Roleplay as an Identity Formation Sandbox

To kick off the creation of our new section, I wanted to write something a bit more personal than we’re used to publishing on Inatri. Something I’ve been wanting to talk about for a long time, and something I find absolutely fascinating, is the notion of identity formation. A lot of you know my identity or aspects of it: I’m a feminist, I’m a transgender woman, I’m a fan of Gundam, prior to Gamergate I would’ve called myself a gamer, but very few of you know how I reached those conclusions and which ones I tout as being more central to my identity than others.

Your identity, as it appears to others, is very superficial. It’s an identifiable way to categorize others and form an opinion on them based on tidbits of information you know about this person. We share an identity, therefore, I can relate to this person and discuss this aspect of my identity.

However, to all individuals, identity tells a story about you, you who are as a person, and how you developed. In high-school, my favourite band in the world was Cursive. You may pass this off as emotional indie-rock trash, you may hate Tim Kasher, but in 2003 every Cursive song held this incredible significance to me that I cannot explain, and that all started when an old friend of mine lent me The Ugly Organ.

It should be said that I don’t hold this identity as very important anymore, it’s an illustration of how seemingly insignificant parts of someone’s identity can be exaggerated and given incredible importance by an individual. It’s just some band out of Omaha NE., yet 16 year old me thought their music was amazing. Perhaps it was because 16 year old me was trying to figure herself out, where her place was in the world and what “Elizabeth” stood for as an individual.

At the time, she wasn’t “Elizabeth” but she would arrive to that conclusion. Working through different identities and struggling to choose which ones fit her and which ones did not was part of her 16 year old experience, but it was a process that largely took place in the public sphere and that’s the problem. While most kids at her high-school were socially liberal and are absolutely supportive of her now, she was still 16 and it was still a Catholic high-school.

To arrive at Elizabeth she needed a process of identity formation that was away from the public eye. Some place she could play with more taboo identities and figure out what those identities meant to her. 16 year old Elizabeth needed roleplaying.

Learning to Break Norms

I’m certain you’re all aware of role play in some capacity, whether it be hardcore pen and paper roleplaying, adult role play, or you remember playing make-believe as a kid, it is an element of our learning and socialization as human beings. It is an important enough element to play an intrinsic party of many sociological and psychological theories of development, most notably George Herbert Mead. Mead theorized that children first learn about the world around them through the lens of play. As a child grows they begin to understand not only what actions are befitting of the character they represent in the role play, but what social expectations are placed on them in society. Mead calls this “the generalized other.”

If a child plays house and they embody a role, they begin to form an opinion on what is expected of that role and what society expects of that role. Young Elizabeth playing house learns what it means to be a mother in her society. Her interactions with others telegraph to her what society expects of other roles as well. This is all well and good, but the problem with the generalized other, and the problem with limiting role play to younger ages, is that our perceptions of roles are so strictly dictated by expectations of society, it just goes to enforce norms.

Maybe in a few years time a child could play house and have a more fluid concept of what each role should be, but currently you’d find very few children playing house that have a transgender or non-binary character, have a house with a gay relationship, have a game where work is not divided into domestic and public. Roleplaying at a younger age helps you develop certain faculties, but your development continues well beyond your childhood and your identity continues to form much later. Childhood roleplaying does not help you learn that social norms are there to be broken!

As much as I’d love to call up some of my friends to come play house with me, that is a wildly unrealistic expectation, especially to ask of people who have much more concrete identities than I do. People who would have very little sympathy or understanding of the request. So where did I turn? Video and pen and paper games.

Roleplaying in games helped me realize that I was transgender, helped me come to an understanding of what kind of woman I would be, and gave me a lot of practice interacting with others as Elizabeth. A lot of therapists and doctors place too much emphasis on trans individuals crossdressing or wearing make-up, and while those experiences are extremely important for some trans people, I reached an understand of my trans-ness in a different ways. For me I needed that social interaction, I needed to be treated as a woman before it clicked. My crossdressing never left my bedroom, but when I began experiencing things from a woman’s perspective, I knew that’s who I was.

