Boob Sliders, Or How Role-Playing Games Helped Me Transition

The following is a guest post from Samantha Allen:

Samantha Allen is a transgender woman and an ex-Mormon. She is also a third-year PhD student in the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Emory University writing a dissertation on practices of sexual fetishism. In her leisure time, Samantha plays video games, writes music and dreams of inhabiting the universe of Twin Peaks. For more on Samantha’s PhD research, please visit her website.

The author is shown on the left in a light pink dress.  On the right, the author's female Hawke from Dragon Age 2.

“If I’m going to look at somebody’s ass for twelve hours, I want it to be a girl’s ass.”

I’ve heard countless straight male video game podcasters, journalists and message board commenters supply this as their rationale for playing as female characters in games when presented with the option. I’m willing to believe that, for some of them, the reasoning behind selecting a female avatar truly is this superficial. But it also saddens me to think that other straight men, the ones who might actually enjoy some sort of cross-gender identification in their role-playing, nonetheless supply this as their reason so that they can keep up heteronormative appearances amongst their peers.

I have always rolled Lady Shepards in the Mass Effect games and, recently, a Lady Hawke in Dragon Age II. And, when I find out a game has a character creator full of sliders for every conceivable bodily dimension—everything from boob size to brow depth—my interest is instantly piqued, even if I never end up playing the game itself (I’m looking at you, Demon’s Souls). I’ve been known to spend a full hour on the character creation screen fine-tuning the appearance of my avatar, making sure that the forehead is the right height and that the eye shadow isn’t too garish.

At the time I played the Dragon Age and Mass Effect games, I would have admitted, however reluctantly, to being a straight man. But I wasn’t laboring over these elaborate female creations so I could have a hot piece of tail on my screen. The key to this mystery is that I have struggled with gender all my life and, for me, these practices of character creation were a way of idealizing, visualizing, and imagining myself as female. We had a lot of shared traits, my Lady Hawke and I: blond hair, brown eyes and a big forehead. This verisimilitude was intentional. I wanted her to look just like me (with different secondary sex characteristics, of course) so that she could live out a life I couldn’t, enjoying a public career as a woman and wearing dresses when she went home to Hawke Manor. Video game commentators often refer to games as a form of escapism but, for me, I wasn’t just escaping a humdrum life, I was escaping a physical body that didn’t feel quite right. It takes a lot of courage and the right life circumstances to be able to transition (to change genders socially and, if desired, to change the sex characteristics of one’s own body).

Many beautiful transgender women I know have struggled their whole lives with the decision, only taking the plunge in middle or late life. I, too, had my own set of circumstances that made the proposition of transitioning a difficult one to swallow until I was twenty five years old. Most pragmatically, it took me that long to become financially independent. Transitioning is expensive business: I’ve had to shell out hundreds upon hundreds of dollars for a new wardrobe, laser facial hair removal, reproductive cryopreservation, blood tests and court fees. And there’s always the ever-looming expense of vaginoplasty on the horizon.

Personal circumstances within my own family also made it difficult for me to imagine ever being able to transition. I’ve been wearing women’s clothing as long as I can remember but, because I grew up in a Mormon family, I hid this sartorial choice for my entire life until last year. For a time as a teenager, I too became deeply involved in the Mormon Church.

When this happened, I threw out all my clothing (trans- people call this “purging”) and vowed to be a boy forever. That lasted long enough for me to spend two years as a self-righteous teenager and six months as a hotheaded Mormon missionary before the bubble finally burst and I left the Church in 2008. The night I decided I didn’t want to believe anymore, I drove straight to the pharmacy and re-stocked on my makeup.

After my mission, though, I still had roommates and sometimes lived in the basements of family homes. Co-habitating with others as a young adult did not leave me with a lot of room to explore my gender presentation. I would count down the days until the family I was staying with was scheduled to leave town and then I’d slide my Rubbermaid Bins of Shame out of the closet and get down to business.

