do it if it's avoidable), in The Walking Dead Game we make Lee's and Clementine's decisions for them, because of how the situations have affected us, not them - the characters are an extension of us and, living through what they live through, these choices are our own. Even in games such as Pokemon or Dragon Quest VIII where the player is given a 'silent hero', we name them and choose their equipment for us to project a personality, often our own, onto them. So much of the medium insists upon a projection of our own character; we can't help but discover something about ourselves.

Interestingly, identity itself is a recurring theme in video games (Persona 4 is, essentially, a journey of self-discovery for the characters... wait a minute! That's why they called it that!), but the loss of identity is even more so. In Final Fantasy VII (one day I'll write an article without mentioning Final Fantasy, I promise!) Cloud is a well defined character with a past told in fantastic detail, only for us to discover he has, in fact, taken on the persona of his dead friend Zack Fair. This becomes an important plot point and we see Cloud gradually rebuild himself and find his own personality and memories with the help of his friends.
A similar theme is echoed in the Metal Gear Solid series. Fox Hound agent Raiden, through many injuries, is gradually augmented into a cyborg, becoming an ever more complex and successful killing machine, until that's practically all he is - a machine leading us to a question - where does identity end? Where does humanity end?

In conclusion, video games, through their rich array of characters and storytelling, have as much for the audience to identify with as any other art form. There are characters who care about what we care about, who love how we love, characters we might see ourselves in and also blank canvases onto which we can project our own personalities. Not only this, but with identity itself being such a looming theme in the medium, it seems this abundant and important tradition is set to continue.

Sam Leeves is the author of the novels 'Endless Tides' and 'In the Footsteps of the Behemoth', he is also a member of The Fawcett Society. Find him on twitter, @CptSkyheart.

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