Video games allow us to embody different people and inhabit other worlds. But when you can't be your true self in the real world, exploring virtual ones takes on even greater importance. For transgender people, like Jessica Janiuk, games are a safe space for escapism and discovery, and provide empowerment to embrace the real you.
JAMES PARKINSON: So there’s this research group called BeAnotherLab, and they undertake a variety of art projects and experiments, exploring the relationship between identity and empathy. And in 2014, they created a gender swap installation, using some modest camera equipment and virtual reality headsets.
JESSICA JANIUK: This was, you know, fairly early on in the Oculus Rift’s existence. And it was this piece in which two people wore VR headsets, and did this choreographed routine. But piped to their screen was the actual other person’s external camera. They had cameras mounted to the Rifts, so when each person would look down, they would see the body of the other person, who was a different gender than they were. So the experience of it was, like, as they did this choreographed thing, it would, like, convince the brain that you are this other person.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jessica Janiuk says this use of virtual reality holds a lot of potential; to help cis gendered people have a better understanding of what it’s like to be transgender, when your gender doesn’t align with the body you were assigned at birth. And she says it can also help trans people, like herself, explore their own identity.
JESSICA JANIUK: I think that's helpful in understanding the trans experience. So you have this body and your mind knows that it's something else. So when you're in the VR space, and you're trans, and you haven't transitioned, you can embody, like literally be the body that is you. You can see yourself in-game. That is the perfect way of being able to experience your identity, even if very briefly, in VR.
JAMES PARKINSON: While this art project was more an interactive experience than a game, for Jessica, video games have always been her safe space, for escapism and exploration.
JESSICA JANIUK: I remember when I played, probably the first Metroid, and learned that Samus was female, at the end. And I was just like, “Oh, I don't know what I'm feeling right now, but that's really cool.”
JAMES PARKINSON: I’m James Parkinson. From Lawson Media, this is Gameplay, stories about video games, and the virtual worlds that power culture and community.
James Parkinson: Can you describe the relationship you had with video games growing up?
JESSICA JANIUK: Uh, sure. So the relationship I had with video games growing up, it's been pretty involved for me. I played a lot of original Nintendo. When Super Nintendo came out, we didn't really, just like, immediately have the money for it. So I had to figure out how I could save up money and then eventually get, like go in “halvsies” with my parents on the Super Nintendo. And I've owned almost every Nintendo system since then. But I played every platform that I could get my hands on. And I remember, like, renting video games back in the Blockbuster days and being disappointed, like say, the original Mortal Kombat on Super Nintendo didn't have the blood code. And I was all super disappointed about that. But I played a ton of games throughout my childhood and it was a form of, like, escapism and exploration and puzzle solving that I actually think really shaped my career path going forward, because I do, you know, software engineering now. And a lot of that has to do with, like, problem solving and logic puzzles and sometimes, you know, creativity and exploration that goes along with that. And I think those kind of go hand-in-hand. I think on top of that, I would say that it just kind of shaped my imagination.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jessica grew up in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Looking back, she says she knew she was trans from the age of about seven or eight, but understandably, couldn’t quite put a finger on what that feeling was. But as Jessica grew older, video games also matured, and she began to explore her identity a lot more.
JESSICA JANIUK: I started to notice that I identified more strongly with characters, some characters than other ones. And early on, I was unsure what that meant for me. And, you know, in a lot of ways, it made me feel very uncomfortable, but I continued to explore it, both through video games and other media as well. But I think with video games, it's a bit different because you're actually kind of controlling and, you know, embodying this character. So I think as games grew up and became, like, more of what we know of today, that's when my identity exploration became more a part of my experience with games.
JESSICA JANIUK: I can specifically remember back to, like, the original Tomb Raider, for example. Getting to play that was really an interesting exploration for me - sidestepping all of the issues of, like, body image and stuff that comes with that game in the early, early days.
JAMES PARKINSON: The games industry doesn’t have the best record when it comes to gender representation, and the 90s and early 2000s in particular were full of cliche cis male protagonists. Jessica says that in some ways she just accepted the status quo, but as she continued to explore her identity, it also created tension with how she was feeling.
JESSICA JANIUK: I mean, I just played them and tried to take, you know, my entertainment and out of the story, regardless of what that main character was. But it's certainly harder for me to identify with some of those characters, and some of the games I just skipped entirely. Like, I never played Duke Nukem because I just really couldn't identify with that character. And I think there's probably a lot of people like me who felt that way too. But some of the games that I played that are very memorable to me were, like, Deus Ex, the first one. And at this point, like, I was you know, in my late, late teens. And I remember this is like a part of my life when I started to really deal with my own identity more deeply and start, you know, dealing with the idea of coming out and exploring my trans identity more. And I remember loving that story, but just feeling a little weird about the character.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jessica has always enjoyed fantasy and open world adventure games, and the more that games began to include character creation tools, the more empowered she felt to express herself.
