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Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Games Don’t Judge You for Expressing Your True Self

Oakie Robb sits on their bed, computer on their lap. As time goes on, they curl up closer and closer to the screen, the light from it washing over their face. In the game, they wear overalls and sport a green mullet; on their bed, their hair is blue and growing out from a pandemic buzz cut. Their hoodie says, “I love myself and I hate police.” Starting this save file in-game began as an experiment of sorts, to see how it felt. Now it’s their most often played.

Two months ago, Oakie waffled back and forth with the idea of a new name. A year or so before that, they came out as nonbinary and began using they/them pronouns. That decision to come out, while not easy to make, didn’t feel quite as daunting as picking a new name and asking other people to use it. They liked the feel of “Oakie” in their mouth, they liked the way it felt when their friends said it on the phone, but they worried too. “I often feel torn between wanting to choose a name for myself, for the me I’ve grown into, and wanting to hold on to the name I was given and the history it holds,” they wrote in a private Instagram post asking people to start using the name Oakie when referring to them.

That post was a bit of a trial run, an experiment to see how they felt. But their actual feelings were obscured by the incessant anxiety over what other people would think about the change. After making the post, they only got more worried they would miss their old name, that they had acted impulsively and would annoy people by changing names around again. What helped them finally start to feel comfortable and happy? An overly pixelated, open-ended video game: Stardew Valley.

The first thing the game has players do is walk around the little town they live in and say hello to everyone who lives there. So Oakie the Person sat in front of the computer making Oakie the Character run around in-game and find all the townsfolk. They noticed it right away: Here, in the town of Stardew Valley, no one stumbled on their name or raised an eyebrow at their gender expression. They had nothing to be worried about, nothing to distract them from how good it felt that everyone called Oakie by the name they chose, every time. It didn’t only feel good; it felt right. By creating an avatar for themself—a character who has always been Oakie, will always be Oakie—they started to experience real acceptance first, and then elation. A version of gender euphoria by way of a video game.

Making Up for the Present

Stardew Valley fits into a section of games that includes farming sims, Animal Crossing, and maybe even The Sims. Open-world games in which the objective, essentially, is to live a happy little life in a little town and build a little community full of people who like you. The game begins with the player working for a soulless corporation, complete with skeletons rotting on desks. It’s no life to live, but thankfully, when your grandfather dies, he bequeaths the family farm to you. Which is how players land in a quaint little town, sitting on the ocean, populated with interesting characters.

There is an aspect to Stardew Valley that brings to mind—almost in spite of itself, as the thing meant to motivate players is a kind of skewed capitalism—cooperative communities. If players talk to the NPCs every day, giving them the things they might want or need to get by, they become the players’ friends, and they regularly return the generosity with their own gifts, recipes, and construction blueprints. Players can date multiple NPCs of multiple genders at the same time in a seemingly non-monogamous way, which means, essentially, everyone living in Stardew Valley is queer and polyamorous. Most of the NPCs have a special skill that they will share with you if you become their friend, and which they can even teach you to do yourself, like sewing or growing tea leaves.

Similarly, inside these games lie ideas that layer with the queer utopia posited in José Esteban Muñoz’s seminal queer text, Cruising Utopia. A perfect peacefulness that’s way too good to exist.

Muñoz suggests that queerness itself, different from homosexuality, cannot exist in our current society. Queerness is a futurity—a not-yet-reached projection of flexible gender and sexuality, in which freedom and strangeness are encouraged—and the queerness which we have not reached is, itself, a utopia, an ideal, a perfect world. But we can bring it about now, in small pieces, by imagining it and by creating a community that cares for each other and that lifts each other up.

“The present is not enough. It is impoverished and toxic for queers and other people who do not feel the privilege of majoritarian belonging, normative tastes, and ‘rational’ expectations,” Muñoz writes. So we do what we can to create little moments of peace, of our own private utopias. Some exist in real life: Muñoz points to the utopic moments within queer friendships, which “has proven to be the condition of possibility for imagining what queerness can and should mean.” Sweet and fulfilling romantic relationships can also bring out a blissful healing and, Oakie points out, within co-ops that have permeated queer imaginations and Instagram feeds. (They specifically bring up the one T. Clutch Fleishmann writes about in Time Is a Thing the Body Moves Through as proof that these places really must exist somewhere real.) Still, especially now when being around other people is generally inadvisable, there are times when the utopia becomes even more internal, when it flickers into our lives only for a moment, on screen. And that can be beautiful too.

