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The Gift My Character Gave Me: Knowing Myself

Roleplaying can create empathy for others and provide the opportunity for self discovery.

Today’s post is a very personal one addressing self exploration through role playing. This is about a positive life change discovered through roleplay that I’d like to share.

One of the golden rules of great game groups is to encourage each person to bring their personality and unique ideas to the game. As a dominant player (who basically thought my ideas were the best) this was a hard lesson to learn but infinitely valuable to enhancing my enjoyment of games. Additionally, when I bring more of myself to my role I am more fulfilled by the experience. Through play, each person gets to highlight what is important to them and their character. In many ways, role playing can be a window to the soul.

Sometimes the things explored through roleplay and the lessons learned have ramifications that reach far out into a person’s life. Roleplaying, and my character Harrison in particular, helped me reach a literally life changing revelation.

Recognizing the Gift.

There are numerous skills I have refined through roleplay: speaking up, long term planning, problem solving, thinking outside the box. All of those are great, but that’s not why I’m writing this post. It’s self-discovery time.

At the beginning of 2018 I played in a Tales from the Loop game as Harrison, a 14 year old trouble maker, who I played only a half dozen times. He was a boy becoming a man who was struggling to find his place in the world. I wrote more than 100 pages of fiction and backstory about him. That amount of devotion to a character had never happened before and I realized I had to understand what was going on. Why did I *need* Harrison so much? Harrison was the tipping point in a major self-revelation that literally changed my life.

In role playing games I play as a fictionalized version of myself, sometimes my idealized best self, sometimes leaning deeply into my flaws and touching on the mixture of hope and tragedy that is the human condition. My characters have been tall, short, caucasian, people of color, human, daemon hosts, fat, thin, straight, gay, bisexual, happy, lonely, rich, starving, religious, agnostic, and many other things. But my favorite characters have shared one trait since I started playing at 6 years old, they’ve been male.

What I’m here to say is: it wasn’t just my characters who were always male. It was me.
Hi, I’m Wen and I am a transgender man.

Why Tell the Gnome Stew Audience?

Role playing has been the place I have been my fullest self for the last three decades. I can walk up to any game table, introduce my character and have them accepted for who they are without question. I was accepted as *who I was* without question. That is powerful beyond my ability to express. It vented steam I didn’t know was otherwise building up in my head. Roleplaying kept me safe and gave me the outlet I needed until I was ready to face myself.

For a long time I’ve said that the highest function of role playing is the ability to create empathy through game play. What I missed was that role playing can foster deep self-exploration, the ability to not just understand or empathize with others, but to know yourself. As such, role playing as a hobby and my characters, including Harrison, have always been extremely important to me. In some ways my characters were more “me” than I was allowing myself to be.

Many players don’t need roleplaying in the way I have. Not every role player will have a revelation like mine. However some of us do. I think this is important to highlight because it is one of the reasons that a player’s agency in their character can be so extremely important. When you play, keep in mind that you never know how close a person’s character may be to their sense of self. Removing agency in the character may feel violating to the player in ways you don’t understand. Regardless of the circumstances, to keep your players trust, don’t compromise anyone’s agency in their character without their enthusiastic prior consent.

What Can We Do Next?

For readers wondering if there is anything you can do to make life better and easier for transgender people like me, the answer is an emphatic: Yes! I’m writing this section of the article with our cisgender audience in mind, but everyone is invited to read on. These are my personal opinions and learnings but I think they are a good starting place for being an informed friend and ally.

I’m still me. While your perception may have shifted, at my core I am still the same person, and that is true of all transgender people. If you were acquaintances or friends before, there is no reason that should change. As a gamer, if your friend brought a character of a different gender to the table, I imagine you’d say okay and move on with the game. Follow that same model in real life. There isn’t any reason people should act differently (read: uncomfortably) around one another. Focus on what you have in common, just like always, and you’ll be fine.

Honest communication and education demystifies being transgender. If you don’t know what I mean when I say “transgender” or “trans” read this [1] (for a quick refresher on terms look here [2]). Start by doing some reading and branch out from there. Ask questions in good faith and clearly express the desire to listen, learn, and understand individual people’s perspective.

