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Character Creation and the Privacy of Playing with Gender

Video games have offered queer nerds a safe space to explore aspects of themselves for decades.

I’m not the first to have noticed, and more personally felt, this phenomena and I most certainly won’t be the last. From romancing characters of the same gender, to opening up a new save and creating a character of the opposite one, games have always been playgrounds for positive exploration of sexuality and, especially, gender.

Gaming is often a solitary hobby with the majority of releases focusing on single-player campaigns. Because of this, gaming is often also a very private hobby, with players retreating to their bedrooms or studies after school or work to tune out the rest of the world and dive into the one loading up in front of them.

It’s this privacy that is important to why video games lend themselves so well to gender exploration. Players can dive into a new skin with a sense of security, knowing there’s nobody to perform for.

See, there is still an awful societal pressure for queer people to know exactly how to label themselves as soon as they are comfortable coming out, particularly queer youth. Society perpetuates the idea that changing your mind, discovering something new about yourself, or growing into a new identity is something to be ashamed of. I’m sure you’ve heard the stereotype prescribed to bisexuality as the ‘in-between’ step towards ‘realising you’re actually a lesbian / gay man’ or the similar belief that coming out as non-binary is just one step away from coming out as binary transgender.

For many people, discovering themselves does lead them from one label to another, but these stereotypes have come to assign a certain amount of shame to that. These should-be-comforting moments of self-discovery can become tainted as wrong-turns, when in reality they’re often natural progressions.

This is where the privacy of video games, and character creation, come in. Not only does creating a new persona to inhabit allow you to test the waters of presenting and identifying in a different way, but you can experiment and change that persona as you go, sometimes within games and sometimes between them. All within the privacy of your own save files.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons, for example, was the first game in the Animal Crossing franchise to remove gender restrictions in the game. Previously you would be asked to choose ‘girl’ or ‘boy’, often in bizarre dialogues where the question isn’t specifically asked but is instead assumed on whether you think your name is ‘cute’ or ‘cool’…you know, the two genders. Clothing options and haircuts would be restricted depending on this choice, and it couldn’t be changed without creating an entirely new character.

New Horizons, however, let’s you change your gender marker whenever and clothes and haircuts are available to all. In an interview with The Washington Post, Aya Kyogoku, the game’s director, spoke about this flexibility of gender in New Horizons:

“We basically wanted to create a game where users didn’t really have to think about gender or if they wanted to think about gender, they’re also able to.”

This freedom offers small and private moments of gender affirmation, including when that affirmation comes in freedom from gender; letting you run around knowing your character’s gender marker is set to boy while you terraform in your most ‘girly’ cottage-core dress with not a single villager caring (something I did myself).

What happened with New Horizons is just one of the examples of the ways game designers are beginning to push better representations of gender. More games are allowing a mixture of traditionally feminine or masculine traits within one character, including non-binary identities, and are providing a wider / mixed choice of pronouns. While this has been in the works of several developers over the years, it came more to the forefront during Covid when separation from society was greater and people had the space and privacy to experiment in real life as well as in their
games.

During this time, I myself remember playing Arcade Spirits, the already very queer dating sim from Fiction Factory Games. On opening the game, I was met with a character customiser where I was able to give my ‘me’ a cute blonde bob, a masculine build, and, for the first time, they/them pronouns. It was one of the first times I had been able to experiment with these pronouns; despite wanting to see how they felt for me, I wasn’t yet comfortable asking others to try them out.

But there, alone in my bedroom with a cup of tea and my laptop propped up on plushies, it felt private and personal and good. After I finished the game, I was able to recognise that, while those pronouns did feel right for me, there were times where I missed more gendered ways of presenting and interacting in-game. This Arcade Spirits version of me didn’t quite capture ‘me,’ and it was affirming to uncover that without the onlooking eye of others.

That experience could not have been the same were it broadcast and shared with others, and Arcade Spirits is only one example of how powerful the intimacy with video games can be. It’s why there is so much queer joy waiting to be found in games, because there is always excitement in the fact that we can try again and again to learn more about ourselves whenever we load into the next character creator.

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Safe in your Virtual World: Using videogames as a healthy mental break from the news

Booting up your favourite game can prove a welcome respite from stressful events and give your brain a chance to relax a little.

It should come as little surprise that Safe in our World would happily support the use of videogames as a means to address your ongoing mental health wellbeing, be it in a time of crisis or just for your day-to-day troubles. Of course, gaming isn’t going to be a solution to those problems, but it does offer a place where you can leave your stresses and strains behind you for those moments after you hit the Start button.

