DARK NET: Trans Teens Turn To Video Games To See Themselves

Without a way to match their physical bodies with their true gender, some trans teens are turning to the virtual world

(Bethesda Game Studios)
Feb 18, 2016 at 1:00 AM ET

For transgender teens, the virtual world can provide what the real world often can’t: a representation of themselves that matches their true gender. Video games with customizable characters—known as role-playing games or RPGs—are becoming a valuable outlet to cope with gender dysphoria, a condition where an individual does not identify with the sex they were assigned at birth.

Julia*, who was born male and hasn’t come out as publicly transgender, first knew she was trans two years ago, when she was 12. After watching a news story about a transgender woman on TV, she decided to do some deeper research online. “I was a curious child,” she says. “I gradually gained more knowledge and, after a while, I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, this is me.’”

This discovery also made some of her past behaviors come into focus. “A lot of things that I was doing were consistent with characteristics that I later identified with being trans,” she says. “I didn’t like toys for boys that much, and I had this weird interest in playing with dolls.”

The behavior that really stuck out, however, was what happened the first time she created an avatar in The Sims, a video game set in a virtual world that mimics real life. You can do typical, everyday activities in the game, such finding a job, grocery shopping or starting a relationship with another Sims character. And there are endless possibilities for customizing your avatar, allowing users to choose their gender and appearance.

“‘What am I going to make my character?’ I thought, ‘Hm, I’ll make them a girl,’” she says. By this time, she had just started 8th grade. “I played Sims so much,” she says. “I probably logged hundreds of hours.” Her character looked like her—same hair, same skin tone, same build—but was female.

“I immersed myself in a life that I wish I had,” she says. “Playing video games is an escape from reality, but mine was more vivid than most people.”

“‘What am I going to make my character?’ I thought, ‘Hm, I’ll make them a girl.’” — Julia

“Self Determination Theory suggests we often use games to meet needs that are hard to meet in real life,” says Chris Ferguson, associate professor of psychology at Stetson University, who specializes in video games. “Needs such as social needs, autonomy and competence. It’s certainly conceivable that many transgender youth might struggle more than most with these issues. Games could present an excellent opportunity to see these needs met.”

This aspect of being trapped in one’s body is explored in the fifth episode of DARK NET. The thought-provoking, new eight-part docuseries—developed and produced by Vocativ—airs Thursdays at 11 p.m. ET/PT on SHOWTIME.

For many transgender teenagers, video games could be a necessary short-term alternative to coming out and facing rejection from their families. According to the Williams Institute, an estimated 40 percent of homeless youth are LGBTQ, and their homelessness is often a result of rejection from their families. Regardless of familial acceptance, gender dysphoria can have a severe psychological impact. According to the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, over 50% of trans identified youth have attempted suicide by their 20th birthday.

Creative, immersive outlets like video games can be a crucial asset for these teens. “From my experience, kids have said that video games were empowering or had saved their lives,” says Susan Maasch, founder of the Trans Youth Equality Foundation. “The fantasy of being the boy or the girl you know you are, and relating to that character [by] escaping into these scenes and stories and these characters. It can be very important, and a lot of kids are doing it.”

More Transgender Woman Forced Into Men’s Prison Dies

Julia, who comes from a conservative background, is afraid of her parents’ reactions if she comes out to them. “It would be really difficult for them to understand. I don’t want to do anything I can’t take back and might regret.”

Julia vividly remembers her parents’ reaction after watching that same news segment on a transgender person last year. “They said, ‘That’s wrong. That’s not what nature intended. That’s not what someone should be,’” she says. “I see… how they react and I think to myself, ‘I am not going to come out anytime soon. Nope.’”

Instead, she turns back to video games, which have always been a continuous source of support. “I used to play The Sims every night until very early in the morning,” she says. In this virtual world, she would mingle with friends. She became a mother, raised a family, built a home and pursued a career in tech, though she dabbled in acting as well. She would sit in her room, for hours, and live the life she dreamed of for herself in the future.

But, outside of the game, she says, there’s still that little voice in her head. “It’s telling me, ‘You have to come out. What are you doing?’ It nags at me constantly. Sometimes if I haven’t played games in a while, I think, ‘I want to escape. I need to release these feelings.’” 

“They allowed me to disconnect from my body and establish a sense of self that I lacked in real life, especially before I transitioned.” — Sabian Mignone

For Sabian Mignone, a 22-year-old transgender man from South Carolina, who transitioned at 17 and also has Asperger’s Syndrome—now referred to as Autism Spectrum Disorder—video games like Pokémon and Morrowind allowed him to understand himself better. “It was the only place where I could do what I wanted,” he says. “I wouldn’t buy games that only had female playable characters.”

Because of his Asperger’s, video games allowed him to express his gender identity in ways he couldn’t communicate in real life. “They allowed me to disconnect from my body and establish a sense of self that I lacked in real life, especially before I transitioned,” Mignone says. “As I grew older and my gender dysphoria grew worse, I spent more and more time playing RPGs.”

Although the specific way transgender youth may use video games as an outlet has not been studied by medical professionals, the concept of video games as a stress reducer is well-documented. In a 2014 study, the American Psychological Association concluded that playing interactive virtual games led to significant mood improvement by distracting players from unpleasant things in their lives. Ferguson, of Stetson University, agrees with this evaluation. “I’ve conducted several studies myself that suggest that games are good at relaxing people after an acute stressor,” he says. “To a large degree, games may function similarly for transgender youth as other youth in this respect.”

More Transgender Suicide Attempt Rates Are Staggering

For Mignone, video games are still a big part of his life even after he transitioned. “But now,” he says, “I can play them for fun instead of to cope.”

Julia switched schools not long ago, and has felt herself growing apart from her parents. The combination has made things difficult for her. “It makes me want to play video games more, but my new situation also takes time away from me being able to play games. It definitely weighs on me and I think about it a lot,” she says.

Some transgender teenagers who have used video games are, now post-transition, trying to make a career out of it. For Kat Boone, a freshman in the game design program at Champlain College, Pokémon on Nintendo DS and Skyrim on Xbox were her games of choice pre- and intra-transition. “I wanted my characters to look like a badass—to be strong,” she says of her female avatars. The games also helped her avoid self-harm, a problem she faced when she was younger.

“Transgender influence in gaming is absolutely changing the academic take.” — Greg Bemis

“Gender dysphoria can be so overwhelming,” Boone’s mother, Gail, says. But in video games, Gail says, her daughter “was building herself, imagining it as she wished she could be. Having something like that is so significant and so supportive.”

One of Champlain’s video game clubs, Women and Diversity in Gaming, promotes the inclusion of women and LGBT persons in the profession. And the group’s inclusivity has affected the college’s curriculum. “Transgender influence in gaming is absolutely changing the academic take,” says Greg Bemis, program director for game design and programming at Champlain. “There are different kinds of players looking for different things in a game. We try to communicate that to students: Games can serve a bunch of different purposes.”

Recently, Julia decided to grow out her hair. “It makes me feel better about myself,” she says. “And, hopefully, if I come out and start to transition soon, it will be long and I will look better.” She has also started playing different games like Grand Theft Auto V, which also offer character customization, including different genders. “Their behaviors are reflective of what I would do in their situation. I base their personality and decisions off of my own.”

As of now, Julia hasn’t decided if she’ll come out to her parents, or how. She says she has three potential courses of action. The first is to come out outright, the second is to transition in secret— “It has been weighing on me to the point where I am contemplating opening a PO box to transition DIY-style until I have a reasonable solution”—and the third is in the middle of the two extremes. “I have been asking my mom to find me a therapist, so I can talk about it with him and then he can help with my parents,” Julia says. For now, though, video games are the only outlet where Julia can find a release.

She hopes that she will eventually be able to feel as fulfilled in her real life as she does when she sits down in her room and becomes her character in The Sims.

“How long will it actually take? I don’t know,” she says. “I just don’t know.”

*Julia is a pseudonym for a girl who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity because she has not yet come out.