But, despite all of these obstacles preventing me from coming to terms with my gender identity in real life, I always found a way to access a game console and move sliders around on those detailed character creation screens. This form of fantasy—this role-playing that, for me, would eventually become more than just play—helped to sustain me while I waited to figure out my gender on my own terms. I could scroll through all those luxuriant hairstyles and dream of having long hair myself. I could play with my makeup without alarming my family. And, yes, I could turn up the boob slider and dream of having my own someday.

I’m happy to share that I now identify as a transgender woman. I started my transition socially in August 2012 and I’ve been on hormones since November. Funny thing about hormones: they don’t work as immediately as those sliders on the character creation screen. I’m still waiting for certain things to grow in but, now that I’m on the right path, I can be patient.

I still play games when I’m not busy writing papers or teaching Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory but I don’t need them for the same kind of wish-fulfillment that I used to. Now I get to wake up every morning and look how I want to look. But when I look in the mirror, I’ll always see a little bit of Lady Hawke looking back.

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16 Responses to Boob Sliders, Or How Role-Playing Games Helped Me Transition

  1. Riley says:

    Hi Samantha,

    I really enjoyed this! As a transman, when I played Mass Effect, I tried to get my Shepherd to look like a transguy (with no success– damn you, standard Bioware hairstyles ;-) ); it was interesting to think about the possibilities and limits of ways to embody myself in a game when coming from a trans perspective. I think the things you point out in your article gesture toward a way to “queer” games, or ways that non-cis/hetero folks can approach standard game functions in subversive or unintended ways; stuff I’m always excited to be part of discussions about! Hope to see more from you!

    …riley

  2. Cuppycake says:

    Thank you for sharing your perspective with us. This was really interesting. :)

  3. Quinnae says:

    Thank you so much for contributing here, Samantha. Your story reminds me so much of my own, and it’s a joy to hear another sister lending her voice to that important dimension of gaming experience. It’s something that has infused my academic writing for a good couple of years now and made its way into an autoethnographic reflection in my first peer-reviewed journal article.

    Like you, I used RPGs to (subconsciously, at first) escape from the strictures of the life that had been imposed upon me. I used Morrowind, Knights of the Old Republic, Neverwinter Nights and eventually World of Warcraft to do so– to escape from my dysphoria and escape into the kind of woman I wanted to be. It was no coincidence that there was an early feminist intersection as well; as a young trans girl I lamented the lack of strong women role models for me. RPGs allowed me to make my own, a fact for which I will always be grateful.

    I was also entranced by the ability to choose my own name, allowing me to escape from one I hated for reasons I didn’t yet fully understand.

    I admit, the part that made me smile widest was when you said you were teaching intro to Women’s Studies. I am so glad to hear that– finding other out trans women in academia is rare. There are so very few of us, even fewer trans women of colour (I’m the only one I know about in my neck of the woods, to be sure). So it’s good to see that I’ve got a colleague out there who’s teaching women’s studies and doing research like me. :) Keep fighting the good fight and thanks so much for contributing this article to us!

  4. Gazatteer says:

    I’m actually crying a little as I finish reading this, because maybe it hits me a little close to home. I’ve been clinging to every little bit of digital female gender representation I could get ever since I uploaded my first forum avatar at age 14. I went through a couple different excuses — I even used the aforementioned “I want to look at girls” defence. Even if it always rang false and uncomfortable.

    I didn’t really admit it until I was 19, but for nearly three years now I’ve known that it wasn’t just because women “are more aesthetically pleasing” or whatever bullshit I’d been using to justify my exclusive use of female characters in both videogame and more traditional RPGs.

    The thought of going beyond that scares me shitless, and it just seems completely impossible at this stage. I live with my parents, I have no steady job and if I managed to get one I’d be terrified that even trying to transition would cause me to lose it — as is the case in most of the world, I have no legal protection from being fired for my gender identity here in Canada. It just seems completely impossible sometimes for there to be anything in my future aside from dysphoria-induced misery broken up by nothing but increasingly pathetic escapism.

