I told a story about my experiences with Fallout: New Vegas and how the game helped me explore and come to terms with my bisexuality at PAX Prime.
The experience was greatly facilitated through the participatory nature of video games. The active decision-making process in games narrative influences our self-perception.
This dynamic not only puts the power of video games above other forms of art and entertainment, it also opens up new realms in terms of personal evolution while prompting a new question: is it possible that video games are the most persuasive medium in entertainment?
Exploring yourself by becoming someone else
Figuring out sexual preference is an easy task for many people. As human beings we take social cues from our surroundings and as we feel the comfort and validation of inclusion, shared experience and positive feedback we gain the tools we need to feel confident identifying our emotions and motivations.
Some of us on the queerer side of the spectrum can hit a wall in this process when it comes to love. There are numerous factors that affect one’s ability to correctly identify and process thoughts and feelings with regards to sex and attraction, and these can leave someone in the dark for decades. Not finding anything in your environment with which to identify can add to the problem.
I was blind to my own sexuality until adulthood. I had no idea I was gay. There are lots of factors that went into my special brand of obliviousness; I grew up in a fractured home with a general absence of female bonding and was raised in fundamentalist Christianity. Add to that being entrenched in a misogynistic society that was all too eager to offer positive reinforcement for self hatred. I had few resources to even identify my own wants and urges.
Of course I didn’t know I liked women. I barely had autonomy at all.
My PAX co-panelist, writer Samantha Allen, has previously observed the impact of customizable avatars in video games and how they can help those outside the gender binary process their identity.
The relationship between player and avatar is unique in pop culture.
"For some players," Nick Yee observed in the 2008 study The Proteus Effect: The Effect of Transformed Self-Representation on Behavior, "the avatar becomes a purposeful projection or idealization of their own identity, while for others, the avatar is an experiment with new identities."
I was blind to my own sexuality until adulthood
Even when the avatar bears little resemblance to who we actually are, this relationship is so tangible that it can actually influence our behavior and impact our self perception.
Participants were found to alter their behavior based on the appearance of their assigned virtual identity, deferring to popular perceptions of their avatar’s traits. "Taller" people acted with more authority, "shorter" people were more likely to submit. Avatar therapy has also proven useful in the treatment of schizophrenia, allowing sufferers to assign voices and images to their identities and then speak through them to their therapists as a means to control their hallucinations.
There is a strong relationship between our "real" and "fake" selves. For some, they are the same thing. For most the lines are at least a little blurry.
Video games provide a risk-free haven where players can explore thoughts and ideas free of lasting social consequence. They give us the safety to explore who we are, a test run on our identities. It’s what gives entertainment the ability to help us discover things about ourselves.
For me, that experience involved processing my confusion over my own sexual identity. Was it that I couldn't bond with women, or had I been too afraid and angry to even try? I would find that answer in an unexpected place: the world of Fallout.
Better living through imagination
The Fallout series has always been somewhat gender inclusive, but more recently it has also accommodated queer sexual expression. The perks Black Widow or Lady Killer provided combat bonuses against the opposite sex but also opened new dialogue options that rely upon sexual persuasion to pass certain speech checks in Fallout 3. This was expanded to include Confirmed Bachelor and Cherchez Le Femme, which would allow the player to explore same sex dialogue options in New Vegas.
This was used to help you bond with a young woman named Christine, as the expanded dialog options allowed you to connect with her in a way that was closed off to other characters in Dead Money
Christine was a character driven largely by revenge. The Brotherhood of Steel leader Elijah had not only deserted their faction following his failure to defend HELIOS One from the NCR but was also a bigot, forbidding that Christine date Veronica, a scribe you meet during the events of New Vegas.
Elijah treks across the Mojave in pursuit of new leads on Old World technology and Christine follows, setting into motion events that will ultimately see the Courier confronting Elijah. How the Courier, the player character, figures into it is up to the you, but for me the path was pretty clear.
I first met Christine in the collapsed shell of a former medical building deep in the Sierra Madre. She'd been mutilated and trapped inside an Auto Doc, maimed so badly she could no longer speak. It took several minutes of guessing and wild gesticulating before she and I could form a dialogue, thanks to the deep slashes across her face and throat. We navigated through her injuries and Christine’s justified inability to trust.
I was also able to express concern for her well being with the Cherchez La Femme perk, a mutual vulnerability that resonated with my real-world physical body.
My real emotions responded when my avatar communicated with her and shared concern. Christine was no longer just a series of digital signals and impulses to me. She was real. This sudden instinct I felt to protect her was entirely facilitated by projection of self through the avatar. When given the chance, I was able to emotionally invest in a way that was scary but satisfying.
My Hero Complex was fully intact and, seeing it indulged, I saw how universal this drive could be. Was this how men get to feel all the time?
My thoughts often went back to Christine throughout the campaign. Where was she? Was she okay? My concern was not rooted in doubt towards her capabilities, but rather a shared trauma that seemed to bond us together, as the player and as the Courier. Like Christine, my sexuality had been persecuted. Like Christine, the Courier was on a mission for justice. We were linked, through blood, tech and tears.
Ultimately I had to leave Christine to her choice, which meant leaving her behind. Months later, in the DLC chapter Old World Blues, I would come across signs of her presence, the legacy of an epic showdown between her and Elijah. In the ensuing struggle, Elijah and Christine exchange gunfire over a Chinese internment camp full of ghouls, the latter leaving behind a sniper rifle as the former flees into the Big MT.
Coming across that rifle, connecting the dots leading up to that fateful moment I freed her from the Auto-Doc, I wept. It was real to me, because she was.
Above: Christine’s BoS Sniper Rifle, in the tower of the Chinese internment camp
When I selected the Cherchez Le Femme perk, I was just happy to see my sexuality represented. I didn’t expect to be challenged as a person.
We are who we play
Games have enormous power, a superior ability to persuade that we frequently ignore in favor of conceding to passive, mindless absorption. Virtual entertainment driven by human narrative will continue to affect real people.
Instead of trying to preserve the "fun" of video games by insisting they have little impact, we should be examining how to channel it, capitalizing on the expanded potential audience and drawing on new and unfamiliar experiences to drive creativity. Within the scope of escapism so too exists the potential to facilitate growth on the social and individual level.
Of course, my meaningful experience with Fallout: New Vegas isn’t solely responsible for my improved relationships with women. But it was the spark that ignited the fire. Video games can enlighten even as they entertain, and I’m a more complete person for it.