Vote Shepard

So IGN has been holding a presidential election with videogame characters as the candidates. Each candidate represents a platform – not a party platform, but a gaming platform. For Xbox 360, Commander Shepard (Mass Effect) has just narrowly edged out his competitors. Apparently the Nintendo (Link from Legend of Zelda) and Playstation (Nathan Drake from Uncharted) primary elections did not have the same level of tension. The PC candidate is yet to be determined (you can see Duke Nukem’s campaign commercial here). But, Gameranx reports, as in real elections, there is some controversy surrounding the election of Commander Shepard as the primary winner for Xbox 360.

So what has people upset about Shepard’s primary nomination? A couple of things. First, there is a strong backing for Master Chief (Halo). Second, there is the suggestion that Xbox really doesn’t have that many good potential candidates, since only Xbox exclusive-release characters are eligible. Third, Mass Effect is available on PC, as well, and some argue that “contaminates” Shepard’s candidacy. Fourth, some people were upset that the male Shepard was the candidate put forth, instead of the female avatar (in their defense, male Shepard is on the box). Finally, Shepard is a “blank slate,” to quote Gameranx. In short, Shepard isn’t a set character with specific traits. He (or she) is whatever the player chooses, unlike, say, Master Chief.

The videogame-and-leadership scholar in me is positively giggling with delight and hopping up and down in her chair. I could not have paid IGN to do something more relevant. What’s great about the closeness of Shepard’s primary win is that it demonstrates that gamers become invested in the qualities and ideologies represented by their player-avatars. It demonstrates that how we design our characters and our games in the videogame industry really matters to the players in the gaming community. They are invested in who those characters represent and they understand that, as players, they are partly responsible for shaping them through gameplay.

That last part is, I think, why Shepard won the primary. While every player’s Shepard is a bit different (in appearance, attitude, style, etc.), Master Chief is much more of a tabula rasa, an “empty uniform,” to quote Band of Brothers. Shepard is as much a person as a videogame character can be, precisely because he or she is created by the player to reflect some level of personhood that Master Chief can’t capture – precisely because Master Chief has to be baseline accessible to all players sans customization.

But this election reflects on the way in which games are intertwined with cultural ideology, with politics, and even with our understanding of heroism and war. That the final two candidates were both war heroes (and that war heroes, like Grant or Eisenhower, tend to do well in real US Presidential elections) expresses our desire to be represented by men and women willing to sacrifice themselves for the greater good, and for what they (we) believe to be right. We want leaders who are both transactional and transformational – we want them to represent our views and ideologies (which Shepard does, because we as players create those ideologies), but we also want them to be transformational, capable of changing their world (our world) for the better.

In short, players are choosing the characters they wish they could be, and a character like Shepard does that better than most because of the level of control the player has over his design. We’ll see where the election ends up, but the fact that so many people care so much about this single character – whether because of the ending of Mass Effect 3 or this election or the “open vote” method BioWare used to choose the appearance of its standard female Shepard – says to me that we want our characters to, in some way, be better versions of ourselves. I think that, ultimately, that’s a hopeful sign that we possess the capacity for change, just as our characters do. And in this world, that’s a very good thing.

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