Transitioning 101. There are several kinds of transition, not every transgender person transitions in every way. A transgender person’s identity is valid regardless of a person’s ability or desire to do any of these steps. Safety comes first and each kind of transition has its own risks and costs. Internalize this fact, accept it, and please don’t judge one another about it.

Pronouns: He/Him/His, She/Her/Hers, They/Them/Theirs, Name Only. Together we can normalize offering and asking for each other’s pronouns. If cisgender (non-transgender) people normalize this practice people who are trans (or non-binary or genderfluid) won’t effectively have to “out” ourselves every time we meet someone new.

Be a Visible Ally and Back it Up with Your Actions. Your words matter. Your actions matter. Your votes matter. Visibility matters (that’s why I wrote this post). It is important to nurture and embrace diversity in all spaces, including gaming spaces. Wear your rainbow colored shirts, pronoun pins, and Ally ribbons at conventions and game stores. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I could always pick at least one person in the crowd wherever I was at Gen Con 2018 with a rainbow shirt on. Listen and act in good faith. If you made it this far, you’ve already taken the first step, cheers! If someone tells you their experience and you aren’t transgender, listen, believe, and value their experience. Finally, human rights need to be inclusive of people of all genders and sexual identities. However those rights are called into question and potentially being eroded even as you read this. This is the time to unite, stand up for each other, and keep each other safe by working together as allies and friends.

Final Thoughts.

I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to share my experience, and I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this article. I cherish games and game players. I believe role playing as our common bond is a powerful force to unite people, I’ve always found my best friends through the hobby. I’ll always love and adore my characters, but now that I am myself all the time my characters have less of a burden on their imaginary shoulders. Roleplaying did its job shielding me for a long time, but it is a relief to be myself full time now.

It’s good to know you as myself beyond the game table.
Wen

*******
Special thanks to: Deanna, Chelsea, Ang, Senda, Rob, John, and Camdon for their advance feedback; to my game group Quincy, Derek, Jake, Senda, Camdon, and Brett; and to the creators of Tales from the Loop for unexpectedly laying the groundwork for my exploration.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "The Gift My Character Gave Me: Knowing Myself"

#1 Comment By John Arcadian On August 31, 2018 @ 6:12 am

This is a phenomenal article, and I’ve been excited about it since you mentioned wanting to write it. RPGs were one of the key ways I really worked on my social skills growing up. When I started playing and really getting inside the heads of characters, I started really learning how to bring out new things within myself. I was such a weird, awkward, nervous teen, but playing specific characters and figuring out what I could more effectively do made me so much more confident. It lead me to a lot of really good life changes, all for the positive.

Your article hits on how powerful RPGs can be! Keep being awesome Wen!

#2 Comment By Max On August 31, 2018 @ 6:54 am

Beautiful article. Love your work, Wen.

#3 Comment By Tibbs On August 31, 2018 @ 7:40 am

Wen! This is such a great article. I’m glad to have gotten the chance to get to know you a little but this year and I look forward to keeping up moving forward.

Thanks for writing this and your Facebook posts. They’re quite helpful for allies. Your clear and cogent thoughts on the topic make complex topics simple to digest. Wonder where you honed that skill, huh? 😉

#4 Comment By AMAZING RANDO On August 31, 2018 @ 8:25 am

Cheers!

#5 Comment By Ben Woerner On August 31, 2018 @ 9:00 am

Yay!

#6 Comment By Josh Haney On September 4, 2018 @ 1:11 pm

Thank you for sharing your story, it’s helpful to those of us who seek to be better allies.

#7 Comment By Wen rEISCHL On September 4, 2018 @ 1:55 pm

Thanks for reading Josh. I appreciate that you are putting in the work to become a better ally. Cheers to you!

#8 Comment By Keith Garrett On September 6, 2018 @ 9:49 am

This is wonderful. Thank you for being so open and also offering such helpful, practical info.

#9 Comment By Poltergeisha On September 6, 2018 @ 4:45 pm

My characters have been tall, short, caucasian, people of color, human, ***daemon hosts***, fat, thin, straight, gay, bisexual, happy, lonely, rich, starving, religious, agnostic, and many other things.

One of these things is not like the other. 😛