The queer masculinity of stealth games
In games, men's bodies often represent brute strength. Stealth games are the focal point for an alternative masculinity: sleek, illusory, sensitive, and self-reflective.
When I reach the bottom of the subway stairs, three men unpeel themselves from the wall and approach me. They’re appallingly tall, larger than me in all respects, their shoulders hulking around their ears. Words are exchanged; I don’t quite remember what they were. I wait for threats, demands for my money, hate speech, but none of it comes. They just want to be vaguely intimidating, needling me toward some unknown outcome.
I pet my pockets, pretend to have forgotten something, trot back up the stairs and come down again on the flight at the other side of the station. They follow me, tracing my path from underground to reappear in my way, smirking as they poke holes in what I thought was cleverness. It’s a little scarier now, a little more serious, but I still don’t understand what they want.
I think, If I weren’t trans I would know how to handle this. There must be some kind of male choreography in place, some layout of steps I would have learned in childhood if I’d been raised a boy. As is, I have no idea how they’d like me to respond. All they want is to be men at me, and there’s some man thing they want in return. I’m five feet tall, 100 pounds; I can’t imagine they’d be satisfied with fighting me, and they have a laconic air that suggests beating me up would be taking things too far. I stutter, fidget, and then I guess I ruin things: I leave the station altogether without pretense, just turning around and hurrying away. The game breaks at this point, there’s in-group laughter and gay slurs, and I walk several miles to the next station not so much scared as embarrassed, like I failed a test I should have studied for.
Much like in the real world, I don’t understand most men’s bodies in games. Given the option, I almost always play as a girl, a fact that baffled two of my roommates, both trans women, when they caught me playing Shadowrun. They both love character creators, and they spend hours laboring over bodies that feel good to them, while I tend to feel disappointed in whatever options are available to me. The men’s bodies given to you in most games are tall and broadly-muscled, designed with all the elegance of tanks. They’re idealized and innately powerful, adorned with grim faces chiseled onto neckless heads. Apart from games like Saints Row, these bodies come in a limited range of templates, and while I can change brow depth and hair color to my heart’s content, I always end up with the fantasy body of a cis man.
It’s a particular arrangement of shapes that never quite feels right, because it’s not the body I have nor the body I necessarily want. These bodies and their choices lack nuance; they move in a straight line, uncritically applying their will to the things around them via bombs and guns and barks, tough enough to take it and strong enough to dish it back. There can be a pleasure in this, of course, and being seated in the body of a woman in games like this feels like hanging out with a cool friend, but there are no options that feel like me. These bodies are both foreign and too close to home, like I’m tagging at the heels of an older brother who didn’t want to invite me along. Like the men in the subway, these bodies have expectations of me I can’t fulfill, and this brings out an insecurity I don’t usually feel. In my daily life I’m seldom concerned with “how much of a man” I am, but shooter men remind me that however much it is, it isn’t enough.
The bodies in stealth games are different. In most cases the biggest fantasy they embody is having astonishingly reliable knees; otherwise they tend to be smaller, "weaker", not necessarily good at fighting. Sam Fisher has gray hair; Volume’s Rob sounds like an emo teenager pretending to know what band is on stage to impress his friends. Without the bombast of shooter bodies to draw your eyes to explosions, stealth bodies are often adorned with little nuances: Garrett’s hands dance over the edges of paintings and the wheels of safes; Mark of the Ninja’s ninja swoops, dangles, slides, and crouches with luxurious elegance.
Machete arms aside, I’m probably more in love with the body of Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution than any other pre-made video game boy, and sometimes I’ll go into cover just so the camera will switch to third person so I can stare at him. There’s something about his wiry, black-clad frame that makes me feel like I imagine my roommates feel when they craft their perfect avatar. I’m enamored of this body made of unwanted machinery and dystopian tech, potent but fallible, able to run out of power if I use it incorrectly. Within his legible, relatable template there’s room to make his body my own, and I usually put all of my points into stealth upgrades that make Adam and me nonlethal, invisible, computer-savvy. I build a body I can steer silently and gracefully through doors and past turrets, outwitting guards so subtly they never even know I’m there.
In many ways navigating space in a stealth game feels similar to my daily life as a trans man. As someone who spends a lot of time in cis gay male spaces, there’s a ritualized literacy I apply when doing something like entering a new bar for the first time. The biggest focus is usually the bathroom situation—is there a toilet in a stall? Does the stall have a door? Does the door close and/or lock?
