Nearly a decade before Anna Anthropy came out as a transgender woman, she was wearing a dress in the world of Animal Crossing on the Nintendo GameCube, leaving virtual bread crumbs for her family about information she was not prepared to share as a teenager.
“We were all playing in the same town, and I had chosen a female character,” said Anthropy, 40, now a professor of game design at DePaul University, in Chicago. “It wasn’t something we talked about, but it was my way of seeing a version of my family where I was the right gender.”
More than a dozen transgender and nonbinary people said in interviews that video games were one of the safest spaces to explore their queer identities, given the array of tools to modify a character’s appearance and a virtual world that readily accepts those changes.
Veronica Ripley, 32, often speaks to friends about the role that video games played in her trans awakening: “I would try to explain it away, saying that I was playing the girl character because she had a smaller hitbox or quicker kill animations,” she said, referring to in-game advantages. Then she found herself exploring The Sims, which she described as a “virtual dollhouse simulator” that allowed her to create feminine versions of herself.
“To be a girl in that space was transcendent as a kid,” Ripley said.
Medical professionals have said in recent years that video games can be a form of gender-affirming care. Some research indicates that games that allow players to express their gender identities without pushback helped those transitioning become more comfortable in the real world.
“Many folks who are trans and nonbinary do not grow up with a safe avenue to play, which is due to pressures in their environments,” said Sien Rivera, a psychiatrist based in South Carolina who has researched the topic. “Video games offer this cushion to allow for a private world that is separate from the immediate corporeal reality, yet also shared with so many other people across the world who are sharing in these imaginative experiences.”
Rivera, who chairs the committee on gender and sexuality for the American Psychoanalytic Association, added that “the video game is the only place where they can have some representation of themselves that more accurately represents their psychic reality.”
Three years ago, Nora Vind published a video essay comparing her experience coming out as transgender to the transformative experience of Madeline, a character in the 2018 game Celeste whose own journey of self-discovery is symbolized by a treacherous mountain climb.
“Even before I knew I was escaping, I was escaping into video games,” Vind, now a 23-year-old university student in Denmark, said in an interview. “And there was a scene in that game where Madeline calls her mom to say she feels overwhelmed. It gave me the courage to talk to my mother about being trans the next time I went home.”
It helped that Maddy Thorson, the designer behind Celeste, had written an essay describing how the game’s development coincided with her own journey of trans discovery.
“The story of Celeste really began with thinking about why I play hard games and why somebody would do that,” Thorson recalled in an interview. But in retrospect, she realized that her protagonist shared some of her own story. “It didn’t feel like inventing something, it felt like discovering something.”
Physical and online communities have been an important resource for transgender gamers at a time when many say they feel threatened in public by rhetoric and violence.
In 2018, Raffy Regulus helped found NYC Gaymers, which hosts mixers and game nights in the city and has grown its membership to more than 1,500 people. Ripley founded Transmission Gaming in 2016 after experiences with online bullies who mocked her voice; almost 2,500 members belong to its Discord channel, where players can meet and organize tournaments. The group’s tagline? “This is not a safe space. This is a trans space.” It is a competitive gaming space, after all.
Platforms like Twitch and YouTube, where people livestream themselves playing games, have also helped magnify moments of self-discovery. “Streaming changed the equation because it made a public forum,” said Joanna Fang, a foley artist in the video game industry.
“As the world becomes more aggressive toward trans people,” she added, “video games can bridge the gaps between communities.”
Beyond the virtual raves and multiplayer tournaments that Fang attended during the coronavirus pandemic, she also joined an online group called TransGameDev, which included more than 1,300 transgender members. She said the group had been a positive influence on the industry, helping more transgender people discuss game design and find jobs.
Managers at Larian Studios credited transgender and nonbinary employees for improving the character creator that contributed to the success of the role-playing game Baldur’s Gate 3. One of this year’s most celebrated releases, the game was praised for its customizability and branching story lines that capture the spontaneity of tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games.
“We definitely learned that we needed to be very open-minded and not restrict ourselves,” said Alena Dubrovina, an art director at Larian who oversaw the character creator. “A huge design pillar was allowing players to live their ultimate fantasies.”
An important step toward that goal was the decision to include genitals among the physical traits that could be customized, with different shapes available.
Gender expression makes little difference to the game’s narrative, which some transgender players celebrated. “Those decisions are just for us,” Vind said. “You choose those options, and everyone will treat your character normally.”
Transgender visibility in gaming can sometimes be a double-edged sword for developers.
Anthropy, the game design professor, said that releasing an autobiographical game in 2012 about her own transition, called Dys4ia, brought unwanted attention from cisgender people looking to generalize about transgender culture from her individual experience. “I had made it for other trans people, but it was quickly appropriated into a larger conversation,” she said.
Though she occasionally receives emails from players saying they appreciated the game’s exploration of the physical and emotional changes that accompany transitioning between genders, Anthropy said she never wanted Dys4ia to become an “empathy game” that taught others how to feel.
But she could understand the impulse. “So much of gender performance is play: trying on roles and seeing how they fit,” Anthropy said.
After much thought — and years of distance — she recently decided to republish the game. Writing on her blog, she suggested that how she perceived the game was connected to difficult moments in her transition.
“This game is not the burnout I’ve spent so many years recovering from,” Anthropy wrote, adding, “It’s a journal I kept during a moment of incredible, terrifying, beautiful changes in my life.”