God Mode: Doppel-gamers

February 2, 2012

Ever since arcade games first started sucking down people’s quarters, video games have allowed players to create alternate identities. But we’ve come a long way since Pac-Man limited your digital persona to three letters on a scoreboard.

As games have become more complex, players have had the opportunity to put a lot more than their initials (or, let’s be honest, the word ASS) into them. And while our virtual avatars haven’t quite reached Matrix levels of alternate reality yet, the degree of detail that goes into them has reached a point where their likeness can be a little frightening. Spend enough time with a character and you sometimes see a kind of funhouse mirror, reflecting back a skewed vision of yourself.

This kind of character customization and personalization is typically the province of role-playing games, but it was actually a sports game that really caused me to consider the implications of our digital creations. NBA 2K12 is the latest in an annual series of basketball games, and there’s nothing unexpected about it—you play simulations of NBA games. And like most sports games for the past decade (if not longer), NBA 2K12 features a create-a-player mode.

NBA 2K12’s My Player mode, however, doesn’t just allow you to put your name on a shooting guard and throw him in the NBA’s player pool. First, it offers an insane degree of customization. You can alter every aspect of your player’s appearance, including a selection of fashion accoutrements that would seem excessive in a Barbie video game, let alone a sports one. And in the name of making your character a fully realized NBA player, you control every aspect of his game, down to the intensity of his leg kick on fadeaway jumpers.

All that window dressing pales in comparison to the gameplay that comes when your player finally puts on a jersey. My Player mode isn’t really like the rest of NBA 2K12 at all—it’s actually more like a role-playing game. Your player has various goals, both within individual games and over the course of his career, that when completed reward you with “skill points” to upgrade your player’s abilities. Then you have to manage your player’s relationship with his teammates and fans, the rating of which is controlled through your dialogue with the media.

In short, NBA 2K12 gives you complete control, or at least the illusion of it, over the career of an NBA player. And a large part of that is that the player you create develops a personality as the result of your choices. Whether your character becomes the consummate professional or the basketball equivalent of Kenny Powers is based on how you play the game, and it ultimately says something about you.

Of course, that something more often than not might just be that you think Eastbound and Down is hilarious. I’m not trying to argue that a virtual basketball player or any other user-created video game character can be used as tools for psychoanalysis. But video games from NBA 2K12 to Grand Theft Auto to Skyrim all increasingly let their characters become products of their players’ choices, and that someone can look at these games and determine something about you other than a high score is a little unnerving.

But I don’t think it’s a bad thing. If my video game character can say something about me, all the better—it means that all the time I’ve wasted playing has at least produced something meaningful.

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