In games I can be free to express myself

Nova Liiho
This article is part of the Gender in Play project publications. Gender in Play was a project by We in Games Finland and The National Council of Women of Finland that examined the character development and world-building within Finnish games studios’ games from the perspective of gender equality and representation. The project ran 2021–2022 and was funded by the Ministry of Justice.

I have played video games for most of my life. It’s a way to relax, to unwind, and forget about the rest of the world for a while. As a child, besides having fun, thanks to video games my coordination skills and language skills improved, and I spent time with family and friends while playing multiplayer games. Even nowadays my family and I sometimes pull up our Wii console and have a few rounds of bowling.

In upper secondary, I realized I am interested romantically in women, but it took until I was 20 to find words for my gender identity. Now that I have the words, though, it explains certain things and feelings even from childhood. I loved when games had girls and women as characters, but often I felt more comfortable playing as boys or men. When playable characters had the same skills, I would rather play with male characters. Of course, since most often the games I played as a child were adapted from series, the aspect of favourite characters came into play as well.

The first game I played that had a gender-nonconforming character you play as was Undertale. The happy feeling it gave me is hard to describe. The fans on the Internet using they/them pronouns for the character was euphoric.

Whenever it’s possible to choose the character, I like to go with alternative styles, preferably androgynous characters, if the character is spoken to. In Guitar Hero for example, I always went with the cute girl with colorful hair, since the character is more of an avatar while you play, someone you watch, and not someone you necessarily are in the game. Unlike in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, a game I have been playing for a few years now, my first MMORPG, and such a good one, even with the scary multiplayer aspect.

The race I played with originally in FFXIV was Lalafell. They are tiny, and quite androgynous. The only way to know for sure if the character model is male or female, is to ask the player, or if the character is wearing a gender locked outfit. And quite often, no one really cared to ask, because what matters is how you play: being kind to others, doing your best, and having fun. The only time I was asked was when I was hanging out with another Lalafell player, and he asked. But thanks to the safe environment the community had, and still has, I felt safe to tell that my character model is male, but the player is nonbinary. And then I joined the Free Company the Lalafell was in. Nowadays I play as a Viera male, so essentially a bunny boy. While Lalafell was fun, I knew I would love Viera a lot as well. Some clothes look so much better, I can finally wear thigh boots comfortably!

At one point I made a Viera female to play the story from the beginning, but quickly realized I had to change the character to male. In the game when talking to NPCs, your character is referred to with pronouns, and feminine pronouns even in game made me feel dysphoric. On the other hand, it’s good to know it made me react, so I know to avoid playing characters who use she/her for the time being when I have a choice.

Dressing up the characters is one of my favourite things in games. In The Sims 4 I have at least three outfits per character for their daily wear, and since the latest update I have 20 glamour plates in FFXIV! Many options to play with clothing, especially thanks to some gender locked outfits being available to everyone now. It’s fun playing with traditionally feminine or masculine clothes, since in real life I like to do the same. It doesn’t make me any less trans if I choose to wear a ruffled dress. While in daily life I most often try to wear either masculine or androgynous clothes so I will have a smaller risk of getting misgendered, in games I can be free to express myself.