    Reading this kind of article makes me feel a little bit less hopeless about the future. Thank you for sharing your experiences like this. It makes the day a little easier :)

    • Quinnae says:

      *gives you a hug* Stay strong, sister. I can’t promise it will always be easy, but you won’t be alone. :)

    • Samantha says:

      Oh, Gazatter, I’m so sorry! You’re not alone and so many of us know exactly how that feels. Escapism is never pathetic, it’s a way for you to continue to cultivate and imagine the you that you want to be! Plant your roots deep online and with trusting friends. The more you talk about it with other people, the more you can start to imagine it being a part of your public persona. I know that it hurts and I know that the logistics of your situation seem pretty intractable right now, but believing in the impossible is the first step down this road. I spent so long saying “never” and, as soon as I started saying “maybe,” my perspective changed entirely.

    • Amy D. says:

      I give you *hugs* too. Your reply reminds me a little of myself in my early 20s. If current-me told then-me that this is not only possible but inevitable, then-me would have laughed right in my face. It took a while to get situated enough to do what I needed to do; I lived as genderqueer for quite a while and even then was not entirely sure I could do it. And then I took the plunge (at 38) when I realized that I had actually knocked down everything holding me back. Hold on to the hope, though, and find ways to make it grow, even if they seem like tiny ways… and maybe you’ll find that you are actually walking toward that inevitable step.

  5. Samantha says:

    Wow, thank you everyone for your thoughtful comments.

    Riley, I’m sorry you can’t seem to bend the Bioware system to your wishes. And don’t you sometimes wonder if even the hetero folks are trying on something new? Whenever I hear a guy tell me he ALWAYS plays a girl in his games, I always wonder if he’s got some Rubbermaid Bins of Shame of his own hiding somewhere. But maybe that’s just wishful thinking

    Quinnae, Congratulations on your article!!! Let’s celebrate first steps in academic success! My first peer-reviewed article just got accepted a little while ago but won’t come out until April 2014 as the journal is running special issues all this year. Is yours out? I’d love to read it. The little essay also resonated with a transman friend of mine who told me about how he, too, used various forms of fiction as a mode of “external embodiment,” as he put it, throughout his youth. There’s a freedom in fiction that we sometimes can’t find anywhere else. Thanks for your comment and sisterly solidarity!

  6. A sister says:

    I think it was sometime in college playing some sorta online MMO, maybe it was EQ, and my cousin was over when I was logging in. He glanced at my character select screen and asked why I had to many girl characters. I could feel my face flush and was glad he couldn’t see it as I stared into the monitor and as nonchalantly as possible tell him I don’t know I just always pick them. I did half consider using the what would you rather look at line, but just couldn’t bring myself to lie that blatantly.

    Been a long road since then, but for the longest time games were my escape and I too would try to make the best looking feminine version of my old guy self. The better the character creator the longer I would spend getting the jaw just right and the brows just so. Proving to myself that it could be possible with a little of cleanup and some hair removal.

    They didn’t completely help, but they were the start of a very long road of discovery and learning about just how strong I could really be when I had to be. Thanks for your post and congratulations on your progress toward peace!

  7. luminum says:

    Really great piece! I hope to hear more! And you’re at Emory! Yay!

  8. Christopher says:

    Samantha, I’m really glad to read this article by you. It gives me a lot to think about concerning my own academic research on kink and (gamic) roleplay (I’m more or less arguing that certain spaces with certain rules enable us to embody imagined realities that are strongly experienced and important parts of us, looking at an SM ethnography and Dungeons and Dragons,). I personally tend to play as women in games as well, and though I identify as a heterosexual cis-male, I understand this choice to be one that allows me to imagine/shift my gender for a time.

  9. zac says:

    great article. it’s a sad world we live in but i do believe a change is gonna come. it’s very encouraging to hear the gamer-world get used for something so positive and constructive, versus the usual reddit-esque ignorance we’re used to hearing come out of that community.

  10. Lizzy says:

    Thank you for this article Samantha, I see much of myself in this. 27 and still trying to get financially independent and out on my own before I even try and it’s hard. I have only come out to a handful of close friends I know are understanding and so it’s rough. Glad to see you have managed to free yourself!

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