Then there’s the people around me, the kinds of men I’ll be asked to encounter. Is this a bar where they will step aside to let me pass, or will I have to push through a sea of elbows and hips? Are they the kind of men who are going to grope me without asking and then get angry at the conversation their hands will introduce? Are the kind of men who will block doorways if I try to leave, who will box me into corners when I put off their advances? I read a space for entrances and exits both architectural and interpersonal, signposts for steering through what should be but never is an innocuous evening out.
I’m always glad when cis allies do some of this for me, but I’ve also surprised cis friends by pointing out things in our spaces they’ve never noticed or thought about before. There’s a certain secret cartography to navigating the world as trans that imbues things with different pitfalls and possibilities, where I’m asked to see the world as a series of puzzles more than a place I get to live.
Stealth games can elevate the everyday necessity of those puzzles into something powerful, something new. The same way knowing the lay of the land at a bar rewards me with a nicer night out, learning the layout of a stealth level rewards me with an experience that feels unique and vivid. Reading a game level’s possibilities and finding its cracks makes me feel skillful and engaged, even if each option has been scripted by developers. There’s something personal in timing that jump to cover just right, an intimacy to learning patrol patterns and using them well. It feels like I don’t beat levels, but rather that I work with them, and the constant scanning and forecasting allows me to utilize what’s around me to engineer the best situation for myself, one that creates the least damage to everyone involved. A stealth level is full of treasure I can plunder, and it helps that the bodies I’m given for this task are ones I can relate to, imagine myself in, just like the possibilities they present.
The male bodies in shooters disrupt, beg for attention, decide how a situation will unfold. They storm in and take what they want, destroying everything in the single-minded pursuit of their desires. They are greedy, unpopular children, behaving in all the ways men are told we have to but can’t, all the ways that wreak havoc, big and small, on ourselves and those around us in the real world. Stealth bodies let me share in what is; they have the dexterity to repurpose what’s provided to my own ends. They let me cooperate with a situation, ask me to take into account all the moving parts and my role in them. The way men behave in stealth games feels closer to what I hope my own masculinity is: thoughtful, adaptable, aware of myself and my effect on the world around me. Shooter masculinities close off possibilities, make an enemy out of the world; stealth masculinities place me firmly in the world and let me nurture it into something new.
Walking to the next station after my subway encounter, I remember wondering what would have happened if I’d simply pointed out the absurdity of the entire situation, thrown up my hands and laughed to the men, “What the hell are we doing?” Nothing good, probably; I don’t think men talk honestly enough about our masculinity often enough to step back and look at how we wield it. We spend so much time looking at masculinity while looking through it, looking at where it’s going and not where it is.
Stealth bodies turn our focus to our place in the world and ask us where we want to go next and how and why we want to get there. They enable us to meet our needs while leaving everyone around us unharmed, paying attention to how we handle others and rewarding us for doing so with grace and care. They hold minimizing damage as a value and sharing space as a success.
Stealth masculinities feel closer to my own; they feel achievable to me, they feel like things I want in bodies I want to live in. Stealth games tell us there are other kinds of men to look like and other kinds of men to act like. They tell us that the world isn’t just a collection of oppositional objects to storm through, that people are more than enemies who output points. Stealth games may be carefully-crafted playgrounds, the things they tell us an illusion, but they give us a set of tools and trust we have the sensitivity, intelligence, and care to do the best we can with them. They tell us we don’t have to equate masculinity with brutality. They tell us we can be someone else.
(with thanks to Todd Harper, Kira Breed, and Nick Scratch)
“Coca-Cola: Blade Roller,” directed by David Fincher in 1993. (via ObscureMedia)
The Offworld Collection, presenting the very best features and essays from Offworld, is finally available to buy directly from Campo Santo for $40. I had the pleasure of designing and illustrating this splendid 250-page hardcover volume, but it’s the excellent writing, edited by Leigh Alexander and Laura Hudson, that makes it an essential buy. You […]
Zoya Street, curator of Critical Distance, offers slow reflections on the fast-paced world of digital play…
Everybody could use a little improvement, especially those of us on the hunt for new careers. Each job requires a different set of skills, and that list can change from year to year or even month to month as new technologies emerge. When you’re in that race and need to learn fast, the old model […]
In recent years, natural language processing technology and language translation technology have advanced greatly. The trouble is, language translation software typically comes in the form of apps. And while your mileage may vary on their usefulness, they share one thing in common: a serious drain on the battery for your smartphone, the very thing you’ll […]
Treat yourself, internet: We’ve rounded up some deals from the past week that were too good not to bring back for an encore. Take your pick from home goods, massagers and other tech, all at serious discounts. TREBLAB Z2 Bluetooth 5.0 Noise-Cancelling Headphones Get in the groove and stay that way with these headphones and […]