How gender questioning and transgender gamers found a safe space in VR

gender questioning transgender gamers safe space vr trans header
Chris DeGraw/Digital Trends

We all saw virtual reality as the logical next step in gaming — and why wouldn’t we? Console manufacturers and game developers are always pushing for innovation and increasingly immersive experiences, and the idea of skipping past the television screen and jumping straight into the body of a video game protagonist in a fantastical world was a very exciting prospect.

In the end, virtual reality proved game-changing for a number of industries, not just gaming. It’s used in therapy and even military training in some cases. Those stuck questioning their own bodies are also using it as a temporary reprieve — a way to experience life in the body they wish they were born in without the risks of coming out in public before they’re ready.

“It reminds me that some people are actually good in this world,” one person told Digital Trends.

One of the best examples of virtual reality being used to help gender-questioning and transgender individuals is the meme machine that is VRChat, a virtual hub similar to the now-defunct PlayStation Home or the advertisement heaven that was Second Life.

VRChat is a virtual gathering place for players (with or without a headset thanks to its desktop client) to socialize. It’s a sandbox simulation that allows them to build and play on virtual land. You can also import 3D models and interact with other players in a large variety of ways. That level of creative freedom is what draws people in, and the ability to be who you want to be encourages people to seek out the expensive equipment needed to virtually experience what it would be like to be their ideal self.

Virtual freedom

Just about anything you can import to the game can be your next avatar. This level of freedom is the reason many VRChat gameplay videos are a mishmash of copyrighted character models, famous faces, and classic improv comedy competitions. For gender-questioning individuals, it’s a way to temporarily alleviate the dysphoria they experience with the body they were born with and instead inhabit one that more closely resembles who they really identify as. Sure, you’ll see plenty of busty anime girls, Muppets characters, and odes to popular memes on your travels through its weird and wacky community-driven worlds, but for some, the avatar they use serves a much deeper purpose.

vr chat avatar

I visited various Reddit groups like /r/asktransgender, /r/VRChat, and /r/transgamers to find players who discovered themselves through virtual reality, or used the VRChat virtual playground as a way to safely explore their feelings without the potentially humiliating and sometimes even violent ramifications of presenting as their true gender in the real world.

For those born with dominating sex characteristics like broad shoulders, a petite frame, or a chiseled jawline, presenting as their true gender in an unforgiving society is a challenge that isn’t easy to overcome. Donning a VR headset, however, is a safer way to gain the insight and perspective they need to affirm or refute their questions and doubts to ultimately make an informed decision about a social transition that could have life-long implications.

“It’s so therapeutic to look in the mirror and see a girl, even if it’s virtual.”

Zambina, a closeted MtF (male-to-female) transgender student, deemed VRChat “the best” at offering these gender-affirming experiences because it allowed her to “be treated as a girl.” Zambina shares a bedroom with her younger brother and can’t come out to her family through fear of losing her scholarships and college acceptance by some potential retaliation from her parents.

As for her brother, she says she has “been his role model forever” and doesn’t want to risk disappointing him. So, when she occasionally gets some time to herself, Zambina logs into VRChat to be the girl she truly is inside. “…others almost always assume I’m a girl because I don’t talk and mostly write/dance around, which they read as female” she explains. “It’s so therapeutic to look in the mirror and see a girl, even if it’s virtual.”

VRChat wasn’t an egg-shattering experience in itself. Zambina already knew she was transgender. But she says it “definitely helps alleviate dysphoria” and reinforces her “desire to transition.”

gender questioning transgender gamers safe space vr chat community

Then there’s KS, a trans-masculine/non-binary person in his mid-20’s. “I’ve pretty much questioned my gender my whole life,” he said. “When I turned 18, I found the term non-binary and kind of just instantly knew that was it, that was me.”

The term non-binary refers to people who don’t identify as “male” or “female.” Some individuals may be gender-fluid, identifying with a combination of both masculine and feminine traits, while others may choose not to identify as any gender at all. These are only a couple of examples, of course; many people have their own unique identities that ultimately do not fall into the male/female binary.

Upon joining VRChat with a friend they were already out to at the time, KS “didn’t want to deal with the misgendering” caused by his regular voice, so he used a voice modulation program to “experience what it would be like to be read as a male from the get-go.” This worked almost too well, with KS being called out as a biological male playing a female character when they changed their avatar.

Facing real obstacles

Skye, a MtF transgender person, sadly didn’t have a perfect experience with VRChat. We’ve heard plenty of horror stories of keyboard warriors harassing people over the internet, and poorly moderated internet games certainly don’t help fix that part of society.

Questioning her identity as a transgender girl from the age of 14, Skye got involved with VRChat in the middle of 2018. She wouldn’t talk much in-game through fear of being harassed, but she managed to make friends very quickly despite being socially awkward.

Fast-forward a week and one of her new “friends” had lured Skye into revealing her sensitive situation. Little did Skye know at the time, she was being recorded, with the evidence then used to blackmail her.

Skye managed to foster friendships — and even a relationship — by embracing her true self online.

