How Videogames Let Me Learn About Myself

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:

http://nerdandorgeek.com/2015/08/09/rpgs-escapism-and-their-effects-on-my-journey-from-gawky-teenager-to-arguably-gawkier-adult/


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)

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5 thoughts on “How Videogames Let Me Learn About Myself

  1. “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 first 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 shape.”

    I think you are massively, massively underestimating the limitations and rewards systems of RPGs here.

    Each of the things you list are natural choices to make in RPGs. Lets go through the list.

    *My characters will always try talking first as a first option.

    Of course you want to negotiate first: talking is what roleplaying is! You could try and miss out the story-telling parts of the story-driven narrative, but that’d be kind of missing the point. Furthermore, many aspects of roleplaying games can *only* be advanced by talking first.

    *They will be fiercely loyal to any character in the group, especially ones who are vulnerable.

    Well, if you fucked off everyone else in your party, you’d usually either 1) have no party left, and the difficulty of the game would increase exponentially, or else 2) just be being a jerk. No one wants to be a jerk. Some people IRL just can’t help it. But yeah – the characters you’re given are written to be sympathetic and compelling characters: it’s a part of the narrative to engage with that, and it’s easiest to do so as a sympathetically.

    *They will be a sucker for the underdog, but won’t (often) be taken for a fool.

    Hey, unless the *game* blindsides you, right? That’s called ‘being genre-savvy’. You can tell who’s dodgy and can’t be trusted, because those dodgy and untrustworthy characters usually all look the same. It’s the thin, unshaven, slightly older guy wearing a hood, right? Or else the fabulously wealthy and opulently dressed woman in a town full of depressed poor people? All this stuff is telegraphed so you engage with it – and then you do.

    *They will explore all options before committing to action.

    Well, of course. Who wants to just blindly charge through all the quests and chapters of the game without taking the time to enjoy each random conversation with a generically labelled Townsfolk? Ok, there are some people who play like that, but that’s not who we’re talking about: we’re talking about people who enjoy RPGs.

    *They are pragmatic moment to moment, but driven by underlying optimism.

    Almost all RPGs have the main character driven by the optimistic against-the-odds heroic quest. Fallout’s got the quest for the water chip. Baldur’s Gate has the investigation into the guy who murdered Gorion. Dragon Age has you dealing with a darkspawn invasion. Etc.

    Ultimately, though, the character is going to be confident because you know they will succeed. You have a reload button. You can’t lose fights. Even from level 1, you’re just slinging a long slew of only victories under your belt.

    The pragmatism? Well, that’s all just about making sure that you do get through those early levels. It’s just game-playing, again.

    *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.

    You can’t play an evil character. Or rather, you can barely ever play a credibly evil character. None of the quests given you are evil: it’s impossible to complete Fallout by going ‘actually, fuck it, I’ve got a shit-ton of bottlecaps, an awesome suit of armour, and a deadly plasma gun thing, I’m going to rule the Wasteland with a iron power-fist’. I mean, you can just stop playing at that point, and head-canon it… but that’s not playing the game.

    Games which do offer ‘evil’ options usually do so in a… pretty shitty way. Cacklingly evil, constant murder spree type evil. It’s usually not as rewarding as playing ‘good’ – because you’re still choosing to not play the game.

    *They will prefer stealth over a more direct route, guile over assault.

    Ok, I admit I’m not certain what you mean by that. I’m assuming it’s ‘within the limitations of a game that offers this as a viable possibility’, at which point, yeah, game limitations. Otherwise, no idea.

    *My characters might not be geniuses, but will never be stupid.

    Stupid characters usually get to say less things in conversation. You get less game. Your reward for playing not-stupid is: you get more game to play.

    *Stealing is fine, but random murder usually isn’t.

    Yeah. Because so many of these games have the option of wandering guilt-free through everyone’s houses and walking off with their life savings. Sometimes you even get XP for it on top of the stolen goods, like unlocking shit in BG2.

    Murder, on the other hand, usually summons guards. It’ll drop your reputation, or your ‘goodness’ score, or otherwise impair your ability to interact with large parts of the game in a roleplayed manner: you can have constant fights, but man, you got dungeons for that shit.

