Age of the Twink: Yes, I am a gay-mer

When it comes to a “Super Mario” game, I’ll always choose Princess Peach as my avatar. If it’s “Resident Evil,” I’ll go for Ada Wong. I prefer Ms. Pac Man over her boring male counterpart. For Super Smash Bros., I frequent Samus.

A 2013 study in the journal “Information, Communication & Society” found that men are 23 percent more likely to gender-swap in video games than women. The explanation for this phenomenon? The author claims that men “prefer the esthetics of watching a female avatar form,” meaning, in a third-person role-playing game, they like to watch a female character’s butt.

How the male gaze transfers onto the animated female form is just one of many disappointing factors of this phenomenon. Some men desire to “control” the woman, while others view female characters as weaker and simpler to master—like an “easy mode,” but for the gender divide.

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While these explanations suit a patriarchal, often heterosexist viewpoint of the video-gaming audience, they fail to consider the many gay men who choose female avatars. If so many straight men choose female characters to represent them in the digital sphere, there are just as many—if not more—gay men who fall into the same habit, according to Cyber Psychology.

I am not a gamer, and I don’t claim to be. Yet I would be lying to myself if I did not admit that female characters, in all forms of media—literature, films, television shows, and video games—shaped my development and impacted my identity as a queer youth. I can still recall friends mocking me when, at their homes, I would indubitably and reflexively select “girly” characters like Chun-Li in “Street Fighter,” or the snide comments from my father when we played “The Legend of Zelda” and I’d fawn over the enigmatic, usually silenced princess. 

According to Dr. Catherine Flick, senior lecturer at De Montfort University, the gay man’s wont to identify with a female character largely relies on a sexual basis. Because there are scarcely any queer characters in video games, we must depend on the woman to live out our fantasies of romancing with men. In video games, pretending to be a woman provides us the opportunity to form the same connections with men that, in the real world, could result in harassment and bigotry. Video games can’t judge us for wanting to be with the same sex.

Flick also alleges gay men often find solace in the strong, yet over-sexualized woman. When one peruses any article denoting the most famous female characters in video game history, or any catalog of available avatars from which to select in a game, or any online message board—where male fans share their “art” in the form of a caricature of the female body, where breasts, hips, and lips are swollen and bulging—it is not a challenge to realize how severely male-dominated the industry is and how these results of human imagination often objectify women.

Yet what is the critical eye to make of characters such as Samus from “Metroid,” or Lara Croft from “Tomb Raider,” or Yuna from “Final Fantasy?” In other words, what am I, the gay man, supposed to make of my identification with such overt male fantasies?

It was something I didn’t comprehend when I was younger—when my libido was so repressed as to believe I lacked one—yet I understand it quite well now. The female characters I looked up to, even aspired to be like, were powerful. They were powerful and over-sexualized, as if female power relies on sex. They would manipulate the male gaze—the camera’s lingering shot on their behind as they crawled through a tunnel, or the too-detailed jiggling of their chest as if women with mystical powers and superhero abilities know nothing about bras—by reclaiming their narrative. They would transform into something to fear, something that could destroy and, in some cases, humiliate their (often male) enemy.

For me, a gay kid ridiculed for my “abnormal” sexual orientation, that idea had quite an appeal: that I could turn what was used against me into something powerful and mighty.

But queer identity is not the same as sexual identity, and the gay man’s identification with women—extending into the real world, as well, with the popularity of female pop stars and Hollywood actresses in the community—is much more nuanced and human.

I remember playing “Final Fantasy X-2,” the installment in the role-playing series that focuses its narration and storyline on the experiences of three women trekking its fantastical world. I was obsessed. So obsessed, in fact, that I nearly begged my parents to gift me its action figures, crafted and shipped cross-continentally, for Christmas. For the first time, I was exposed to the power and force of sisterhood—in video games, if one is lucky enough to have a playable woman, she is normally isolated and self-dependent. It was something I longed to have: a bond not based upon, but lifted up by a shared, marginalized identity.

In the HBO show Looking, one of its male characters creates a video game with zero playable women, to which his gay employee swiftly protests. “Women are the outsiders in games,” he says. “And I relate to that. Gay people get it.”

As a man, I don’t aim to stake my privilege where it doesn’t belong, but maybe there is truth in why I, along with countless other gay men, find solace, comfort, and even support in female characters. Because like us, women, as much in the digital world as in reality, are underestimated and ostracized, and we long to show our worth and strength. To prove ourselves. To rise up to the occasion. To not only join, but play the game.

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