Sex, fantasy violence, heroic deeds, worlds in distress, self-improvement through battle. We're all familiar with the common threads that run through our online gaming habit, the themes and overtones that seem to recur in almost every game no matter the variation on genre or game play. In fact, many MMOs aim to be the Michael Bay of the industry, rather than say Hitchcock or Godard: they seek to provide quick thrills rather than deep and intelligent interactions. Rather than create a dialogue about society, they seek to instead escape the thralls of it entirely in a safe haven for our fantasies and escapism.
In December, I wrote a column about diversity in MMOs. In the column, I posed that while our online games were certainly not at the diversity level, it also isn't necessary for them to be – since, after all, a game is meant to suspend disbelief and take us away from the real world. That doesn't excuse games, however, from blatant ignorance of the real world and its troubles. Here are a few ways that MMOs can seek to become more progressive in a world still concerned about human and civil rights. Note: Some MMOs are already making progress in these areas.
Interest in reflecting a diverse world and the players that come from it begins at character creation. There are three main areas that game developers can look at improving when it comes to making a “toon”: race, gender, and body type.
Race is, perhaps, the most obvious of the three. While many MMOs have gradually sought to include skin color options for characters, particularly humanoids, there remains much work to be done. Many of the MMOs that offer a skin color choice offer only a few options. A better option is to offer a palette of at least the skin tone color spectrum. More importantly, let there be darker skin tones among all races, not just humans. Make lore flexible enough to allow for players to choose what reflects them.
Next on the list is gender. Almost every MMO reflects only a dichotomy of sexes: male or female. However, many people identify on a broader range, from feminine males and masculine females, to genderless, and many phases in between. Character creation could, instead, reflect gender neutrality. The first step is to allow players to be referred to by NPCs as male, female, or neither.
The second is more difficult, yet more freeing for players no matter their chosen gender – begin with an androgynous avatar. Give players the options to attach on, or manually size and shape, their naturally given goods. This ties in with allowing players to determine their body type, and asserts the idea that there's more important options to character creation than simply hair style, skin color, and clothing. This lets players exercise flexible options to determine muscle size, fat percentage, and all matters concerning the body's structure.
Will this kind of flexible freedom result in freakish physiques? Absolutely – take a look at Aion, for example. It's unlikely that the number of immersion-breaking oddities of nature are going to be populous enough to reason against freedom in character creation.
Love and Marriage
It's hard to touch on gender issues without also touching on sexuality to some extent. Although marriage in MMOs has traditionally been a role-played or social gathering in the West, more free-to-play MMOs available to Western players include integrated social systems that offer a few small perks. Runes of Magic is a prime example of this, as they are set to add a new social system in their next major update. The system will allow players to form multiple bonds with players, from friendships and family to marriage, each with their own unique set of perks like teleportation and small stat buffs when grouped with the other player.
Where Runes of Magic differs, however, is that they allow players to marry each other regardless of gender. This means that Runes of Magic is one of the first MMOs to offer a social perks system with marriage equality built in. Most free-to-play games that offer a marriage system require a male and female character to make the bond. The restriction is, at best, a silly one – these in game marriages are made more often for their bonuses (such as making a great leveling partner and being able to teleport across the world freely) than for some social reason. Opening up marriages to two players of the same character gender merely makes the marriage system more available to players, who no longer have to bid for a husband or wife in the trade channels.
Doing so, of course, also makes a powerful social statement – one that doesn't necessarily approve of the marriage morally speaking, any more that it morally approves of you killing someone else's dog. Rather, the statement makes it socially acceptable for two people of the same gender to express their love how they wish – and not be forced to make two opposite gendered characters to do so.
Get Up, Stand Up
One last thing that developers rarely let players do, despite their drive, is change the world they live in. Of course, some sandbox games let players develop their entire world, build cities, develop complex economies and political systems – it's in their nature, and developers tend to approach these games with a hands-off attitude. For the rest of the MMO world, where things are developed and built in virtual stone, change seems hard to come by.
Players have traditionally taken to the forums to make their protests, from petition threads to full out written letters begging for change in their game. If players are an essential part in the evolution of an online game, then there needs to be more involvement and opportunity for rallying for change built in to the game engine itself. Let players put their vote into virtual action.
Game developers can build systems that allow for in-game petitioning, allowing players to go beyond the forums to ask for change and seek virtual sponsorship for their ideas that would impact the game world. Build ways for players to set up virtual causes, hold protests, form organizations, to which players can choose to contribute, donate, and make their voice heard. Players have already adapted these ideas in the past, from server sit-ins to guilds forged solely to mark the people who care about an issue. By implementing a virtual cause system, developers can see and measure the opinions and desires of a different side of the community. Players can also utilize these systems to support their out-of-game causes, if they wish, allowing for greater social activism through new platforms.
It's All About Politics
What holds MMOs back into more traditional cultural themes and viewpoints isn't a lack of knowledge or caring, it's about politics. It's edgy to give the minority a thumbs up. What's edgy is controversial, and what's controversial both sells and damages. In gaining new players and investors, games also risk losing the old by making decisions like these. After all, if there's any social aspect of gaming players want to avoid, it's dealing with real world politics, agendas, and hot topics in a game that's meant to be entertainment. Investors are likewise as finicky, not wanting to be seen as supporting something they don't choose to agree with on a political or moral scale.
Maybe we, as players, don't need change – after all, we seem to be doing well off in a growing gaming industry. There's still room for change, however, and some of us will be happy to welcome it.