    *****

    When I read through all this the first time, I could see myself in exactly the same way. We play these RPGs in the same way: the only way, the optimal way, the way that most resembles /playing the game/. The bit with the best dialogue, the bit with the cinematic cut-scenes, the bit with the character that’s cute and adorable.

    What’s more, reading through the description of the ‘woman you play as’: well, snap. My one’s usually called Elyssa, and she’s pretty much identical to your woman. And the femShepard from Mass Effect, actually, which from what I recall was designed based off of popularity in the fanbase.

    Escapism doesn’t tell you about yourself. At least, not so much as you seem to be implying. It tells you about your fantasies: as you say, your ‘loose shape’ ideal is good, loyal, intelligent, good-looking, able to talk charismatically under pressure, and always wins. But that’s pretty much everyone’s fantasy self, isn’t it?

    But people IRL aren’t like that. You are not perfect IRL. So you don’t get to find out how good you are at fast-talking by playing a computer game, or how convincing you are, or able to chat people up, or even how good you are at theft or sticking swords into people. You do that by doing those things.

    Like

  2. Thankyou for taking the time to comment, but you’ve made a number of points which I want to respond to.

    Firstly, while I concede it’s possible that I underestimate the limitations of games systems and reward design, I am not ignorant of those things. I am aware that RPGs, as any video game does, has defined, constraining rules and options with you are limited, and often steered by.

    “My characters will always try talking as a first option.” [edited that sentence, thankyou]

    *

    “Of course you want to negotiate first: talking is what roleplaying is! You could try and miss out the story-telling parts of the story-driven narrative, but that’d be kind of missing the point. Furthermore, many aspects of roleplaying games can *only* be advanced by talking first.”

    Of course many RPGs will have a strong bent towards dialogue. My point here is that given the choice between a dialogue option, and a non-dialogue option, my characters will steer towards dialogue, even if other routes are more rewarding (in in-game currency etc) or more direct. Also bear in mind that ‘talking’ is not the same as ‘negotiating’, and games will often make a clear distinction between the two. You also make the mistake of assuming that story-telling and/or a storied narrative is always done verbally (i.e. through dialogue).

    *

    “Well, if you fucked off everyone else in your party, you’d usually either 1) have no party left, and the difficulty of the game would increase exponentially, or else 2) just be being a jerk. No one wants to be a jerk. Some people IRL just can’t help it. But yeah – the characters you’re given are written to be sympathetic and compelling characters: it’s a part of the narrative to engage with that, and it’s easiest to do so as a sympathetically.”

    Yes, there are of course in-game mechanical reasons to work with your party member (e.g. yes, having a party to adventure with). I meant that I will be loyal to party members even at the expense of in-game reward. E.g. my character may well lie for a party member, even though that lie will punish the character. Also, many characters in games *aren’t* sympathetic – they may be crazed, evil, selfish, or just assholes. But if my character has a relationship with that character (friendship, comrade, romantic, whatever the in-game relationship may be), then they will probably lie for them (in this hypothetical situation) *even though* that person is a complete asshole. It will be loyalty to the point of irrationality and stupidity.

    “No one wants to be a jerk”

    You are just wrong here, many people will intentionally be jerks – especially in games. That will be their fantasy, or an experience they wish to try out, and is one which games allow a particular space for (i.e. you can be a jerk and it won’t immediately affect your actual life).

    *

    “Hey, unless the *game* blindsides you, right? That’s called ‘being genre-savvy’. You can tell who’s dodgy and can’t be trusted, because those dodgy and untrustworthy characters usually all look the same. It’s the thin, unshaven, slightly older guy wearing a hood, right? Or else the fabulously wealthy and opulently dressed woman in a town full of depressed poor people? All this stuff is telegraphed so you engage with it – and then you do.”

    There is a large element of truth here in what you say – yes often these things are telegraphed. But they also, often, *won’t* be. Lazy or telegraphed characters will often clue you in to things more than they would in real life, but well written characters or moments won’t be so obvious.

    It’s possible that the “won’t (often) be taken for a fool” is me creating a fantasy version of my fantasy characters (i.e. making them better in my head than they actually tend to be when I play them), and I’ll admit to that.

