The pony above, which I have created for display in this post, is not a representation of my character, nor is it a representation of me… well sort of but not quite. I don’t look like that, my hair is straight and brown, I don’t have that self-satisfied look on my face, featuring cool shades, but if I had to make a pony to represent me, this would be it. I’m not even sure myself how this makes sense to me.
A while ago, I saw numerous posts displaying various ponies on WoW/gaming blogs, all looking strikingly different, in fact, I wasn’t aware that ponies could look that diverse, and this is coming from someone who had My Little Pony toys as a child. I get the impression that the most common use for it, is to translate a character or avatar through this medium of a pony-making-machine, which carries the name My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Pony Creator, made by the Deviant Artist generalzoi.
The co-author Norm of Favor Text wrote a post about it looking at this tool as a way of creating fan-art and, as mentioned before, player-character representations:
A tool which helps people feel ownership of their character’s appearance and personality, and further invests them in that story, is precious, and an easily accessible meme that gets people talking and sharing creativity is a valuable, if light-hearted, addition to the blogosphere.
So I initially approached the pony creator with the purpose in mind to recreate my WoW characters as so many others had, which resulted in me trying to just match their visual appearance in terms of color and style. I didn’t use symbolism to the same magnitude I’ve seen others do, because when I tried, I couldn’t “connect” with the pony, it started to mean less and less to me.
Avatars and You
The Pony creator is in its basics similar to the WoW character creation mode, except for the fact that there is no game or virtual world for this pony to live in and thereby also negating a need for other gaming specifics like class or profession to intersect it.
Character creation modes and how we use them, give away some information about how we understand our own characters and perhaps more broadly also how we look at avatars in general, and I believe this stretches across a toy like the pony creator to the more function based WoW character creator.
Avatars are the entities that give us embodiment, they give us the illusion of a physical universe, where we move around like we do in the offline world, by walking, riding, flying, actions that are only meant to slow us down, to give us a sense of recognition of the virtual by tying it to the world we know how to move in – the physical.
But they are not just containers for our floating minds in cyberspace, we dress them up, shape them and perhaps they shape us in return. But the way people perceive characters, especially in games where a character could also be seen as a strategic token, like a chess piece essentially, the usage and understanding of them differs greatly. And this is probably where I am different from players that create and play characters with a distinguishable and defined identity.
Try This at Home
Find two people, make sure none of them have played WoW, or at least has only played very little. Open up your WoW account and select a different server than your own, one where you have no characters sitting.
Ask them to make 12 characters, the only requirement is that it has to be one of each race, so it makes sense to just start from the top end with humans and move downwards.
Make sure to state clearly that all other options are completely open, gender, class, looks etc. Ask them – if they can, to give the character a name and when they are done, take a screenshot.
Keep going until all 12 races have been created. Then go through the screenshots and ask them about which characters they would actually want to play, how and why. None is also an answer.
You might be surprised with the result…
…I was when I carried out this experiment. I knew beforehand, that yes, people inclined to roleplay often make a point of not just re-creating themselves over and over, and more strategy-minded players might not put a great deal of thought behind their character. And in fact, the two friends I ran this test on, were vastly different in how they created their characters and what they went for, but more so than I expected.
The first guy, “Adam”, had played WoW years ago for about a month of duration, he didn’t reach a very high level, and had quit out of boredom, MMO’s were not his favourite type of game.
He made a point of saying that mostly, the characters he made in such games, were in a way placeholders to him, a bunch of mechanics really. He consistently did not look through all the options for hairstyle, haircolor and face – options which I personally find of the utmost importance. He gender-bended about half of his characters, while not splitting females and males into caster and melee respectively, overall he didn’t show a strong pattern of preferences.
He expressed a strong dislike for the human warlock starter gear, a pink and reddish robe, which he thought looked hideous on a man – a character/class/gender combo the next guy , “Jens”, with great enthusiasm spent 15 mins fiddling with.
Overall, he became satisfied with his characters very quickly and could easily come up with a name for them, including an idea of what persona was behind them.
When we came to the undead character, he didn’t even alter anything on the randomized version the game had presented him. The class was set on deathknight and at the moment of the switch, this lady with the vertical hair jumps up with a flash of light and lands with another ground spell effect. Out of surprise, he leaned back in the chair and said that this character surely wanted him to choose her, she had made such a spectacle of herself that he announced that he would keep her the way she was, and so Adam did not touch any settings for his undead character, whom he named “Vibrance”.
Despite laying it out as if the visuals of the character weren’t that important to him, I was surprised and impressed with his creativity and ability to quickly see something in the characters, even when, as with the example of “Vibrance”, he had not even created them himself.
This guy is also an oldschool Second Life citizen. I’m not sure how active he still is, but he once showed me his avatars’ different looks, which depicted a break away from the norm of the strong ideals of emphasized beauty. His avatars did not all look beautiful, some did, but most of them gravitated towards caricatures, such as a thin and old Buddhist monk, a 50′s round middle-aged house wife or just a short and slim, weird looking old man. Generally he utilized age on a broader scale in a world that seems to be exclusively inhabited by 20-30 year olds avatars, if not younger.
