Playing video games

In the Mass Effect series, players can customise Jane (or John) Shepard (left). The version here is from the launch trailer; my Jane looked very different.

Writing in Metro, Owl Stefania writes about the importance of video games in her coming out process: “Growing up, video games were my escape, providing an avenue where I could explore who I was.”

I’ve written about this too, and a version of the following article was originally published in 404 Ink magazine in late 2017.

Video games have a special appeal for trans people. In addition to the usual escapism from the everyday, some of them enable you to play as the gender you feel you should be, not the one you’ve been assigned.

For many trans people the first such games were MMORPGs, massively multiplayer online role-playing games. Many of those games enabled you to play as all kinds of characters from humans to hobbits and space aliens). As many trans people discovered, when you communicate with other players in an MMORPG they’re quite happy to stay in character, so if your character is female you’ll be addressed as such. That isn’t always a good thing — there’s plenty of misogyny, homophobia and transphobia online, and online games aren’t immune to that — but as trans gamer Rissa Trent writes on MMOGames.com, being able to present as a female character is incredibly powerful. “To some people, it might just be pixels, but to those of us who want to break free from everyday life, and our own skins, it’s everything.”

I never really got into MMORPGs, but I fell hard for a sci-fi series called Mass Effect. In the first three Mass Effect games you play Commander Shepard, and that commander can be John or Jane. Not only is Jane Shepard better company — she’s voiced by the wonderful Jennifer Hale, who makes even the daftest dialogue breathe — but you can completely customise the character’s appearance in the game. Hair colour, facial structure, eye shape, jawline, hair, makeup… given enough time, and believe me I gave myself enough time, you could create a Jane Shepard who was an idealised version of your feminine self. 

To then have the game offer romantic options beyond the usual straight man/woman binary — something that caused controversy at the time, because while gamers had no problem with interspecies alliances (the same man-with-sexy-space-chick trope that goes back to Star Trek), same-sex attraction couldn’t possibly be a thing in the far future — was the cherry on top. Sadly the game wouldn’t let my character have a relationship with the character I really liked, the gorgeous, kick-ass soldier Miranda Lawson, and I clearly wasn’t the only one disappointed: the internet is packed with fan fiction where Jane and Miranda are an item.

Mass Effect and MMORPGs (and other games where you can be a girl, such as Dishonored 2 or Destiny) are very different games, but they both offer trans people something really important: the opportunity to inhabit your preferred gender, if only for a while. And as games get more realistic and immersive, that’s going to become even more powerful.