This is my contribute to the discussion about race selection and implications. I’m not sure I see any pattern that could be really theorized and I believe the most interest part is not about the consequences of the choices (concretely close to zero in my experience) but the reasons behind those choices.
I love my dwarf in WoW. Not because it is unique or less popular than other choices, but simply because I find him having a lot of charisma. Pretty or not pretty is just a superficial point of view, as is taking the physical features “out of context”. The physical appearance of a race is much more than that. It doesn’t just define how a character looks, but it also suggests who he is, his story, his attitude.
The character customization/look is the first step into the “roleplay”. It’s the very beginning of your personal story.
You aren’t just going to choose what looks better, but you are already choosing a pattern of interaction with the game. This is already the level of the metaphore. Who You Want To Be. This being the very most important thing in a persistent world. There isn’t really anything more important than the role you choose for yourself. Simply put: your identity.
Really, I’m not surprised if the physical appearance is so important. Why I should be? It’s the ideal of the virtual world. The player is immersed in a consistent world and the very first choice is about the identity. Alternate realities, “Let’s Pretend”, “Magical Mystery Tours”, roleplay. These are the elements that define the choices of the players. It’s the level of the metaphor. Your symbolic presence and value in the virtual world. The possibility to “roleplay” and evocate a wish, a desire, an aspiration.
It makes sense that the majority of the players choose a human shape compared to an alien shape and it makes sense that they choose something looking pretty instead of something looking ugly. Aspirations, wishes.
What is being offered to the players isn’t simply a different look, but a “packaged myth”. A pattern of interaction with the game world. The way a character looks already suggests a lot about his story and his nature. All these aspects are tied together.
I completely agree with Raph here:
“Character classes and races are just modes of expression.”
The players choose the mode of expression they feel closer to themselves, or the idea of themselves they have in their minds. We are still handling symbols here, the emotional interaction with the game, the ideals it suggests you. We follow again personal myths.
Now it’s obvious that these interactions all happen on a personal, even intimate, level. The identity, the part you perceive and build, not the part the others observe, is always something stirctly personal. I’m not sure how it can be useful to reasearch the physical features of the avatars isolated from the symbolic context where they are immersed. A similar type of reasearch would just reveal the obvious, something that we can already postulate without going through it.
If I use a dwarf I’ll make it sturdy with a long red beard, if I make an ogre I’ll make it as huge as possible, if I make a gnome I’ll make it short. These choices depend on the ideals I have behind those archetypes. It’s like Plato and the theory of “ideas” and “forms”. The phyisical features of a character are its form, the idea of it is the way you think about it, the ideal. In the game you’ll try to match as much as possible the form with the idea. The single features you are going to choose are strictly dependent on that particular archetype, so it’s quite silly to think or theorize that the players will choose always tall and always handsome.
Want more concrete proofs? I have them:
Aside from Humes, the general image of each race appears to influence character size selections, i.e. Tarutaru are more often of the smallest size, while Galka players usually choose the largest model. Even last year’s trend of medium-sized Elvaan males has now been replaced by a higher percentage of large-sized characters.
Final Fantasy XI is also one game with a surprisingly even racial distribution. Why? Because everything in a Final Fantasy is strongly characterized, so building its own personal myth and style more than borrowing from a shared, consolidated “imaginary”. All the element of the game are much less stereotyped and familiar compared to western games. This means that the races were all able to create their own ideal model instead of just referring to a preexisting model. Less stereotypes = less predictable choices.
And it’s absolutely not surprising to see the race affecting the job selection: the cat girls being thiefs in majority, the Tarutaru tiny guys being casters and the huge Galka being monks and warriors. It’s again all part of the “package” that bundles together the physical appearance with the symbolic value suggested by that race. When you choose one you also choose your “mode of expression”, your identity in the virtual world in the way you see fit. The way that is more appropriate to the ideal you have. The form is always a reference to the metaphor suggested.
Along with a physical, objective description, there are always subjective, typical traits.
Who you are. What you are saying about yourself.
What actually matters is a “blind spot” in those abstract researches. The choices will be ALWAYS defined by the context. If I’m going to play a game where I’m going to save the world and marry a beautiful pricess I’ll choose the handsome knight, if the game is instead about pillaging villages and eating people alive I’m probably going to choose a troll. Ideal models. Archetypes.
These choices cannot be encoded and theorized because they strictly depend on the context. We choose the point of view from where we want to observe that *particular* story.
At the end what truly matters is the possibility for a game to offer a plurality of modes expression, variations. Even if some are going to be statistically (and unsurprisingly) more popular than others.