Playing “Macho” Games as a Trans Woman
Most video games set out to do one thing above all else: to make you feel like the main character. There are a dozen or so buzzwords regarding this- “feel like X” may be one of them, as well as “immersive”. This is why, for as long as people have been playing character driven games, they will refer to the protagonist, the character under their control, as themselves. I think Hbomberguy said it best in his video “Power Fantasy, Male Objectification and Lady-Fanservice” (0:30–0:53):
This is why when given a choice, people tend to pick a character that looks like them, or one whose personality is close to theirs. But what about when you’re not given a choice?
I’ve played about three games this month: God of War, Dragon Ball FighterZ, and a replay of Batman: Arkham City. While there are two playable female characters among the 24 in FighterZ in the form of Androids 18 and 21, Android 21 isn’t even playable until you unlock her, and I haven’t yet. So I’ve been spending my month partly as Kratos, partly as Batman, and partly as Goku/Trunks/Frieza.
I should clarify that this isn’t something I’m not used to. It’s no surprise to anybody who has played a video game or two that male characters dominate the landscape. One of my favourite games growing up was the Godfather game, where the only women characters are pedestrians you can mug or kill, and sex workers whom you can have sex with, mug, and of course kill. The Last of Us’ Joel is a gruff, 40-somethings cishet man and it’s a fantastic game. Having male protagonists is not a problem for me.
It seems, though, that I may have picked three of the most machismo-fueled testosterone parties to play this month. God of War’s Kratos is emotionally distant from his son, even after the extremely emotional death of Atreus’ mother, and his voice sounds like a lawnmower just ran over a pool toy. In Arkham City, Batman is a square-jawed body of muscle, teeming with “beat up bad guys” energy, and constantly glaring, scowling, and threatening those who get in his way. And FighterZ is pure macho energy start to finish, with all the screaming, punching, kicking, and Kamehameha-ing that you remember from the anime. And I’ve been having a weird feeling this month after playing these games.
This feeling, this dissonance, is the feeling of keeping the protagonist at arm’s length. I am able to relate to Kratos’ emotions, but not to his character as a whole. Truth be told, I find myself relating to Atreus much more that I do Kratos. When I play FighterZ, I may be referring to the characters on my team as “me” but there’s no immersion behind it. I feel like a woman controlling a character on the screen, not the muscle-bound Ki blasting men whom I chose to fight for me.
Maybe I’m metagaming a little too hard. I spend a lot of my time watching and learning about fighting games, and DBZ feels more like a competition than an immersive gaming experience. That’s not to say that I don’t feel genuine emotion when playing FighterZ. Quite the opposite. I feel triumph when I trounce an opponent while barely taking damage, elation when I manage to come back and win a battle I thought had been lost mere seconds earlier, and crushing defeat and, sometimes, embarrassment when I lose in spectacular fashion.
My favourite parts of God of War so far have been the few times Atreus gets truly emotional, and Kratos comes so close to consoling him before chickening out and reaffirming himself as the tough-but-fair, emotionally unavailable man we can assume he’s been Atreus’ whole life. But those few seconds where God of War shows us Kratos’ vulnerability, his desire to emotionally connect with his son, and his grief and fear over the death of his wife are some of the best few seconds I’ve had playing a video game in 2018.
Gaming as an act is harder for women than men, and harder still for trans women. Within my first hour of Arkham City, there were multiple rape-y lines that made me wince, and an offhand comment about how Harley Quinn assumedly “used to be a dude”. I love playing games, but I find myself unwilling or unable to participate in a large part of the social aspect of games because of fear of being invalidated, insulted, or becoming the target of slurs.
God of War and FighterZ are incredible games, I can’t deny that. GoW’s freeze-framing when Kratos’ axe connects with the body of a Draugr to give it that extra weight and the feeling of landing a 30+ hit combo are both immensely satisfying, and those feelings alone could keep me coming back to those games over and over again. But while they make me feel powerful or competent, they don’t immerse me the way I’m sure the developers intended them to. They don’t feel like lived experiences, they just feel like games.