Digital communities have given way to a new breed of relationships: parasocial pals, online dating endeavours, and bonds formed over common interests.
It’s no surprise that these havens attract underrepresented groups who seek safe environments that can be difficult to find in offline spaces. Gaming communities, typically found across Twitch and YouTube, are home to hundreds of thousands of people who engage in the ritualistic hobby of video games. But for many, it’s more than a way to pass the time.
Speaking to Refinery29 Australia, Emma van der Schyff, a cyberpsychology researcher who specialises in gaming and wellbeing, says that “gaming is so much more than a pastime. It’s a platform that has the capacity for people to connect.”
Van der Schyff points to a phenomenon called ‘Social Identity Theory’, where people can identity and compare themselves to others and form a social group. “Strong social identity has been positively related to wellbeing and self-esteem,” she says. "Put simply, research suggests that being a part of the gaming community, by interacting with others, can foster a sense of belonging.”
For trans women in the gaming community, there’s an added level of belonging that can be facilitated by the use of virtual avatars. VTubing, short for Virtual YouTubing, is a form of live streaming where users will control a 2D or 3D avatar instead of using their own face and body. VTubers have complete control over their appearance and voice, meaning they have full reign to take on any identity of their choosing.
“Engaging with others in a low stakes environment, like gaming, is an attractive way to test social norms. Testing out different personas can aid in the development of a sense of self. This process of trial and error can help develop a person’s values and beliefs,” van der Schyff explains.
For many genderqueer gamers, VTubing can act as an avenue to explore and experiment with their gender expression. Gender affirmation surgery can cost tens of thousands, but ongoing treatment means a lifetime of costs.
According to Input, partaking in VTubing gives streamers the opportunity to digitally transition without the hefty price tag and danger that comes with transitioning offline.
“You have artistic freedom to present yourself however you want,” Peep tells Input. “It's like a mirror, but it shows you what you want to see. It’s powerful, but also comforting.” Another VTuber, Seri, admits that it can amplify feelings of gender dysphoria too. “Sometimes I got lost in the idealism of my avatar, and it made my dysphoria worse, because I couldn’t match those standards,” she tells Input.
While bullying and excessive screen time are known risks associated with gaming, van der Schyff stresses that gaming isn’t inherently linked to poorer mental health outcomes, but that keeping an eye out for risk behaviours is important.
“Look out for changes like withdrawing from all in-person interactions and avoiding dealing with real-world problems. It is important to draw on your support network if you are concerned about mental health. Unfortunately, there is no formula to the perfect relationship between the “real world” and gaming, but what is important is being able to notice the signs to know when to seek help.”