Gray Hair: Character Design for Escapism

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I take great care when I create characters. These are people I’ll grow with, learn with, and escape into for a long time, so it’s not a process I take lightly. I used to think that characters I built were meant to be me, projected into the game, but something has changed recently. After some introspection, I’ve realized that the characters I’ve been creating aren’t just clones of me: they’re far more interesting.

When I create “myself,” it’s because the protagonist doesn’t have a strong personality or character. It’s in MMOs and multiplayer games where your actions don’t really affect the plot (if there’s any plot at all), and the customization is usually playing dress-up with one of a few doll options.  In these cases, I just go for a character that I consider “neutral,” and the character that I kept building was unsurprisingly similar to myself. They’d be female, brunette, kinda pale, and either with a ponytail or (if available) a kinda bob cut thing. If body build was an option, I’d go for medium height and build; pretty unremarkable, all in all. Let’s face it: a lot of gaming is about escapism, and I tended to make clones of myself that I could slip into easily; it was taking myself out of my comfort zones and seeing what would happen if I were in this fantasy. I was creating a version of myself outside my regular life and escaping into a new one.

Pretty standard, right? Then I noticed something.

firefall shortA while ago, I created my character for Firefall and thought the gray hair option was pretty cool. Everything else was the same as my default, down to the blue eyes and almost ghostly pallor, but her hair was gray. I thought it was a whim. Then I decided to revisit Neverwinter Nights, and found that even that character wound up having gray hair – it struck me as odd, but I forgot it quickly and moved on. Another whim, perhaps. Finally, I created a character for Guns of Icarus Online. Another gray-haired my-age white chick? At this point it became obvious that gray hair was a trend, and not just a series of coincidental whims.

Over the last year, I’ve been getting a fair amount of gray hair. I’m still technically brunette, but it’s definitely getting more silver as the time goes by. I’m certainly not as gray as the characters I’ve been creating lately, though. This makes me think that these characters I’m making are not exact duplicates of me that I can slip into like a suit when the escapism suits me – they’re future versions of myself. If you stuck me (current, brunette me) onto a steampunk airship, I wouldn’t know the first thing about being an engineer – but if this was something the world was coming to and I’d have to learn, by the time my hair is totally gray (in the next 5-10 years), I might have learned the skills necessary to be that person.

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In this light, games are almost inspirational. If I work at it, by the time my hair is gray, I could be as fit as my Firefall character, or I could be as good an archer as my Neverwinter Nights character, or I could own a frigging airship. Sure, I’m still using my characters for escapism, and I’m still making them look like me, but they’re not current me. They’re fantastic versions of a me who could be – and that makes the game far more interesting.


  • Steven Sukkau

    Great piece Caitlin! Loved it!
    This is something I struggle with as well, should I “be” my character, or should I role play? Should I play as the opposite gender? Should I make the decisions I would really make, or explore being an evil dictator?
    I think exploring a new role, and putting yourself into the game can both be interesting and edifying experiences.
    But you’re right, often games just don’t provide enough motivation or backstory, or even provide your character with an audible voice. It leaves me creating my own stories to flesh my character out. I loved your idea of creating a future you, someone who has learned to be an engineer. So cool. Sometimes, I try and convince myself that the nameless war hero in the latest Call of Duty is actually the war vet from a previous military shooter I played. Makes more sense how I start the game as a decorated sargeant or whatever, even though the player has to be taught how to “look around” and how to run or reload.

  • Jason Rice

    What kills me most is when I make a wizened old man with a beard as a character and then am thrust into the role of a teenager. I’m looking at you Neverwinter Nights 2!