    Actually, yeah I’m pretty sure that my characters (and in this case, yes me) are taken for suckers in games a lot more than I might like to think.

    *

    “Well, of course. Who wants to just blindly charge through all the quests and chapters of the game without taking the time to enjoy each random conversation with a generically labelled Townsfolk? Ok, there are some people who play like that, but that’s not who we’re talking about: we’re talking about people who enjoy RPGs.”

    Actually, a *lot* of people will want to play like that, and you’re making a hugely assumptive statement to say that people who enjoy RPGs will play a certain way. While yes, there *are* certain things that a certain style of player might find or enjoy more in some RPGs (and thus they might play more of them) the entire point here is that *all* sorts of people play RPGs, and they play them in many different ways. I’m not entirely sure what point you’re trying to make here against my statement. I’m pointing out that, given the in-game opportunity to decide on something (often a minor plot-point or side quest), my characters will often defer that decision (within in-game reason) until they can assess all sides. And doing so is *not* what all players or their characters will do.

    *

    “Almost all RPGs have the main character driven by the optimistic against-the-odds heroic quest. Fallout’s got the quest for the water chip. Baldur’s Gate has the investigation into the guy who murdered Gorion. Dragon Age has you dealing with a darkspawn invasion. Etc.”

    It’s true, game-design steers a lot of things here. But again, I am making the point that given certain in-game options, my characters will incline towards the most pragmatic option – i.e. dealing with what is known, as opposed to idealistic motives. The underlying optimism common in my characters comes from them hoping/striving towards the betterment of other in-game characters, and persistently making in-game choices that reflect this, *not* from any particular game-device (like you being ‘the chosen one’ from the school of hard knocks).

    “Ultimately, though, the character is going to be confident because you know they will succeed. You have a reload button. You can’t lose fights. Even from level 1, you’re just slinging a long slew of only victories under your belt.”

    If you truly take this viewpoint, then I question why you would play games at all. One of the main reasons people play games is for the element of challenge – the idea of an obstacle you might not overcome. And yes, as players, we effectively have cheats in many games (i.e. reloading). But there is still the distinct possibility that you (the player) will *not* succeed. If you enter a game utterly assured that you will always succeed at everything, and that is the end of it, then you are effectively removing the game element from something like an RPG. Dark Souls for instance is an RPG and many people have not finished that – because they as players have not managed to overcome the game’s obstacles. And again, you confuse *you* being confident with your *character* being confident. Don’t forget that you as a player can decide to make your character un-confident – especially in a Role Playing Game.

    “The pragmatism? Well, that’s all just about making sure that you do get through those early levels. It’s just game-playing, again.”

    There is a difference between *your* pragmatism (as the player, who can know the rules and mechanics of the game structure), and your *character’s* potential pragmatism. So for you the player, you may be pragmatic about what you make your character does or doesn’t do.

    *

    “You can’t play an evil character. Or rather, you can barely ever play a credibly evil character. None of the quests given you are evil: it’s impossible to complete Fallout by going ‘actually, fuck it, I’ve got a shit-ton of bottlecaps, an awesome suit of armour, and a deadly plasma gun thing, I’m going to rule the Wasteland with a iron power-fist’. I mean, you can just stop playing at that point, and head-canon it… but that’s not playing the game.”

    Yes, it is rarer to play a game that allows to to be credibly evil. They do exist. They really, really do – I would link you to some of them, but frankly I don’t want them getting any additional traffic. There are games that let you stalk and rape women. There are games that systematically have you abusing and beating up black people. There are games that have you tie people up and torture them verbally/mentally/physically/emotionally.

    My point is not that I, the player, cannot play evil games (which, unless I have a specific reason for doing so, I won’t). My point is that my characters, even if I try to do so, will (as soon as my attention falters) stop being evil. The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us would be good examples of games where I have tried being evil (usually in these games meaning selfish, callous, violent, cruel and so on.)

    “because you’re still choosing to not play the game.”

    Okay you are straight up not allowed to say that’s “not playing the game”. The entire point of a created character, especially in RPGs, is to play as a certain personality, which may well not match with you in real life. If you decide your character will go on a genocidal rampage, and the game allows you to do so, then you are playing the game by very definition. If you decide your character is an insane homeless man, who uses nothing but a baseball bat to kill all the men in the world, and the game lets you do that (regardless of how difficult it may technically be to do), then *you are playing the game*.

