Not How We Look, but How We Play: Facial Deformity and Video Games

Screenshot from Ready Player One.
Many of us struggle with our appearance, particularly our faces. We want to be attractive, but we don’t feel that way. And faces can be important to understanding each other; movements of the eyes and lips allow us to share warmth or heartbreak. But when we are uncomfortable with ourselves, we hide behind a mask of indifference, hoping to please others or protect ourselves by playing a role. Sometimes, however, masks allow us to genuinely share who we are without fear of rejection, and video game avatars have allowed me to do just that.

As someone with hemifacial microsomia—a lopsided face—feeling respected for who I am deep down is challenging. People with facial deformities or blemishes relate to others in ways that may be difficult to understand (the recent movie Wonder helped demonstrate this). Many of us grew up experiencing funny looks and hearing less-than-kind remarks. Most kids eventually learn that it is not polite to ask, “Why does your face look funny?” but by the time a person’s peers reach that stage, the question has already been internalized. (As an adult, however, I sometimes appreciate the candor of people who politely inquire.) In fiction, disfigurement can be a sign of being destined for something amazing, like Harry Potter’s scar, but often it is a symbol of shame or villainy, like Batman’s Two-Face.

Video games create worlds where those who look strange can interact normally through digital masks.

Video games that include underrepresented characters allow players to enact aspects of their own stories. Many have enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn because they know what is like to be an outsider like Aloy. Similarly, Overwatch’s Symmetra is on the autism spectrum. Finding ourselves in these stories, being characterized as heroes instead of villains, reminds us that there is something powerful about being seen and valued for our true characters.

Despite the stunning levels of custom avatar creation, I’ve never been able to make a character with an asymmetrical face. In one sense, I can’t  be myself in the game. But the paradox of RPGs and particularly MMORPGs is that while they do not establish normalcy by allowing those with facial asymmetry to “appear” in the games, they do create worlds where those who look strange can interact normally through digital masks.

MMORPGs allow us to show how we’d like to be seen. Some who suffer from negative facial appearances may present a “truer” self by creating a non-deformed avatar who is free to interact with others without the baggage they experience in daily life. While sometimes players enjoy losing themselves entirely in a game, some with disabilities and disfigurements like to lose only a part of themselves in a game. The new mask may retain some aspects of the real-life person (such as glasses or a scar as a reminder of a “marked” appearance), but their identity is not completely tied to it.

Thanks to these new personae, gamers with deformities have a fresh start in online relationships and can present themselves as persons defined primarily by their in-game conduct. Liberated, we can focus on proving ourselves in both the excellence and ethics of play.

Because many games depend solely on the player’s own hard work and skill (pay-to-play games are a notable exception), I’ve found a basic fairness in gaming, an equality that stands in contrast to the unfairness of life. In the real world, no one has a say in their real appearance and many receive opportunities that others don’t. In video games, excellence is earned, not transmitted by genes. Gamers looking for teammates don’t care what players look like.

Being characterized as heroes instead of villains suggests we are being seen and valued for our true characters.

I noticed this dichotomy in Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One, which demonstrates the power of friendships that are not based on natural appearances, but on in-game and real-life ethical actions that indicate true character. Significantly, the book also suggests that artificial avatars made the friendships possible. Had the three main characters first met in a local high school as themselves, it is unlikely they would have bonded the way they did. And even after all they have been through and achieved together, readers understand why Samantha is afraid Wade won’t accept her because of the birthmark on her face. However, like the reader and many thoughtful gamers, Wade has learned to see differently. Many of us struggle with how we look, and we worry about acceptance, but hopefully we are developing our own character, our own ability to forge genuine friendships based on substance, not superficiality.

The masks of online gaming allow me to present myself as the person I really am. Sometimes I wish it was so easy to connect with others in real life.  I don’t get funny looks all the time, and friends tell me that they don’t notice anything anymore. But the curious facial gestures of someone I’m meeting for the first time or the stares from across a room periodically remind me of my asymmetry. My appearance and how I’m perceived are parts of my identity, but I forge my character by how I choose to respond to how I’m treated. The world of online gaming and its avatar ambiguity creates the possibility that, to invoke Martin Luther King Jr.’s phrase, people can meet each other not just through “the colour of their skin”—or shape of their face—but also through the “content of their character.”

David Keck

David Keck

Guest Writer at Area of Effect
David is a game-playing, nerdy chaplain at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and happens to have hemifacial macrosomia (a lopsided face). He's written on gaming and Christian fellowship as well as a book on the theological dimensions of Alzheimer’s disease. Thanks to a grant from the Louisville Institute, David is working on a project on how gaming can help form disciples.
David Keck