Finding My Voice in Games: Speaking, Singing, Streaming

The gestures a character can perform in Dark Souls.

The gestures a character can perform in Dark Souls.

First, I snort like a horse a few times. Then I sound out all the vowels in turn, sliding my pitch up and down, up and down. I think of my voice as a river running through me from my lungs to my throat to my lips and I know that I have to change its course.

I dam my voice at my throat and try to make it run through my forehead instead. Then, locking in my pitch as high as I can muster, I read a few pages of a book aloud. I imagine a helium balloon over my head, insistently pulling my intonation upward at the end of each word, each sentence.

And there it is.

For a few minutes, I can sound like me, like Samantha, like how I always imagine myself sounding. I can slough off the dreary baritone I’ve been stuck with since puberty and speak instead in a soft alto that lilts playfully through every phrase. It feels sublime. But it exhausts me.

Like many transgender women, I started taking hormones after puberty had irreversibly thickened my larynx. Apart from a risky surgical procedure, the only way for me to produce a conventionally feminine speaking voice is through practice.

I have just started to do rigorous vocal exercises like the one described above. They’re not going well so far. I can produce a “believable” female voice but I feel like I’m impersonating someone. It’s so hard to get used to the idea that this can be my voice now, that no one has to know how I spoke before my transition.

Singing is even harder for me. If I want to sing at high volume, I need to access characteristically male features of my voice. As much as I love belting out “A Whole New World,” karaoke is off limits unless I’m in a queer-friendly space. When I sing, I can hear disturbingly powerful echoes of the person I once was. It’s uncomfortably dysphoric or, more simply put, it makes me feel weird about my gender.

But when Cameron Kunzelman asked me to record a new version of my song “Transcontinental Alpaca” for the game Alpaca Run, I jumped at the chance; I loved to write music but I had not recorded any new songs since 2009, well before the start of my transition.

Ingrid, the transcontinental alpaca and star of Alpaca Run.

Ingrid, the transcontinental alpaca and star of Alpaca Run.

I had missed singing so much, I realized. I listened to my old music and heard prescient hints of changes to come. Through my music, I had been feeling my gender identity out in the dark, finding circumlocutory language to describe a precise but shadowy feeling. In one song, I complain to the addressee: “Don’t tell me to be the man. I’m not. / And neither are you. / So where does that leave us?” In another, I preemptively mourn an impossible future: “I could have made it if I were a man / but I didn’t have a plan for this.”

“Transcontinental Alpaca,” by comparison, was lighter fare indeed. I first recorded the song in 2007 and, at the time, it was a heartfelt song about a boy and his alpaca travelling across the country and an anthem for Ingrid, my beloved alpaca stuffed animal.

When I returned to the song at Cameron’s behest in 2013, I had to ask myself what had changed. Was the narrator of the song still male even though my own gender had changed? The lyrics of “Transcontinental Alpaca” provided no clues; the only pronouns in the song are “I” for the narrator and “she” for Ingrid. Was my relationship to this fictional alpaca gendered in 2007 in ways that had gone completely unexamined at the time? Were Ingrid and I sisters now when once she had been my maternal protector? I even pondered the “trans-” prefix in the chorus (“She’s the transcontinental alpaca…”), a single syllable that sounds so different to me now than it did in 2007.

I tried to push past my puzzling questions but, as I immersed myself in the recording process, my confusion only deepened. How should I sing this song? Should I impersonate the person I had been in 2007 or should I try to sing differently? How comfortable was I leaning into the humor of the falsetto break before the chorus, that peculiarly gendered humor of a “male voice” suddenly sounding “womanly” as it launches itself into a higher register?

The questions piled up, as did my reservations about attaching my voice to the project. This would be most people’s initial experience with my voice and it would not, to my mind, leave them with a convincingly feminine first impression. I didn’t want the audience to hear that voice; I wanted them to hear the lilting alto of my fantasies.

I’d like to say that I came up with an amazing theory as to how my transition had changed the song. I’d like to say that I subtly altered the recording process to reflect the personal shifts that had taken place over the past year. I didn’t. I just sang. I lost myself in the mechanics of the process and shoved the theory aside. I got a good take. I sent it to Cameron. I shelved my trepidation.

When Alpaca Run first came out, most of the people who played it knew who I was. But, as it spread beyond my own queer-affirmative circles, my fears about my voice were quickly justified. One YouTuber, upon seeing the credits of the game, concluded that someone named Samantha Allen could not possibly be the singer of “Transcontinental Alpaca.” I wrote a clarification in the comments and he was understanding. But I wondered how many of Alpaca Run’s thousands of players envision a male narrator as soon as the soundtrack kicks in.

