Perhaps the easiest way to ‘cross-dress’ is electronically. Games, whether online or single-player, can give players the chance to inhabit a world as almost anything they like (a sort of second life, as it were). Not just games: countless internet forums, blogs, and social media allow you to interact with the world, presenting yourself with a female avatar and identity. Would you want to?
With controversies such as gamergate, the latest manifestation of the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory (and regardless of whatever you might think it’s supposed to be, that’s how it’s turned out), you might be forgiven for thinking the online world isn’t a great place to be a woman. (Unless you’re pretending to be a woman in the hopes of entrapping narcissistic, middle-aged politicians.) I’m not particularly active on social media, but I’m optimistic that, ultimately, demographic changes and social pressures will put an end to the harassment.
What I’d like to focus on instead is the idea of virtual, recreational cross-dressing; a male gamer playing female characters. Very often this doesn’t make much difference to the actual gameplay, unless playing online.
Alien Isolation (2014) allows you to play engineer Amanda Ripley, skulking around a space station hoping to avoid a monster. The game itself failed to frighten me in the least; it just annoyed the hell out of me (like this reviewer, my opinion appears to be a minority view). Amanda could have been anyone – hell, it could’ve been Amanda’s father for all the difference it would make – but that’s not the point. Playing a female character like this is important as a role model.
Does that sound a bit sappy? Well, consider that maybe, just maybe, role models do matter. For example, although the character of Uhura in Star Trek didn’t have a hell of a lot to do, her mere presence counted for a lot.
I still find playing a female character can give a refreshingly different feeling to a game, even if it doesn’t make any difference to the story or the way the game is played. Usually, when it does, it just changes romance options. A lot can depend on the strengths of the actresses giving voice to your character, too (I prefer playing a cocky female smuggler to a bland, male Jedi in The Old Republic, for example, and the female Commander Shepard in Mass Effect comes across as more interesting than the male default option, even though the dialogue and play options are largely the same).
Once in a while you can find a gem. No One Live Forever (2000) and its sequel, A Spy In HARM’s Way (2002) were comedy-action-roleplay games set in a world of 1960’s spy kitsch – think Austin Powers made into a game, but far wittier. (Any resemblance between protagonist Cate Archer’s hairstyle and my wig are purely coincidental.) It’s also a good, early example of a computer game passing the Bechdel test – there are at least two women, who talk to each other, and don’t talk about a man.
What about male-to-female cross-dressing characters in games? The only example that comes to mind is the non-playable bad-ass brothel madam in the reboot of Thief (2014), which was too dark and gritty to serve any comedic purpose. (I’d recommend skipping this game, and try the dated yet still far superior originals it is supposed to be derived from.)
[Update, July 2018]: In a recent Steam sale I bought Saints Row: The Third which includes in its options the ability to create trans characters (eg, male voice with female body and vice versa). And with various costuming options I was able to replicate myself fairly closely. Even more eerily, one of the various side-quests involves getting people to take my character’s photo while she poses for them, which is kinda what I do in real life… In any case, I heartily recommend the game (as well as Saints Row IV) – it’s great fun and refuses to take itself seriously.
It would be a fair point to say that playing female characters in games, or using female avatars doesn’t really count as cross-dressing – it doesn’t involve actually dressing up, nor making any effort to change your appearance. Yet, I can’t help but feel it could offer an outlet, no matter how tenuous, for many would-be cross-dressers who are unable to come out, or even to indulge in private.
It’s also a fair point to say that much of what I’ve written here relates to feminism or ‘women’s issues‘ rather than cross-dressing. To that, I would say that if you want to present yourself in a feminine way, then feminism and women’s issues should be of huge interest to you, for selfish reasons if nothing else…