Rae White, a non-binary transgender poet and writer, shares how they found freedom of gender expression through gaming.

I slowly sip my chai tea as the game loads on my laptop. I’m not sure if it’s the jaunty upbeat music or the caffeine hit or both, but I find myself smiling. My smile fades when I’m hit with the character-creation screen.

Which species do I choose, human or pixie? Specifically, human male or female, or pixie male or female? I’m struck with the thought that, if I were a pixie, I wouldn’t have a gender. Or, at the very least, I’d be both genders. Because why on earth would a fantastical species want to be governed by a binary? I end up choosing human female because it’s what I know, and I think it’s what I want.

Free Realms was a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) created by Sony Online Entertainment (SOE) that ran from 2009 to 2014. Despite the fact this game was aimed at kids and I was an adult in my 20s, playing the shorthaired character of Rose Owlfeather was an incredibly joyous and fulfilling experience. Aside from house decorating and exploring haunted forests, Free Realms also had a significant impact on the way I perceived, and performed, my gender identity.

In my physical life, I found myself stuck in a rigid gender role that assigned everything from my clothing and my bathroom breaks to the tick boxes on forms as either “male” or “female”. In-game, I also had to fit into one of these cramped binary boxes, but this youthful, playful game gave me permission to explore my visual and performative identity, despite the bodily restrictions of my female avatar.

I ride my rainbow unicorn through the bright and magical world of Sacred Grove. I see a fellow human running past wearing a purple skeleton hoodie. Another player casually walks by in a brown suit, similar to the pinstripes of David Tennant’s Doctor Who.

I want that suit.

I assume that due to game programming, it’s not a clothing item available to my character but when I open up the Marketplace, I see the suit jacket and slacks on the first screen. People of any gender can wear suits in this game? I purchase it immediately, without even trying it on.

Outside of the Free Realms universe, I find myself assuming the role of a character more often than not: one that responds automatically to gendered terms such as “lady” and “ma’am” and one that ignores the ridiculousness of assigning babies blue or pink colours. But in-game, I have the option to explore who I am through the shirts, hats, suits, leggings and shoes I wear.

Customisable characters

The freedom of customisable characters in many games, not just Free Realms, can give transgender and gender-questioning people the autonomy over our bodies that is seemingly off limits to us in the physical world. It’s often easier and more fun to switch clothes (and hair, makeup and bodies) with the click of a button and reject the awkwardness or humiliation of a shopping-centre change room. Gaming makes it easier to explore who you are in a safe space first, before making those changes in the physical world.

Gender roles don’t just force gender-diverse people into boxes. They also push expectations of “acceptable” and “appropriate” social behaviour, attitudes and appearance onto all people. These socially constructed roles restrict people to rigid concepts of masculinity and femininity (in the Western world), to the point where I found myself more inspired and optimistic exploring my identity in a fantasy setting than I did in my day-to-day life.

I try on dark jeans with long boots, a lime button-up and a sweater vest. I swap the vest combo for a T-shirt and scarf, then flick to ankle-length dress shoes. I move my character Rose around the grassy field, seeing how the outfit looks at every angle. And, of course, I wonder how it would look out of game and on my body. I suddenly wish I could grasp the bright tunics and flared pants through my computer screen and drag them into the physical world.

Gender identity

The announcement of the end of my beloved game (along with many other prompts and questions that had built up over the years) gave me a push to research terms for my gender that I didn’t even know existed. I began browsing through clothing in the men’s section and, in time, even trying things on.

Over time, I realised I was non-binary. This term can mean different things to different people, but it basically means I don’t fit into the male/female gender binary. I also began to describe myself as transgender, because my gender does not match the one I was assigned at birth.

On the last day before Free Realms shut down, I took screen shots of my pet rabbit and my rainbow unicorn and, of course, every single one of my outfits.

I also definitely cried.

And I cried again when, almost five years later, I discovered a reboot of the game was being made. In 2019, I am now a very “out” transgender poet and writer. I think of myself as secure in my gender identity. I’ve mostly got this sorted, haven’t I?

But perhaps there’s still space for me to explore the fluid, ever-changing aspects of my appearance in-game (and perhaps even out of game). As I grow older, my enthusiasm for bright parrot-like clothing increases. I wear more leggings and glitter-woven jumpers than I ever have before. Will Free Realms Sunrise give me the opportunity to happily flourish in (and accurately reflect) my non-binary identity in-game? Will I continue to explore the fluid aspects of my gender or will I focus on other things, such as building houses, exploring quests or learning magic?

And will Free Realms Sunrise give other gender-questioning, non-binary teens and adults the same freedom of expression that Free Realms gave to me?