How Gaming Gave Me the Freedom to be my Authentic, Queer Self

by Zachary Heinemann (He/Him and They/Them) - Associate Director, Quantitative and User Research, Activision Blizzard on Jun 03, 2021

It was a time-honored tradition in the Heinemann household that when you turned four, my grandma would hand-crochet you a blanket in your likeness. As I type this in my flat in London, I can see on my couch, a beautiful (albeit itchy at this point) blanket, stitched with bright rainbow colors and has traveled the world with me. Years ago, my fourth birthday rolled around, and my grandma asked my mother “so what color would Zachary like?”, to which my mother with all of her charming lack of subtlety responded, “Make it rainbow - he’s gay, trust me.”

Zachary Heinemann and the fated rainbow blanket.

Zachary and the fated rainbow blanket.

Growing up, I was a unique kid -- always the eccentric center of attention. I loved to wear all my cousin’s dresses (thank goodness she had great taste even at six years old) and was constantly putting bright pink and purple paint all over my clothes. Everybody seemed to know that I was Queer (which is how I now identify) except ironically, well, me.

In the society we live in, it takes time to develop the vocabulary to really encapsulate what it means to be “gay” or “queer” or “trans”, because these things aren’t the norm. We assume people to be cis and heterosexual until proven otherwise. I knew I was different, but just as a visceral feeling - not as anything I could meaningfully describe. When I was four, everybody else clearly knew, but I didn’t have the words to really express and say who I was, properly.

And then I found my first role-playing game (RPG).

Graphic featuring quote from blog post.

While my older brother had much more diverse taste in games than I did, I always intrinsically gravitated towards RPGs -- worlds far and distant from my own, where I got to be whoever I wanted and explore the wide expanses of my most phantasmic imaginations. I could be the characters that really felt like who I was deep down.

A newly out, very young Zachary geeking out over Pokémon at the Nintendo Store in NYC!

A newly out, very young Zachary geeking out over Pokémon at the Nintendo Store in NYC!

In many role-playing games, the ability to choose and even sometimes customize your character is a key staple of the series. In my head, I was a fantastic, colorful, magical feminine witch that I couldn’t necessarily be in the world -- at first because I didn’t fully understand these feelings, and then because it wasn’t necessarily safe to express myself outwardly where I grew up.

But in the world of games - I was whoever I wanted to be. Naturally, I was always the fantastic, colorful, *utterly fabulous* witch that I was in my head. I couldn’t quite describe exactly the way that I felt out loud, but whenever I got lost in the expanse of video games, I could just be myself so freely, that words weren’t even necessary. In the same way my mother knew I was Queer at age four, anybody who perused the characters from my numerous save files would have been able to tell without me needing to say it out loud, myself.

Graphic featuring quote from blog post.

This is a sentiment shared by many in the LGBTQIA gaming community. Research from Activision Blizzard Media found LGBTQIA gamers score much higher on motivations expressing their connection to the narratives of games and the extent to which games allow them to express themselves. Specifically, 63% of LGBTQIA gamers feel games allow them to express themselves. It’s little surprise then that LGBTQIA players are also more likely to engage in role playing games compared to non-LGQBTQIA gamers. Video games represent a space where LGBTQIA gamers can be their true selves and express creativity and imagination, just as I was able to, in my role-playing games.

In a way, I came out through gaming more than anything else. I was able to explore entire galaxies inside myself before coming to terms with them externally. It was that freedom of expression and customization that ultimately lead me to coming out as “gay” when I was 13, and eventually coming out recently as gender non-conforming. Through the magic of gaming, I’ve learned that my Queerness *is* magic; *I* am magic. And for that, my itchy rainbow blanket and I, traveling the world freely and openly, are grateful.

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