JESSICA JANIUK: I found myself gravitating towards creating female characters. And I didn't really understand why, but it just felt more appropriate for me. A feeling of comfort that I really just can't put words to. I think anybody who has a trans identity might be able to relate to that feeling. It took years before I could really explain to others in words what, like, gender euphoria is like. And I'm pretty sure my first experience getting to create my own character that aligned, even if I didn't fully understand that that's what was going on, that aligned with my actual gender identity, it gave me, like, a tiny, tiny sense of gender euphoria that I think was, you know, fairly influential for me, even if I didn't fully understand it. Now as I started getting closer to coming out, the experience of being able to pick a character became more of, like, a way of escaping into myself. So, being able to create that character and live in that world, it was just phenomenal, being able to be myself.
James Parkinson: What's that experience like and how kind of granular did you get in the details, within the parameters of the game?
JESSICA JANIUK: I would say most character creation tools are a line between really frustratingly too simple, and overwhelmingly too many controls. So I tweak it until I can get it as close as I can to reflect myself. I really wish they were better with hair. I tweak the makeup settings, I try to tweak the body type to get as close to me as possible. And then there are some things where I kind of fudge things a little bit. So issues that I have with my own body, I'll be like, “well, I don't want to have to deal with that”, or, “I wish I had, you know, red hair”, or something and I'll change it to that. And things. I don't like about my face shape. I'll tweak in games. I'm like, “this is the idealised version of me”, at least in my head, versus the real world version of me. So I try to get it close, but then fix things that I think are quote “wrong”, even though I know that's not the case. Yeah, I think that's typically my approach to character creation, until I get to the point where I'm like, “yeah, I've spent too much time on this, I'm starting to feel like I'm getting too stressed out about getting this right. So I'm just going to hit ‘next’, and then pick a name”. So, that's typically my approach.
James Parkinson: How does that customisation process, being able to embody that character that you've made, how does that compare to a default playable character that fits with your gender identity?
JESSICA JANIUK: Oh, no question. It makes me feel far more connected to the story, to the gameplay. It makes me want to come back to that game, explore every little bit of it because that's me. That's my world, that I now get to play with. Whereas, when I'm handed a character that doesn't look like me, to me it feels more like I’m watching a movie. Where I’m like, just guiding the movie around. And there’s a place for that, but it’s not as much of a draw for me. I’m going to spend more time in a game where I can freely be myself, than I am in a game that is more of, like, an experience where I’m handed a character that I have to just embody. Because I can’t embody that character. I have to somehow identify with that character and a lot of times I just can’t do that. I mean, obviously that happens with anybody, regardless of whether you're exploring your own identity or not. But I guess my point is to say, when I don't have the freedom to create my own character, I'm probably going to spend less time invested in that game, than if I can tweak it and make it me.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jessica came out in 2001, and it was a time when she was dealing with a lot of life changes.
JESSICA JANIUK: I had taken a year, year off of college, to try to kind of figure out why I was so depressed. And during that period, I kind of identified with everything that was going on and figured out that something needed to change. It was a lot of experimentation done, while I was living with my parents at home and hiding everything from them, and it was terrifying.
JESSICA JANIUK: And then I decided to go back to school and start to come out. Now, I started to come out, that first semester returning to college. And that was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, which is a fairly progressive town. But I was only there for about three or so months before I transferred to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is much, much smaller. You could definitely describe it as more, like, farmland and rural. It's a college town, so, you know, it has some population and it's a beautiful little town, like one of the most picturesque parts of the state, a most beautiful campus, for sure. But because that's the center of where my life was when I came out, I dealt with, I guess a lot more ignorance and a lot - on a college campus, it was more accepting, but the outside of college part of the town was less so. And I was thankful that I was in a progressive college environment in which my identity was largely accepted, but I certainly had interactions with the outside world that was less accepting.
JESSICA JANIUK: I had relationships where my partner and I were screamed at or shouted at, driving down the street. There was one person who ended up getting mad at the local high school because somebody brought me up during a classroom situation, which involved just, like, the concept of gender and someone who is trans - like a five minutes of thinking about the concept to these high school kids, and a parent got really upset and there ended up being big protests within the city about just that, and radio programs. And so it was certainly not the most ideal environment to really come out, but that's the reality of a lot of different people. And I know I had a substantial impact on the school, the entire university system back then, because I was a very active public speaker at the time. And I know they still talk about me on occasion there. But it certainly was a scary time, for sure. I'm glad I had some really supportive friends that helped me through, through that period of my life so I didn't feel as alone, cause it was a challenge, for sure.
