This post is more about putting thoughts on paper than a finished hypothesis. It has to do with the (potential) conflict between identification with the avatar and the limited selection of said avatars, primarily because most of them are written and designed by white, heterosexual cis-men.
Many games that deal with identification, call it stepping into a role or whatever, use 3rd person cameras to show the player and allow the player to identify with the character seen on screen. Most 1st person games won’t do this, because the identification with a 1st person character is believed to be stronger and more direct than a 3rd person character. This is why Gordon Freeman is more or less a blank slate. A 3rd person character is more of a stand alone person and can be injected with more of a personality, because it won’t conflict as much with the player’s identity.
Kratos, for instance, embodies a masculine power fantasy ideal. He’s ripped, he’s competent, stoic, nigh invulnerable to pain, and he displays very few emotions apart from impatience and anger.
I’m pretty sure there are people out there who sink into Kratos to feel competent, to feel independence and to experience mastery through him.
I’m also fairly certain that there are quite a few men that feel good about his muscular physique, the way he carries himself and how he behaves.
In all this, the player doesn’t have much choice. They either sympathize with Kratos or they don’t. They go along for the ride. If they enjoy how Kratos behaves or if they feel sympathetic towards him and his inability to express feelings, God of War 4 is probably a good game.
As always, there’s a reason why I chose Kratos specifically, and that is that I absolutely, under no circumstances can stand him. I am about as unable to identify with Kratos as I am unable to fly.
At the same time, I know that there are many who absolutely adore Kratos, and in particular his development throughout GoW4.
There are, obviously, different ways to identify with a player character. One may be with the physical body the character inhabits. If this is based on gender, sex, ability, visual appeal or movement, I as a player may overlook many other aspects of the character in favour of the characteristics I’m after.
I can also identify with a player character through less physical means, such as attitude, tone of voice, principles, maturity, judgment, and so on. Character development on the less physical plane is often incorporated in this.
For me, identifying with a player character is both physical and mental. I can’t, for instance, play Bayonetta and feel comfortable playing her. Bayonetta is less aggravating than Kratos, but her exaggerated sexualization and her voice drives me insane. I can’t stand her.
What I’m trying to say is that gender identity is important but it isn’t the only aspect I need to click for me.
Looking at a character like Eivor from Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, I also need the character I’m playing to be at least somewhat consistent. Eivor is not, which is why she’s bit a very good character for me.
That said, there are male characters that I can stand playing. Zagreus of Hades is such a character, as is Galahad of The Order 1886 and Bayek from Assassin’s Creed Origins. Even though they are not my favourite characters to play – that would be Kassandra of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey or Aloy of Horizon Zero Dawn. Their attitudes are – dare I say it – soft enough and also emotional enough that I can understand them Zagreus is obviously emotional and also respecful towards people. Galahad of The Order 1886 has a soft heart and a wry sense of humour and Bayek is gregarious despite his massive grief that shadows him wherever he goes.
I think the main aspect of what I’m looking for is multifaceted. Many sides to the person you play. Someone who doesn’t feel like a two dimensional vessel, but a full bodied individual with hopes, fears, loves and emotional depth. Most men in games lack this, probably because the ideal man in society is not supposed to have emotions or feel things. The ideal man really is a cardboard cutout, and I can barely imagine how limiting that must be. I sure as heck have no desire to step into those shoes, even in a game.