When playing video games, some choose to play as a different gender because a character’s fighting style meshes best with their gaming strategy. Or perhaps the character’s abilities speak to them in some schematic way. For trans gamers, however, the character (or avatar) one selects can have a profound impact on their identity. The seemingly trivial character selection in a video game can play a key role in navigating their transition by allowing them to explore their preferred gender in a relatively safe space.
Korra Del Rio (NSFW), trans gamer and webcam model, started experimenting with female avatars while playing World of Warcraft. (Skyrim, Dragon Age and Second Life are also popular titles among trans gamers, largely due to their customization capabilities.) When she was in the company of others, and before coming out as trans, Korra felt obligated to justify her opposite sex character selection, pointing out the female character’s jiggly butt, to which her buddies would chuckle. “Really, I just liked the look and feel better. Witnessing the story develop through the eyes of a female avatar suited my inner style. It was the way I wanted to view and be viewed by those around me.”
For Korra, WoW was the first outlet where she was able to expose that part of herself to friends without any negative social implications. Ultimately, it assisted her in coming out as trans by softening the blow. Once she felt comfortable in a digital skin of her making, she was able to feel comfortable in her own.
Playing as their preferred gender can offer much more than a first-person gaming experience for trans individuals. It can provide a sheltered glimpse into their future, where they can experience as close to a reality of what their life can become. They can test names that best suit their preferred gender. They can speak with others who solely refer to them as their preferred gender with proper pronouns. They can dress and style their hair however they like. They can be whoever they want to be, and for a lot of them, that’s simply themselves.
In a way, gaming has become a progressive dreamworld for the trans community, similar to the one recently imagined by Steven Spielberg in Ready Player One. But because transgender people don't always feel at home within their family, society, or perhaps even in their own bodies, this dreamworld can easily become an addiction. Research published in the Journal of Behavioral Addictions found that 63 percent of trans people identify as current gamers and that obsessive gaming behavior was often associated with general interpersonal problems and depression. Korra knows too well how easy it is to lose yourself in the gaming world. “I’ve watched so many of my friends retreat into gaming and use that lack of awareness for anything else to abuse and neglect their bodies and minds,” she shares.
In gaming, how much do people see gender in others, regardless of avatar? At least I was seeing a female avatar. I was a woman, and that was enough to bring me relief and joy.
The gaming world, while wildly progressive in some ways, can be deeply harrowing in others. It’s no secret that sexism and bullying run rampant. Gamergate is perhaps the most prevalent example. The controversy started in 2014 when a scorned ex in the gaming industry accused Zoe Quinn, a game developer, of cheating on him with five different men. This accusation, written in a blog, then led to an all-out assault on Quinn, where her address and phone number were soon made public information. Nude photos were also leaked. The attacks on Quinn coalesced into an organized campaign on 4chan, Reddit, YouTube and in various IRC channels. Eventually, gamers reached a consensus that publicly harassing a woman over her sex life didn’t reflect on them well, so they ultimately changed their position to corruption in games journalism, lamenting there are too many writers who maintain friendships or other close relationships with game developers. Quinn soon became a poster child for the harassment and intimidation women and other minorities can face in the gaming community.
Fortunately, most of the trans individuals I spoke with expressed they haven’t experienced too much in-game harassment for their sexual identity, though that’s likely because most admit they’ve never felt the need to share it outright. “I try not to advertise or focus on my transition, I don’t feel that it makes up my identity,” Casey Kisses (NSFW), trans gamer and webcam model tells Playboy. “Nobody has ever questioned me, but I have had very uncomfortable conversations with people being sexually aggressive toward me for being a woman.”
However, the benefits far outweigh any negativity the gaming community breeds. Especially when minorities manage to find an inclusive community within it, with whom they can connect with online and off through online play, real-life meetups, or live-streaming. In these safe spaces, they can communicate, connect and ultimately better understand themselves and each other through shared experiences.