    *

    “Ok, I admit I’m not certain what you mean by that. I’m assuming it’s ‘within the limitations of a game that offers this as a viable possibility’, at which point, yeah, game limitations. Otherwise, no idea.”

    Here I’m referring to situations like ‘hey, we can do a frontal assault, guns blazing, or we can sneak around the back and avoid them’. Guile is somewhat harder to pin down in games, so that may have been a bad word choice from me.

    *

    “Stupid characters usually get to say less things in conversation. You get less game. Your reward for playing not-stupid is: you get more game to play.”

    Again, you’re assuming that dialogue *is* the game. And it’s just…not! If you want to play a character with an intelligence of 5, so their in-game dialogue turns up as grunts and howls, then that is you playing the game. You are not inherently getting ‘less’ game if you choose to play like that.

    Also, don’t confuse in-game intelligence skill scores (like D&D systems) with *actual* intelligence of a character. Our imaginary beast-man with intelligence 5 might still do intelligent things through his gameplay.

    *

    “Yeah. Because so many of these games have the option of wandering guilt-free through everyone’s houses and walking off with their life savings. Sometimes you even get XP for it on top of the stolen goods, like unlocking shit in BG2.

    Murder, on the other hand, usually summons guards. It’ll drop your reputation, or your ‘goodness’ score, or otherwise impair your ability to interact with large parts of the game in a roleplayed manner: you can have constant fights, but man, you got dungeons for that shit.”

    Absolutely true – and possibly the thing that games (particularly RPGs) have a lot of fairly leading design for. There is a *lot* of design that punishes you very little for stealing and rewards you a lot.

    Your point on murder is less definite – again, if you are playing a character that doesn’t *care* about towns being difficult because of guards, then that is absolutely valid. Doing something that impairs your character’s ability to get to certain areas or suchlike, if that is what your character is like (as decided by you), then that is absolutely still roleplaying.

    The point I was making for my characters is that they will steal – and yes, that is definitely influenced by the leading nature of ‘stealing is a ok, you’re the HERO’ design. However they will *also* steal for fun, even when it is an obstacle in the game, or one that has little (in-game) reward. Equally, my characters tend to not murder as a definitive course of action, not simply because it would make the game harder for me (the player). Given the choice to murder someone, my characters will usually not – unless there are reasons for doing so, that tally with the other points of my character (so money usually won’t be a reason for my characters to murder in a D&D style game, but doing so to avenge a party member’s family might be).

    *****

    I hope I’m not just coming across like an ass, I’m aware that some points I’ve made, I’ve made repeatedly as I’ve gone through this, responding to each paragraph bit by bit. I’m not being a deliberately snarky git.

    “When I read through all this the first time, I could see myself in exactly the same way. We play these RPGs in the same way: the only way, the optimal way, the way that most resembles /playing the game/. The bit with the best dialogue, the bit with the cinematic cut-scenes, the bit with the character that’s cute and adorable.”

    As I’ve already said above, no we don’t. You and I might play the game in a similar fashion, but that does not make it universally so. It doesn’t make it the ‘optimal’ way to play the game, it doesn’t mean that we are ‘playing the game’ any more or less than people who do radically different things (our hobo, our beast-man, playing a pacifist, playing a character who will seek revenge on any slight, etc, etc).

    So you, or I, or others may possibly be drawn to the cute and adorable characters, to all the dialogue trees, to all the fancy lights – but that does not mean all players will, and as long as there are alternative options, then all those options are equally valid.

    *

    The point about some RPGs *only* being advance-able (often for central plots) through dialogue is certainly true – but not relevant here, because in that case it is not an option (or at least, not an option with a viable alternative if you wish to continue playing the game).

