Identity Tourism in Gaming as More Than Cultural Appropriation

Featured image by Simon, “Tourist sign in London

Identity tourism, a term coined by Lisa Nakamura, refers to the practice of pretending to be a member of a marginalized group to which you do not identify as yourself on the internet. The reasons behind identity tourism are as varied as the people who participate in identity tourism. Her articles generally focus on the appropriative, nastier of identity tourism – for example, the case of “Aminah Abdallah Arraf,” a supposed young lesbian Syrian woman who was really Tom McMaster, a white 40 year old American graduate student. The practice of appropriating a race or a gender that is not your own for the purposes of self-gain at the detriment of members of that group is unquestionably unethical. However, I would like to argue that there are in fact certain aspects of identity tourism which can contribute positively to the discourse surrounding marginalized groups when examined from a meta perspective.

I propose that there are two branches of analysis by which we can examine identity tourism. First, the reasoning behind why players may participate in appropriative identity tourism can be used as evidence of that particular group’s marginalization or privilege. A cisgender woman who plays League of Legends as a cisgender man, and who does so based on the fact that she is harassed when she participates fully as herself, is evidence of the fact that cisgender men are privileged within that community as they do not receive harassment. A cisgender white man who blogs as a lesbian Syrian woman because he believes that the identity of a queer woman would draw greater attention to his writing – as in the case of Aminah Abdallah – supports the conclusion that both the identities of “queer” and “woman” are “othered” within the blogging community and are considered extraordinary. In this case, “what” the person chooses to identity as is less important than “why” they choose to identity as such.

There is another branch of analysis through which we can examine identity tourism, and that is in regards to the alleviation of dysphoria. Dysphoria here includes both gender dysphoria and other types of physical dysphoria and discomfort not classified within the realm of body dysmorphia. With the prevalence of games such as EA Games’ The Sims and Bethesda’s Fallout and Elder Scrolls series, along with the advanced capabilities of end-user created mods, the player can create an in-game avatar to the exact specifications of his or her liking. This includes elements such as race (whether an approximation of reality or entirely mythical) or gender. If a transgender man creates an approximation of himself in a Bethesda-esque character creator, can we draw an inference on how he views himself and his sense of masculinity and male body identity based on the elements that he chooses to include (or not include) in the development of his character? An even more important question would be to what extent identity tourism (in which the individual isn’t so much a tourist of an identity as they are a tourist of passing privilege) alleviates dysphoria. As virtual reality becomes increasingly pervasive and increasingly realistic, the option of “opting-out” of our physical forms becomes more and more of a reality. If this form of identity tourism can relieve dysphoria then there is a chance that dysphoria could eventually be cured in this way. If not, then we are faced with the question as to where dysphoria originates from and how one even develops a sense of self in the first place if a second, “virtual” mirror stage is not possible.

Ultimately, the discourse around identity tourism as a subject should not be limited to issues of cultural appropriation. Working under the original definition of identity tourism and engaging with multiple potential facets of identity appropriation allows us to engage with cultural issues that are not adequately described under other fields of study. The fact that identity tourism isn’t just limited to cultural appropriation makes logical sense when placed in the context of the development of the Internet as a whole. The level of immediate communication along with the level of anonymity of the internet is unprecedented and will lead to massive cultural developments.


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