There are plenty of obvious contenders for the kind of games you could be playing, and a quick Google search using terms such as ‘relaxing’ or ‘stress-relieving’ will throw up far more suggestions than we could possibly list here. However, there’s no real one-fit solution, as it’s all about finding a restful place in whatever kind of videogame you like – whether that’s Minecraft, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, Unpacking or Grand Theft Auto.

Of course, in times of conflict it might be wise to avoid the potential triggers of violent videogames, or those with a war theme. However, at the same time, if immersing yourself in the vast lands of Elden Ring provides a welcome refuge then by all means embrace it. Likewise, you can find games such as Valiant Hearts: The Great War, that provides a rather less-violent take on World War I, that can help you to appreciate the situation while playing more as a passive passer-by.

There can also be something satisfyingly cathartic in letting off some steam against 2D and 3D sprites in an FPS, so if the challenge of Call of Duty or the silliness of Tiny Tina’s Wonderlands helps to calm your mind, then stick with it. Indeed, we’ve got a whole article explaining how stress-inducing games can also be relaxing.

Whatever your game of choice may be, perhaps gaming’s greatest ability is the power to remove you from the real world, and drop you in a virtual one where you can have full control over your actions. While situations such as Covid-19, Ukraine and so on might lead to an apprehension and anxiety that you may feel is beyond your capacity to have any kind of directly meaningful impact upon, in a videogame you have the ability to identify and address all problems head-on, and, for the most part, have the knowledge and tools to fix them.

Good examples of this would include open-world or creative-based games, such as the aforementioned Minecraft and Animal Crossing: New Horizons, or No Man’s Sky, Stardew Valley and Cities Skylines. These are games that use a fixed system of relatively simple rules (well, simple once you know how!), which means that you can unwind within a virtual world that you can expand and develop completely within your control and at your own pace. You don’t even need to play them through to completion, as creating new worlds, adventures or cities simply resets the rule book back to square one and you can play the game through to different results but with the same comforting degree of control that can make hours pass like minutes.

The point is that while you can still have a lot of fun playing these games, you don’t have to think too hard about what you’re doing or worry too much about the consequences, giving your mind a healthy time-out from reality. It’s not really a case of ‘switching off’; it’s more about shifting your attention into a scenario that you can have control over, and one that has far less serious implications if something does go awry – and if it does, you have the power to make things better or just hit the ‘restart’ button.

Another side-effect of this is that your gaming routine can also bleed into the real world. Although the media (and social media) can make it hard to fully escape newsworthy events, gaming has a habit of working its way into your day-to-day thoughts. The freedom that videogames can provide comes with that ‘what do I do next?’ or ‘how do I do this?’ factor that can have you mulling over potential ideas while at work or flicking through the internet, with almost no end of YouTube videos and feature articles that will be only too keen to offer up suggestions or ways to fine-tune your latest creation.

You may already have your favourite go-to game for when you just need a little ‘me’ time, but sometimes just the simple act of picking up a controller/mouse/phone and letting your mind drift into just about any kind of alternate reality can deliver a much-needed respite. Whether you like solving puzzles, matching shapes, crafting worlds, slaying dragons, racing cars, shooting aliens, managing a football team or just guessing a five-letter word once a day, a little gaming break can prove a very useful mental one as well.

And if you do need a few more ideas for games to try out, other titles nominated by our friends and contributors that we haven’t already mentioned include: Alba, Cosy Grove, Lego Star Wars, It Takes Two, Snowrunner, Untitled Goose Game, Valheim and more. That should be enough to keep your mind busy for a little while!

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Dealing with grief – advice and video games that explore themes of grief

The ongoing situation in Ukraine is affecting so many of us, inside and outside of the country itself.

Whether you live in Ukraine, in surrounding Eastern European countries, or thousands of miles away; whether you have personal ties to the conflict zone, ancestral relations or no direct connection at all, the feelings of collective stress, despair, anxiety, sadness and, indeed, grief are universally valid. To make matters worse, we are, of course, still in the throes of a global pandemic, which can amplify feelings of loss and grief both directly and indirectly.

Video games can offer escapism from reality, but can also be an invaluable tool for informing and educating – be that through first-hand reliability or perspective-broadening appreciation. Alex Thompson works at UK charity Marie Curie, whose incredible work helps people with terminal illness, and believes video games can play a vital role in helping players deal with, process and understand grief.

“When it comes to dealing with grief through the lens of video games, I think there are two ways to look at it,” says Alex.