It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Skye would go back to VRChat. There, she met a “lovely lady” who invited her to Fallen Realm, a compassionate Discord group of other LGBTQ individuals. “I came out to the people there… they all support me,” Skye explains. “I met my now IRL partner on there.” While it was a turbulent experience at first, Skye managed to foster friendships — and even a relationship — by embracing her true self online. She told us, “It reminds me that some people are actually good in this world.”

When hyper-social virtual spaces like VRChat are too much for someone questioning their gender identity to handle, where can they turn? That place for Mika, a transgender woman who is actually out to her family, was Bethesda’s undying Skyrim.

When you can’t count on other humans to gender you correctly or use your preferred pronouns, a scripted single-player adventure like Skyrim can fill the void. “I remember when first playing Skyrim VR,” Mika recollects. “Going into the Warmaiden’s Shop in Whiterun… The shopkeeper greeted me every time with, ‘Now you, my girl, have definitely come to the right place.'” referencing how NPC’s will, without fail, respond with the correct pronoun for your character’s gender. “I distinctly remember that throwing me for a loop,” she said.

gender questioning transgender gamers safe space vr skyrim ulfberth war bear

Mika says her family frequently misgenders her, so it’s the “subtle things” like unquestioning and unwavering video game code that help.

This isn’t to say that VRChat and VR spaces are the holy grail of safe gender expression and discovery. Just like in the outside world, it can be hard on people who don’t fit the status-quo, and role-playing your true gender online isn’t always going to be met with positive encouragement. But there are supportive communities and genuinely understanding people to befriend in these places. People who don’t care about how you look or sound, or how far from your avatar you happen to be in real life.

Whether you’re interacting with people online in VRChat, Star Trek: Bridge Crew, and RecRoom, or saving the region in Skyrim VR, virtual reality offers those who aren’t ready or unable to open up to their family and friends, the chance to discover and explore their feelings before making the life-changing decision of coming out for good.

Emerging Tech

How pioneering pilot Jackie Cochran helped and hurt the Women in Space Program

Before Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, Jackie Cochran funded the Women in Space Program. The pioneering woman pilot never realized her dream of venturing into space.
Gaming

Take a trip to a new virtual world with one of these awesome HTC Vive games

So you’re considering buying an HTC Vive, but don't know which games to get? Our list of 30 of the best HTC Vive games will help you out, whether you're into rhythm-based gaming, interstellar dogfights, or something else entirely.
Gaming

CD Projekt Red's next open world RPG is set in a cyberpunk-infused dystopia

CD Projekt Red's Cyberpunk 2077 will see the renowned studio tackle science fiction. Cyberpunk 2077 looks like it could redefine how we perceive open world RPGs. Here's everything we know so far ahead of its April 16, 2020 release.
News

Change from within: How the CTA could bring diversity to the tech industry

With a sea of white, male faces as homogeneous as Wonder Bread, tech has an inclusivity problem -- and the trade group behind CES has answers. This week, it unveiled a variety of new initiatives and policies to foster diversity.
Computing

We built this powerful 4K gaming rig for under $1,000. Here's what's inside

Think you can make a 4k Gaming PC Build for Under $1,000? We know you can. That's why we've put together a list of great components which can help you get started on your road to ultra HD gaming.
Gaming

Fed-up indie game devs are fighting back against shady key resellers

Controversy hit after indie game developers called out grey market key reseller G2A over its shady practices. Digital Trends spoke to developers about why shady websites like G2A are bad for games and the people who buy them.
Gaming

Microsoft’s cloud gaming platform xCloud is built using Xbox One S hardware

Project Xcloud was revealed at E3 2019 and Microsoft used a video interview with publication as an opportunity to reveal more specifics about it. They started by using the Xbox One S as the template for it.
Gaming

How to find all eight secret Infinity Rifts in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

Infinity Trials are challenges to complete outside of the main campaign in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order. While most unlock naturally, eight of them are hidden throughout the campaign. Here's how to find them all.
Gaming

How to assemble the best squad in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

With 36 playable characters and only four slots in your party, choosing who to bring into battle with you in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order can be a painstaking decision. We're here to help.
Gaming

A beginner’s guide to whooping baddie butt in Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is easy to pick up and play, but there's more to it than just Hulk-smashing baddies. Our beginner's guide has nine tips and tricks to help you stop Thanos.
Gaming

Apple Mac users should take a bite out of these awesome games

Contrary to popular belief, there exists a bevy of popular A-list games compatible for Mac computers. Take a look at our picks for the best Mac games available for Apple fans to enjoy.
Deals

Get back-to-school bargains on Dell gaming laptops, now $200 off at Best Buy

Ahead of back to school season, Dell has knocked $200 off of its G5 15 and G7 17 gaming laptops. The faithful Nintendo 64 will always remain a classic college gaming system, but these Dell deals are still worth gamers' attention.
Computing

Need to optimize your PC performance? These tune-up utilities should help

The best tune-up utilities do a little bit of everything, from clearing space on your computer to fixing errors and speeding up games. Our guide will show you the best apps for this kind of optimization!
Product Review

The gang’s all here, but Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 is another bland beat ‘em up

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 crams 30-plus heroes and more than a dozen villains into one familiar story. Though impressive in scope, the button mashing combat grows stale and the RPG elements are severely underutilized.