Casey remembers how she met her closest online ally fondly. “We met while playing Halo 3. We quickly became friends and FaceTimed each other almost daily. One night after a few drinks she expressed that she had something to tell me: She told me she was trans. My jaw hit the floor. I seriously thought she figured out that I was transgender, and my face got red from embarrassment. I came out to her as well, and we’ve been so incredibly close ever since. Besides her, I’ve never been in a scenario where I felt so comfortable telling someone my history.”
But harassment does occur. “The internet is a wonderful place because it allows minority groups to find kinship. When you may be the only or one of 10 trans people in your city, it’s really difficult to find non-judgmental, accepting people,” Steph Loehr, a proud and out trans gamer and Twitch broadcaster (FerociouslySteph), tells Playboy. “This fellowship is far easier to find online and is incredibly empowering. Nobody wants to feel alone, and sharing perspective and experiences are incredibly helpful. As for cruelty, I have to ban people from my chat all the time,” she says. “I see a lot of transphobia of this flavor now that I’m out and a somewhat public figure—some people see me living a life that they forbid themselves to entertain, and that fuels their disgust and hatred toward me. It’s gross out there.”
They can test names that best suit their preferred gender. They can speak with others who solely refer to them as their preferred gender with proper pronouns. They can be whomever they want to be, and for a lot of them, that’s simply themselves.
Dr. Catherine Flick, senior lecturer in Computing & Social Responsibility at De Montfort University, United Kingdom, notes that there isn’t much of a question to one’s gender unless someone is outed or outs themselves. “Even if the voice does not match the gender of the character avatar, there is a general acceptance that it’s okay to play characters of other genders,” she says. “There are problems more if the individual is identified outside of the game. Less progressive gamers will often try to push peoples’ buttons, and trans [people are often] picked on as part of the general targeted harassment around race, gender or sexuality.”
Playing as a woman helps Casey better immerse herself in the gaming experience. When there is no other option but to play as the male protagonist, she regards the experience as less personal, as if she’s watching a movie. “I like to put myself in the main character’s role as much as I can but that definitely falls short in so many aspects when playing a male character,” she says. “I feel empowered, validated and successful after completing the game when I play as a woman.” For Casey, the benefits of gaming go far beyond single-player exploration. In the company of other niche gamers, trans people can proclaim their identity and find others ready to celebrate with them. It’s a sense of being understood, accepted and recognized.
Because they provide a chance to experiment with gender in a relatively low-stakes setting, games are an ideal venue for trans people to learn about themselves and practice their identity. “You’ll never know how people will see you, even in real life I often don’t know if people are seeing me as a woman, or a transgender woman, and unfortunately there’s often a clear difference between the two,” Steph mentions. “In gaming, how much do people see gender in others, regardless of avatar? At least I was seeing a female avatar. I was a woman, and that was enough to bring me relief and joy.”
Game-makers are beginning to recognize trans gamers as well. In 2016, Sims 4 worked in tandem with LGBT advocacy group GLAAD to offer a free update for gamers that removed gender boundaries from the game’s character customization platform. This way players could create virtual townsfolk with any type of physique, mannerism or voice of their choosing. "Creating the possibility for greater gender diversity within the world of The Sims is an exciting development," Nick Adams, director of GLAAD's transgender media program, says. "It was a pleasure working with developers who were committed to updating the game so that all players can create a Sims world that more accurately reflects the world in which we live today."
Admittedly, there are now more games with queer themes and characters than ever before, but there still aren’t as many mainstream titles as there needs to be for fair representation. If this means gaming can become something more than an entertainment platform, that’s incredible, and we should embrace that no matter how you identify. “To feel empowered, you have to feel powerless in the face of something,” Korra says. “Before I even began to start to grapple with gender identity and its meaning to me, my life just felt repressed. Before I transitioned, things lacked a certain fullness in their quality. I think of the expression ‘the grass is always greener on the other side.’ Well, in this case, it really is. So, come out here and live to that potential! We can be having so much fun.”