I never wanted to be “one of the girls.” My mother was a top finance executive when I was growing up, a working mom who had made her way up the ladder with her brains and talent. As a kid I worshipped her and became enamored with pant suits, corporate board rooms, and the idea that women could do anything that men could do, and they could probably do it better. She worked tirelessly to help me grow and excel and claim the opportunities she never had growing up in the ‘60s while instilling a sense of purpose and capability I still carry to this day. So when I imagined my future self, when I played house or make-believe, that is how I saw myself. In fact, whenever I did play house when I was very young, I ended up getting in fights with my “husband” because I refused to stay home and clean (usually I made him do that).
However, even though I had this positive influence, I still had eyes and clearly noticed that while girls were able to do a lot more things 30 years later, everything was still separate but “equal,” and I hated it. For example, why girls could only play “soft” ball, not “hard” ball, or that girl’s lacrosse, ice hockey, and other sports changed the level of aggression depending on which sex was playing.
This confusion was only made worse by early ‘90s advertising. In a world of Barbies, Cabbage Patch Kids, My Little Pony and so on, I floated, lost, unable to find anything in common with these frivolous hyper-feminine toys and role models. Where was corporate Barbie? Where was scientist Barbie? Lacking strong female figures to identify with when it came to TV and toys, I decided that I just wouldn’t play with girl things because they were dumb. In fact, I would ignore girls altogether, because they were dumb too. I was just going to be one of the boys instead. So when other girls played tea party, I played man hunt with the boys in the neighborhood. When other girls wanted pink LA Light-ups, I was horrified and clearly wanted the blue and an Islanders jersey to match. In fact, my Halloween costumes were probably the best indication of how I felt about myself at the time: Raphael the Ninja Turtle, The Green Ranger, a Wizard, a Ninja, and a Knight all made an appearance as soon as I had any say in the matter.
Consequently, my mother was also a huge science-fiction/fantasy fan and I grew up listening to bedtime stories from the pages of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and one of the only books I remember as a kid with a strong female protagonist: The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown. It was here that I found my true calling and saving grace. Finally, here were pages filled with strong female warriors. Heroes that were able to save countries and win crowns. Girls who, through extra dedication, could learn to fight just as well as any man. From the age of 6 years old, I knew it was my destiny to become this Knight and to do great things in the world. I just wasn’t sure how to do that in the real world I saw around me.
Fast-forward five years and I’m sitting at my parent’s computer. Brand new, with the newest 3D graphics and even a DVD player (before they actually sold them separately). We always had top of the line machines as my mother needed them for work, and as an only child, I always ended up the power user of them, keeping myself amused through a string of after-school sitters. Awed and amazed by this computer, I eagerly awaited Christmas to buy my first real game. I had decided on a new role-playing game I had seen at the store: Asheron’s Call.
Now, when we bought this game for Christmas, no one in my family understood what an MMORPG was. We found it bizarre the game needed an online connection and had a monthly fee. But as I was a bit more tech-savvy than my parents by then (after all, I had to learn how to get around those pesky “parental control” settings), I started to grasp what this game meant. A whole new world was opening on my computer, a world in which I could take hold of my destiny as a knight and true warrior, a world in which it didn’t matter if I was a girl since no physical muscles were involved. If I trained and put the time in, I could do anything. I would be revered for my skill, not held back because of my sex. After all, who has ever heard of a soft sword versus a hard sword? And then I got to the character selection screen and what did I find? Barbie … but in armor.
I stared at the female models in horror. How could cool-looking armor on a male figure be transformed into a metal bathing suit on a female character? Even at 11 I knew the chainmail that barely covers your upper thigh wasn’t going to be very effective in sword fight. Where were the strong female warriors I had read about? Where was the image I had built in my head? Gone—replaced with a sex symbol in some basic metal plate armor. Is this what I had to aspire to? So I did what I always had done. I rejected that figure since it didn’t feel like me and I went with the boys. But where in the past I just hung out with the boys, now I was actually going to become a boy. And it felt pretty amazing.
Soon I had built a new identity in my head for my virtual self. I was Uriel Redfern, the name a ridiculous combination of an angelic reference I picked up somewhere and the last name of a family of vampires from my favorite series at the time. I had become a new version of me and I felt powerful. To this day, I still only play as male characters online and 9 times out of 10, I pick a warrior. Maybe it’s my personality, but my favorite type to play specifically is a DPS (damage per second). Think the opposite of a Paladin or other tank who carries a big shield and armor whose job it is to block everyone. A DPS uses two-handed weapons and no shield to deliver as much damage as possible as quickly as possible and then get out of the way—or go hide behind the aforementioned paladin. Basically, I just like to pick the biggest, bulkiest, bad-ass type of player that I can and go after people in the unsubtle hash and back style. No flinging spells or shooting people down with arrows. Give me big-ass sword and I’m good to go.
Upon entering my teenage years, I was one confused girl/virtual boy. As I approached puberty, suddenly hanging out with the neighborhood boys in real life was frowned upon. My parents actually told me I couldn’t see them and would throw parties for me to meet the neighborhood girls and make new friends. A few of them and I got along so I would go with it, but the true test was lunchtime at school. As gossip flowed around and over me, I sat, head down, buried in a 900-page novel with a dragon on the cover, ignoring what I thought of as inane chitchat as best I could. But online—online I was free. As soon as I logged in and saw the loading icon, I could get back to who I really was, not who I had to pretend to be to make everyone happy. Soon I had moved from Asheron’s Call to other games, to internet chat rooms, to anime, to fan fiction. As my digital self, I felt unencumbered by the trappings of femininity that everyone around me expected and I never felt comfortable performing.
