One appeal of video games is that they offer an opportunity to experiment with new ideas without fear of consequences. No matter how many times my virtual avatars have been shot, I have yet to have the same happen to me.
Video games also provide a place where deeper questions about identity can be explored, while players are protected by the knowledge that you can stop at any time, and no one need know what they are doing. I had just such an experience with the game Acceptance.
Acceptance is a slice-of-life game by transgender video game journalist, and author, Laura Kate Dale as well as Alex Roberts, 8BitGoggles, and Joanna Blackhart. The player makes a series of choices about how they want to live their day. Which bathroom do they use? How do they get home? Each choice shows the player how dangerous it can be to live as a trans person. The most important choice, however, is the one decision that Acceptance takes away from the player.
Who do you think you are?
Acceptance asks the player to pick a gender when they begin. Unlike most games, which use this choice as the basis for the player character, Acceptance uses your decision to make a point. I told the game I was a man the first time I played Acceptance.
“I’m sorry, but you’re a WOMAN” the game replied “You’re a WOMAN, and I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure you learn that fact.” Not only did the game itself frequently insist that I was wrong about my gender, the message was reinforced by characters I met throughout the story. This happened to me regardless of the choices I made over multiple playthroughs.
I imagine this was intended to knock me down, to make me feel like I wasn’t valid. To give me a sense of what it would be like when no one in my life respected the person I told them I was. But it had the opposite effect on me. If anything, I felt relieved.
I’m a trans woman, and I openly identify as such now, but there was a time when I was very unsure about my gender identity. I had spent many years telling myself that I’m not transgender, I just wish that I was a woman.
Playing Acceptance wasn’t even the first time a game had me thinking about my gender identity. I had spent hours on a playthrough of Fable 2 in which I had selected a female character a few years ago. I got really into character, and I found it difficult to shake “girl mode,” as I thought of it at the time, and get back to “feeling normal.” At the time I put this down to getting too deeply into roleplaying. It was pretty intense while it lasted, but it passed. I rarely thought about it as time went on.
What made Acceptance different from Fable 2 is that I played the latter years before I would feel any need to seriously explore my identity, whereas I came across Acceptance at a time when I could no longer avoid such self-reflection. Something had clicked in my brain, and I was finally ready to consider the possibility that I was trans, after years of denying to myself that such a thing was even possible. I wasn’t ready for this experience during when I played Fable 2, but I was ready now.
I quickly quit my original playthrough of Acceptance and I started the game again. This time instead of telling the game that I was a man, I said that I was a woman, and suddenly my experience with the game became quite different.
Suddenly the game telling me that I was wrong about my gender wasn’t oddly affirming, it was hurtful. It did not matter that I had been referring to myself as male for as long as I had any idea what the concept meant. It did not matter that everyone who knew me referred to me as male, and had done so without protest from me.
And yet, every time Acceptance’s narrator, or one of the game’s characters, told me that I was a man, I felt wronged. They were telling me a lie. The conflation of my character and myself was made easier by the game’s art style. None of the characters have faces -- not even the player character -- making it easier to project myself and the people around me onto the people in the game. They were no one, which meant in my head they could be anyone.
When I describe first realizing I am trans, I often say it felt like a light being switched on in my brain. That’s not quite accurate. It is true that my change from “I am not trans” to “I could be trans” was a sudden one, but there was also some uncertainty to it.
My thoughts were on speaking to a doctor during this time of confusion, and then a mental health professional of some sort. I was looking for someone else to tell me whether or not I was trans based on everything that I was feeling. Getting past this mentality — realizing that whether or not I was trans was something only I could tell myself — was a huge step for me. I was able to find the certainty and resolve to argue back when the game repeatedly told me that I was a man. I could finally state it as a fact: I am, in fact, a woman.
Crucially, I was able to achieve this in a risk-free environment. I did not want to admit how I was feeling to anyone who actually knew me. I did have a couple of transgender friends, but I felt like approaching them when I was still so unsure would be a waste of their time. It didn’t help that one of them had shared a meme complaining about “transtrenders,” a label used to accuse someone of pretending to be transgender to be fashionable. Playing Acceptance was something I could do in private, without having to worry about how other people would react.
It was also something I could do at my own pace. I could stop playing if I ever felt like it was too much, and I wasn’t committing to anything by exploring the game. All I was doing was putting a series of scenarios in front of myself while exploring my own feelings. I could start it up whenever I wanted, play it until I didn’t feel like it anymore, and stop playing when it suited me. I was in control of the experience, which is a comforting feeling when so much of life is otherwise out of our control, especially such complicated matters as identity.
The life of a trans person, as presented in Acceptance, is not a happy one. It is filled with difficult choices, pain, and people who do not accept you. Dale took the worst aspects of living as a trans person and packaged them into a narrative which takes place over the course of a single day.
The game even goes so far as to encourage the player to give up at several points throughout the game. There isn’t a happy ending, just the experience of having lived a day in which everything and everyone was against you, and the knowledge that this is what life is like for many, many trans people. It has an air of hopelessness that is so ingrained in its design that I could even hear it in the soundtrack, which sounds like a storm being played on the piano.
I was not being sold some rose-colored version of what my life could be, I was shown just some of the terrible things that trans people are put through by other people. It was not anything in particular that happened to my character that I found so impactful, it was the process of taking ownership of my gender. And the game didn’t shy away from the risks that come with doing so. It came as both a tool of empowerment and a warning about what the future might hold.
Acceptance may have been made with the intention of showing cisgender people what it is like to live as a trans person. The game is well-suited to impart empathy through game play. For me, though, it was a tool to explore my own identity at a time when my concept of self was very much in flux. It did so by giving me the opportunity to make the sort of decisions that I would have never come across at that point in my life, safe in the knowledge that I could make it stop at any time.
That’s what video games can offer; not just the chance to face imaginary bullets, but the opportunity to make statements about who we are, even if only to ourselves. What I shared with other people was my business, and the game’s true value was in what it helped me see in myself.
The rest of my story is still being written, but at least now I know who I am.