Virtual reality: gender identity in video games

Over the past decade and a half (give or take,) the immersive virtual worlds known as Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) have experienced a huge surge in popularity, and it’s not hard to see why. With a few simple clicks, you can not only immerse yourself in some wonderfully detailed, story-driven, addictively tailored video games, but do so in an ever-changing community with its own rules, bylaws and culture.

Every community has its own distinct flavour, from EVE Online’s byzantine, backstabbing conglomerate of space bandits, explorers and interstellar bankers (who recently ordained a particularly compassionate and creatively-minded player as their own virtual Pope), to the more dedicated Role-Playing servers on MMO giant World of Warcraft, in which players live out the equivalent of a second life (no pun intended,) as shopkeepers, thieves, sorcerers and fishermen within a collective story fueled by the imaginations of hundreds of players.

And the best part? You don’t even have to play these games as you. Most MMORPGs on the market today give you complete control over how other people see you, through the virtual body, icon or string of text known as an avatar.

Whatever form an avatar takes, it acts as the representation of the player in the virtual world of the game, and more often than not, players have the ability to build this virtual self from the ground up. Want to have rippling muscles, or a waist a gym buff would kill for? No problem. Green eyes instead of brown? Hey, we’ve got you covered. What about a turned-up nose, darker skin, fuller lips, a completely different height, weight, face, posture, ethnicity, gender, a different you? With a lovingly created virtual avatar to act as your mask, you can be whoever you want to be.

So is it any wonder that so many people, from closeted LGBQ individuals, to bored wage slaves, to transgender men and women trapped in their own bodies, see these games as a godsend? I certainly did.

I loved World of Warcraft when I was younger: I dabble occasionally today. But back when I was still trying to figure myself out, World of Warcraft was one of the only stable points of sanity in my life. As a young transgender woman who had barely any knowledge of what being transgendered actually meant, I was suffering from near-suicidal body-related anxiety. In a nutshell, all I knew was that my biological gender felt wrong, and that everyone I cared about only saw me as an young man with a killer tenor and a beard that would make Shakespeare jealous. To say that was beginning to weigh on my mind was an understatement. That man was all anyone ever saw of me, so to a lot of people, that was all I ever could be. That expectation was paralysing: I couldn’t see any way of even beginning to change that perception, let alone transition into who I am today.

But then a friend got me on to WoW. I created a female avatar (an elf to be precise, because sue me, I like looking pretty), and dove right in.

It didn’t take me long to realise that my avatar was all my fellow players could see.

I know, it sounds ridiculous. Of course they couldn’t see through my screen to me, hunched awkwardly in front of the computer in her mismatched body. To them, I was a cute, kick-ass elf with far too many daggers and a healthy disdain for traditional fantasy armour (a d-cup breastplate? Do you realise how easy it is to break your sternum in that thing?). That was all. They. Saw.

To them, I was me. I was a woman. No questions asked. For the first time in my life, I could present as myself to other people, and they wouldn’t bat an eye.

For that reason alone, I could have stayed logged in forever.

Of course, I didn’t: the acceptance I found online, even after I came out to my closest companions in that virtual world as transgender, spurred me to start my transition in real life, as well. But the idea that the person I wanted to be could be accepted, even loved, came about because of the avatar I created and the friends I made as a result.

Throughout the first year of my transition, the knowledge that there was a place I could go to where I could be me without fear of reprisal (and where I could inhabit, even virtually, a body that I one day hoped to have a version of myself,) kept me saner, happier and healthier than I otherwise would have been. When reality got too much, I could become another me for a while, and that other me would give me the courage I needed to step forward.

I wasn’t the only one using WoW to explore my gender, either. MMORPGs warp, breach and rewrite the boundaries of gender by design: through an avatar, a player can explore gender roles that they may never have otherwise had a chance to experience.  For example, my closest online friend and the leader of my guild, played a female character so convincingly it took me several months to realise, and then believe, that he was a straight, cis male. His eventual fiancée played male and female characters with equal aplomb. Other players created avatars that had no gender at all, or who were perfectly androgynous. And recently, the creators of the post-apocalyptic survival MMORPG Rust took that fluidity one step further by taking away the player’s control over their avatars.

