Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz.

My Avatar, My Self: How Video Games Gave Me Ownership Over My Body

As a trans kid unable to wear what I wanted, to look how I wanted, to be seen by others as I saw myself, the avatars I designed reflected more of me than any mirror ever could.

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Jun 18 2018, 2:18pm

Illustration by Lia Kantrowitz.

This essay originally appeared in the Privacy & Perception Issue of Vice Magazine, created in collaboration with Broadly. You can read more stories from the issue here.

Growing up, I could only see my reflection in black mirrors. The stained-glass lily laid into my mother’s heirloom mirror in my childhood home cut my likeness in half, and I never recognized the boy among the petals. Dark, sleeping computer screens showed only a vague outline of my body, but when I turned them on, they glowed like lanterns, guiding me toward the person I wanted to become.

As I fell deeper into that mirror in my early teen years, spending hours designing characters in online games and building lives for them, it became less obvious to me which ones of us mattered. Controlling these characters began to feel more authentic than controlling myself, and the distinction between my life and the lives of my avatars became increasingly meaningless.

In one computer game, the sorceress I controlled teleported through ancient ruins, collected magic rings, and donned woven armor imbued with magical properties. And as she did these things, it was as if I was doing them through her. Because I could choose the names, appearances, and genders of the avatars I embodied online, they became an extension of me. After all, they reflected more of myself than any mirror ever could.

During my adolescence, I spent hours of every day in other worlds. I have had many bodies, many names, and many lifetimes. The sorceress I played on Diablo II was just lines of code on a computer, but when I was her, I saw mountains floating in the sky and lit up dungeons with the fire that burned in my wake. I don’t remember the last time I went shopping for mana potions at the market with her, but I do know that sorceress had a last day alive—one final login before I left her behind for some other world, some other avatar. And she has since been reborn again and again in other black mirrors, on other platforms, in other games. In fact, she may have gained sentience and found a way to live in our world.

While my first sorceress was lost to time, destined to lay dormant forever in a world that few frequent today, I have grown and changed with age. The boy in the mirror is gone, my mother’s stained-glass lily still resting on his chest. And I have become someone much more like that sorceress that I met when I was a child. My hair looks like hers. My body, too.

For many years, I tried to destroy myself by living a dangerous lifestyle that only worsened with time. Avatars were especially important to me then. I was growing up in a male body, and, while I felt completely in charge online, I had little control over my offline life. Unable to wear what I wanted, to look how I wanted, to be seen by others as I saw myself, I felt detached from myself and was certain that there was no future for me on Earth. But, when I was 22 years old, all of that finally changed.

By some stroke of fate or love, I got help for the issues I was struggling with and, over time, managed to regain the agency I had surrendered. I started my transition from male to female, and it restored me the same way that my sorceress was restored by those glass vials of blue potion. At 22, I made a promise to the part of myself that came alive in those avatars: If I was going to remain alive, I would make my life as magical and as enchanting as it had been in those fictional worlds.

Although I have since found a life in the material world that fulfills me, I will never tire of the power of avatars—the power to push the boundaries of embodiment and self-conception and to transport one into other worlds. My sorceress still lives within me, but I have also recently become custodian to a witch in the world of Black Desert Online.

I am a student in the art of transmutation, changing shape in worlds virtual and corporal. And technology has advanced since I was a pubescent, suicidal wreck. Today, I can design every minor quality of the avatars that I take on in gaming, which has enhanced my ability to create an avatar that mirrors the entity that I embody.

Through these many lives, I have come closer to feeling freedom from my body—a cage that has always been difficult to accept. Though I still feel the desire to edit my flesh in the way that I refine the Black Desert witch, I transcend it through her to free myself from this mortal coil, if only temporarily.