    Please be careful here, as you’re introducing elements that I never mention. At no point did I say, or imply, that my characters ‘always win’. Yes, in the framework of most games you are set up in situations where the game *wants* you to win (i.e. you fulfilled that quest!), but that is fundamentally different. Equally, I am not saying my fantasy self is to be someone who is good, loyal, intelligent, etc – but someone who places particular *value* on those things, if placed in decisions between them. For instance, a theoretical situation where my character can either screw over a party member for personal gain, or screw over a party member *slightly less* and lose that opportunity for personal gain, my characters will usually pick the option which screws the party member over slightly less – even when the in-game rewards and/or punishments for doing so are known. Yes there are issues with this, all sorts of things come into play like how the situation is presented – as in the Trolley Problem – but the point is there.

    I am also not claiming that fantasy escapism will always tell you about yourself (at least, not in a significant or meaningful way), I am pointing out through example that *for myself*, it has done so.

    Firstly, a distinction needs to be made between escapism and fantasy. Escapism is finding distractions from a reality that is unwanted (for whatever reason). Fantasy is creating/inhabiting a non-reality specifically for the purposes of gain (pleasure, learning, whatever). While they can often be found in relation to each other, they are fundamentally different – and that difference is important. Escapism might not tell you a lot about yourself personally – though I would argue that the fact that you are seeking it out, and how often you do so, tell you at least something (if only that you are avoiding something). Fantasy, I would argue however, *does* tell you a lot about yourself.

    I am also not trying to imply that doing imaginary actions in a game makes you better at real life actions – so no, clicking a button to swing a sword does not make you better at *actually* swinging a sword. Selecting the ‘charm’ option, or maxing out your charisma in a game do not make you better at *actually* being charming. But at no point in this article did I imply that it did.

    *

    A final point – for me, the character description that we’ve just spent so long batting about was actually meant to be the more minor point of the article, with the gender-exploration and learning aspects as the major. It may well be that that’s not how it came across – which is fine. It’s also fine that this comment thread has focused almost elusively on that (to me) more minor point, that’s how conversation works, I just hope the second part of the article wasn’t totally useless to you.

    *

    Bloody hell that took longer than I thought it would. Again, I hope it doesn’t come across as me just bitch-slapping all your points. The fact that I disagree with a lot of your points doesn’t mean I’m calling *you* an idiot, it just means I disagree with what you’ve said! (Something that really needs to be remembered more on the internet. And…well, everywhere else as well really.) So, thankyou again.

    *

    Fun fact, this response is apparently longer than the original article!

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  3. Good reply, and thanks for responding to it in the spirit it was intended 🙂 I’ve got another one about gender identity that I’d like to write at some point as well, but tied up with stuff right now…

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  4. I am going to distil your ruminations on sex/gender down to one line.

    “To me, females will always be more attractive, more beautiful.”

    And your essay’s conclusion similarly.

    “Without video games, it’s unlikely I would have ever been able to figure out these things to the extent I have.”

    Ok, this could be a bit unfair, considering that I’m removing them both from context. I’m always a fan of self-analysis and a full inner life, but I really kind of feel that this is kind of where you’re driving at – and I’m going to try and illuminate that a bit (and what you might be missing).

    I’m going to start with your use of the term ‘female’ here, rather than ‘woman’. It’s interesting where you use each term throughout the article. When you’re talking about the character – you, your avatar – it’s ‘female’: when you’re talking about /actual people/, you use ‘woman’.

    You’re not playing women.

    Despite explicitly stating that ‘given the choice, I will be female’, you exclusively use gender-neutral pronouns rather than female to describe how your characters act. The personality choices being heavily influenced by the limitations of the medium I’ve covered previously, but I didn’t cover how nothing about any of the choices is at all gendered.

    You describe yourself as cisgender and hetereosexual, but I don’t think that quite describes it. There’s no single term that can fully encapsulate any single person’s unique relationships between their own nuanced gender identity and the precise pieces of their sexual identity and how they relate to physical, emotional and intellectual traits of any given person. But we’ve already pretty much stripped the emotional and intellectual traits from being attractive by making them a carriage for an idealised, non-gendered you: they’re just bodies.

    (Well, that last line holds up so long as you’re not afflicted by overwhelming narcissism).

    But physical bodies /do/ nevertheless make up at least a part of attraction. And you know you’re going to spend a proportion of these games looking at your character. So why not make them attractive to look at?

