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How video games can help LGBTQ+ players feel like themselves

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

This story includes spoilers for “Gone Home.”

The lesbian kiss was an accident. In 1999, developers for “The Sims” displayed a prototype of the game at a booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the world’s leading gaming and tech convention. In the game, players simulate a virtual life as they build their own avatar, meet friends and lovers, and create a home. Patrick Barrett, a gay man, trained the AI that determined the characters’ romantic relationships in “The Sims.”

Barrett had been working with old code. He wasn’t aware that at the time, his team had decided to limit the game’s romance options to heterosexual interactions. So when the expo simulation showed two women getting married, news of the lesbian characters quickly spread among E3’s audience of roughly 60,000 attendees.

This homosexual marriage in “The Sims” forecast sexual liberation not possible in other games on display at E3, nor legally recognized across the United States at the time. Today, plenty of games, such as “Stardew Valley” and “LongStory,” allow players to pursue queer relationships or use nonbinary pronouns. Life simulators and role-playing games continue to expand their avatar and relationship diversity.

In many cases, these games have helped many LGBTQ+ players feel seen for the first time.

‘I really felt like I was a powerful person’

Steven Arnold is an avid “Dragon Raja” and “Black Desert” player, and not solely for the gameplay. Both mobile titles have robust avatar systems, in which Arnold can cycle through a number of hairstyles and outfits, independent of whether they’re playing as a ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ character.

“While now I’ve dyed my hair every color under the sun, tried makeup, and played with different styles and fashions, it took me a while to get to this point,” Arnold said. “Something as small as getting to play with the way an avatar looks, even if I only ever saw their back for the whole game, felt really reaffirming.”

“Picking makeup or a crazy hair color for my avatar was a way for me to affirm my own gender, even if it wasn’t something I was okay with doing in the real world just yet,” Arnold said. “It gave me an outlet where I really felt like I was a powerful person and the main character of my story.”

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The ability to express oneself in a video game can help an LGBTQ+ person feel more confident in their actual life. Much of this comes down to the proteus effect. Named after the Greek mythological deity known for shapeshifting, the proteus effect is when people in virtual environments — video games, chat rooms and so on — begin to adopt characteristics from their virtual representations. Just as the mythological Proteus can take on many forms, so too can gamers try new identities, faces and lives.

In 2007, the Stanford University Department of Communication began studying how the proteus effect impacts gamers. Researchers Nick Yee and Jeremy Bailenson conducted two experiments to observe if and how an avatar’s physical appearance may influence a player’s behavior in the game. In the first experiment, players ranked different avatars according to their attractiveness. Then, each participant was assigned an avatar to play in a virtual environment, where they would chat with another avatar. The gamers with avatars that the participants deemed most attractive would act more confidently in the game than other participants: walking closer to other avatars in the VR environment, revealing more personal information about themselves and starting more conversations.

In the second experiment, Yee and Bailenson also studied if a gamer might change their behavior due to the physical appearance of their avatar. This time, participants participated in a VR negotiation. Players with taller avatars were most likely to demand a higher split of money, whereas players with shorter avatars were more likely to settle for smaller amounts of money in their negotiations.

This study focused on the physical appearance of an avatar, but researchers continue to study how more abstract traits like gender identity, sexuality, and attitude can also impact a player’s behavior in the game and, sometimes, in real life.

“Although extreme self-transformations are expensive (e.g., cosmetic surgery) or difficult to perform (e.g., gender reassignment surgery) on our physical bodies, nowhere is self-representation more flexible and easy to transform than in virtual environments where users can choose or customize their own avatars — digital representations of themselves,” Yee and Bailenson wrote in the Stanford study. “Who we choose to be in turn shapes how we behave. … Our avatars come to change how we behave.”

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These findings have obvious ramifications for players of marginalized backgrounds and gender and sexual identities. From the safety of their phone or computer screens, players can transform and live vicariously through avatars with physical traits that represent their ideal selves: androgenous, femme, masculine, or — in games like the indie release “2064: Read Only Memories” — somewhere outside of the gender binary altogether.

