How Trans Players Find Support from the Gaming Community
Through games and their fellow players, trans gamers are finding wellsprings of support and new ways to express their gender identity.
Matt Baume talks with trans gamers on how their favorite games, characters, and the gaming community helped them make peace with family, friends, and gender.
James Prost had just moved to Seattle, was newly out as trans, and hardly knew anyone. Feeling lonely, he reached out to a fellow member of the gaming community he'd met on Instagram: "I hate doing my own testosterone shots," Prost wrote.
"You could come over and meet my partner and me," his friend offered, "because my partner does my shots."
Thus began biweekly group T shots, followed by tabletop gaming. "It was at a time when I wasn't sure if I could continue to pursue surgery," Prost told VICE. "Monday through Friday I tried to figure out the song and dance [with physicians and insurance companies] to make it all work, but on Saturday nights, I let the dice work it out. It helps unwind the stress when you're a werewolf barbarian plowing through dragon cultists."
Over time, Prost became a part of the household, and with the encouragement of his fellow players, he underwent surgery just a few weeks ago.
Transgender people don't always feel at home within their biological families, or even in their own bodies. But for many, games—and the communities that play them—have proven to be an unexpected wellspring of social support. Whether through online play, real-life meetups, or livestreaming, trans people who game are connecting in greater numbers than ever before—and as they connect with one another, they come to better understand themselves.
"A lot of your ability to be recognized comes from other people," Dr. Adrienne Shaw, an assistant professor in Temple University's Department of Media Studies and Production, told VICE. "We form our identities in social situations. What it means to be a woman, what it means to be gay, what it means to be a gamer."
While games themselves can be a space for experimenting with gender and gender roles, many trans gamers have found that the larger gaming community has helped them in their transition, to cope with family reactions, and in finding self-acceptance—whether they find that community through playing games or through game-adjacent activities, like conventions or livestreaming.
But finding that community can be a challenge. Recently, game developer Beamdog faced criticism after including a trans character in a Baldur's Gate expansion. That negative reaction reinforced the feeling that if trans characters are unwelcome in games, trans players are unwelcome, too.
"When I play online, I don't feel totally comfortable stating my gender identity, because I still feel that there's so much toxicity and harassment," Jude Jackson, a gamer based in Bakersfield, California, told VICE.
When he presented as female, other gamers sexually harassed and derided his gender. After he transitioned, that misogyny turned into transphobia. It was an isolating experience. "I have a lot of body issues, being overweight and being trans," he said, "and that leads to social anxiety."
But that isolation began to change as he found himself drawn to non-gendered characters, such as the robots in Portal 2. Identifying with characters unburdened by male and female gender roles helped Jackson feel more comfortable expressing himself; eventually, it helped him connect with his fellow queer players. At the first GaymerX, a Southern California–based game conference with an LGBTQ focus, he organized a large cosplay group with other Portal fans. In the company of friends dressed as various agender robots, he found his anxiety lift, and by the end of the night, he'd worked up the courage to join a cosplay masquerade.
As the visibility of the trans community within gaming improves, new role models emerge to encourage younger generations to embrace themselves.
Game journalist Sabriel Mastin was recently speaking on a panel at the gaming conference PAX East when she experienced a sudden bout of imposter syndrome—the anxiety that your accomplishments are comparatively unimportant. Oh, what am I doing here, she thought as her fellow panelists listed their impressive qualifications. She felt completely unimportant as she leaned to the microphone to say, "I write about video games."
But midway through the panel, Mastin decided to open up about something she didn't always discuss and began to describe her experience as a trans woman in the game industry. "I didn't realize how much I had bottled up inside," she told VICE. "I had to take a moment, catch myself—I was starting to have tears well up."
A panelist hugged her, and the crowd of hundreds of gamers burst into applause. "It felt amazing," she said. "That was my contribution, re-outing myself."
After the panel, Mastin was mobbed. "Thank you so much for being open," said one spiky-haired attendee in a flannel shirt.
"Growing up, I always liked seeing someone who represented me," she said, recalling how meaningful it was to play as powerful women like Samus. "And suddenly I was put in that position where I was that representation for someone else."
Maintaining a public profile has lent many trans gamers a feeling of connection and empowerment. Cetine (who goes by one name) broadcasts her game sessions live on Twitch.tv. "It's a chance to enter a space that's mostly straight, white, male dominated," she told VICE.
As she plays, Cetine responds to messages from queer viewers. Recently, a self-identified gay boy expressed worry that if he transitioned, his boyfriend would stop loving him. Cetine identified with his fear and guided him to consider his own needs: "If he doesn't love you, somebody else will," she said.
Growing up in a small California farming town, that was a message that Cetine never heard until much later in life. She now feels a duty to use the channels at her disposal to reach out to young gamers like herself.
Because they provide a chance to experiment with gender in a relatively low-stakes setting, games can be an ideal venue for trans people to learn about themselves and practice their identity. But the benefits of gaming go beyond single-player exploration—in the company of other gamers, trans people can proclaim their identity and find others ready to celebrate with them.
Now a professional model in LA, Cetine loves playing shooters and strategy games with other women. "My group is always female characters," she said, referring to a favorite game named Dragon Age. "It's fun to go in and take control of castles with a group of women."
But there's one play style she tends to avoid: stealth missions, like those in Uncharted or Metal Gear Solid, where the player's main goal is to avoid detection.
"I don't want to creep around," she said. "I want to overcome."
Follow Matt Baume on Twitter.