An Earth Citizen Named James

An Earth Citizen Named James

While I am not a true gamer—not in the sense, anyhow, that I game often or routinely—I appreciate the unique escape a video game provides its user and, in particular, titles that offer a character creation process. In fact, I am highly selective with the video games I am willing to dedicate my time to and, though not a hard requisite, the deciding factor often hinges on whether that game includes character creation: the ability to choose who and what will be my avatar.

The creation process in contemporary video games is highly nuanced. The rudimentary selection of predesigned characters is a bygone limitation absent in today’s gaming titles. Nowadays, it’s a complex procedure, one that may require hours, not minutes, when carefully considering the full spectrum of choices. For me, it’s not the process itself, the building or designing or notion of playing god, that makes character creation special (although I enjoy these elements too). For me, it’s pinpointing the version of myself that I wish to embody for my gaming experience—and sometimes beyond. Restricted to pixels, an image projected by light, an animated figure entombed behind the confines of a screen, a voice that speaks in prerecorded script; despite these limiting factors, I allow my avatars greater freedoms, larger boundaries, and expand the experience of living through them by allowing my imagination to go a little wild.

Playing pretend: It gets me through the restrictions of reality. I live in my imagination, perhaps to a fault. Sometimes, the persona of my gaming avatar becomes the alter ego of my real-life self. In these instances, the game becomes secondary, merely an engine to exercise the transcendence from my physical self into the me I wish to be—someone fiery, androgynous, with a hawk nose, icy eyes, and oozing with confidence, seeping with sexuality.

I am a man, a husband, a father—male. I am happy in my own skin. Nonetheless, I almost always choose to embody a female in the games that I play. With an ounce of imagination, I become a woman. Something in me begins to stir. I feel lighter, freer, more confident, and empowered by some fevered activation at my core. True, it’s just a game. But it isn’t about feeding lasers to all those invading aliens, dishing out smith-forged steel to those marauding goblins. That is background detail. Merely pap. It’s about being the woman behind the smoking barrel; the female that grips the rawhide hilt. When she puts down the laser pistol, the gleaming, blood-soaked blade, the adventure persists. The adventure is being the new me—her.

At the time, I didn’t know this about myself—the intoxicating emancipation that comes from switching my skin, swapping my sex—until I became lost in the 2017 title, Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is the 4th game in the series, a franchise I was familiar with, had played and completed its first iteration a decade earlier. And while Andromeda was by no means its most popular title, it seized my interest—my very identity—in a way no other game had ever before.

It started in my first hour of play: I became bewitched, transformed. Without the use of drugs, I felt myself elevated, the beginning of a pseudo out-of-body experience wherein I would occupy my higher self. The PlayStation 4 console was hardly even warm as I typed the name of my digital avatar into the character creation selection. In that moment, in my living room, I left Earth far behind. I was no longer me—no longer a father, a husband, an Earth citizen named James. For the next several weeks, I would change in more than mere name. I would change in ways that would stimulate and enthrall. For a temporary bout of strange excitement, I would become Nova Bright.

For a time, the game was relaxing, soothing in the way it helped my mind push away the mundanity of work, languorous in how I sprawled out on the sofa while engaged in its story. It provided excitement in the normal way an action-packed video game often does. But as my daily rhythm and expectation to slip into my second skin, Nova Bright, advanced and matured, fermented to pervade my out-of-game consciousness, the typical entertainment transcended to self-discovery. As a “specter,” a highly elite, space-bound operative with galactic clout, I became something impressive, something cool. But as a tough girl with a streamlined body and a hawk nose that I liked to glare down with a sneer, a coy smile when I chose to, I felt giddy. I felt aroused by my own self. Not my image, per se, but my persona.

