How video games use characters to build fandom
We often look at how media can improve their fan base. There are a number of different things that can be done and one of them is around their use of characters. We have found that there are 4 characteristics that are most prone to driving fandom, however how these attributes manifest themselves in games is different from passive media (aka books, film and TV). Games have a way of supercharging these attributes due to their interactive nature.
1 - Aspirational
Typically the characters in video games are very aspirational, they are assassins, ninjas, adventure seeking archeologists, super heroes, military war machines and even gods. There is a draw to playing video games as an escapist opportunity to be a better you.
Even characters that aren’t particularly aspirational in themselves can still inspire as they are striving to do something incredible against all the odds. Mario for example, a plumber of diminutive stature without and particular extraordinary skills other than being able to double-jump is still aspirational due to his relentless pursuit of saving the princess.
2 - Carer/Caree
Many games have a “god” like gaming format, you are in control of the entire world and it is your job to create favorable conditions for the worlds inhabitants, games such as SimCity, and The Sims, Tamagotchi, Lemmings, all put you in charge of caring for these digital lifeforms.
Games like “The Last of Us” where you play a smuggler (Joel) who is tasked with escorting a teenage girl (Ellie) across a post-apocalyptic waste ground also really supercharge the carer character dynamic. In games like this the jeopardy is really dialed up as you really like Ellie, really want her to survive and it is your job, as the carer to achieve that!
3 - Vicarious rebel
As much as I would try and complete the levels in Lemmings, I would also take great pleasure in leading a whole herd of Lemmings into a volcano. Video games are great at playing with our love of the vicarious rebel, many people have 2 games saved in an RPG, one where they are nice and one where they are horrible.
GTA, one of the biggest gaming franchise of all time is all about the vicarious rebel characters, enabling fans to really try on for size what it means to be a criminal overlord and all that goes with it.
4 - Reflective
This is the real lynchpin to video game characters success, and also possibly the most complex element of video game characters.
When you play as a superhero cops, or as Lara Croft, Mario, or Joel the smuggler from Last of us, it is YOU playing. So it is very reflective, the cop is doing exactly what you would do in their situation, because… it is you controlling them.
Particularly when you play a RPG where you can fine tune all of the elements of the character to be you. Characters in video games are often blank canvases that we can paint ourselves onto.
The ‘supercharging’ I talk about at the beginning is directly because it is you playing that character and not just passively watching them. Watching Ray Liotta in Good Fella be a rough tough mobster is great, but actually playing a mobster in GTA is a different level. Watching Tom Hanks bravely fight his way through WW2 France to Save Private Ryan is good but it can be more rewarding to try and do it yourself in the Call of Duty franchise.
This level of personal attachment and projection onto the video game character, means there have been very few video game characters that have successfully moved from their games into TV or film. The love of these characters is so deeply rooted in the reflective nature of them. When you play Lara Croft you imbue her with a LOT of your own personality, and the Lara Croft that you are when you play Tomb Raider is very very different from the Angelina Jolie version you see in the movies. This disconnect between the two characters is enough for people to really question if the movie is a faithful imagining of the character, far more than you would if Lara’s first outing was via the pages of a book.