Instead of following the by-now standard formula of letting the player design their virtual avatar from the ground up, Rust randomly generates one when the player creates a new account for the game. Everything from height, to skin colour, to hairstyle to gender is randomly generated, then permanently links the outcome to the player’s account. No matter what the player ends up with, they’re stuck with that appearance forever. Garry Newman, Rust’s lead designer, created this mechanic in an attempt to ape a natural gene pool: after all, a baby in the womb doesn’t get to tinker with its gender or its skin tone or the depth of its nasal cavities, so why should the players of Rust?

Some have lauded this mechanic, labelling it as a hugely progressive step forward in both game design and gender politics: Rust’s approach to character creation is an experience hitherto unheard of in any MMORPG up until this point. However, some detractors have become downright nasty, with a surge in in-game racism against the players of black and hispanic avatars, players threatening to boycott the game if they were forced to play as women, and a whole host of e-mails, some poisonous, some pleading, saying that they desperately don’t want to be who the game has cast them as.

Newman, however, says that this is the point: he wants the players of Rust to deal with the ramifications of who they are, especially those players who might never have encountered racism and discrimination before. He doesn’t want to disallow that sort of conflict from happening, but instead wants his players explore it in the hope that they’ll learn and grow from the experience. ‘I would love nothing more than if playing a black guy in a game made a white guy appreciate what it was like to be a persecuted minority,’ Newman tells Kotaku, and despite the teeth-gnashing going in Rust’s forums and chat-rooms, the majority of Rust’s player base seem to have accepted their avatars with good grace, and even excitement.

So, why are people objecting? It could have something to do with the way that many MMORPGs, and video games in general, are designed to be empowering experiences. It’s to be expected that a gamer would want to create a character representing who they are, a character they want to be, or a character they see as fitting within the game’s story (or in the case of some role-playing games, a character that fits within a story that they’ve designed within the game world. Watch the rabbit hole, folks, it keeps going).

However, I can also understand why Newman’s choice has caused such a furore. As a trans girl, being forced into a body that doesn’t match my mental and emotional view of myself against my will makes me incredibly uncomfortable. All those people moaning in the most disgusting way possible that they don’t want to be black, or a woman, or an elderly man instead of Grizzled Whiteman McProtagonist? I hate how they frame it, but I can see where they’re coming from. Having one’s identity jarred like that can be a shattering experience, even in a virtual world.

But at the same time, Newman’s vision is a heartening thing as well. Newman may be restricting the very thing that made MMORPGs so appealing to me, but he’s done so out of a desire to encourage empathy for other human beings, not to fuck with a virtual community for shits and giggles. I myself will probably never play Rust: in fact, the idea makes my skin crawl. But the fact that a game like this exists? One that tries to put its players in someone else’s skin, to make them walk a mile in the virtual shoes of a person they might never have given two thoughts about before? To discourage the misogyny and racism that seems to be seeping out of the woodwork in greater quanities than ever before?

The gaming world, and the world in general, needs more of that kind of empathy.

Image: Pawel Kadysz


Callie HeadshotCallie Doyle-Scott was born in Tasmania in 1990, but has since travelled around Australia: she currently resides in Canberra. A graduate of RMIT University’s Creative Writing program in 2013, she never quite lost the study bug: her speciality is culinary history, specifically that of Victorian England and Japan throughout the ages, though she loves to research old folktales in her spare time. Callie started writing stories when she was ten (her first being about a cave that could turn people into animals,) and was first published in Dickson College’s CLIO History Journal with two articles on Renaissance heroines Caterina Sforza and Lucrezia Borgia. While studying, she went on to found and edit Verity La’s Out of Limbo project (an online archive devoted to the coming-out stories of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex individuals,) and participate in Bryce Courtney’s final writing masterclass in 2012. Since then, she has written articles for the Verity La and Writer’s Bloc webjournals, and hopes to establish a wider portfolio over the coming months. She is currently working to finish the draft of her first novel, a gastronomic fantasy entitled Soup for the Moon, in the hopes of approaching a publisher by the end of the year.

This piece has been published with the support of the ACT Government.


One Comment

  • Joel commented on May 27, 2016 Reply

    Thank you! I love games and it’s great to hear your stories about what these games offered you and others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *