by Niamh @foxmomniah
First person shooters had never been a genre that particularly appealed to me. When I was an awkward little creature pretending to be a boy, I rationalized this dislike in a number of ways, but the dominant rationalization stemmed from the fact that I was the youngest of five sibling. My four older brothers all gravitated to the genre, with Goldeye in particular being a regular installment in my childhood home due to the fact that it made four person couch multiplayer easily accessible. Later, a PS2 multi-tap allowed Red Faction and its sequel to replace Goldeneye as the arena for familial deathmatches. Despite this change in arenas, the primacy of first person shooters remained. I was categorically bad as these games, rarely getting kills against my older, more experienced siblings, and so I concluded that I didn’t like first person shooters because I always lost.
In retrospect, however, this rationalization has failed to hold up. After all, I still loved playing games like Twisted Metal and Soul Blade with my siblings, despite being similarly inept at them. Perhaps even more tellingly, I always found the single-player campaigns of first person shooters even less palatable than the multiplayer. Well, aside from Perfect Dark, that is. I consumed that game’s single player campaign voraciously.
Looking back now as an out trans woman, the repulsion I felt to this entire genre, as well as the clear exception I made for female-led entries, makes a lot more sense. In the years since figuring out my own gender and coming out, I’ve become far more aware of my own feelings of gender dysphoria that had previously only been a vague, unidentifiable uneasiness and disorientation I felt. For example, the feeling of stubble poking through my skin is deeply unpleasant for me, and induces a sense of discomfort that I can only ever compare to the feeling of having poison in my veins and something hard and sharp and foreign trying to poke through my skin.
In recent years, I’ve figured out that playing as men in first-person games also triggers dysphoric feelings for me, and this physical discomfort has long made large swaths of the genre unplayable for me. This issue has also be compounded as first person shooters have become more courageous in the stories they are trying to tell and the more detailed the characters are that they ask me as the player to embody.
For example, a couple years ago, I finally tried to play through Bioshock. For better or worse, the game has had an undeniable impact on the art and the craft of game making, so when a close friend who is a huge fan of the series got me the game as a gift, I finally tried to sit down and play through it. Unfortunately, I found myself completely unable to focus enough to get anything worthwhile from the story. For me, the experience of playing Bioshock was incredibly disorienting and near-panic-inducing. I felt addled and confused, nervous about the enemies and never able to relax long enough to feel even remotely safe enough to focus on audio logs and other key nuggets of narrative. The worst for me was the narrator companion, the details of whom I cannot remember aside from his continual gendering of me as male. I realized, when I would final give up and set down the control, that I had that same feeling of poison in my veins, or something being disturbingly and categorically Not Right.
Now, I don’t feel this same way playing male characters in third person games. For example, I had no qualms trouncing around as Joel in The Last of Us, and despite the near constant sense of tension in that game, I was still able to experience and absorb the ambient storytelling and thoroughly enjoy my time with the game. Third person isn’t a problem for me because the character is discrete and separate. This is Joel. I see him. He is a character that I am controlling remotely, and I am a distant director of the action. First person games, in contrast, hardwire into a different part of my brain. The eyes of the character are supposed to be my eyes, their hands are my hands. When another character addresses the protagonist as a man, they are addressing not just the character but also me, the person who is embodying him.
When I have brought up my feelings of dysphoria playing men in first person games, I have almost always received the following response, usually from a very well-meaning but inconsiderate man: “You should give it a try, though! I think it’s important to try to play as characters who aren’t like yourself!” It’s a response that always stings a little too much for me to want to take the energy to respond, but maybe it will be easier here, in writing:
I have been asked to play as a character who is not me for most of my life. I have been asked to play as a man, to embody the skin of a man, to walk around as a man and be addressed as a man. I tried for a very, very long time to play this character. I know what it is like to play this character. I am not even all that special in this regard. “White straight cis man with brown hair and stubble” is widely treated as the default in our society, and nearly ever marginalized person you have ever met has been repeatedly asked to imagine what it is like to be this “default” man, to play as this “default” man, to identify with this “default” man.
So no, my repulsion to playing as these “default” men in games is not from a lack of trying or a lack of empathy. It is not a failure of my ability to imagine lives beyond my own. It is a deeply physiological response that makes me unable to even focus on the experience of the game, let alone enjoy it. My discomfort in playing as men in first-person games comes from years and years and years of playing that character so deeply and convincingly in my daily life that it has caused deep and lasting harm to myself, both my body and my soul. I am tired of playing as that character. I want to play as me, or at least as someone who is not that. Games are a place of escape for me. They always have been.
In fighting games, characters also have fighting styles, and so as an awkward little creature pretending to be a boy, I could pick a girl character without suspicion. “Oh, I like fast rushdown style characters, so that’s why I’m picking Taki.” Not so in first person shooters, where everyone controls the same. “Eww, why are you picking Natalya, you perv!” And role playing games, my blessed roleplaying games… They let me be so many characters at once. Sure, maybe I was Cloud, but I was also Tifa and Aeris and Yuffie. No wonder I preferred these to first person games.
But I have since learned to love what first person games have to offer. I am thankful for the shooters that have opened up the limits of what a protagonist can be and have finally let me play a woman. Dishonored 2 finally gave me a chance to experience and understand this entire “immersive sim” first person shooter genre that many of my favorite critiques have long praised, but has always been walled off for me. Meanwhile Overwatch, with its plethora of vibrant women characters in a variety of different strategic roles, has finally given me the ability to dive into and fall in love with team-based shooters. And that’s the thing: This isn’t just a matter of diversity for me in some abstract sense of seeing people who aren’t exactly like me, but also about accessibility. Female protagonists let me play games that I just physically cannot deal with otherwise.
Niamh has previously written a piece on Chu♥lip for ZEAL and a review of merritt k’s Internet Murder Revenge Fantasy for ZAM, and personal pieces dealing with their own queerness with regards to Chrono Cross and We Know The Devil.