When video games come up in conversation, I tend to joke that I am a “recovered gamer.” I never felt – and still do not feel – that I was ever addicted to gaming, but it certainly took up a lot of my time. The comments my family and friends (some, not all) made ran the gamut from well-intentioned “you’re a nerd” teasing to outright scorn and concern. And I’ll be the first to admit that gaming can take an unhealthy place in a person’s life; World of Warcraft (my “drug” of choice) has staggering statistics pointing to its addictive quality (I think I heard 40% most recently), as well as horror stories that reach the far end of extreme.
But I don’t think video games deserve the negative reputation they’ve received. For one, they can have an educational quality – I learned a fair bit of vocab and a little bit of history from games at a younger age. Not to mention, they’re just plain fun, and I think people should be able to have fun how they choose (within the bounds of ethics/the law, but that’s a different conversation). But the most important – and least recognized – factor is that gaming actually provides a service to its participants. My WoW friends ranged from those with intense social anxiety to jobs that inhibited real-world interaction, all the way to some with such severe physical disabilities that WoW was, in some ways, their only option. It can be as simple as keeping in touch with old friends from far away, or as key as providing someone with their only friends, but MMOs (Massive Multiplayer Online games) create a community. Some players engage more than others, but it is, undeniably, a community.
At the peak of my WoW-playing days, I thought that I benefited from my online community in the common, straightforward way. I’m not as shy as some, and not nearly as shy as I used to be, but social connections don’t always come easily for me, and are often ridden with under-the-surface anxiety. In WoW, I was a leader, an organizer, a director, in a manner I still have yet to attain in the real world. I was confident and assertive – though not, admittedly, in all respects (for example, I struggled to actively confront people making overt homophobic remarks, and was only out as “gay” to a couple of my buddies).
Looking back on the years in which I had not recognized my gender issues, as well as the years I spent struggling to deny them, I see that World of Warcraft was much more than an additional community for me. It was the only place I could be myself. I played male characters (“toons”), sounded – with the help of the assumption that gamers, unless obviously female, were male – like a pre-pubescent boy on vent (the server used to talk to other players), and interacted as a guy to those who did not know my identity. Even with those who did know me, I fell a little bit more toward the “one-of-the-guys” side of the spectrum. Many players called me by my “toon” name – which was a real (if uncommon), male name, as opposed to “sirkillsalot” or something of that nature – even once they knew my “real” name. When asked for my actual name, I even sometimes used the name that I had yet to admit I preferred, the name I have now taken on as my own.
World of Warcraft was, in many ways, the trial period for my male identity. Though I had always played games, and always played a male character in games where I had a choice (and often used my current name for my characters), the immersive quality of WoW allowed me to actually interact with people as a male. And, in many ways, I can thank World of Warcraft for my eventual acceptance of my identity. Every other piece of “evidence” that I came up with, I tried to rationalize away with other, external issues (though, eventually, I acknowledged the actual issues involved). But I couldn’t rationalize the fact that I preferred to be one of the guys, I preferred to be seen as male. I couldn’t blame it on attachment to a butch identity or body issues – no one knew I was gay, no one knew what I looked like. They just knew what class I played, assumed I was a guy and treated me as such. I couldn’t rationalize the fact that I preferred being called by my World of Warcraft character’s name than by my actual name, that a name everyone knew was fake sounded better on my ears.
I played a lot of World of Warcraft during my first round of grappling with my gender identity, but my gaming spiked after I convinced myself that I wasn’t trans. During the first coming out, though the feelings of fear, anxiety, confusion and stress were overwhelming, I began, briefly, to feel better. I was on the way, there was a light at the end of the tunnel and the possibility that, one day, I would escape my trap and I would be free; I would be me. After I stifled (well, sort of) those nagging thoughts, I was not anxious about the challenges of being transgender, but I was depressed. Depressed in a way that it is hard for me to acknowledge, even now. I had lost my one chance of improving my life; I had nowhere to go.
That summer, I barely left my room. I didn’t want to be seen, didn’t want to be heard, didn’t want to be known. I had no interest in meeting new people. I failed a class. I played a lot of World of Warcraft. I reveled in the world in which my body didn’t matter; the world in which I was correct, I was right, I was myself, I was male. I could not grasp all that I was feeling during the throes, but I retreated into the world that felt more safe, more free. When I got back to school, I shut down even more. I had no hope. I had finally realized that I could not be happy the way I was, but I had decided that I couldn’t be happy trans either. So I pretended it wasn’t an option, and watched passively as my optimism faded away. I continued to retreat almost entirely into my virtual world. I couldn’t bear to participate in the non-virtual world – it seemed so unreal, so jarring. I decided to take the year off from school, blaming it on the more external stressors in my life, and went back to my parents’ house.
I played a lot of World of Warcraft.
I stopped talking to my friends, for the most part, and even my family. I aggressively denied that I was unhappy. I immersed myself completely in the game, in the only place where I had any hope of being myself. It wasn’t even that I enjoyed the minutiae of that virtual society, though, on many levels, I did. It was just that, even as a blue, big-eared creature with tentacles on his face and a tail, running around in armor with a crossbow, I looked more right. I literally dreamt of finding myself transplanted into World of Warcraft, blue tentacle-face and all, with people calling out my character’s name instead of the name I was stuck with.
It wasn’t until I got an office job, involving suits and fancy shoes, that I could pull myself out of the depths. There, in the office, I could play a less perfect, but more concrete version of myself than I had been on World of Warcraft. There, I was the super-dyke, with my men’s shoes and my button-down shirts, my blazers and slacks. They saw me as a girl, but I was still, in many ways, one of the guys. Shyer and less self-assured than the other guys, but still one of the guys. It may have had something to do with the guys in the office all being relatively new to the office (or, rather, newer than everyone else), but I connected more with them. Again, it became undeniable that I preferred to be with the guys, preferred to be one of the guys. And, finally, I realized that, even if I had a job where I could wear men’s clothes, I still hated being seen as a woman.
When I finally got a handle on my workload and had time to play WoW again, I realized I didn’t want to. What I didn’t realize at the time was that I no longer needed to. What I had previously had only in my virtual world, I was now beginning to have in the real world. I began to understand that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in my head, living out my fantasies only as extended daydreams. It wasn’t enough to be a man in World of Warcraft; I needed the real world to see that I was a man.
To be totally honest, the day I told my WoW friends I was quitting for good, I cried. I grieved for my lost community. As pumped as I was, finally, about the real world, I yearned to hold onto my safety blanket. And, I’ll admit, once in a while I still miss World of Warcraft, I still miss my WoW friends. They’ll never know how much they meant to me, nor how much they did for me. But I will always be thankful for video games, for World of Warcraft, for that virtual world, for giving me the space to realize who I am.
“In Defense of Gaming” by growingupgareth.wordpress.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at growingupgareth.wordpress.com.