JAMES PARKINSON: Jessica also found solace in returning to the virtual worlds of her favourite games. She points to titles like Oni, Beyond Good & Evil, and The Elder Scrolls: Morrowind, as particularly memorable during this time in her life.
JESSICA JANIUK: I remember needing a lot of escapism and having a comfort in things like video games was helpful. So being able to escape into that while dealing with the stresses of not only like, coming out, but also dealing with my sophomore year of college, and all of the crap that has to come with essentially relocating, it was absolutely, a source of comfort for me to jump into video games. Absolutely necessary for me to be able to cope with all of the things that I was going through.
JAMES PARKINSON: When games are your safe space, the drawback is still having to face the real world. And before she transitioned, this was a difficult process for Jessica.
JESSICA JANIUK: It's really sad. Like, it's really disappointing that I have to, like, escape into this video game world. And then I have to come back to reality and have to deal with the frustrations that come with gender dysphoria and being - having to embody a person that isn't me. Even though this is the body I was given, to have to live with. I think in a lot of ways it helped me figure out the things needed to change, because having that feeling of like, disappointment of having to come back to the real world was really a challenge. I could say in so many words how hard it is dealing with dysphoria. And not every trans person deals with it. Dysphoria is something that, you know, some people do. And for me it was something I definitely experienced and it was something that, you know, if you come out of an immersive experience and you're feeling that, it sucks, it just sucks. So, yeah.
JAMES PARKINSON: After transitioning, Jessica’s relationship with games continued to evolve, finding communities where she could really be herself, especially when that still wasn’t always possible in the physical world. That’s coming up, after the break.
JAMES PARKINSON: The appeal of escaping to a digital world isn’t just the immersive nature of the experience. Sometimes it’s also the community that exists in those worlds. This was true for Jessica when she found Second Life.
JESSICA JANIUK: I remember discovering Second Life. I used to, like, religiously read Popular Science. And there was a piece in there about Second Life and I was like, “oh, this sounds like right up my alley”. So, I of course jumped in and created a character. And I played quite a bit of it back in its, you know, earlier days. I was a big fan of not only getting to be the person that I wished I could be, fully, I could also embody certain other aspects of my identity that I don't necessarily get to do all the time. For example, I would put on a Wonder Woman, costume and run around and help out newbies that came into the game because, you know, super heroes. It was a great place to explore and to really feel like I could be 100% myself, regardless of the outside world and the judgment that would come from that. I remember at the time it was a good place for me to experiment with who I came out to and how I expressed myself when I did. And I had some really negative reactions and some really positive reactions. There's actually a couple people that I'm still friends with. We became friends outside of Second Life and remain so.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gradually, games began to provide more options, allowing for individual expression. Jessica says games like Mass Effect and Skyrim, these huge ‘Triple A’ titles, gave her an even greater sense of freedom.
JESSICA JANIUK: After I came out and transitioned, and I had the ability to explore and play more games that just had characters that looked like me. It was genuinely wonderful. I know, you know, a lot of people talk about Mass Effect, but that game was just incredible for all sorts of identity reasons, like you know, from sexuality to being able to embody whatever gender you felt was yours, even though they didn't, you know, have non-binary options for those that are, it's the closest we've gotten and it was really probably the most immersive experience at the time, for me. Because not only did I get to embody a character that I created to look like me, I also got to have the kinds of relationships that I want to have in the real world. So that, I think, is the first time I got to explore in a video game, as deeply as that, and it was truly wonderful. Skyrim is another one of those games, where you can explore relationships that are true to yourself, as well as character creation. And I'm pretty sure I spent about 500 hours in that game, probably for that very reason. So yeah, having those options has really been wonderful, as things have gotten, you know, more mature within the gaming scene.
JAMES PARKINSON: Video games have matured, a lot. But there’s still work to be done, to shed those old cis, white male stereotypes and ensure that the games industry and the work it creates is truly reflective of the community it serves.