I played Alpaca Run again yesterday for the first time in weeks with a longtime friend looking over my shoulder.

“I don’t like that song,” she said. “It doesn’t sound like you anymore.”

And indeed, in that moment, the song struck me as a strange relic, out of time and out of place. Who was this person singing? Did I sound like myself? How could I not? I am me, after all. And yet, how alienating it was to hear it through her ears. How strange it was that this curious song about an alpaca’s journey across the USA was now a portal through time to a version of myself that I had left by the wayside.

What I’ve discovered through my transition and especially through the process of singing for Alpaca Run is that voice remains of the most powerful perceptual cues that people use to understand each other. Transgender folk wisdom has it that it takes about four female cues to overshadow one male cue. As hormones reshape my body, as my hair grows out, as I hone my makeup skills, more and more female cues are lining up for me. But my voice—my pesky, stubborn voice—can bring them all crashing down in an instant. My voice shapes how people approach me; it changes whether they think of me as a woman or as a “third category.”

It shouldn’t be this way, I know. We should be able to accept a variety of voices coming out of a variety of bodies. Some people choose to thwart conventionally gendered notions of voice and I honor that choice but, in my personal case, I do want to blend sometimes. For me, shifting other people’s perception is worth the labor of vocal training. And so, haltingly, I continue my exercises. First, I snort like a horse…

A couple of weeks ago, I started streaming Dark Souls on Twitch.tv. The stream began as a way for my sagely older brother to guide me through a first playthrough of this notoriously difficult game but others started to tune in as well. Some found my stream through my Twitter and, as such, probably know that I’m transgender. But other chat participants seem blissfully unaware of who I am beyond my bio photo.

In a short time, Twitch has become an escape for me, the one corner of gaming culture in which I can just relax and play a game without wearing my trans hat. When I’m harassed on Twitter during a video game controversy, people intentionally misgender me but, in my little Twitch oasis, chat participants use appropriate pronouns at all times. They have no reason not to. They’re so innocent.

I communicate with the chat through hurried text messages and through the ever comical Dark Souls gesture system. But I want to talk. I want to crack a joke. I want to scream when I run into a trap and cheer when I finally defeat a boss.

Voice has become an increasingly important facet of gaming culture: from podcasts to “Let’s Play” videos to Twitch streams. I want to join the conversation, too.

But I’m scared. I still have so much work to do on my voice. Every time I stream Dark Souls, I look down at the red light on my headset by the words “Mic Mute.” And I wonder what will happen if I turn it green.

micmute

About Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast and her opinion pieces appear regularly at The Daily Dot. Her work has also appeared on Salon, Huffington Post, The Advocate, Mic, Kinsey Confidential, Jacobin, and in Adult Magazine. Samantha is the Internet’s premier alpaca enthusiast. You can find her on the web or on Twitter.
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15 Responses to Finding My Voice in Games: Speaking, Singing, Streaming

  1. I tuned into your Dark Souls stream and wondered why there was no commentary! I think that if there’s “work” to be done, that’s on the listener, not you.

    • Perhaps there will be commentary soon. As much as it shouldn’t matter to me, it does. But perhaps streaming will be a good way to practice: it involves a lot of inane babbling.

  2. AJ says:

    I identify w/ this article 100%. Well, aside from that act that I’m not much of an accomplished singer. I wish I wasn’t so afraid to use my voice on the Internet.

  3. This piece meant a lot to me. I am one of those who holds on to their voice despite some of the dissonance that occurs. I crossdress as a normal part of my everyday and I’m still thinking on hormones, but I decided on keeping my voice a while ago.

    I also am a musician and I feel singing is a big part of my life, one that I would never feel right giving up or altering. I like my baritone/bass voice and I would be sad if I gave up hitting those chest-shaking notes and singing at the top of my lungs. But I totally understand the desire to just blend in, not attract undue attention, and go about your business with others treating you as the person you understand yourself to be. There are no good answers sometimes.

  4. Elbi says:

    One of the greatest moments of my life was when my best friend first called me, on the phone, just to chat, after taking hormones for a couple of months. We basically communicate 100% through written language. He was just so proud of his voice, being finally what he imagined it should sound like.
    So yeah, I think I understand your point. Really hope you’ll get there soon :)

    • Thank you very much. When I do my exercises, I am super proud of how I sound but it’s hard for me to stay in that voice for extended periods of time.

