It’s 1998, and you just got the first Pokémon game. You boot up the cartridge, and one of the very first things you’re asked is:
“Are you a boy or a girl?”
Your siblings, your friends, all have no problem playing as the gender they identify as. But you hesitate and maybe even surprise yourself. There was a time where I thought a person’s in-game avatar was supposed to look just like them in real life, but I’d like to think I’m more creative than that now.
Tabletop games, or MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), afford a little more wiggle room compared to the gender binary presented by the original Pokémon games. These games give us the unique opportunity to play as people of different races (I’m talking elves and orcs) and different walks of life, from magic-users to barbarians.
So, why not play with gender? Why not play with sexuality? In a world where players are casting spells, summoning demons, or traveling through the expanse of space, who’s to say which gender roles or sexual orientations are “normal?”
Tabletop games refer to turn-based, role-playing games where players are immersed in a world, usually with elements of fantasy or science fiction. The game is led by a Dungeon Master (DM) or Game Master (GM) who is tasked with world-building, creating conflict, and driving a story.
Meaning, the person leading your game is right in front of you. This type of gameplay allows for a lot more freedom, both for players and the DM. When you’re not constricted to the game developers’ world-building or character creator, the possibilities become endless. This also means that most RPG parties or groups will be made up of close friends, making game play an intimate and safe space for players to stretch out their imagination.
Don’t identify as L, G, B, or T? Don’t sweat it. The best part about role-playing is that you don’t have to play a character that is anything like you. A great way to become a better ally to your queer and gender nonconforming friends is to walk a mile (or a couple thousand) in their shoes, as long as your role-play doesn’t rely on performative or harmful stereotypes.
Lately, tabletop games like Dungeons and Dragons have become increasingly mainstream. That could be because the collective social consciousness is waking up to how fun these games can be, or it could be because of the inclusive mechanics that allow players to tell their own story, however they’d like to tell it.
For me, my inclination to transition was preceded directly by an inclination to play as a gay, Japanese man in Monster of the Week, a tabletop game focused around hunting the supernatural in the modern world. This got me thinking: Could others have had similar experiences within a role-playing game? So, I took to the internet and began asking for stories, and folks had plenty of wonderfully weird and fun tales about how game mechanics or personal choice affected how their characters interacted with other players or NPCs (non-playable characters).
The venn diagram of nerd culture and LGBTQ culture is ever-overlapping, and seeing what RPGs have to offer players as far as expression goes, it’s easy to see why. Whether you’re looking to explore your own identity or want to get in the headspace of another role in order to be a better ally, RPGs have provided a space for this exploration.
“I had rolled a bard with a randomly generated flaw that made him attracted to any NPC with a charisma score of 14 or higher. Role-playing that out and giving that character life sort of helped me come to terms with my own pansexuality.”
“I’ve volunteered to DM games solely to role play as female characters without drawing attention to myself. I’m still figuring out who I am, but RPGs give me a space to play with gender roles ‘til I figure it out.”
“I definitely experimented with gender identity via RPG characters. I started identifying as agender in 2016, but prior to that, I had a string of non-binary characters. I think it helped me figure out my identity—being able to role play as non-binary, genderless characters was a way to test the fit.”
“I was afraid to play as a female character around other people IRL, so for a long time, I stuck to online RPGs to explore different genders. Being accepted by the people who knew me online, even after coming out, gave me the courage to transition in my personal life.”
Kati, she/her/ hers
“One of my characters received a cursed item that changed their gender from female to male. At first, I wasn’t sure how to handle it. Do I get my cleric to change them back? Do I start playing them more masculine to fit the new role? In the end, I chose not to change my character’s personality but to start playing them as a trans woman. It may not be how I identify, but it felt more authentic to the character.”
Photos by : Ray Manzari