Defining Euphoria

The “Oakie” file is hardly Oakie’s first go at the game—during the pandemic, they’ve started 12—but it is the one that feels closest to their heart. It’s the place they first experienced acceptance around their name. Starting the file while surrounded by religious family and occasional transphobic comments, they would escape into the game and the unending acceptance it provided. In the time since then, they’ve started using the name with friends.

“I don’t know if it is super-different, honestly,” Oakie says about the gender euphoria they get when being called Oakie in real life versus in the game. “It’s more real in real life. In the game I just feel joy, but there’s no risk. Hearing it in real life, I work through feelings more, of thinking about my old name and worrying about people respecting it or not. I don’t really think about my old name when I’m playing the game, because it’s just steady. Also, there was no point in the game where I was anything other than Oakie.”

They hesitate to call the feeling they get in the game euphoria, but then, why not? When playing the game, they get this sensation most often: “It feels warm, and I feel like this sounds silly, but a little bit of a radiating tingly-ness and warmth. Something I have felt very physically is stress, so I’m thinking about how tight I feel when I’m stressed and I almost feel a weight on my heart, and this is almost like the opposite of that. So I’m not feeling tense. It’s a lightness.”

A World of Our Own

Bo Ruberg, an assistant professor in film and media studies at UC Irvine, literally wrote the book on queer games. The Queer Games Avant-Garde is the natural result of The Queerness and Games Conference, which Ruberg first organized with friends in 2013. The conference goes beyond the academic and explicitly puts the people who study games and the people who make them in a queer context. Their book is a series of interviews with queer video game designers, the kind of people who create the strange and quirky games they love the most.


Ruberg confirms that the lightness Oakie feels playing Stardew Valley has been happening for other trans folks for a long time. They say that finding gender and expression-related peace is not limited to contemporary games like Stardew Valley and that they’ve had conversations with trans folks going back to early versions of The Sims, Second Life, and even MUDS and MOOS, text-based open-world games.

Ruberg asserts that games allow trans people, queer people, and others with marginalized identities to present themselves in whatever way feels best to them. Ruberg says, “You know, people talk about feeling that euphoria, but often you hear people say, this was like, a really important first step for them. And that it was a really important stepping stone for a lot of people to later coming out or transitioning, that they got to do that in online game spaces.”

Whether that means clothes, name, or personal style, games give space for experimentation in presentation. Often, before someone is ready to ask people in real life to recognize them the way they want to be recognized, they get used to asking virtually first.

Games, much like everything else, don’t change lives and shake bones every time they get played, but they can provide regular reassurance in identity. They can also be a bit of a safety net. Stepping into a virtual world, trans folks have the freedom to be exactly the people they choose to be, and that is particularly special at the start of transitioning or when coming out. But beyond that, open-world games allow a freedom, not only in personal expression but also in the communities players chose to create for themselves.

“Games make worlds,” Ruberg points out. They bring up the idea of queer world-making, a branch of queer studies that centers around the communities that queer people make for themselves, which often seem almost separate from the rest of the world. Or at least very different and new. “Video games make that really literal. You go into a world and you maybe participate in an alternative world, or you create, in Animal Crossing or something, you create your whole own island and you get to imagine the world in the way that you want it to be.”

Pulling the Horizon Into the Present

The ephemeral quality of the spaces we create in open-world video games finds a mirror in queerness itself if you follow Munoz’s line of thinking in Cruising Utopia. Nothing right now can last forever or can be as real as we need it to be—we’re always building toward those things. All we can do is hold on tight to the moments that feel good, the moments that give us a taste of what we so badly want, and the future we want to build.

Ruberg questions the idea of video games containing absolute bliss in that way, saying, “It's interesting whether it's a utopia. You get to do things you might not be able to do, you get to make it yourself, but, in basically all of these examples, there's still toxicity that comes in. Any time it's an online multiplayer game, someone will show up and mess with your utopia. So maybe it makes it even more like Muñoz's idea, right? Like he's saying we're always chasing it, but it's always on the horizon.”

“The future is queerness’ domain,” Muñoz writes, and it’s hard not to agree, not to look at the current state of the world and think that we are miles and miles away from a society that can encapsulate the weirdness and joy that queerness deserves. Still, in the present, for some people, utopic queerness can be found, however briefly, digitally.

Watching Oakie play their game, it’s easy to see them settle into the calm, fuzzy feeling they spoke about, to watch the lightness spread over their face. They have their little world, their little community, and they get to be exactly who they plan on being, for a little while, when they have time to play the game. And as time passes, in real life, they settle more and more into that person, the one that they want to be, the one that they always have been.

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