“One is directly, in the games that tackle themes of grief and grieving head on. I played Spiritfarer last year and that is a really insightful video game that deals with themes of grief and grieving. It’s so varied in the different ways that the characters tell their stories. You take on the role of a palliative care worker, but the ways in which each character that you interact with deals with their situation, the impending climax of their journey is really interesting and different for each character. Spiritfarer is really powerful in the ways in which it forces you to interact with those characters who’re each experiencing grief and loss in their own ways.

“The other side of using games in relation to grief is pure escapism. That might be playing something that has nothing to do with grief, but that allows you to switch off and get lost in a big RPG or even something as simple as Tetris. It’s well – documented that video games can offer respite from the bad stuff going on in your life, which is, of course, really helpful for people’s mental health.”

Alex says he believes having more serious conversations around death and grief can be made easier when playing video games, because the medium itself helps to balance focus. “I’ve used video games myself for that exact purpose,” Alex continues. “I’ve played a lot of the LEGO games with my sister because that’s something we can play together. At the time, she wasn’t really into video games, so we were able to use these games as a space to chat and hang out. We were able to chat about some of the stuff we were going through at any given time, and it was easier to do so while playing games than it might have been in public. That’s one of the beauties of video games, it’s a really flexible medium.”

5 video games that explore themes of grief

It goes without saying that any video game that brings comfort in trying times is worth playing with escapism in mind. The following five video games are thoughtful and expressive in their approach, as they deal in and around themes of death and grief.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Animal Crossing: New Horizons launched on March 20, 2020, which, for many people around the world, was when nationwide quarantine and lockdown measures came into place in response to the ongoing global pandemic. As such, millions of players sought respite in this virtual version of paradise in the face of an increasingly challenging reality.

Moreover, as many people lost loved ones at a time when regular funeral services had been disrupted because of the pandemic – attendance numbers were significantly reduced, social distancing measures were put in place, singing was banned, for example – many Animal Crossing players sought to create their own tributes to lost loved ones in– game. At a time when real world exploration became impossible overnight, players used the game’s cemeteries to host in– game services and vigils for lost loved ones –  poignant tributes that are still popping up in– game today.

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn 

Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, or Final Fantasy Online as it’s less formally known, is a sprawling MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game) that lets players create and customise characters by virtue of an extensive customisation suite – altering everything from name to race, gender, appearance, starting class and more. Quests and missions, as well as an overarching narrative provide structure for players keen to progress the game’s story, however many players use the game as a virtual playground for simply meeting up and hanging out in. As such, much like Animal Crossing above, grieving players used Final Fantasy Online to host in-game funeral services for friends who’d passed away in real life over the course of the global pandemic. Moreover, players have erected points of interest around the game world in memoriam of lost loved ones – which allows friends who don’t live in the same country to pay respects from afar by way of video games.

Journey

Journey is a beautiful, pensive and thoughtful indie game about a traveller roving the vast desert, sometimes on their own; other times alongside other players online. Denied the ability to speak via voice chat, players converse exclusively via their actions as they help one another overcome obstacles in the game’s sprawling sandswept world. While not explicitly centred around death and grief, Journey’s narrative explores death, coping with grief and being able to live with loss. In a talk delivered at the Games for Change conference in 2014, Jenova Chen, the creator of Journey, said he’d received “thousands” of personal stories from players who’d used the game to help them cope with the loss of a loved one –  so powerful and cathartic is Journey in its handling and delivery of its themes.

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons is a touching adventure game that sees two young siblings exploring a fantasy world in search of a cure for their sick father. Players assume control of both brothers at once – with each one directed by the control pad’s respective left and right analogue sticks – as they work together to overcome puzzles, defeat trolls and aid various players littered across the game world. Death and grief are omnipresent themes throughout the brothers’ journey, as are themes of struggle, suicide and wellbeing.

Spiritfarer

Spiritfarer is an intriguing indie adventure game where players are tasked with managing the needs of the recently deceased on a boat journey across the sea. While befriending and helping the spirits, the player character, Stella, learns of their backstories, their plights and struggles in reality, and how they came to be in this situation. Despite the fact death and grief are core themes in Spiritfarer, the game’s narrative is often lighthearted, feel good, and funny, with many aspects of the spirit’s lives (and deaths) open to interpretation and therefore relatable in the real world. The ending is a real tear-jerker, but that only serves to elevate Spiritfarer in storytelling terms.

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Promoting Positivity In Animal Crossing: New Horizons by Georgie Peru

The Animal Crossing series started way back in 2001 with Animal Forest. Since then, Animal Crossing has offered casual gamers a safe place to relax and unwind.

