Most gamers have probably played a character that is not their assigned birth gender quite often. One of the justifications for this, and one I’ve commonly heard, is that “If I’m going to look at someone’s butt all day, I want it be attractive.” It makes sense in a very heteronormative kind of way, but there’s a lot more to rolling a Warcraft character or picking a PUBG survivor that doesn’t match how other people see you day to day.
For almost as long as I can remember I’ve thought about being the opposite sex. Born male, I still mostly present that way, but over the last couple of years I’ve realised those early imaginings run far deeper than I had ever expected – and it was playing female characters in games that really started to wake me up to that.
I mention WoW and PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds because they’re my two personal milestones in this instance. Playing a female mage (a Frost Mage, if I recall correctly, with what I think of as a rather clever name – Gelidain) was the first time I regularly presented myself to the wider world as a woman, and the experience was… interesting. I mean, of course I discovered that you get a lot more crappy whispers and messages from jerk players, but it was simple things that really meant something. Just having someone use female pronouns was deeply satisfying – far more so than I had ever expected. And, importantly, beyond the obsessive nature of some other players, it was a very safe way to experiment.
More recently, as that part of my identity was beginning to… solidify, I guess (which is weird way of talking about genderfluidity, but here we are), I used an in-game token to change my appearance in PUBG, along with my player name. I went from my usual and masculine Thellazaron, to the name I use when I’m presenting femme in public – Rachel. Again, it was a way to tease out how I felt about that identity, and the first time a team mate asked me if I had some spare ammo – “Rachel, do you have some 5.56, I’m nearly out?” – I felt this real thrill of affirmation.
It wasn’t just something I was ‘okay’ with – it was something that was deeply and fundamentally right. Too often people focus on the dysphoria you might feel when moving between genders (which is hella real and crushing), but gender euphoria is a thing, too, but one that can be hard to experience, especially in those nervous early days of trying to work out where exactly you stand on that spectrum, and, in effect, of who you really are. But that’s what I felt, both in WoW and while earning a chicken dinner in PUBG.
In a lot of ways I’m still working this all out myself. I don’t know where the journey will take me in the long run, but one thing I know for sure is that having the space in games to express a different me was, and continues to be, invaluable.