But as I grew older, this had a weird side-effect. Around 13 years old I came out as bisexual, then as gay. Looking back, it’s funny it took that long given that I had had several “online girlfriends” in video games where I exclusively played as a boy. But just because one likes girls doesn’t change the fact that one still is, in fact, a girl. So I was very confused. Of course I wanted to flirt with girls and talk about cute/funny girls in game and since I was still playing as a boy, I fit right in. However, I noticed that as games got more popular, talk in the chatrooms and group messages had become a bit more sinister. Instead of praising girls for their wits, they were praised for their assets. Sex came up a lot, staying dumb things about women/their body’s or calling people a “pussy” all became more and more commonplace as my generation grew into young adulthood. Comments that were out in the real world didn’t stop at the keyboard—they persisted in every medium we experienced.
I was in an odd situation. No one knew I was a girl online. I liked girls. I liked talking about girls. But I didn’t like bringing girls down. It was doubly weird because online, I really wasn’t a girl, I was just me, and that part didn’t matter there. The internet and MMORPGs had that ability—to disconnect your mind and spirit from your body. My body was immaterial since the only body you have online is the one you create. None of the female characters options they gave me felt like me, so I simply chose what felt right, usually a slightly androgynous-looking male character with no facial hair. As this queer boy/girl, I experienced the awkwardness of wanting to fit in again, but now sex was in the picture. I mean, I liked girls too, so I always had something to talk about with the guys in-game, but as much as I felt like part of the group, I started to feel like I didn’t fit in again. It felt weird to sit there and watch people say derogatory things about women to me since I was a “boy.”
When I got a little older, I fell in with “my people.” All honors classes started sometime in middle school and I finally found other girls who were just as big of nerds as I was in all different ways. They also played video games and watched anime and did all the things that I had once associated with only boys. I was in shock and I was overjoyed as the stereotypes I myself had built around women—especially straight women—started crumbling. When I was 15 or 16m a bunch of my friends started to play Final Fantasy XI, an online MMORPG based off the popular Final Fantasy franchise—which I was obsessed with after playing Final Fantasy VII, naturally. In this game, I was overjoyed that the character customization was a little more robust, and given my new friends and what I had learned, I decided that it was time to try playing as a girl. I picked the biggest bad-ass elf warrior I could find and was satisfied that her armor wasn’t too skimpy. This time, when the new world unfolded before me, I was on the other side for once.
So what happened? Well, most of the game was fine. I had my friends and they had their friends and such. But as a more advanced MMORPG than Asheron’s Call, “linkshells,” their version for guilds were very central. And what did I find when I made my way into a guild? All of the same bullshit as before, except this time, I was excluded from the conversation or the butt of it—even when it felt innocent. I found people making assumptions about me because of my gender. I found people didn’t always trust me in group situations. I found that people would at first watch their tongue around me, then when I mentioned that I liked girls too, would suddenly bring me into the misogynistic conversation, thinking that just because I also slept with girls and had more “masculine” interests, I must also want to belittle women and joke about it.
Hanging out with the female characters wasn’t any better—aside from the few friends I had in-game from real life. Most of the people were just fine, but I noticed female players starting to use their gender as a weapon. They would get in-game boyfriends and have them provide armor and loot. They would flirt with boys in parties and in the guilds, sometimes seeming to focus on just doing this and not getting much battle or quests in. In fact, I was even involved in a weird love-triangle as our in-game friend’s girlfriend liked to message me privately about how she was “really gay” and into me, while we’d all be in the middle of hunting down some monster. Needless to say, she messed up chat settings one day and the whole thing exploded.
So what did I learn from all of this? A couple of things. One, picking your in-game gender really does change the way people treat you, no matter how un-skimpy the armor may seem. Two, as a queer woman in real life, I felt much more honestly represented in-game by playing straight male characters. Three, even before I knew I was queer, I had been embracing a queer online identity to some degree but understanding it in a skewed way. Since all of my interests were coded by society as male interests, I must in fact mentally be a guy and so chose that online identity.
As a teenager, this made me feel like there were two me’s. I felt like a boy and a girl inside the same body, the only difference being which one was representing me depending on the real versus virtual world I happened to be in. I actually remember drawing pictures as a teenager of my boy-self and my girl-self, since the only way I could figure it out was to literally separate my body-self from my mind-self. Since your ability online is a representation of the strength of your mind, your play doesn’t have anything to do with what you look like in real life. Who you are isn’t just what you are, it’s who you feel like when you are gaming online.
As an adult, I find that my online self and my real life self have become a lot closer. I still RPG as a man most of the time, but in real life I also prefer to dress androgynously and some of my haircuts could be the model for male character creation. I buy hoodies that look like armor, my favorite piece of jewelry is a coin from a shipwreck that my grandpa gave me, and I have several pairs of riding boots in case my noble steed ever comes along. As I put it to my partner recently, when it comes to dressing for work, I just want to look like an 18th Century British gentleman who owns a horse and is about to embark on a fox hunt. Give me some iron-free button down shirts, a nicely tailored suit jacket —my modern suit of armor—and I feel powerful and in control. I’m still a hopeless dork deep down and still find my interests don’t always come across as “feminine,” but in this day and age, those lines are blurring even more than when I was young.
At my core, that noble knight wielding a two-handed sword is still me. Strong, capable, appropriately dressed for battle, and ready to rumble. But the image that goes along with that in my head is finally just me—without the awkward trappings of teenage identity, the confusion over whether or not a girl “can” do that, and everyone else’s expectations of what I should be wearing/doing/saying getting in the way. It was a long road, but MMORPGs helped me claim this identity as my own and revel in it, both online and offline.