Growing up gay, I quickly developed a hyper-awareness of the interests that were “acceptable” for boys to have. As an awkwardly feminine boy, my struggle to enjoy stereotypically male pastimes, such as team sports, was an early indication that I didn’t quite fit in. Away from the playground, in the seclusion and sanctuary of the home, I found miniature ways to rebel against restrictive gender norms. My parents were kind enough to buy me dolls to play with, a Spice Girls pencil case filled with gel pens and sometimes I’d even dress up and paint my nails.
My older brother, on the other hand, was the polar opposite of me. Until we discovered tennis in our teens (which we played endlessly), finding mutually enjoyable activities to occupy us both was a tough task. So my parents must have been thrilled when, years before we picked up our rackets, we stopped causing havoc and coexisted harmoniously (almost) when they presented us with Gameboy Colours. These were closely followed by a PlayStation for us to share, which was eventually upgraded to a PS2.
As a young boy, I had a strong affinity with female heroes. She-Ra: Princess of Power and X-Men’s Storm were early idols, paving the way for my beloved Buffy Summers years later. When the world seemed hostile, strong women made me feel like I could do anything. So it was unsurprising that, when given the choice, I’d often chose to race, fight or play as a female character in PlayStation games.
In Crash Team Racing, part of the Crash Bandicoot franchise, I often used to race with Coco the fox. She was the only noticeably female character out of sixteen options. She was cheekier, funnier and, dare I say it, even a bit flirty with her male counterparts. With her pink cart and long blonde hair, Coco was much more exciting to me than Dingo the crocodile or Pinstripe the meerkat.
Tekken, an early fighting game, was another memorable example. Whereas my brother (and I’m sure most young boys) chose ripped-beyond-belief male fighters, impossibly tall and slender Nina – with a purple leopard crop top and towering heels – was my fighter of choice. Nina flipped, kicked and chopped just as well as the male characters – all in skin-tight clothing while keeping her hair and smoky eye pristine. What a woman. She preceded my love for certified gay icon Lara Croft, who, I think we can all agree, raided the first tomb at Stonewall.
In the Nineties, when early games consoles were primitive, gaming culture was overwhelmingly marketed towards men and boys – an inequality that I’m sure still exists today. Yet male characters in games often represented an over-the-top caricature of masculinity that felt unwelcoming and unrepresentative to me.
Looking back, it is now obvious to me that many of the female characters that I idolised, such as Nina or Lara, represented a hyper-sexualised femininity crafted from the male gaze. This might have felt exclusive to girls who, like me, did not feel like they often met the expectations of their gender. But as a young boy attempting to situate himself within an “acceptable” male interest, these confident women helped me.
I’m not the only gay man who explored gaming through female characters. There are even memes which jokingly suggest that boys who raced with Yoshi or Princess Peach in Mario Kart all turned out to be gay. “There was this sense of liberation and freedom I felt a lot of the time when playing as a girl,” explains Jeff, a 27-year-old media manager from London. “On World of Warcraft, I could fully immerse myself in that character and flirt with guys and be myself, from behind a computer screen, in a way I couldn’t when I was outside of that world”.
26-year-old fashion buyer Laurie “exclusively” played with female characters, or a highly feminised version of the male character if none were available. “I think I subconsciously related to the underdog narrative the female characters usually had or identified and admired their confidence”.
23-year-old PhD student Ben deliberately played with male characters when surrounded by other boys. “I was consciously terrified of appearing gay,” he says. “But I definitely liked playing as the girls when I played on my own”. 25 year-old business strategist Magnus agrees that it was a “statement” to play with a female character when playing multiplayer. “Looking back, it was basically akin to a very miniature coming out”.
Many LGBT+ people seek comfort in the fantasy universe of games growing up. So much so, that the term “gaymer” is widely used to describe LGBT+ gamers. Today London Gaymers, a non-profit social community, provides a safe space for LGBT+ gamers in London and across the UK. But before coming out and discovering the inclusive spaces of the more socially aware era we now live in, LGBT+ people had to create our own places of safety. For me, it was in front of the PlayStation, fighting against my brother with Nina by my side. She helped me find joy in an “acceptable” boys interest when maleness often seemed unwelcoming. Because if she could kick arse in towering heels, then surely anything was possible.
This article was part of the NS’s “Vintage video games week”, click here to read more in the series.