    The /first thing/ in the article you choose to describe about your characters is their appearance: excruciating detail about their height, bust, skin tone, muscle density, hair, eyes, makeup… and the physical description is an idealised fantasy female body. She – sorry – /they/ are ‘hot’.

    So. What else should we consider from all this? What’s the thing you’ve missed?

    Let’s talk about gender.

    Language about gender has been evolving rapidly over the 10, 20, 30 years. My experience of my own gender identity is just as unique as everyone else’s, and *if anything*, I’d identify somewhere around ‘male’ – but not strongly. I can’t.

    Gender roles are (currently considered) a socially constructed set of behavioural norms applied to people from birth, based more-or-less off what apparent genitals someone happened to be born with. Gender is also the set of behavioural norms an individual understands to apply to themselves, based off their understanding of those gender roles that exist outside of themselves and within society.

    A classic trans woman, if there is such a thing as a ‘classic’ any type of person, would be someone who is expected to conform to boy/man/male gender roles, but internally would prefer to conform closer to a set of girl/woman/female gender roles and vice versa for ‘classic trans man’.

    We notice trans people in particular because of the society wide enforcement of gender roles, and the extremes by which trans people appear to transgress their assigned places.

    When you describe yourself as a cisgender man, you are saying a similarly vague thing as ‘heterosexual’ above: the precise nature of your gender identity is really only known to yourself, but you recognise that it’s pretty much ‘mannish’.

    So what does all that mean within the context of a computer game?

    You can ask yourself this question:

    Does the game have a rigidly enforced set of gender roles that it expects characters of different sexes to adhere to?

    In almost all cases, no. I can’t think of any, to be honest. Princess Maker, maybe, though even then, whilst the Princess is clearly the object of the game, she’s not the player’s avatar exactly.

    It’s almost impossible to play a gendered character in a CRPG – at least, in those where it offers you a choice of genders. Quite aside from the tiresome nature of writing two separate /entire games/ for different social relationships or the expectations placed on characters of different genders. Sure, you might be able to have one or two characters that interact slightly differently based on gender – a romance option, maybe, or a token sexist slant to a conversation – but that doesn’t include the experience of a lifetime of sexism. It’s laughable to even suggest it would be – or that a game replicating the experience of a lifetime of sexism would be very much fun at all.

    So… what else /could/ choosing to play with a female avatar suggest?

    Gender roles are socially enforced. They’re also pretty much entirely arbitrary. There are as many ambitiously achieving women as men, just as there are as many emotionally dependant men as women. How society sees them is different: the female ambitious achiever is a bitch, cold, heartless, needs a man in her life, and a hundred other put downs, whereas the man is driven, serious, a go-getter, a hundred other praises. The emotional man is a wimp, a pussy, a woman (the ultimate put-down for a man), whereas the woman is… such a /woman/, you know?.

    Eurgh.

    When you play characters in computer games, genderless ones, in a gender-free society, you are exploring something, but it’s not the experience or feeling of the ‘opposite’ gender. It’s the concept of the binary between man-and-woman, its arbitrary nature and meaninglessness outside of social constructs. And if you think about it from that angle, and apply that to yourself, and think about what that means for how you act in real life outside of the computer game world…

    The rate of suicide in men is three times higher than that in women. Women, meanwhile, threaten suicide far more often – but go through with it far less.

    The current theory between this apparently gendered disparity is in social relationships.

    A depressed person is more likely to get through those bad days and nights by reaching out, asking for help and support. Men are taught not to do this – it’s ‘unmanly’, it’s ‘weak’. Women are encouraged to do this – they’re ’empathisers’, they’re ‘good with people’. Those gendered social constructs happen to help women to get through depression: they do the exact opposite for men.

    *Fuck* the gender binary. It needs tearing down in a million ways and for a million reasons. Male suicide is one example, but we can equally switch to the still massive inequality in women’s pay compared to men’s across the world.

    I was born with a penis. I was raised as a boy. I continue to exist within a sexist society, and I subsequently benefit massively from male privilege. But I don’t feel a strong connection with my assigned gender – and that’s somewhere between choice and nature. I don’t *want* to feel a strong connection with my gender, but nor do I associate any of the personal traits I hold to be particularly gendered, other than how other people perceive them.

