In early 2006, almost five years before I came out to my family and friends as transgender, I started playing the online fantasy game, World of Warcraft. I played it a lot. As with other multiplayer online adventures (MMOs), players live in a Tolkien-esque world of trolls and elves, battling for treasure among millions of other players. But World of Warcraft, and other games like it, are often about much more important things than looted gold and slayed dragons. They provide a place in which identity can be explored safely. And for me, someone who the world viewed as male, World of Warcraft provided a space to discover that I felt more comfortable when treated as female.
One of the very first things you do as a World of Warcraft player is design your character. You can decide on their race, their physical attributes and most importantly for me, their gender. When I first got involved in playing the game, I was fourteen and in deep denial about my own feelings regarding my gender expression and identity. While socialising, I had begun to act in a stereotypically male way, as though I wanted to prove to the world that I wasn’t different. I was making an active rejection of everything female in an attempt to deny something that was becoming ever more clear to me. However, for some reason I couldn’t explain, when it came to World of Warcraft I opted to play the game as a female character.
Maybe it was because I didn’t know anyone else playing the game before I started. Maybe it was because I remembered the Runescape quest a few years before that forced male players to briefly present with a female avatar to complete a quest string. Maybe it was something else entirely. Whatever the reason, in that one area of my life I was willing to try out expressing myself as female. I picked a screen name that would indicate that I was a female player. I tried to relax and get into a different role in my head and I went off on an adventure to see how I felt being treated as female.
War and addiction
Right from square one I was hooked; I didn’t want to leave. At the time I assumed this was mostly to do with the compelling game mechanics, but looking back I’m sure it was a lot to do with how I had presented myself in the world. I found a place where I had friends that treated me as female, for better or for worse. I had found a world where I got complimented on my appearance in game, where people were not scared away by my gender presentation. A world where I felt happy with who I was. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t want to go back to the real world where I felt I needed to be masculine to remain safe.
Very quickly, my growing addiction to this world, and to being considered female, became problematic. I played all night and went into school in the morning exhausted. I got angry, upset and even depressed by the life I had to live during daylight hours. I resented the fact I couldn’t live my whole life in a world that saw me how I felt happiest. I played for longer and longer periods, eventually having to force myself to cut out MMOs from my life; to go cold turkey. I knew I couldn’t keep living in that wonderful place and at the same time keep my physical life together in one piece.
MMO addiction is something we occasionally read about on gaming news sites and in newspapers; it’s often the sad tale of some Korean teenager, dying in an internet cafe after days at a computer screen. I was an MMO addict in a different way. I was addicted to leaving this world and immersing myself completely in a life – in an identity – that did not seem to be my own. I had an addiction, that much I know for sure, but it wasn’t really about the game and its compulsion loops. I was addicted to finding out who I was. There was something healthy in it.
Out in the world
Crucially, World of Warcraft gave me a way to peek into my future. It allowed me to try out female names and find which ones I liked, which ones felt like they fit me as a person. It gave me a chance to talk to people who only ever referred to me as female. It also gave me a chance to see the huge issues I would have to face in the future when people discovered that the person they had referred to as female was, “actually a guy”.
Yes, the first time I got “outed” was on World of Warcraft; the first time someone discovered I was living my real life as male but presenting online as female. I lost a lot of online friends. I had spent months in the game working incredibly hard to avoid giving myself away. I used pictures of friends from social networks when people asked to see a picture of me. I talked about how I didn’t have a microphone and my webcam was broken.
Eventually, people in my group got tired of those excuses and started to press me on the issue. I panicked. I didn’t know what I was. I came clean about it, about not knowing why I had presented myself that way. This is something else I learned from World of Warcraft: when people discover that you present as a gender different to that of your birth, they sometimes get very angry about it. Sometimes they will refuse to acknowledge you any more. That group in particular got very vocal about me to their friends and I moved away from World of Warcraft for good not long after. Had I understood myself better, had I understood that I was transgender and not just someone misleading their friends, maybe I could have explained differently. Maybe I could have found other players in my situation. Alas, it was a good few years still before I would really understand what was going on.
Still, World of Warcraft taught me a lot about transition in a space where I didn’t have to commit to my future. During a period of my life that I had a huge number of questions about who I was, it taught me things about myself in an environment where, for a long time, I felt safe. And I could walk away from thoughts of transition any time I needed to. Without World of Warcraft and MMOs like it, I don’t know if I would ever have had the courage and confidence I needed to come out. I don’t know if I would have had the self understanding to commit to a life that is now wide open in front of me.
Gamer communities: the positive side