The proteus effect is a sort of psychological self-fulfilling prophecy. Many LGBTQ+ people want to try different kinds of gender expressions. However, these individuals may feel unsafe when wearing makeup or a different hairstyle in public. After all, 46 percent of trans and nonbinary people experience harassment in public because of their gender expression, according to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey. Around 46 percent of LGBTQ+ people remain closeted at their workplace, according to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

Queer people can feel more comfortable in their identity when they have LGBTQ+ role models, which they can create for themselves in video games. The proteus effect may help queer players feel more confident after they’ve envisioned their ideal self as a character in an RPG or life simulator, even if they fear harassment or discrimination in public. Kaehla Michele Bryant, another gamer, recognizes the proteus effect at work in her own life, as she pursued LGBT+ relationships in video games. As a child, Bryant accepted that she was queer when she played “The Sims.” In the game, Bryant could do what she never thought possible: have a girlfriend.

“I could accept that I’m not heterosexual, at all,” said Bryant. “It gave me the avenue to explore the attraction I felt toward those of my own gender without having to ‘come out.’”

Bryant treasured her Sim as a queer role model. Over time, playing helped her feel more comfortable expressing her identity outside of the video game.

‘Something quite deep and beautiful’

Even now, many players struggle to find authentic or relatable queer characters in games. In “Assassin’s Creed Syndicate,” players quickly recognized that protagonist Jacob Frye does not have a female love interest. The game’s producers later confirmed that Frye is bisexual, but players had to piece together much of this information based on hints.

For LGBTQ+ players to receive the positive benefits of the proteus effect, they need to be able to identify with the queer characters and relationships in their games. As Bryant continued playing “The Sims,” for example, she could relate to her LGBTQ+ character. Therefore, Bryant grew more comfortable with the idea of having same-sex partners in real life.

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Andrea Medina, a Ph.D. candidate writing a dissertation about identity in video games, explains how another game, “Gone Home” surprises straight and queer players alike with a coming out story. The game begins with the protagonist returning home from a year abroad, but her family is not present to welcome them. Players look through boxes and notes around the empty home, slowly realizing that Sam, the protagonist’s sister, is a lesbian. Some players may infer that Sam has killed herself. A goodbye letter and a bathtub, stained red, point to a potential tragedy, one that would mirror the millions of LGBTQ+ youth who consider suicide each year.

But actually, the game’s conclusion is brighter and more wholesome. The red bathtub is tinged with hair dye, not blood. This organic storytelling “transforms from something you assume is nefarious to something quite deep and beautiful. You learn about the process of your sister falling in love and moving away with her girlfriend. At the end of the game, you know that your sister followed her heart despite her family’s disapproval. The realization is akin to learning a secret about someone close to you, having them trust you and accepting them for who they really are,” says Medina. For queer players who may have never felt accepted, this story line kindles hope.

When the real world fails to provide LGBTQ+ people with the opportunity to express their gender and sexuality, the virtual world can be a sanctuary. People who can openly express their identity are less depressed, according to a 2013 study published in The Atlantic, and less likely to commit suicide than their closeted peers. And when LGBTQ+ gamers can’t express themselves in their daily lives, they find a lifeline through inclusive avatars, like the ones in Arnold’s favorite games, or the in-game same-sex relationships that affirmed Bryant’s sexuality.

Like with the lesbian kiss that rocked E3 in 1999, video games can create a world where people can be themselves. Fortunately, the queer relationships and gender diversity in today’s games aren’t so accidental. Inclusive virtual worlds can make many LGBTQ+ gamers feel seen for the first time. And for these people who can safely explore and celebrate their identities in a virtual space, video games make the future seem like a brighter place.

Laken Brooks is a PhD English student at the University of Florida where she studies digital humanities and LGBT history, among other subjects. In her freelance writing, Brooks writes about wellness technologies. Find her writing in CNN, Good Housekeeping, Atlas Obscura, Inside Higher Ed, Lambda Literary, and other publications.

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