The Sims was the first game I played where I encountered—really the first time I even encountered—the idea that you could date another girl and nobody would ever think twice about it. (Sims don’t mind if you’re gay or straight or anything else, after all.) My mom had long before explained that sometimes girls like other girls, but before The Sims it was only a distant theory.
I also knew that it was something people thought was bad; my best friend in kindergarten told me as much when, on Valentine’s Day, I said that I loved her.
I hadn’t meant it as anything more than an expression of genuine best friend affection (the words came with a sparkly pink heart and some of those weird chalky candy things—I had one for everyone in my class), but her response stuck with me for a long, long time. “It’s gross when girls say that to girls,” she told me.
For me, romance in The Sims wasn’t about anything but holding hands and soaring music, because that’s how 9-year-olds generally interpret love, but I was entranced by the idea of it. All of my Sims were women who I tried to get to date one another. In retrospect, this was probably a sign (there were many) that I was gay, but I’m nothing if not oblivious.
A lot happened in between The Sims and my first experience with a BioWare game. A lot more “signs” and a lot more experiences. I even dated a girl for a while.
My town, while small, wasn’t conservative in the biblical sense, but there was prejudice. It came from other students, from teachers, from adults in town. A lot of it was subtle, some of it less so. I wasn’t ever in any danger of being beaten up or anything like that, as far as I can tell, but it was a constant stream of anxiety, a miasma that settled over me.
By the time I was 16, and I was exhausted of being “weird.” I’d never thought of myself as weird. All I’ve ever wanted was to be able to bring a nice date home to meet my parents, to hold hands in public and have the little old lady on the bus coo over how cute we are, to go to prom in a fancy dress and take pictures. I wanted to be the Disney princess, and at the same time I wanted to be the heroic knight-in-shining-armor.
I wanted to be the main character. I wanted to be “normal.” I loved floral prints and pretty makeup and I also loved video games and comics, but above all, I liked being liked. One time a nice-looking woman with two young kids covered her children’s eyes and hissed that I was going to hell because I was holding another girl’s hand. No one came to my rescue.
In that moment, it felt like the world had rated me M for Mature, a pariah, unsafe around children and I—who had dreams of becoming a teacher—couldn’t reconcile that characterization with who I was. For a long time after that, I decided that being me was incompatible with liking girls.
And it was subconscious. It’s hard to explain how good you can be at lying to yourself, and maybe I’m just particularly good at it, but I really thought I was straight. The Sims may have been my first moment of self-realization, and it was an important one, but sometimes you need more than one nudge in the right direction. BioWare was my second.
For those not in the know, Dragon Age is a fantasy RPG where you can converse with your in-game followers and create relationships with them while fighting the good fight. These are mostly friendships (or rivalries, depending on how you play) but there are also romantic story lines open to players. And among those romances, some are queer romances. It was The Sims all over again.
I immediately tried every single same-sex relationship I could in both Dragon Ages, and I was enchanted. This was a world where you could be the main character, the hero! And you could also be gay. These relationships weren’t secret, illicit things where nobody gets to kiss on screen, and one of them eventually gets murdered in a hate crime (what I had come to understand was the general trajectory of same-sex relationships in media).
It wasn’t a side story or a metaphor for something else. It was just love, like anybody else gets to have.
I won’t lie, it still took me a while to settle into the idea that maybe—just maybe—I wasn’t so straight after all. But Dragon Age was a turning point. When I started to feel alone or wrong, I thought about Hawke and my Warden. I thought about Zevran, Leliana, Fenris, Isabel, Merrill, and Anders.
After I played Mass Effect, another BioWare series, I thought of Shepard, Liara, Traynor, Cortez, and Kaidan. Since late last year when it came out, I think of Dragon Age: Inquisition‘s Dorian, Josephine, Sera, Iron Bull, Briala, Celene, and the hero of the story, my inquisitor. There wasn’t just one character that I could relate to; there were things about each of these people that made me feel like it would all be okay.
The stories that I grew up with, the stories that I loved, were all sci-fi and fantasy. Dragons and knights and magic; robots, aliens, and space travel. And through it all, saving the world.
I could be gay, and I could still be a hero and a leader. Or if not a leader, any of the other things that each BioWare character represents.
I know that BioWare isn’t the first and only creator that has written stories like these. But I grew up gaming. I’ve played games since I was four years old, watching my dad fight slimes in the first Warcraft. MMOs got me through some difficult times in high school, and my childhood portfolio is filled with fanart from all the games I loved.
There are other games that feature queer characters, too—Gone Home, for instance. While I respect Gone Home, and enjoyed playing it immensely, it was also alienating. I don’t want to be a rebellious teenage lesbian for the rest of my life, plagued by homophobia. I’m tired of that story. I lived it.
No games have made me feel more at home, more loved, and more accepted than BioWare games have, because they gave me a glimpse of what else I could be, no matter how fantastical. We all deserve a bit of fantasy now and then.
I’ve come to accept now, after years of uncertainty, that I am gay, and I love floral prints and dragons and video games and being liked by little old ladies all at once.
All of those aspects of my identity are mine—and they don’t have to come into conflict with each other. (Which isn’t to say that they don’t come into conflict with other people’s visions of me!) Some of that acceptance has come with age, certainly; it’s been 10 years since that woman with the kids told me I was going to hell, and 20 since my best friend told me girls liking girls was gross. Now I know that I shouldn’t turn that misguided hatred inward.
I’m also lucky to be surrounded by extremely loving and supportive friends, family, and coworkers, and I won’t diminish how important my loved ones have been in all of this. But a lot of my self-acceptance began with Dragon Age.