Games have been used to explore aspects of identity—from personality traits like bravery and leadership to more complex issues like gender identity. Roleplaying games like World of Warcraft have often been used to explore these issues, and with the rise of new technology like Oculus Rift we could see more interactive ways to explore gender identity. But are there limitations to the technology?
First of all, if your kids are experimenting with gender or simply questioning what it means to be male or female in our society, know that they’re not alone. Exploring identity is a normal part of growing up. The key is to stay calm, respect your kids’ questions (even if they might make you uncomfortable), and learn more about the oft-forgotten T in LGBTQ.
Even with your support, gender identity can be a tricky subject for kids (again, whether or not their exploration results in a gender identity different from their biological sex). RPGs can help make that process easier.
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Jessica Janiuk wrote, in an opinion piece on Polygon:
Many of us that are trans* identified or are questioning our gender identity find solace in the virtual world. Games like The Elder Scrolls, World of Warcraft, Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Second Life, and any other game that allows character creation with gender choice give us the opportunity to be seen as and interact with the world as the gender to which we identify.
That experience can provide a sense of peace from the dysphoria [the feeling of existing in the wrong body] we experience throughout our day-to-day lives. That sense of harmony, and contentment provided by the virtual world by alleviating that gender dysphoria for a brief time helps us to better understand ourselves. Who knew that gaming could help such amazing personal growth?
Laura Kate Dale published an article in The Guardian earlier this year about her experiences with World of Warcraft, an extremely popular fantasy MMORPG. Dale says that WoW helped her become comfortable with her identity as a transgender woman. The game provided a safe space for her to explore what being female meant for her. This type of identity exploration is often ridiculed and unsafe in the physical world, and although not all gamers are accepting, the ability to create a character that resembled who Dale knew she was inside was indispensable in her journey through transition.
One of the very first things you do as a World of Warcraft player is design your character. You can decide on their race, their physical attributes and most importantly for me, their gender. When I first got involved in playing the game, I was fourteen and in deep denial about my own feelings regarding my gender expression and identity…in that one area of my life I was willing to try out expressing myself as female. I picked a screen name that would indicate that I was a female player. I tried to relax and get into a different role in my head and I went off on an adventure to see how I felt being treated as female.
Crucially, World of Warcraft gave me a way to peek into my future. It allowed me to try out female names and find which ones I liked, which ones felt like they fit me as a person. It gave me a chance to talk to people who only ever referred to me as female. It also gave me a chance to see the huge issues I would have to face in the future when people discovered that the person they had referred to as female was, “actually a guy”.
Janiuk cautions us to remember:
I think people turn to the stereotype scenario of the “creepy old dude” posing as a sexy elf maiden. The truth is that we’re not deceiving anyone or lying about our identities. It’s actually the opposite. We’re being totally honest about who we are and how we see ourselves. The body is what feels dishonest to us, the character’s gender is real.
Dale continues to say that World of Warcraft was essential during a time in her life when she needed an environment where she was safe to question and safe to explore her feelings and surroundings, or walk away when she needed to. “Without World of Warcraft and MMOs like it, I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage and confidence I needed to come out. I don’t know if I would have had the self understanding to commit to a life that is now wide open in front of me.”
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I asked Laura Kate Dale and Emmett Scout, both gamers, writers, and trans individuals, to elaborate on the topic.
What characters do you typically play in RPGs?
Scout: It depends on what kind of character I’m playing. If I’m playing a character who is truly my avatar in the game world—who is me—I almost invariably play a male character. It’s harder for me to play a female character who represents “me”—not because I can’t relate to women, but because as a trans man, I already feel forced into a female role. When I’m playing games like the Elder Scrolls, or MMOs where the player’s avatar is not a strongly developed character, I generally play men. However, characters like Shepard from Mass Effect are a little different. They are such dynamic personalities on their own that I feel very separate from them – I’m controlling them, and I relate to them, but I don’t identify as them. In that context I’m comfortable playing a woman, and usually do (because games need more female protagonists!).
Do you think games (RPGs or virtual reality) could help trans people explore identity?
Scout: Absolutely. Games in particular and all kinds of virtual reality in general (social media, the internet, etc.) allow us to try on identities that we can’t easily try on in real life. In virtual space, you can tick a box and be referred to by different pronouns or a different name. In games, you can construct an entire new personhood and have the freedom to act as that person. Virtual reality can be a lot kinder than real life in that sense—Facebook won’t misgender you based on your appearance or legal name or gender marker, it’ll simply refer to you by whatever pronoun you select. There are still significant limitations, but nothing like the limits placed on gender identity outside virtual space.
Do you think roleplaying a character that can never be mis-gendered or abused might give people a false sense of reality before they transition (i.e., avatars will always be “passing” by virtue of their design)?
Scout: I can only speak for myself, but I honestly don’t think that most/any trans people are under the delusion that transitioning is that easy in real life. Most virtual spaces are still saturated in transphobia and gendered harassment, even if they do make it easier to present your gender in a way that’s consistent with your identity. In our society, transphobia is just too entrenched and visible to miss. If anything, I think the relative ease of changing your identity in virtual space is probably a much-needed comfort to most trans people.
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New technologies such as the virtual reality-simulator, Oculus Rift, are also being suggested as a potential way to help people with gender dysphoria explore what it’s like being in a different physical body.
Polygon recently published an article on the topic, with the central argument that the technology might also be a way to encourage empathy in cisgender people—individuals whose gender identities match the sex they were assigned at birth. Many have questioned these claims, however.
