Going outside your body to find your body: transgender gamers

Someone very close to me is a game designer, and has taught me a lot about this fast-evolving world and its possibilities.  This morning he sent me this article, about transgender gamers and their experiences in online video games.  (As usual, I strongly advise not reading the comments, which are rage-inducing.)  Many things moved me about the article, but some really hit home in terms of what I see as a central trans issue: feeling at home – and safe – in your body.

“Sexual maturation is scary and confusing enough for most people,” says writer Sophie Prell, “imagine living in a world where expressing yourself opens the door to beatings, shaming, or in some cases death.”  Issues of safety – of primary importance to any person’s well-being – hit transgender individuals particularly hard: they are many times more likely to face housing discrimination, to attempt suicide, and to experience physical violence and even death.  Going out into the world when your gender identity and physical appearance don’t match most people’s conceptions, then, can be a recipe for disaster.

Dani Landers, the MtF creator of a new game Prell profiles in the article, cites the tendency of doctors to encourage transgender people to dress as their desired gender for a year and go out into the world, without any hormone treatments or other assistance.  “So basically, they go out into society and are forced to be men in dresses – by society’s standards – and that’s not really something that most will allow,” says Landers.  “You can’t just go to the store and be obviously a guy, pretending to be a woman, you’re not passing at all, so it’s not really a way for people to explore. It’s a way for them to explore being a freak out in the street, but that’s not really what people want. They want to blend in and be happy, and express themselves how they want without judgment.”

For a person whose body does not match how they feel on the inside, this can be a terrible bind to be in, and does not allow for feeling safe and at home in one’s own skin.  Of course, the ultimate goal – especially reading this from an RSM standpoint – is for transgender individuals to come to comfort, acceptance, and love within their bodies, and to have spaces where it is safe and welcoming to be who they are.  But there can be a long space in-between where such things are not possible.  “There are many transgender gamers out there,” says Prell, “and many of the responses I received cited games as a primary source of safety, support, and exploration as they transitioned…MMOs in particular offer transgender people a chance to not only create a character in the gender they identify as, but also allow that character to interact with other people.”

In my practice, I help people increase their body awareness, communicate with their bodies, listen to them, and learn to both give and receive support.  I believe that this work can be profoundly helpful for those who feel betrayed by their bodies, or separated from them, or like they don’t match who they are on the inside.  At the same time, I am grateful to be living in an age where there are other possibilities for imagining, modeling, and experiencing oneself in a different body: outside of the constraints, judgments and threats of society as we know it.  “You may not be able to wear a dress to the store without worrying about physical violence,” the article concludes, “but anyone can play a female or male character in a game, or even experiment with same-sex relationships without fear of violence.”  I would add that one could experiment with gender presentations all across the spectrum in games, and that such experimentation and modeling is healthy for feeling out what it would be like, in one’s own body, to be and to be seen in a given way.

There is a slight danger here, I imagine, of losing oneself in the gaming world: spending too much of your time essentially in your head, divorced from the body you are in fact living in.  But I think that if you combined exploration like this with something like RSM, which encourages a constant communication with the body, you could cultivate a more loving relationship with the body as it changes, and become more at home within it.

As always, your comments welcome.

Published by Kamela Dolinova

Expressive arts adventuress: writing, performing, healing, loving.

One thought on “Going outside your body to find your body: transgender gamers

  1. This is an interesting experience even if you don’t identify as trans. Back in the days of text-based MUDs I spent hours interacting with players as a cis-female character, to the point where I largely abandoned my male avatars.

    In hindsight I think some of the impetus was living in a large group house populated with overtestosteroned guys and missing female energy, but it was also fascinating to compare interactions with various players depending on which skin I was wearing, and how many of the friendships I made in the female avatar felt more complete. I was aware that some of the other players weren’t playing their physical bodies; some of the closer friends knew I wasn’t playing mine, but mostly it didn’t matter. The people who didn’t mind stayed; the ones that did left and played elsewhere.

    I don’t think the experience of gaming a gender is the same as understanding it by any means, but there have been a lot of studies examining how the ability to roleplay an alternative experience is helpful in building understanding and empathy. Done thoughtfully, that kind of simulation could bridge a lot of sexual and cultural mindgaps.

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