I never did put much stock in the idea that video games were "just games."
Indeed it's an underlying thesis of this site's mission [Editor's note: Referring to Border House blog, where this post was originally published] that video games and other cultural properties can have a huge impact on how we see the world. Or ourselves. On a personal level, however, they are also more than just mere games.
When I last wrote for Border House I alluded to the powerful meaning that escapist anonymity has for trans people who are still discovering themselves, and I also hinted at returning to WoW. After Blizzard withdrew their frightening forum RealID scheme, I decided to return to the game with a few friends. It would mark the first time that I'd play an MMO as a fully self conscious woman in real life as well as in game. Like so much else over these last few years, my view of WoW changed significantly.
Caption for image up top: The Avatar of Freya, a goddess of sorts in WoW, standing athwart an undead onslaught. One of a few new powerful female characters in the game. (A giant green skinned woman several storeys tall, brandishing a large, leafy staff and wearing ornate brown leather armour with sky blue jewels and insets)
Transition is not simply a change of one's gender, it has the capacity to change nearly everything about your life, including your worldview. How I saw WoW, having lived as a woman in public now and not just online, changed with me. My view remains a more or less positive one. After all, the grandest change is that my relationship to World of Warcraft is now quite different. Rather than a desperate escape from a life I loathed, it has become an amusing aside to a life I love.
I had also learned a lot since I last played. I suddenly saw social ideas writ large in the game's concepts. The racial undertones that often gird roleplaying games where humans are coincidentally European and other real-world human cultures are given pigeon holed non-human races. The way even female heroes are shown wearing very revealing or skimpy "robes" and "armour," or the occasionally poor writing for female characters. All of that analysis became impossible for me to ignore because something dramatic had shifted in my life. I was now well outside the target demographic of games like WoW.
That fact made itself clear to me in the fact that the game's heteronormativity — a word I didn't even know three years ago — is as relentless as it is in many other games and media, and suddenly it was impossible for me to varnish or ignore. It was no longer ‘my' fantasy, a fact that intruded quite violently on my mind during the RealID crisis and in other recent events on the WoW forums where the mass of the game's population poured scorn on transgender people. What had made it clear to me was the fact that my own comfort in the game was now "political"- not in the classical sense of the personal being political, but in the sense of "politics doesn't belong in my game, so keep it out."
As I looked around, and even remembered some things I had dismissed in the old days I realised that ‘politics' meant:
-Treating women respectfully in game.
-Avoiding the use of uncreative insults like ‘retard,' ‘fag,' and ‘gay.'
-Having quests that showed any kind of LGBT character in a positive light.
Among other things. It was very strange how only those things were labelled as the toxic ‘politics' that more than a few players said they "had to deal with all the time" and "wanted to get away from." What suddenly dawned on me as surely as if I'd been struck by a max rank Holy Fire was that the fantasy of these people, many of whom (but certainly not all) were cis white boys and men was a world where gay, queer and trans people didn't exist, and where women were invisible except as objects. Last year's controversy over the idea that there were "no gays in Star Wars" was another powerful reminder of whose fantasy these games often constitute. As one commenter on io9 put it:
"hopefully they'll learn nothing and the loud minority will go into their perspective corners and remain silent and allow the silent majority to enjoy their worlds of fantasy without making it into something different.
For once StarWars got something right."
Even though I never felt like I fit in even before I came out, and my comity with heterosexual men was fairly minimal, only recently did statements like that really piece me very deeply and remind me that the fantasies of men like him involved a world in which I didn't exist. Aliens, moon-sized space stations, women with three breasts, physically impossible arachnids, magic users, faster than light speed travel, yes that could all exist. But a trans woman kissing another woman? Nope. Fantasy is free from ‘politics,' remember.
That realisation, that my entire life was now ‘politics' and something that certain people wanted to escape from, stung pretty hard. To keep the theme going, what from WoW could I compare that to… How about a Silithid Hive Queen impaling you with a crit?
The situation, however, is getting more and more deliciously complicated. There's also much to be hopeful about going forward. While many WoW players bashed trans people for bringing their specific concerns to the fore regarding real ID, many more mentioned us and linked to our blogs as part of the litany of reasons that the reform was a terrible one. Many male gamers also abrogated their privilege and wrote forcefully against the inherent misogyny in the proposed forum changes. There was a community united around this issue, and a community that saw all gamers as under the same gun when it came to Blizzard's proposed travesty.
As I returned to World of Warcraft, coming home to the cascading choruses of Stormwind, I had to come out to someone in my guild who had known my old gender identity. I told her that my gender identity had undergone… just the tiniest change since we'd last slain dragons together; she not only accepted me but treated me as if nothing had changed. We talk, we game, we enchant each other's armour, and just… have fun. Reactions like hers are no longer uncommon.
I also smiled warmly at WoW's female heroes in their better moments: Jaina's diplomatic courage, Alexstrasza's strength and wisdom, Confessor Paletress' mature dignity (if not her rather scant ‘vestments').
I no longer have the luxury of pretending that this world fully reflects me but it is still a world in which one can find a little home away from home. Even as we all struggle through the difficult MMO of Life Offline, we find our niches where we turn the elements of our world to good ends. That happens in WoW too. What hasn't changed is that, for all the realisations I've had, and for the multiple shifts in subject position I've undergone, RPGs remain a home away from home for me. The characters I roleplay, although quite different from me at times, are all often united in their attempts to bring sense to the worlds they play in.
So I suppose the personal does remain political. But I do know that come what may, I will not simply erase myself from the world of fantasy. I didn't come this far to simply retreat at the first sign of difficulty or bigotry.
The fear of accommodating troublesome media remains, but I do not feel I ever turn off my critical eye (of Kilrogg? Okay I'll stop), and at the end of the day, just by being there all sorts of gamers insist upon their existence, their fun, and their fantasy. The world (of Warcraft) isn't perfect by several million miles, but dollops of progress are being made that track the slow, agonising evolution of our own society.
Katherine Cross is a budding sociologist whose interests include gaming, gaming, pizza, gaming, politics, feminism, and cats. She currently writes for the social justice gaming website Border House and maintains her own blog, the Nuclear Unicorn, over in her Internet hidey hole. Her current foci in university are sociology and women's studies. ...Also, yes, she's trans.
Republished from the Border House blog with permission.