    If playing as a female-bodied avatar of oneself in a computer game is one way of starting to question one’s own gender, that’s great. But I want to challenge you on this thing: is your conclusion correct – that you’re a heterosexual cisgender man who happens to like looking at female butts? And is it /enough/?

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    1. This was really interesting to read through. I feel your opening lines are basically correct, with the very important addendum of ‘these are ruminations on sex/gender boiled down to one line, as pertaining to and viewed through the lens of computer games’. Basically I’m uncomfortable with giving the idea that these could be viewed as my ruminations on sex/gender *in totality*.

      Something highlighted in your response that I don’t think I’d realized (despite heavily pointing it out for *other* aspects in the last comment); RPG with gender choice in them are limited in their options. So my article was fundamentally missing something, because the article wasn’t really ‘I prefer playing as a female’, the article was ‘I prefer playing as a female in the standard binary choice between male and female’.

      Huh. I honestly hadn’t noticed that. Having gone through and considered it however, I believe I know why I did/do: because I use the term ‘woman’ to refer to a person, but my characters/avatars are *not*, at the point I create them, people – as you point out. They are empty vessels. The character, the *person* I might try to make them be emerges through gameplay, and even then I consciously know that it’s me, the player, who is controlling them, so they as a character are entirely dependent on me for any ‘person’ traits that they display (or so it certainly feels in the more insert-free-character here games, as opposed to games where your character actually exists as a meaningful person before you start controlling them). But you’re right, they are ‘hot’, or certainly are to me. I agree they would be widely regarded as so by many others as well. But, importantly, when I have created those characters historically I haven’t done so to create a hot character – I (repeatedly) created a form which was ideal for me, and it *was* hot (I hope that doesn’t feel like a meaningless distinction. I’ve never set out to make a hot character, but my default choices gravitate towards ones that are hot to me.)

      Your point about games not usually being gendered is…yeah, actually a stunningly good one. In the same way that many games allow you to be any race for ‘total freedom of play’ or whatnot, in game that often translates to ‘some NPCs will periodically say a slightly different line, an extra line or maybe give you a specific quest’, so playing a male or female character usually means ‘some NPCs will periodically say a slightly different line, an extra line…or maybe give you a specific quest’. That’s not something I’d fully appreciated until now – that playing a female character is, aside from the more visual components, practically the same as playing a male (and vice versa).

      You’re right in saying that ‘cisgender heterosexual male’ is still not a totally precise term, because there are so many factors and variations involved in personal gender identity that it would require a lot of very specific language to nail it down. But, for the layperson, ‘cisgender heterosexual male’ will provide enough of an accurate description for

      You are absolutely correct; the gender binary has an incredibly large number of problems. Many of them to do with the fact that it’s a binary.

      But yes, my conclusion – to myself – is correct, albeit clarified rather well by you. I play as female-bodied characters because I prefer the idea of being a female-bodied person. In medical terms I am male, and I live as a male in society (by societies rough definitions of male, nebulous as that is.) My core point is also still the same – that computer games, as limited as they are, are *still* a fantastic platform for safe exploration compared to…well, most other available ways.

      Some side points which I’m saying not so much to argue/debate/etc certain points you make, as I am to give you better context for why I did so. So firstly – I described my female character’s appearance in such a place and way for three reasons: One, because I’d just gone through loads of different games and noticed a lot of recurring choices, and wanted to point out to what extent those similarities were. Two, it makes it easy for the audience (i.e. anyone who might read it) to visualize, which is a good way of making the article more relate-able (which, as someone who tends to ramble and tangent, I was making a conscious effort to do). And three, because when I was writing it I literally visualized and went through the archetypal character-generation screen in my head, matching it up.

      I said this for the last comment, but I was at least in part doing so to make it clear that I wasn’t being a twat at you and to thank you for taking the effort to replay, whereas here much more I feel you’ve communicated some serious points which otherwise may never have occurred to me (which I always view as *extremely* valuable). So not only thankyou for the first two points, but also because there are elements of your comment that I have seriously had to consider – and will continue to do so for quite some time.

      (As a PS to this, I keep reading your comment, and the comment thread and all that and just internally going ‘hooray!’ It’s something on the internet! With a stranger! And no-one’s being a c*nt! Hooray!)

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