This article was, fairly directly, sparked by one written by a friend of mine. So credit where it’s due, you can read it here:
I’ve been playing video games for most of my life. Since I was a toddler sitting and watching my brother play 5th Gear on the Commodore 64, they’ve been something that appealed. When I look back, twenty years on, they are a surprising constant in my life. Regardless of where I was living, or what point I was at in my life, some form of video game probably wasn’t far away. My Gameboy Pocket when I was living away from home at 8 years old. My brother’s Playstation 2 all through my teenage years. They were always around, in some form or another.
Examining my own memories, video games lie at the heart of a lot the most precious ones. I still remember the genuine pain of getting into a fight with my brother and goading him into deleting Sonic 1, 2 and 3 from the computer. I remember line after line of Baldur’s Gate 2 dialogue, Jan Jansen’s stories making me giggle hysterically even now. Video games wind through my life, a constant medium of challenge, exploration and enjoyment.
Video games are precious to me for a particular reason to – they were, and at times still are, a retreat. A way for me to have real experiences, from the safety of my own home. When I was too afraid to leave the house, or when I was too emotionally exhausted to have a real conversation, I could deal with video games. Through them, I could still experience a frisson of emotion, of tension, but always in the knowledge that if it ever became too much – I could hit pause, and walk away.
Leaving the peculiar niche that video games filled for me, there’s something else that games do that doesn’t get nearly enough positive attention: Because of their interactive nature, games have the ability to let you, the player, explore something. You are of course limited by the games internal rules and subject matters but even so, there is a lot of scope to discover and learn.
If you were to look at all my gaming experience, you would notice certain patterns emerging. In shooters I will always prefer precision roles; sniper, spy, ambusher. I enjoy the roles that have high risk/reward, that require finesse and can change the game on a dime. It’s the perfect combination of reflex, intuition and planning that satisfies me, far more than simply toting the biggest gun. In RPGs I will always place high value on the in-game social skills. In fact I find it hard not to do so, even if I’m creating a character to be deliberately different – not having that in-game social skill set is alien to me. Even in platformers, where less character-choice is involved, I am a mix of impulsive and relentless – I will happily dash through an entirely unknown level, jumping and hopping on a reflexive level. But two days later, I’ll be back to explore it more slowly – to revel in every detail. I enjoy adrenaline-style gaming just as much as I do the contemplative, the reactive puzzle as much the cerebral. It says quite a lot about me.
If you were clever (and super creepy) and you had recorded and analysed my game playing, I don’t doubt you would find behaviours that relate to me in my everyday life. That’s all very well and interesting, and a whole wide field of discussion I’m sure. But what holds my attention much more than this the fact that not only do these games give me a place to learn about myself through consideration in retrospect, but they actually allow me to expand and improve my interests as well into entirely new territory as well. In the way that seeing certain films or reading certain books will expose you to not only new experiences, but to new concepts. Entire methods and avenues of thought that have never come to you before might spring up, even for things that are entirely embedded in your normal life.
To look at this, let me give you an example that has been true for me.
For my entire life, in any RPG that gives me the choice, I will be female. I always considered this to be for a fairly obvious reason; females are more attractive to me, so I just default to the prettier option. But as I’ve played more over the years, I found there there’s a lot more to it than just that. When I create these characters, I’m not just creating someone more attractive to look at, I’m creating someone more attractive to be. And for me, it always felt better playing a female just as a flat default. I didn’t have to weigh up pros and cons, my instinctive choice was always to be female. As technology has advanced, and graphics have gotten a whole lot fancier, so too have the creation tools for character appearance.
While starting to write this, I went back and looked at a lot of old characters I’ve made over the last ten years out of curiosity. What struck me is not just that certain themes emerge over and over again, but how consistent these themes are – whether I made the character at 15, 20 or 25. My characters will be tall. They will usually be of medium frame – not a slender willow, but not a human tank. Strong legs and hips, bust on the D-cup level. Not fat, but with significant curves. White skin, but often a darker shade of white. So much for build, but the face is where patterns really show up. They will have scars. They will have striking eyes – often dark brown, flecked with green or violet. They will have a strong jaw, but one that tapers down to a fine chin. Cheeks more full than gaunt. The nose will be long and thin, in the dead centre of the face. The lips are full but not collagen filled. Full hair, always auburn – or something close to it. Mostly medium length. Wavy, not frizzy. Makeup will always be subtle, if used at all. A slight mascara to the eyes, always black. Eyeshadow is rare, but when used will be a hint of green. Maybe a lipstick, always darker red. Always understated. I’m not just describing this for fun, I’m trying to make a point about just how specific my repeated appearances are. Time and time again, these same characters show up in my game – whether it be Baldur’s Gate or Mass Effect 3. There is always a strong resonance of appearance, my brain constructing variations on the theme that I never even noticed, even as I changed quite dramatically in real life.