Animal Crossing: New Horizons was aptly released on March 20th 2020, just as the global Coronavirus pandemic hit and created extremely turbulent times.

For many countries around the world, Spring marked the beginning of lockdown measures to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Causing a dramatic change in pace for many people, Animal Crossing: New Horizons offered a break from the stress and anxiety caused by the pandemic.

A Sense Of Normality

Released on Nintendo Switch, Animal Crossing tasks players to clean up, make a home, and develop an island life. Starting their residence with a simple tent, Animal Crossing players can complete tasks, collect items, and welcome new villagers in order to claim island status. Players will eventually own their own island home which is customisable, from the rooms inside your house to how your mailbox looks.

Animal Crossing offers daily activities which gave people a sense of routine that was missing from real life. Meeting and making friends with residents and other players certainly offered a source of positive psychological wellbeing, bringing a much-needed calm in the storm most of us are slowly easing out of.

After immersing yourself in a few minutes of play, Animal Crossing can definitely lighten the load through its use of beautiful environments and imagination. Throughout the year, Nintendo released regular updates to the game like Bunny Day where players could join in on Easter-themed festivities like an egg hunt. 

Psychological Recovery

While it isn’t possible to label recovery as a single definition, the “recovery model” is often used to display the importance of supporting individuals with mental health conditions by recognising their identity and boosting their self-esteem.

The recovery process is sometimes described by the acronym CHIME; Connectedness, Hope and Optimism, Identity, Meaning and Purpose, and Empowerment. 

Animal Crossing ticks the boxes of psychological recovery by offering:

  • Connection with island residents and other players
  • Relaxation
  • Opportunities to learn
  • Feelings of control
  • A sense of accomplishment

Engaging in the game’s lighthearted activities, people can find a place to stabilise their mood and develop a sense of mindfulness. Offering players a space to restore their psychological energy allows a more calm and logical approach to coping with real life.

Animal Crossing allows people to soak in a wealth of visual opportunities, including the vast ocean, luscious landscapes, catching fish, chasing bugs, and interacting with other players.

Talking to other island residents certainly adds to the feeling of positivity through engaging and positive dialogue. Once you’ve started to build a rapport with these villagers, you can give and receive gifts and even help them in repairing their own relationships.

Expressive and Creative Play

The routine behaviour in the game helps to encourage positive feedback. Mindful tasks are uplifting and offer a sense of reward and accomplishment through simple and casual play. New Horizons definitely offers a level of self-expressive play, allowing players to showcase their creativity in a safe space. Whether it’s expanding your home, buying new wallpaper for your bedroom, or purchasing a new item for your island, this safe space offers people a leg up in the psychological process.

You could easily spend hours designing your island through the vast tools Nintendo offers in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. 

There’s an in-game phone (NookPhone) that contains a multitude of apps for you to discover, including:

  • Camera
  • Nook Miles
  • Critterpedia
  • DIY Recipes
  • Custom Designs
  • Map
  • Passport
  • Call Resident
  • Rescue Service
  • Island Designer
  • Nook Shopping
  • Best Friends List
  • Chat Log

All of these apps encourage players to explore the different possibilities available to them. 

Each day in Animal Crossing leaves where you left off, but represents actual times, dates, and seasons comparative to the real-life world. As the seasons change, players will see their islands transform, with snow in the Winter, and more bugs in Spring/Summer. The way in which the game coincides with day/night and season cycles makes it a positive escape from reality, without going too far off course.

Another representation that Animal Crossing nails on the head are that of the psychological resource of agency. The feeling of autonomy is accurately depicted through the use of meaningful engagement with the environment. Whether a player chooses to spend time weeding and catching bugs, or visiting other islands, all are classed as valid actions.

Allowing players to practice curiosity is another positive element that Animal Crossing successfully achieves. People tend to indulge in curiosity when they feel safe, and every part of this game offers a safe space to explore. There aren’t any bad actions as such, there’s no death, no respawning, and no checkpoints. 

Promoting Positivity

As restrictions start to lift and we step cautiously out of the woods, Animal Crossing: New Horizons continues to be an invaluable escape. 

This wholesome gaming experience encourages positive behaviours and feelings and is a beacon of light that’s sold more than 31 million copies.


Georgie Peru’s Muckrack

Georgie is a bright, friendly and outgoing person. She is a highly analytical and technical individual who has a passion and the right mind-set for thought-provoking work, particularly focusing on content writing and web writing.

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