Do you feel that Oculus Rift or other virtual reality tools could be a good way to explore identity? Could the technology be used in a similar way to RPGs?
Dale: For me RPGs were a way to explore more of the emotional and social implications of living as female rather than specifically the feelings of presenting with a female body. I could project myself onto a female body and connect on that level but RPGs for me were much more about the experience of being referred to by female names and pronouns, about the experience of living female beyond the somewhat surface level of my body and my discomfort there.
I think that VR [virtual reality] tools like the Oculus Rift have the potential to help explore feelings of an incorrect body that doesn’t line up with your personal view of it, but it’s a dangerous balancing act. The stress of living as a Trans person is in fact that the experience of feeling detached from your body is permanent and inescapable. Most Cis men and women would actually quite welcome the opportunity to explore how it feels to be their gendered opposite, but it’s a very very different thing to opt into that to learn how it feels and to be literally trapped with huge long years of roadblocks set up to keep you stuck there and others judging you for trying to get out of the situation. So yes, I think it could potentially be helpful, but it’s not without its issues. For Cis people it could give a false idea that it’s easier to handle than it truly is because of their exposure time. For Trans people it could lead to greater dysphoria as they see themselves with a desired body that they then have to have taken away from them when the headset comes off, bringing them back to the reality of their existence.
Scout: There’s a lot of possibility there! Games that articulate the trans experience are really scarce, and I can’t think of any that are as immersive as games created on the Rift have the potential to be. I’m imagining a game that simulates what it’s like to experience transphobic harassment like misgendering. However, I think there are some possible pitfalls too. A cis person being misgendered for the first time in a game environment isn’t comparable to the experiences of trans people who have been misgendered their whole lives by friends, family, strangers, school records, birth certificates, etc. You internalize so much transphobia when you grow up that way, especially in a media climate that features so few true and respectful portrayals of trans people, and often it affects how you view the world and yourself. I think it would be extremely difficult to simulate that in a realistic (and concise) way. Not impossible! I definitely think it’s an avenue worth exploring. But I’m also not sure it’s necessary to use tech like the Rift to create empathy for marginalized people. Much simpler games like Gone Home create that kind of empathy without placing the player directly in the shoes of the marginalized person in question.
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So, Dale and Scout agree that the answer to the question of whether Oculus Rift might be a valuable tool for encouraging empathy in cis individuals is…well, “maybe.” Dale was empatic that we not equate empathy with understanding, for instance. It would be outrageous to suggest that spending a few minutes looking through someone else’s eyes could in any way resemble what trans people go through every day. Scout pointed out that the Rift might be used to help cis people experience transphobia (i.e., the external issues that trans people face—slurs, harassment, and misgendering), but that gender dysphoria itself isn’t something that is easy to understand if you haven’t experienced it yourself.
Jessica Janiuk reminds us: “…we [trans people] can’t take off the VR helmet, even though we wish we could.” Janiuk has a slightly more positive outlook on the Oculus Rift’s potential, and wishes she could have tried something like it when she was younger and struggling.
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And what if your kids are questioning their gender identities? Dale and Scout have some advice.
Is there anything you wish parents knew about RPGs, identity exploration, or trans identities in general?
Dale: Generally I wish that talking about issues surrounding gender identity before being certain of your feelings was less taboo, instead of being something brought up as an option to children at [a later] stage. I turned to RPGs as a space to explore gender because I knew that experimenting with gender in person would get a lot of people making assumptions, [I’d get] a lot of pressure if I went back and forth on presentation, [and] I would fear causing undue stress. RPGs were my commitment-free space to explore those things, but in a perfect world I could have messed around without committing to anything, just seeing what felt right, in my own family home.
Scout: When someone explores or changes their gender identity, they aren’t trying to become a different person—they’re trying to be more true and honest about the person they already are. Also, gender exploration isn’t just healthy for trans people. Every person’s identity is more complicated than rigid gender roles allow it to be. Exploring gender presentation and identity is one way to acknowledge who we are beyond the confines of stereotypical masculinity and femininity.
Is there anything you might tell kids who are struggling or questioning their identities if you had the chance?
Scout: It’s okay to be confused. Questioning your identity is a complicated and deeply personal process, and you might not immediately know how you want to describe yourself. You might not want to choose any specific identity, or you might want to experiment with many different labels to see what fits. It’s completely up to you—no one knows you better than you know yourself, and no one can tell you how to identify. However, there are tons of resources both online and off for young people questioning their identities, and it’s worth taking the time to seek them out. Finally, you are not alone! Regardless of how you identify, there will be others who feel the same way—and other people who don’t feel the same way, but still support you.
Dale: As it happens once I realized that the term Trans applied to me there were a LOT of communities that opened up for me. Identifying with that label means that you suddenly find there are all sorts of safe space guilds in MMOs that offer a good space to socialize, as well as there being great amounts of people out there who can look up that term and understand better what it is you’re feeling. As stupid as it sounds, identifying a label makes it so much easier for people to understand and helps when it comes to getting respect for who you are.
When I first started experimenting with my presentation it was a very confusing and difficult time. All I can say is start simple, try looking in the mirror and trying out names for the gender you were not born, see if any of them make you feel anything. Don’t be afraid to ask people for advice on what you’re feeling. I’m always free on LauraK@IndieHaven.com if you need someone to talk things through with without any judgement. It’s a tough road, but you’re not alone and it does get better.
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