In WoW he also embraced the older and wrinkled looking faces, creating the goblin hunter Darlene Shmit. He gave a short impersonation of her: she probably smoked a lot of cigarettes, if not also cigars, she had a rusty voice with a laid back, and at times, harsh attitude to life that had sometimes been rough. Looking at Darlene’s face, her tired eyes, I immideatly recognized the image of her personality, he was painting to me.
Vibrance and Darlene Shmit were also the two characters that Adam made, which I somehow also felt were interesting and very unique looking. Uniqueness as a motivation, he stated later, was often important to him, he liked going against the mainstream and didn’t mind ugly or old avatars. Instead, ugly could be a tool to become more unique.
Jens, the other guy, first of all took almost double as long in making his 12 characters. In fact I should warn you, if you ever do this, it can take like around 2 hours for some people, and this guy was meticulous!
Unlike Darlene Shmit’s creator, he would loop through the characteristics options several times, flicking back and forth between a few facial options before figuring out which one had that special a-little-angry, a-little-worried and a-little-evil look on his face. When I say his, it’s because this guy did not once pay interest in the female versions. At one point I had the chance, without him noticing, to quickly switch the gender on to female, just to see what he would do and without a second of hesitation, he automatically switched it back to male and carried on. Jens did not gender-bend his characters the slightest.
He had, like Adam, not more than about a month of history with the game, but his experience on the contrary, was recent, he had been playing this very month.
Alas he had not been able to play as a deathknight as none of his characters were above lvl 55 to unlock this class. The deathknight was an opportunity he held on to with both hands, as he ended up making six of them, besides his two mages and four warlocks. His first reaction to the sight of a deathknight, was ironically a little skeptical, he shook his head a in a what-is-this-I-don’t-even-way and said he thought they looked excaterated. After having peered at the class for a while, spinning it from side to side, he became fond by their cold aesthetics, similarly to how the evilness of the warlock was also appealing to him.
Evil looks or having spells that were evil or dark was something he stressed was captivating to him, the facial expression needed to reflect this same aspect as well. He even went as far as to create a gnome deathknight which he named “Spoilsport” and described as a “for fun character, not one to progress on, but rather to tease others with”, hence the name. I sat for a while and tried to comprehend if this extremely well-mannered and mild guy had just created a griefer character. I tried to probe further about the uses of this character, but he wasn’t able to go into more details (he is a man of few words and long pauses, hehe).
Adam and Jens were so very different but also in certain ways the same. They both skipped options of characteristics, one left out one gender, but put much attention to the male alternatives, while the other barely went through a quarter. One created vastly different characters, both in terms of gender, age and class, and were very capable in naming them, whereas the other kept to a certain line. Several of the horde races, especially troll and goblin, were utterly frustrating to him, he aimlessly turned the character from side to side while talking about how it looked ugly or didn’t appeal to him at all. I let him off the hook several times and thought to myself that I didn’t want to force a result either especially when the man looked to be suffering! With the characters he eventually did complete, he said he projected parts of himself into them, but he also had a lot of difficulties coming up with names, this despite all the characters were created for fun and would never actually be played.
I also project myself into my characters and I find it very difficult not to. They are both mechanics but also largely my spokespersons, so I want them dressed well and looking good. There isn’t much of a filter between us, and while I wouldn’t say my characters are me, they are not “others” either. I guess the same shows in my pony, it’s not 100% me, but surely not a made up detached identity either. If there was a My Little Pony game, especially if it was a social game, that’s how I’d look, just because I think she looks cool with her huge red whirly hair. I don’t sacrifice beauty like Adam, but to me it’s also a lot about how the colors come together, getting a nice color combination is pivotal or getting a contrast between the skin and hair also pleases me, and because of this I’m stuck somewhere in (double?) rainbow land when doing character creations.
It was interesting to read all the other pony versions and what the creator went for when they made them in the same way my little WoW character creator experiment had me very excited, even though I essentially carried it out to use it for a methodology write-up.
I would love do dig further into theory behind avatars in the future, they are a very interesting phenomenon. I wonder if there are typologies in how people view their avatar – from roleplayers creating elaborate and separate personalities, to someone like me (and Jens) who projects ourselves so much into the character that it’s almost solely either just plain us or a certain slice of us, to someone like Adam who testifies to see his avatars as a type of mechanic that give him agency in the virtual world, despite his ingenuity with inventing personalities for them.
Gordon wrote a post called Your Avatar And You (Or My Metrosexual Avatar And Me) at We Fly Spirfires talking about this study he participated in that dealt with how the physical properties of our avatars correlate to our own body image. Gordon’s post has a good discussion going on in the comments with many different views on the avatar/character versus player issue, highly relevant to the point I’m making here using myself, Adam and Jens as examples.
Back to the pony side of the coin, I thought Kamalia et Alia’s post is a good example of someone creating her ponies with a different approach than mine. I also found her display of the WoW races as ponies to be a fun challenge of guessing which is which (You can find the solution in the comments). And here’s my contribution: I thought it was fun to try and make the most evil looking pony I could, using the creator which makes it almost impossible to avoid it being cutesy.