I love my untouchable virtual body
Violent games can be excellent metaphors for interpersonal conflict.
Over the past year I’ve spent half my time fighting my body tooth and nail for every inch of myself. It’s actually kind of working (I’m trans; I transitioned).
I’ve never spent so much of myself on myself before, never invested so much in inching ever closer to the (maybe) insurmountable dream of being happy in a human body. And it’s turned out that even if it turns out there’s no end to the process, getting closer and closer can still be nice.
These days I see myself as material worth working with, and it’s hard, but I can do it. And it’s fun for the same reason it’s fun to choose which virtual haircut you want in a video game, with more of the thrill of selfhood and much less longing. It’s still appealing to make avatars in video games: I understand what I’m looking at, and why I like it so much better, and instead of feeling hopeless—like I can never be that me—I feel aspirational. Like, even if I can’t have the gentle porcelain skin of a video game character with $54 foundation, maybe bangs would rule, and maybe red for my highlights next time?
I guess most girls are supposed to learn this when they are very small, but creating a beautiful snapshot of yourself is a lot easier than being invincible and flawless all day long. Here is a thing that makes me uncomfortable now about bodies in games: Yes, they can make you feel beautiful. But they can still make you feel weak. In Final Fantasy XIV, I am able to have electric blue highlights and get gay catgirl married, but among the fantastically-beautiful landscapes, the movements of my body are nothing more than intersections of extremely-simple geometric arcs. They glue together slowly, then they separate, rendering motion itself meaningless.
There is the appearance of motion, but you are not in control, and it does not respond to you. You are instead watching the game present a cute show for you. You watch appreciatively. You feel helpless—I feel so helpless. I look beautiful, but I move like a doll, and I feel like a doll. I perform agency, but I don’t experience it. In video games, in life, can I please have the space to feel like I actually have agency for one minute?
Having a body feels like risking it constantly. The stakes feel so high now, and at the exact moment someone wants to touch me I’m a lot more scared of what I could lose in being touched. The danger feels physical even when the stakes are emotional. Like I press a button to strafe cleanly away from hurt. Video games can be genuinely trivial and purposelessly violent, but they are really good at making you feel precise physical sensations. Like having escaped.
I love the way the player’s body moves in Bloodborne: You can fly in any direction like that, like a nervous little bird. If you want to be close, you are instantly close, and if you want to be away, you are instantly away. What a gift. Of course everything is violent and wants to touch you, but if you are perfect, you will not be touched.
There is a little secret here which perhaps you can notice: When the ugly monster’s limbs reach out to touch the small human’s body, there is about a tenth of a second—maybe less— where her body is invincible. It doesn’t even matter if she’s geometrically in harm’s way or not. She is safe because she timed it right, was perfect.
See, even in this very hard game, there is something wonderful and fair: The game doesn’t care about the way bodies actually intersect. If your timing was correct, it agrees: “You were not touched.” Many games hide that tiny moment of invincibility within quick movement, and it feels so kind just knowing, no mater how bad you are, that if you could fit every moment of pain in that one tenth of a second you could be invincible for the rest of your life.
Sometimes I wish I had this power in real life. If I had it would mean never having to say ‘no’ in so many words, nor the confrontation that sometimes comes with saying no. But that perfect, flawless dodge is not sustainable—you have to be devastated so many times to get the timing so flawless. And here’s my bad secret: when I killed this one monster, I didn't do it by dodging flawlessly, but by mashing some awful weapon in her side while her limbs were flailing and she could not hit me back. Unfair and problematic of me, I know.
So often, games' expressive qualities are limited to the violent motion of virtual bodies, yet they can be extremely articulate within that vocabulary. As much as I want to be an untouchable angel of forgiveness and grace with a bottomless well of compassion for all living things, I keep messing up that dodge and I think it’s making me a bitch.
If you’ve ever heard a stranger yell at your back twice as loud for ignoring them, or gotten a pages-long email rant from someone you blocked, or had any other attempt to quietly distance yourself from someone met with absolute fury—someone getting through your defenses like that— sometimes you feel like it is now time to give up on everything and just be awful. Fine then. And then you feel you must be terrible and arrogant, because you wanted to be so beautiful, and yet have nobody touch you.
Fighting game characters are my favorites, and this is because they are very hot but also violent and terrifying and weird, Guilty Gear has the most violent and terrifying and weird characters, and so it’s my favorite fighting game. The character Ramlethal is perfect, and I love her, because she has the simple power of getting to decide whether or not you are allowed to come in and touch her.
She gets to put these huge ridiculous swords in the air wherever she wants, and if she deigns it, they will stay in the air and make everything around her unsafe. She can thwart all advances, shut down all enemies, just while casually hanging out on the other side of the screen. Hitting someone without getting hit in return is the definition of unfair—but of course, that’s why it feels really nice. Look at her emotionless deadpan, the rare punctuation of her sadistic grin: That is the look of someone who controls the conditions of touch.
Somehow, when we weren’t looking, games accidentally developed a vocabulary for the language of interpersonal conflict. It might look physical, but it can be about being hurt or worn down emotionally, too. I feel a twinge of guilt, that I want to be that untouchable woman, the one who can hurt but not be hurt. But in games I cannot help it: I must embody that character.
It’s not that I want to really hurt anyone. I just want to speak with the language of that power.
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