Identity and Azeroth

What really helped cement my identity was roleplaying in World of Warcraft. I had role played before, hell I was even involved in a shapeshifting forum role play, but I never took full advantage of it. When I started playing WoW in summer 2008, I began rolling up characters of different genders and races. Why? I can’t really remember, but I’m glad I did. It was my Blood Elf paladin woman that really started to change my perception of self because playing as her meant that others would treat me differently; Elizabeth figured out then that it made me nothing but happy to be treated like her. I took the good with the bad and tried not to break role, even when it got exceptionally creepy.

I’ll admit that I was lucky when I moved to the Wyrmrest Accord server. I happened to find a group of friends who were very accepting, and also very good role-players. They knew there was a hard divide between character and individual, but also that one would not exist without the other. Our role play experience became a sandbox where we’d pit aspects of our personalities against each other. Because of this I did get to toy with gender and sexuality in a basically safe environment; I got to play around with aspects of my personality and see which one I most enjoyed being, warts and all.

This self experimentation reached it’s peak when I rolled Nayumi. She was basically a slightly chaotic version of Elizabeth: a soft, emotional, drunk, who tries to have fun and amuse herself so she can hopefully clear her mind of all the negative thoughts she has. She was also trans because at the time I was in my first steps towards transition and I wanted to know how the characters who cared about her, and the people who cared about me, would react to that information and how it might affect individual interaction.

Breaking Character and Breaking Up

The fall of 2012 was an odd point in my life. In October I had started talking to someone on OkCupid who would have a large emotional impact on my life. On-line there was guild drama that culminated into a full split, and the Guild Master quitting WoW and moving to Guild Wars 2. I was in my 4th year of Political Science and extremely stressed out by my schooling and the prospect of moving on to grad school. Lastly, I decided that now was the time I would start my transition; I would start subtly playing with gender, I would break what was my former identity, and once I was graduated, I’d start seeking hormones and the necessary therapy component.

Elizabeth was now my primary identity, but some loose ends had to be tied up. The relationship I was in, however brief, pretty much destroyed me. That’s not entirely her fault, nor is it entirely mine, we just had different ideas of each other in our heads, and the split was not amicable. This coupled with the stress of constantly writing essays and theses, pushed me towards Guild Wars 2 as a much needed escape from the troubles of my physical life. I joined my old friends on Tarnished Coast, which was the unofficial roleplaying server and I’d continued playing around with my identity. This time though, it would not be limited to character role play, but rather my entire existence on that server would be my sandbox and I would play as an out trans woman.

To say I’m lucky does not accurately describe how well that experience went. The more cynical, older me, would have avoided this like the plague. In fact, I do not out myself at all anymore. Maybe because this was a pre-gamergate world and trans women were not seen as “enemies”, but being out as trans on the server got me many friends, most of whom play around with gender themselves, whether they identify as trans or cis, a lot of them opened up to me about how they play with gender, how they perceive gender. In the odd case that a bigot would start hurling abuse at me, many of the players would defend me.

This experience prompted me to come out to my friends finally and begin presenting more feminine in the physical world. I knew that people would support me, even if the majority of people would hate me, fear me, or act awkward around me. I knew I could overcome the shitiness of humanity, because I played this scenario out in games.

Conclusion

While my experience was fairly ideal, role play had allowed me to explore alternative identities to the ones I had been socialized into, and helped me clarify my own identity. As a sufferer of social anxiety, role play created a space where identity could be fluid and tweaked with that was not openly public. The lack of persistence coupled with the pseudonymous nature of online games meant that I wouldn’t have to be worried about my experimentation following me and casting a shadow over any future experimentation or any social interactions I may have offline. Because of this it became the ideal place to come out as trans and gauge reactions before attempting to do so in situations that may have an immediate and drastic effect on my personal wellbeing.

I would recommend young individuals try role playing different identities before decided on a concrete identity, but with a caveat. The way I came to understand my identity requires a lot of privilege. I was given carte blanche to play around with my identity as a long process mostly because I’m a white, secular, middle class, university educated Canadian, who only really associates with the same. I’ve since come out to everyone important in my life and not one hasn’t, at least, feigned support for me. This is privilege. While my experience has actually been really amazing, unless you’re coming out to my exact friends and family, I fear that your experience may be wildly different.