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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.

Skills utilised:
News

Life Is Strange True Colors

The award-winning Life is Strange is back with Life Is Strange: True Colors. Players take on the role of Alex Chen who has long suppressed her “Curse”: the ability to experience, absorb and manipulate the strong emotions of others, which she sees as blazing, colored auras.

After Alex’s brother dies in a mysterious accident, she must embrace her explosive power to find the truth and finally uncover the dark secrets buried by a small town. Players will also experience Alex descending into the orbit of violent Anger, world-altering Sadness, and irrepressible Fear. As she probes the mysteries of Haven Springs, revealing its secrets, Alex will discover moments of quiet transcendence – but also be drawn into moments of sudden, bloody violence – with lasting consequences.

The game also features strong language, drug references, some suggestive themes, and the use of alcohol.

The Life is Strange franchise has been a haven (no pun intended) for a number of gamers, especially those from the LGBTQIA+ community, and True Colors is no exception. Characters like Alex and Steph have inspired many to embrace their identity and who they are, and we’re consistently in awe of the impact this series has had on people’s mental health.

Features:

  • A heartfelt story about uncovering what happened to Alex’s brother.
  • Actions have consequences, the story will evolve with your choices.
  • Explore the town of Haven Springs and find out what deep dark secrets lie within.

Skills utilised:
Games & apps

How to Tell Meaningful Stories Through Games with Paula Angela Escuadra (Safe Space Podcast Season 2, Episode 1)

In the first episode of Season 2 of the Safe Space Podcast, Rosie talks to Paula Angela Escuadra about her vast experience within the game development space where she has broadened the conversation around inclusivity, representation, sustainability and climate consciousness.

We talk about the importance of using games to portray important messages, and how it differs from messages within more static media such as films and books, and what steps developers can take to implement these messages in ethical and proactive ways. We also discuss the effect that video games can have on player’s introspection and identity, and how it can act as a support mechanism to those who may often feel unsafe to be themselves in person.

Click here to listen!

There are two people in the foreground (Rosie and Paula), between them is a Audio waveform graphic in white and the text 'Safe Space', with a white siow logo at the bottom. There is a forest with light flickering through the trees in the background and a SIOW Pink wave shape at the top.

About Paula
Paula Angela Escuadra (She/Her) has spent +12 years elevating the power games have to redefine our relationship with failure and create meaning. She leads research for Xbox Game Studios Cloud Publishing, helping developers make great games that foster meaningful communities. She co-founded IGDA Climate Special Interest Group, co-authoring its newly released Environmental Game Design Playbook. She’s also on Cologne Game Lab’s advisory board with a focus on unlocking sustainability competencies.
(Lastly, she’s a very strong advocate for community care, psychological safety, and dog cuddling as a form of self-care.)

Links

Want to listen to more episodes of the Safe Space Podcast? Check out the full list of episodes at this link

Skills utilised:
News

Hub World – Representation

Welcome back to Hub World!

In June, we spent time reflecting on the theme of representation. As people, we naturally look for representation – people and stories that connect with us on a personal level. As an industry, we still have a way to go in ensuring a diverse range of voices are heard, but we continue to see many brave individuals and communities pushing for change. 

This month, we will get straight into the stories from the SIOW community and what representation means to them. 

Suneet Sharma 

Sometimes my British Indian heritage and society’s heteronormativeness makes my gay identity sometimes feel stifled. These clashes of culture make it easy to withdraw and want to hide my sexual orientation, thus playing into societal stereotypes of LGBTQ+ people of colour. 

Opening up about this uneasiness has let me reclaim my identity and celebrate who I am. Persona 4’s depiction of Kanji’s Tatsumi struggling to accept his sexuality, represented through a fight with his inner shadow really struck chords with me. 

The depiction is controversial. But most importantly it’s there. A faithful depiction of a LGBTQ+ character. Not just queer coding. So to me that’s the most important thing- games telling these stories in an authentic way.  


Mel Plays Games

I’m a bisexual retro streamer on twitch. I also struggle with depression, anxiety, and chronic pains.

Being a Bisexual there is a lot of odd stigmas that pressure us. I have, as probably many before me get those odd “but you cant be a bisexual if you are only dating men” or “Bisexuals are always 50/50 of who they are attracted to”, this only serves to amplify stereotypes. It was hard for me to come out as Bisexual but even harder when I mention I’ve only dated cis men, it seemed then that I wasn’t Bisexual enough in some lgbtq+ communities.

Bisexuals experience high rates of being ignored or rendered invisible in the community. I felt left out and it had a negative effect on my health.

Finding a community that fosters a safer place for you to feel welcome has helped me feel more comfortable, I sat in a discord group once and listen to all the stories people talk about being bisexual and the stigma they go through every day, they gave me some helpful articles surrounding bisexual stigmas and now I know I’m not left out, it’s ok to be more attractive to men and still love women or vise versa, you still bisexual despite what you prefer to love the most.

Night in the Woods is a game I really felt connected to, the main character Mae especially, the whole game has a great understanding of going through emotional trauma and gives a good representation of mental health. Mae is dealing with depression and anger issues and trying to repress the feelings she is having, she’s a bit misunderstood but as you go along you see her more compassionate side. I love that about her, it reminds me of me growing up. It was a good escape to play through the story, made me feel ok with what I was going through myself, I felt at peace. If you haven’t tried the game out, I highly recommend you do.


Lilylefae

I’m Lily and I’m a streamer from Brazil. In general, coming to the US and adapting to a new culture was hard, but streaming gave me the opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. However, I love seeing other latinx content creators but could also definitely feel the lack of representation. A lot of the latinx streamers I see are born and raised in the US, most of them have an American culture and fit right in. I would love to see more people who have the same struggles as me, who overcame xenophobia and how they did that. I’d just love to see more diversity all around, not only concerning my culture, but every other aspect that needs representation too!


Karen Lee  

I used to spend much of my time in MMOs such as Runescape and World of Warcraft. Being a Canadian-born Chinese who moved to Hong Kong for much of my high school life, online games allowed me to connect back with my North American upbringing with like-minded folks. I mainly played from Hong Kong—meaning I’d stay up late at night so I could properly sync up my playtime with North American servers.

I truly felt that I belonged in these games, despite feeling different from my peers in Hong Kong. There was no judgement based on age, race, geographical location, or gender. We focused on the game and that was it.

I continue to love online multiplayer games. I’m overjoyed that I’m now seeing characters that align with my actual Chinese Canadian heritage! Frost from Rainbow Six Siege is an immediate favourite that comes to mind. However, I’m eager to see even more video game characters and stories develop around the unique culture of Asian-Americans in the future!


Richard Lee Breslin 

Representation comes all in forms. It could be skin colour, upbringing, sexuality, disability, mental wellbeing, and more. In one way or another, whatever our background, representation can be an important aspect of our mental health.

Other than being physically disabled, I’m an adult with autism and up until recently, I was scared to talk about my autism. I was concerned with how society might judge me, even some of my family and friends. However, with the help of social media, I learned that I’m not alone.  

There are loads of people like me from all backgrounds who are on the autistic spectrum. Autism is a different experience for each individual.  But the one thing that connects us all on social media, is that none of us are alone, and we’re all ‘ausome’ 😉”


Emma Withington is a freelance writer and Senior PR at Bastion who has worked on campaigns for a variety of titles, including Control and Final Fantasy XIV: Online.

She is currently spending time focusing on the wider community and how she can help others through her personal journey with mental health.

Twitter

Skills utilised:
News

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