As specific as these physical characteristics are, personality is where it gets really interesting: For these characters, even when I have tried to play ‘a character not like me’, there are things I will almost universally gravitate toward – even while actively trying not to. My characters will always try talking as a first option. They will be fiercely loyal to any character in the group, especially ones who are vulnerable. They will be a sucker for the underdog, but won’t (often) be taken for a fool. They will explore all options before committing to action. They are pragmatic moment to moment, but driven by underlying optimism. They will never be an evil person, even when I really try to make them. The best they can hope for is a kind of moral greyness or Star Wars style dark side, which often isn’t evil at all. They will prefer stealth over a more direct route, guile over assault. My characters might not be geniuses, but will never be stupid. Stealing is fine, but random murder usually isn’t. Their in-game name, class, or species might be different but from system to system, no matter the internal rules of the game, my characters will return to this loose-but-consistant shape.
All of this becomes interesting to me when I start to apply it to my real life, and I suddenly start to see where it matches up, and also where it doesn’t.
I’ve never really played the ‘who is your ideal fantasy woman’ game, because I feel it’s fundamentally flawed. I care about people just as much as initial appearance. I can’t say Beyonce is my dream lady, because I don’t know her. I can say she’s hot, and…well that’s it. But ‘hot’ isn’t the same as ‘powerfully attractive’. I see hundreds of hot people every day – male and female. I don’t want to chat most of them up. Even, in these conversations, inventing an imaginary person I know, I still know they won’t be ideal because I don’t know enough about what I want in a partner to create a model of it – I like to be surprised by people. I can, perhaps, pick a few cursory, bland criteria like ‘intelligent’ or ‘funny’ but that is all. But when I think back, when this kind of conversation has come up over the years I have never, ever thought of someone like my characters. Not even in passing. The thought simply has never crossed my consideration. Because it turns out that the characters I create aren’t ‘my ideal fantasy woman’ at all, which is what they might seem on first glance – creating these (to me) beautiful characters with hours of care. These characters, they’re my ideal fantasy me. The person I would probably turn myself into if I got transported into Middle Earth, or I suddenly gained universe modding powers.
Because these characters, in their playstyle, their social-approaches, their morals – anything they do that is not gender specific in fact – are basically me as-I-am. Some variance is there, and some fantasy-idealisation is there too; if someone handed me a sniper rifle, I would not go and shoot someone with ice-cold precision, I’d freak the fuck out. But these characters – even when I not to do so – gravitate extremely close to just being…me.
But this might seem strange then, because in daily life, I would identify – if you asked me – as a cisgender heterosexual male. I don’t feel any pull to live as a woman, or to transition. I don’t dress in drag, or have any desire to do so beyond idle curiosity. In fact, I’m pretty damn conventional in my gender identity. I know, with a fairly deep confidence, that I don’t want to become a woman. I’m cool with having testicles, that’s fine. I don’t feel like I’m stuck in the wrong body. But that doesn’t change the fact that if I could go back to character creation, somewhere in the ovum, I might select chromosome XX and tweak a few genes. To me, females will always be more attractive, more beautiful – and not just physically. Most of the people I look up to are female. Most of the causes I champion are based on equality. Combine all of this with the seasoning of disgust I have had, long-term, for by my own body (for its form, not its gender) and is it any wonder that in video games I choose something more innately pleasing? My fantasy persona is apparently exactly like me – the same person, but a slimmer, pointier chinned, female me.
Without video games, it’s unlikely I would have ever been able to figure out these things to the extent I have. After all, where else do you get the chance to explore them so thoroughly? In such a safe environment? More strikingly, for years I’ve been exploring much of this without consciously meaning to – I didn’t make efforts to do these things, but the medium of video games just happened to give me a good playground do so. Now, as a result I don’t simply wonder, I know what I am comfortable with in my gender, and what I am not, and I did it all in a safe environment. Even in an industry that is overwhelmingly obsessed with finer graphical fidelity, cover based shooting, and every main character being a white straight male or ‘strong’ straight white female, there is room to explore a lot of exciting subjects and ideas.
These days, I can discover and explore issues from racism, to misogyny, to techno-fear, to the meta convention of narrative, and beyond. Depending on the game, I might only get a fleeting touch of these things, or I might get a mind-alteringly deep exploration, but they are still things I can encounter and interact with (or interact through). I get sad when I see how video games can seem to outsiders, because the view is almost universally negative. I get sad because there is so much potential here. I want to know what I might be able to explore in ten years, in fifty, when the industry starts to realize that players want to be challenged not just mechanically, but internally as well.
Now I’ve covered the impact of gender, in brief, using one genre of games (RPG). It is only a fraction of what I have actually learned, explored, considered or created, and all through these digital playgrounds we call video games. This is one of the great powers of games, video and otherwise. Giving you the tools and space to explore your own mind, life and preferences – in a safe, contained environment. In games, you can choose not only what you do, but often how you do it, who with, and for what reason. From shooters, to sports, to RPG, to platformer, to the hundreds of other genres out there, each one gives you different challenges yes, but they can all give you tiny clues about yourself too, and sometimes show you something new.
Footnote: If you want to get an idea of how much more deeply games can engage you, I highly recommend taking some time and reading this piece: http://hitboxteam.com/designing-game-narrative by Terence Lee. It is wonderful.
Alternatively (or additionally), for a comic book style look at gender and sexuality in one particular RPG series: http://www.ohjoysextoy.com/dragon-age-molly-ostertag/ (don’t worry, it’s SFW, and likewise wonderful)