  5. Kaede says:

    I feel similar about the whole “Voice is important in video games” thing. As much as I want to get on a VoIP software when running dungeons or playing Co-Op, my uncomfortableness with my own voice will often make me second-thought the idea.

  6. Rhodes says:

    I can’t say I fully understand where you’re coming (cisgendered, not even a little queer) from but I used to feel quite hesitant about using my voice online since I didn’t want to sound black. While I’m more or less fine with it now it’s still somewhat disconcerting if there’s any kind of feedback which allows me to hear my thick nasally drawl. Still, twitch has to be as good a place as any to get practice since most people are pretty chill and at least you don’t have to second guess what they might be thinking about you (which is often the worst of it) since they will make their displeasure well known if they do have complaints. Since everybody else in the chat will be referring to you properly in the worst case scenario somebody will think your mic is a bit funky.

    How far have you gotten with Dark Souls anyhow? Last I checked you were getting wrecked by jerks with bows.

    • I am in Anor Londo (is that the name of the area immediately after touching the gold ring?) getting wrecked by two bosses: one that has a giant sledgehammer and one that shoots magic at me. Their names are something like Slough and Moo or something like that…

      I think after a few weeks of practice, I’ll start using my voice on Twitch and use it as practice grounds, as you suggest.

  7. Rhodes says:

    I can’t say I fully understand where you’re coming (cisgendered, not even a little queer) from but I used to feel quite hesitant about using my voice online since I didn’t want to sound black. While I’m more or less fine with it now it’s still somewhat disconcerting if there’s any kind of feedback which allows me to hear my own thick nasally drawl.

    Still, twitch has to be as good a place as any to get practice as most people are pretty chill and at least you don’t have to second guess what they might be thinking about you (which is often the worst of it) because they will make their displeasure well known if they do have complaints. Since everybody else in the chat will be referring to you properly in the worst case scenario somebody will think your mic is a bit funky.

    How far have you gotten with Dark Souls anyhow? Last I checked you were getting wrecked by jerks with bows. If you’re not done with it yet I look forward to watching you die some more soon.

  8. A says:

    I’ve looked into electronic voice changers to get into a more ambiguous territory at least, but the free ones at least are all terrible.

  9. Ten says:

    Thank you for this article, it spoke deeply to me.

    I’m a non-op, non-hormones trans man, and I have a very high voice. I sound like a girl of maybe 12 years (yeah, not even like a 12-yr old boy). On top of that, I’ve been raised to make myself sound cute and happy, (“Don’t be so negative, don’t be so aggressive, don’t raise your voice.”) and undoing that is being a slow, painful process.

    I am lucky enough to suffer from very little body dysphoria… I like my genitals, my chest sometimes dismays me but never enough to cause lasting upset, and I can easily forget about my curvy shape when wearing nice clothes.
    My voice however is the one thing that makes me feel truly unhappy and like I am being betrayed by my body. I love talking. I love singing. I want to do Let’s Plays and voice chat during my MMOs. But I know that the moment I say the first word, I will be misgendered, and it’s so frightening and painful to think about seeing and hearing all the ‘she’s and ‘girl’s and ‘lady’s.

    (I know that I have an advantage over adult trans women in that I have the option to correct my voice permanently with ‘only’ hormones, but I have my reasons not to start hormone therapy and I feel they are very valid.)

    • Thanks for commenting! Everyone’s transition is different so, of course, I don’t think of you as having an “advantage” over me when hormones just aren’t your cup of T (har har har!). You’re dealing with a very similar situation from a very different angle.

      Maybe the solution for both of us would be to have some kind of written trans voice 101 below our videos? Doesn’t help with the MMO chat problem, but it’s a start.

      • Ten says:

        “your cup of T”

        I snorted my drink! Well done.

        A ‘Voices 101′ is a good idea! I’ll have to mull that over, thank you :)

  10. Ashelia says:

    I can’t pretend to relate, but I can say this essay really helped me understand a lot better and was an interesting experience. You wrote it in a way that drew me in and let me see what you felt, a very rare quality in a person. Your older songs were very beautiful, and I again, I can’t pretend to relate to how it must feel to hear them and not identify with the person singing them.

    You should speak. Honestly, people are nasty about women’s voices anyway–the more people who speak that aren’t straight, white males on Streams…the better. :)

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