In Mass Effect games you are allowed a certain freedom of choice. True, you are slave to the overarching storyline and main quest that leads to an eventual end, but along the way your character is given many choices, often triggered by conversational options, which can lead to plot changes, character deaths and, most intriguing, romantic—and sexual—entanglements. As a heterosexual male playing a female character, I started with this thought: I will have sex with as many women, human or alien, as I am allowed or given the opportunity to do so. After all in real life I am only human—and male. But as a man playing a woman having sex with other women in a sleek, sci-fi world, this unoriginal fantasy developed into something which I could never have anticipated.

As Nova Bright, I pursued a sexual liaison with a bald, blue-skinned alien girl nicknamed Peebee. In fairness, she pursued me first. In the beginning, Peebee got under my skin. Her crass ways and bold advances demeaned my authority. But after a few close shaves with death and no shortage of gunfire showered in our direction, I began to see her differently. I routinely thought about her in my bunk while alone on our spaceship orbiting some war-torn planet, or, perhaps less appropriately, at work on Earth as I stacked apples and oranges at the organic grocery store where I was employed.

Peebee was never real. Or was, but to the extent that any fictional character is, existing in our minds and media, embodied by actors or graphics, but not a true, independent entity. Even so, my lust, if not my emotional bond, was unquestionably real. At a certain point I wondered if I was delusional, even moronic. In the end, I discarded any worry. I dove deeper into my fabricated romance.

At this stage, real life and the game began to blur at the edges where the two met. Porn, which I occasionally relied on, was replaced by imagination, with images of a blue alien girl semi-silhouetted against a spaceship porthole peppered by constellations of the Andromeda galaxy. At the time of its release, there were countless complaints online about how horrible the facial animations were in Mass Effect: Andromeda. “The eyes look dead.” “The mouth is unresponsive, always smiling.” I didn’t notice this myself. Each time I looked at Peebee’s face, her animated expressions, I saw the woman I loved. She was beautiful. She was real.

There was a pivotal moment in our relationship, which, I realize now, if dissected, is stripped of any mystery, the probable result of a horny, young man responding to a program’s algorithm and pixelated sexuality. The in-game, vital consequence that led to my eventual zero-G intercourse with Peebee, and our mutual, long-term commitment to each other, came down to a split decision of whether I would shoot and kill her ex-girlfriend, who had betrayed her, or allow her to live. I rode that indecision down to the nanosecond but in the end released my finger from the trigger. Peebee backhanded her ex instead, chewed her out in that brazen way that I had grown to love, and shortly after I was rewarded with steamy sex, sans gravity.

From this point forward, Peebee and I could engage in lovemaking whenever we chose to. Well, I made the choice, really, but she always said yes. In theory, this was what I wanted. But each time we had sex, it was the same old zero-G experience, the same cramped room on our ship and, most limiting, an identical animated scene. I knew our relationship was under threat when I heard the echo of my own, internal complaint: it was the same woman, too. This is where I, as Nova Bright, started to become devoutly unfaithful. Already subversive, a renegade with a trigger finger, my promiscuity made me even more dangerous. I spanned the stars in galactic detours to find viable partners of sensuality and, I could only hope, debauchery. I found some avenues that led to what I craved, exploring sex with other women, alien and human, and, for the first time, men. On the couch, in real life, I became surprised by my arousal over suave, pixelated hunks. I think this was the first time I internalized a different sort of complaint: I don’t want to be a woman in a video game… I want to be a woman.

Or at least try it out…

Amid this complaint, which was more of an unmet fantasy than a grievance for reality, I remained happy in my own skin—for the most part. During the majority of my wakeful hours, I was content to be me, wholesale. My ache to become a woman was joyful, exciting, and ultimately arousing. The pang was sweet. A savory sort of pain.

