Gaming and Gender: How Pop Culture’s Most Disparaged Medium Helped Me Become Myself
I—playing as my ponytailed, brown-haired character, Erin—arrived at my first Flower Dance in Stardew Valley (literally) spritely and hopeful. Like many other players, I had my eye on Abigail, but Haley and Leah were also cute and I wouldn’t have minded dancing with them. Heck, it was just a dance; I would have happily paired off with one of the ineligible married women for a song or two. But I wanted Abigail. So when the time came to ask for a partner, I went up to Abigail and asked if she wanted to dance.
She said no.
This made me sad, but I wasn’t terribly taken aback. I was a newcomer in this town. I had only spoken to Abigail a couple of times, and I had only given her a couple of gifts. Therein lies the Gordian Knot of video game romance: dialogue and gifts. Games as they stand today cannot effectively recreate the organic variability of interpersonal relationships, and so romance is typically simplified into a (sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit) numbers game in which an affection meter is filled or depleted based on the words you say and the gifts you give to particular NPCs.
Such systems obviously reflect the inherent misogyny and rape culture of Western societies—say the right things, do the right things, and suddenly someone owes you sex and/or romance!—but that’s a topic better left to its own essay. Disappointed by Abigail’s decision, I directed my character to Haley. She declined. Leah. Declined. Maru? Penny? Jodi? Robin? Not a single woman wanted to dance with me. Then a thought crossed my mind, something that hadn't even occurred to me before: I was playing as a woman.
When given the choice, I always play as women in games. There was a time when I never would have done that. There was a time before I realized that my gender was not the same as my sex, and I had been conditioned to believe that character creation tools in video games existed so the player could sculpt an avatar that resembled or reflected their real-world self. I had a male body, so I should play as male characters. That's just the way it was. Until it wasn’t. I couldn't tell you exactly when, but there came a point when I realized that character creation tools allowed you to become whoever you wanted to be. And I still wanted to be me.
So I started playing as women.
It was the perfect blend of fantasy of reality—the reality of my gender, and the name I wanted, “Erin,” made manifest on the screen, combined with the fantasy of the female body that wasn’t mine. I finally felt at home in the characters I was creating, and I never looked back. Some games don't let you choose who you play. That’s okay. I am not Nathan Drake, or Kratos, or Gone Home’s Kaitlin, or Firewatch’s Henry. Those aren't my stories. I merely inhabit those characters for a while, as I would if I were reading a book.
But there are so many characters who are my stories. Commander Erin Shepard, the ruthless but kind-hearted savior of the galaxy in the original Mass Effect trilogy. Or Erin the mother in Fallout 4, who wandered the wasteland in her sheriff’s hat and blew the head off anyone who stood between her and her lost son. Or Erin the farmgirl in Stardew Valley, who arrived in town and met Abigail and smiled whenever her purple-haired crush smiled. Maybe Abigail didn’t want to dance with Erin because Erin was a woman, and Abigail wasn’t attracted to women.
Abigail’s rejection was a moment that brought my gender into focus within the interactive sphere in a way that it usually isn’t. I found my role as a woman to be particularly empowering in Fallout 4 because I knew that I had a child—I had given birth to another person, so I felt a particular feminine pride when people addressed me using the appropriate gendered pronouns; Shaun had gestated inside me, dammit, and no raider or radscorpion or super mutant was going to stop me from finding him! And there were moments in Mass Effect when my gender prevented me from romancing a character I wanted, because I was playing as a woman but also interested in women, an orientation not always reciprocated. But there was nothing quite like that moment in Stardew Valley.
(I’m not the only one who had some feels about being rejected at that first Flower Dance.)
Unsure at the time if Stardew’s affection system was purely numbers-based, or if its NPCs had sexual preferences which it took into account (could every woman in the game be straight?), I frantically began asking the men if they wanted to dance. Refutations all around. Did they know that I wasn’t really interested in them? Or—did they not believe that I was a “real” woman? It sounds silly in retrospect, I know, but I felt legitimate emotions stirring up inside me as this was all taking place; society has so efficiently conditioned us to see transgender people as fakes, pretenders, putting up façades so they can masquerade as a gender they aren’t, that this fear had crept into my mind and I had projected it onto sprites in a video game. Holy hell.
When I finally cooled down, though, I realized that Stardew’s NPCs were not personally rejecting me, or even my character. I simply had not filled any of their affection meters to the point where it would trigger the acceptance of a dance proposal. But the disparity between my sex and gender felt like a particularly raw split after I ended the sequence, because this game had called attention to it in a way that no other game had before. The fantasy had been shattered, and feelings that I normally only felt in the real world had been drawn out. I realized then how important games had become for me in terms of my gender. I am openly transfeminine, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at me. Out in the world, or at work, people see me and see a male. That’s the end of the story. And that’s not me. Only in games do I get to create and control this woman named Erin. She is me, and I am her.
The strange thing about video games, the medium which is (arguably) far behind books and movies and television in terms of positive LGBTQ+ representation, is that sex and gender mean almost nothing within interactive worlds. If you get the choice at all, it’ll be the first one: male or female? And that decision, the most fundamental one of all, is typically nothing more than cosmetic—you'll get a different voice actor if the game has them, maybe a minor perk. But the sex of your character isn’t designed to alter the gameplay (doing so would be far too resource-intensive with too-minor a payoff for the creators); it’s designed to customize your experience, to create an avatar that appeals to you as you play. Maybe the NPCs with address you with different pronouns (Fallout), maybe your romantic options will change (Mass Effect, Dragon Age), maybe your stats will be slightly altered (The Elder Scrolls). The nature of gaming, though, all but requires that the core experience remain the same.
The concept of sex/gender disparity for player-characters is still largely absent from interactive entertainment, and with good reason—unless the game at hand is explicitly about a trans character, how do you construct a believable world in which NPCs respond to a disconnect between sex and gender? That’s tough. Man or woman in a video game, you still get to beat the baddies and save the world. You probably won’t be treated differently. If you are, you probably still won’t be treated as lesser—no one wants their power fantasy marred by misogyny and discrimination. You’d think that it might be even more lenient in the real world, given that sex and gender are not options that you select on a character creation screen.
But it’s not.
Transphobia runs rampant. I’ve seen it first-hand. I’ve been subjected to it. It’s fucking scary. It’s fear-for-your-life scary.
Would I have come to terms with my gender if interactive entertainment didn’t exist? Certainly. That’s not exactly something you can avoid. But it would have taken longer. It would have been a far more confusing, far more painful process. Because in video games, I have always had a place where I could be myself. I could go by my real name. Dress how I wanted. Style my hair how I wanted. Talk how I wanted. And it didn’t make a goddamn difference. Because I still got to slay the dragons, still got to shoot the zombies, still got to stop the Reapers—and I got to do it while wearing a dress, or with my hair in a ponytail. No one cares in games, because you’re the hero no matter how you look. You’re the player-character, and you’re in control.
It doesn’t matter what’s between your legs.
You’re the hero.
I like being the hero.
But I like being Erin even more.