JESSICA JANIUK: I think gaming is often seen as fairly male dominated, which is really unfortunate. I've gone to many, many cons and see tons of women at these events. And they've largely, while this is changing, we've largely been, you know, ignored by the gaming scene because it's seen as a masculine or male hobby. But I think as gaming has grown up, the variety of games that is out there, especially given the indie game scene, it's made it very clear, there's room for all different kinds of games. And there's also all different kinds of gamers, of all different genders and identities. I think that it's pretty cool that we're starting to see more diversity within protagonists and stories. I know games like Horizon Zero Dawn, that was one of the first games where I felt like the female experience was captured so beautifully in a video game. The recent reboot of the Tomb Raider series definitely fleshes out a more human version of Lara Croft, as compared to the earlier versions. And it was really wonderful to see that. I think we're starting to see a lot of white diversity in leading characters. What we're not seeing is even more diversity; people of colour, people of non-binary gender identities. It would be great to see those options presented. You know, we always see the default cishet perspective in games. We've never yet seen, I think, a AAA title with a trans character that's even part of, like, the main cast. We've certainly seen ancillary characters show up in games. We need to see more, more than just white cis folks as the protagonists.
JAMES PARKINSON: Developers, of course, have a significant role to play. Having a diverse staff that can foster new ideas. But also prioritising more diverse stories.
JESSICA JANIUK: I think part of it is convincing these, like, big studios to take the quote, “risk” of making more diverse characters. I think a lot of them see it as a hit to money and income, if they don't follow this cookie cutter shape of how to make a video game with the stereotyped cis white guy that has to be the protagonist. So I think, bringing in more voices from different walks of life is great. Maybe make your game, such that you can always create your own character. I know it's more - the big problem there is it's more expensive to make that. You've got to pay more actors to do more voice options. And that's a lot of voice work. Video games are a lot of voice work. It's also more engineering time, more design time. But it's worth the cost. It is going to make people more invested in your game, it's going to give you a larger fan base. It's going to make these games more immersive for everyone.
James Parkinson: When you reflect on your life and the journey that you've gone through, how would more inclusive and more representative games, both characters and storylines, how would more of that have helped you, if they were more prevalent when you were growing up?
JESSICA JANIUK: Oh man. So I think just about every trans person who has looked at transitioning or has transitioned, every one of us is like, “oh, I wish I would have transitioned younger”. But there's that cultural fear and It's a very difficult thing to do, especially within a society that oppresses you. Yeah, had I had the option to explore my identity in gaming earlier in my life, I obviously, you know, I've always been trans, but lacked a lot of places to explore it. I had lacked a community that I could connect with because, well, I'm old enough that the internet wasn't a thing like it is now, when I was, you know, in my grade school years. So having something like gaming, where I could pop in a cartridge and explore my identity that way would have been life-changing. If I had been able to explore that and come out earlier, there's a lot of damage I could have prevented. Obviously still scary, you know, coming out at that time when not a lot of people were out and there wasn't a lot of cultural awareness of it. It would have been very scary and it probably would have created other difficulties within my life in other ways. But there's a lot that it would've, it would have solved for me. So I wished that had been an opportunity for me, I wish I had more options at that point to explore.
JAMES PARKINSON: Unfortunately, the gaming community isn’t always a welcoming place for everyone. But Jessica says that better representation and more inclusive experiences, can contribute to building more empathy for transgender and non-binary people.
JESSICA JANIUK: Not only will it help people explore their own identity, but gaming can help educate people who aren't trans in any way. It can help cis people understand the trans experience more deeply and help them be more supportive and stronger allies. I think that's pretty crucial as well because young folks who are exploring their identity, but are doing so with, like, a family environment that isn't supportive, it makes it really difficult to be safe when coming out. So, having more options for education and for understanding the trans experience is a wonderful thing and gaming can be that, it really can.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks so much to Jessica Janiuk for sharing her story. And right after the credits, we’ll get Jessica’s Top 5 games of all time.
JAMES PARKINSON: Gameplay is a production of Lawson Media. This episode was written and produced by me, James Parkinson. Research and pre-production by our student intern, Dom Hennequin.
JAMES PARKINSON: The Gameplay theme was composed by Breakmaster Cylinder, our artwork is by Keegan Sanford, and other music comes from Breakmaster Cylinder and Blue Dot Sessions.
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TOP 5 GAMES SEGMENT
JAMES PARKINSON: So a Top 5 list is typically a constantly evolving thing for most people, which means it can be difficult to answer. But for now at least, here are the five games that make Jessica Janiuk’s all-time favourites.
JESSICA JANIUK: Okay. Beyond Good & Evil, definitely. I'm really eager for that sequel, if it ever launches. Knights of the Old Republic, for sure that one, it’s a fantastic game. A recent one would be Horizon Zero Dawn. I would have to say The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, because I just played that game so much. And then I'm going to have to go with The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time, because it was just so amazing and such a new experience. So, I think that's my list for right now.
JAMES PARKINSON: Thanks again to Jessica, and thank you for listening.