Player Agency in Modern Gaming A response to Gin Jackson's 'Ultra-Ego: Player Agency in Alter Ego'

Ultra-Ego: Agency in Alter Ego has writer Gin Jackson taking an in-depth look at the 1986 text-based game Alter Ego and analyzing the, by today’s standards, limiting character creation options. Jackson notes that the game is designed with the prototypical “American family” in mind, a reflection of accepted social norms during the 1980’s when the game was released, but does not account for those individuals who fall outside of that lifestyle archetype.

As observed by Jackson in Ultra-Ego, the very first choice that Alter Ego asks the player to make is which gender they wish to play as: male or female. In 1986, when Alter Ego was released, this level of “character customization” was likely considered relatively profound; most commercial video games on the market provided the player with a singular (usually male) character. However, by the standards of 2018 this two-choice question feels restrictive.

A more contemporary example of the “life simulator” genre is the popular The Sims franchise. Like Alter Ego the Sims games allow a player to create an in-game avatar (a “Sim”), and live out their life, seeing what choices result in what outcomes. Unlike Alter Ego, which is firmly set in the decade it was developed, The Sims franchise has endeavored with each successive release to keep up with the social mores of the time. It should also be noted that Alter Ego is a text-based game, while The Sims is a graphical game, where players are presented with a visual representation of their in-game character.

The first game in the franchise, The Sims, was released in February 2000 and offered little more choice than Alter Ego had 14 years prior. The game’s character customization aspect, “Create-A-Sim”, allowed the player to choose their skin tone (‘light’, ‘medium’, or ‘dark’), gender (‘male’ or ‘female’), and age (‘child’ or ‘adult’). Players could scroll through a small selection of heads, and a small selection of torso/leg combinations, to further personalize their Sims. All of these options, however, were limited to the same body-style.

Create-A-Sim mode in The Sims. (screenshot credit: http://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/sims/screenshots/gameShotId,4284/)

However, The Sims series of games have long been considered to be fairly progressive in their representation of sexuality and orientation: same-sex relationships have been a feature present since the release of the original game, with each successive installment taking steps forward and giving the player more agency in that department. The Sims 3, released in June 2009, was the first in the series of games to allow gay marriage, the same year it was legalized in Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Washington D.C.

The Sims 4, released September 2014, has thus far allowed the most player agency in any of franchise installments. The Create-A-Sim mode is as far from The Sims as that game was from Alter Ego. Players are no longer limited to three skin tones from which to choose, but are instead presented with an array of pigmentations that cover a much larger spectrum of racial backgrounds. Body type is also customizable, with sliders and options to create a wide range of physiques; because like the players they may (or may not) reflect, not all Sims fit in an “average size” box.

In June 2016, a patch was released for The Sims 4 that added, among other things, a drop-down menu to Create-A-Sim that allowed for the creation of transgender Sims. The options given are simple: players can choose whether their Sim has a masculine or feminine physique, whether the Sim prefers masculine or feminine clothing. Furthermore, players choose whether the Sim can become pregnant or get others pregnant (a third “Neither” option, is also available), and finally, whether the Sim uses the toilet standing or sitting. Additionally, all voice options, both feminine and masculine, were opened up to all characters.

While game developer Maxis and publisher Electronic Arts have seen some push-back on the series for the further exploration of these gameplay aspects, with Russia going so far as to limit the sale of The Sims 4 to customers over the age of 18, the series has continued to develop gameplay aspects that allow for a greater degree of player agency. Much like our real world, these digital neighborhoods can be filled with avatars representing a range of races, orientations, and lifestyles. There is no expectation for the player to live out a “typical” life, because the developers recognize that the experiences users are coming to the game with are different from their own. While Alter Ego remains firmly cemented in 1986, The Sims franchise continues to keep up with the times.

Created By
Nathan Elam

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