Even though I couldn’t actually transform my physical body, by allowing my imagination to run free—flirting with delusion, perhaps—I became a woman in my mind and, as a female, my sexual desire heightened to summits I had never known, a mature apex of lust that was stronger even than the rampant virility of my teenage years and early-twenties. As a woman, my eyes remained on other women. For the first time, I empathized with individuals who weren’t simply gay, but, more complex than that, people who identified with the opposite sex while also being attracted to them. More specifically, in my case, I understood what it was to be a man who was attracted to women, while also wishing to be female. I wasn’t experiencing full-fledged gender dysphoria—as I say, I was more or less happy in my own skin—but I did undergo a certain frustration around sexual limitation; the limitation of my own body, equipped with cumbersome organs that I’d rather not use, or even have.

The videogame, at this point, was no longer part of the equation. It had been the catalyst to what I was feeling, a certain transformative ember that lit a fire in my soul. But I no longer activated the gaming console at the end of the day. I searched for other avenues of expression during my muddled identity adventure. I returned to porn, but rather than stoke the flames to my typical younger-man-with-older-woman fantasy, videos where servitude to the penis is king, I sought women exclusively, either woman on woman, or solo woman engaged in self-gratification. I wouldn’t touch myself but willed myself to go mental, erect with arousal, a flagpole of incompatible sexual equipment where I placed my phantom vagina. Ultimately, the flagpole between my legs hoisted a white flag, and I’d surrender to physical reality, touch myself, and wish I was one of the women on screen. I’d close my laptop and continue my daydream, tissues draped over a flesh flagpole, like a white flag.

Later, I tried drag. This was fun, and certainly freeing, but it cost me a fortune in cosmetics. I needed a wig but wouldn’t commit to the expense. Once or twice I pulled off a certain femininity that made my heart flutter and my core ignite, but ultimately I was left feeling like a man playing pretend, the result more comical than liberating. My hands were too large, too knobby, too manly. And I was afraid to tuck away my genitals. It felt like a rough version of sleight of hand. I didn’t want tricks. I wanted magic. I wanted a genie. Or better, I wished to be a shapeshifter without the permanent consequence attached to any one flavor. I wanted Baskin-Robbins. 31 flavors. I wanted a perpetual character creation where I could tweak or mold myself to the flavor of the day, physicality du jour.

For six weeks, perhaps two months, I walked the tenuous border between male and female. In the flesh, I was man—me, the physical male that was born into this world several decades earlier—but beneath the skin, who was I? Was I Nova Bright? An operative amid the stars? A tough girl with a gun, a streamlined body, a hawk nose that I liked to glare down with a sneer, a coy smile when I chose to? For a time, maybe I was. But now, I’m not so sure. I think it was me all along—just James. I think Nova taught me to be the me that has no bounds, or maybe does, but walks on either side of those bounds as he wishes, wanders wherever she will. If the world is a construct, what is physical form but a construct within a construct? But all philosophical depth aside, I think I was just having fun in my own freedom of expression. True, it came with a measure of frustration, but ultimately, it broadened my world. It removed the construct.

I’ve come back to Mass Effect more than once since my breakthrough journey to the Andromeda galaxy, but never—forgive me—with the same mass effect on my identity, the same engrossing experience that hijacked my imagination, temporarily reinventing the architecture of my sexuality. They are fantastic games—all four titles—and I recommend them to any gamer, casual or diehard, to anyone with a penchant for sci-fi or curiosity about alien relationships and love. When it comes to games, I favor ones that allow for character creation, the ability to choose who and what I will be. When it comes to real life, I favor a character that is elastic, one that can change, develop, and evolve, one that can turn around if he wishes, take a fork in the road as she chooses, back track, and wander down a different sort of path.

For the time being, I favor the character that is my own—may my content last longer than six weeks! I call him James, and she walks the path of imagination. Sometimes James gets lost, but he doesn’t really mind. Not at all. In fact, she revels in the thrill.


About the Author

James Callan is the author of the novel A Transcendental Habit (Queer Space, 2023). His fiction has appeared in Barzakh Magazine, Bridge Eight, Carte Blanche, The Gateway Review, Mystery Tribune, and elsewhere. He lives on the Kapiti Coast, Aotearoa New Zealand. Find him at


Photo by nicolas perez on Unsplash