By Ben Grandis
I love escaping into an identity that is unlike my real-life self. While books, movies, and TV shows offer me a slice of what someone else’s lived experience is like, video games challenge me to actively step into the shoes of another and navigate the world through their eyes. This may explain why I am primarily drawn to single-player, story-rich, adventure and RPG-games where this kind of immersion is highly encouraged.
I adore the privacy to be whoever I want and act however I want in these games. But as I’ve advanced as a gamer, I noticed a surprising trend in the types of characters I consistently play as. When a game gives me control over my character’s race, class, alignment, species, or gender, I generally choose to make the character female, non-white, and morally grey. I also prefer to craft a character who is focused on skills such as magic or stealth rather than brute force in combat.
Even in multiplayer, non-story centric games where narrative immersion or player choice is not as prevalent, this trend persists. Let’s take a look at my “main” characters I am most skilled with and play as most often in popular multiplayer games:
Super Smash Bros.:
Notice a pattern? With the exception of Aquaman, every single one of these characters meets one or more of the following criteria: female, villain, and/or not human. Given that I am a white male human who is not particularly villainous in real life, I began to question why I am so naturally drawn to being these characters with seemingly inverse qualities to myself.
The answer lies in the subversive power they represent. I began playing video games long before I came out of the closet as a gay man. With so many game protagonists being depicted as alpha heterosexual white men, it was a great comfort for my unathletic adolescent self to play (and win) as characters who were the opposite of this masculine ideal. Triumphing over presumptive male-dominance in these games relieved some of the stress I felt in my everyday life.
I remember asking to join a game of Super Smash Bros Melee. that some classmates were playing after school when I was thirteen-years-old. I had been practicing extensively as Princess Peach in the single-player mode of the game at home but felt uneasy choosing her in front of other boys my age. Despite my nerves, I wanted to prove my skills to them and win the match. My face flushed as pink as Peach’s dress when an older boy named Colin laughed and called me a fag for choosing her. In my panic, I was tempted to backtrack and ask to restart the game due to “accidentally picking her.” However, I silently held my ground and let the match begin. I channeled all the rage and hurt I felt in that moment into the fight. Flying around the screen like a vengeful spirit, Peach repeatedly pummeled her opponents with her myriad of goofy and unpredictable attacks. As the match neared its end, only Colin and I remained surviving in the fight. With one life left each between us, I felt the pressure of the moment building heavily.
He was playing as Marth, a master swordsman, and I was trying desperately to stay out of range of his deadly blade. I kept Peach at a distance and continued to throw projectiles in his direction to keep him at bay. Peach has the unique ability to pull heavy turnips out of the ground and lob them at her opponents to inflict damage. On rare occasions, the game will randomly let Peach pull a more powerful item from the ground. Fortunately for me, this was one of those occasions. As she drew a surprise beam sword, I did not hesitate. I charged Peach straight at Marth and drove the blade into him with all her might. The ensuing knockback sent Marth flying off the screen.
A wave of triumph enveloped me as the in-game announcer shouted “This game’s winner is…Peach!”
A wide grin spread across my face as Peach delivered a mocking “Oh, did I win?” to her virtual foes.
I leaped up from my chair and turned to Colin to brag. “Who’s the fag now, bitch?” I goaded.
Clearly, I still had a lot of growing up to do and insensitive language I had yet to unlearn. But in that moment, beating a popular straight guy in a video game with a very ladylike female character gave my closeted teen self an enormous boost of confidence that was much needed. It implicitly taught me that I don’t need to be “normal” to be successful. I don’t need to fit the mold of what society expects a hero to be in order to be heroic. The attributes that make me different from others can be my strengths as long as I am willing to embrace them.
Even though I have now been out of the closet for over a decade now, I am still continually drawn to playing as the “other” in my gaming experiences when given the opportunity. Representation of the marginalized matters, and I cherish the chances I get to give the underdog their time in the limelight.
This shouldn’t suggest that I don’t enjoy games where I play as a more “typical” gaming protagonist. On the contrary, some of my favorite games of all time, such as Uncharted and The Witcher series only allow the player to be a straight white man. However, these protagonists, Nathan Drake and Geralt of Rivia, respectively, are complemented by diverse and interesting characters that help enrich their personalities and stories.
I look forward to the day when this kind of inclusion becomes the industry norm in gaming. Anyone will be able to pick up a controller and find a game where they see elements of themselves in the virtual characters they control. Humans are happiest when our differences are celebrated. Let’s make sure our video games keep the celebration going.