Irene Magdalena’s first kiss with a woman wasn’t physical, but virtual. It happened in the most famous life-simulation video game in the world: The Sims . “It was really eye opening,” said Magdalena, an Indonesian trans content creator using they/them pronouns. “I remember thinking, ‘I can date both a man and a woman? Whoa, this is so cool!’” Born and raised in Jakarta, Magdalena didn’t feel safe discussing their sexuality with family or friends. They had been having crushes on girls since middle school, but for their “Christian conservative family, anything a bit ‘different’ was bad”. The escalating vitriol toward sexual minorities in the country did not encourage them to come out either. As a result, Magdalena decided to find their own answers by experimenting in the safest space available: the virtual world. Through the life-simulation game The Sims , where families and relationships don’t have to adhere to heteronormativity, Magdalena found healing and reconciliation with both their gender and sexual orientation. Magdalena’s story isn’t unique in the region, where the LGBT community still faces heavy discrimination . Homosexuality remains illegal in some countries, such as Singapore, Malaysia, Bangladesh, and some parts of Indonesia, where same-sex intercourse can be punished by fines, caning or prison sentences. Other governments, including from Japan and South Korea, are officially neutral on LGBT rights, but do not provide equal legal protections, address widespread social prejudice, provide inclusive health care access, or allow independent activism beyond a limited scope. In this context, video games have emerged as a tool to improve the well-being of this marginalised community. From Syahrini’s NFTs to Axie Infinity, Southeast Asia’s metaverse is opening up For Jo*, a transgender man based in Beijing, adopting a male avatar in video games has always been a source of relief. “I’ve never felt right with being assigned female at birth,” they said. “I just loved being able to pick a male avatar. It felt right. It completed me.” The avatar-player relationship can be very strong, according to Dr Vivian Chen, an associate professor at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. She has conducted research on social interaction and the building of online communities in video games and emerging technology for the last two decades. “In many cases, there is a merging of the player and the avatar used,” said Dr Chen. “What the avatar does inside the game will have a direct impact on the player.” As virtual environments represent a liminal space between “the private and the public”, individuals can use it to play with boundaries and explore their identities without facing social consequences, Dr Chen explained. They can later adopt characteristics from their virtual representations in real life: it is called the Proteus effect. Virtual environments have increasingly allowed players to alter their digital self-representation. Games like The Sims have recently allowed players to create non-binary and trans characters. More locally, Coral Island now allow players to choose their preferred pronouns. When you don’t have the freedom to choose your appearance or the safety to act freely, video games can be extremely empowering Dr Vivian Chen The introduction of these options allow players to feel seen and represented, Dr Chen said, and can even provide a kind of therapy. “When you don’t have the freedom to choose your appearance or the safety to act freely, video games can be extremely empowering,” she said. For Charissa So and Tida Kietsungden, the power of fair representation is unbeatable. The two women – who are from Hong Kong and Thailand, respectively – identify as lesbian and challenged existing representations of their community in their visual novel called A Summer’s End - Hong Kong 1986 , which tells the love story of two women in Hong Kong in the 1980s. “LGBT romances and characters are not realistic at all in many video games,” So said. “Instead of making us feel represented, it makes us feel disconnected even more.” Dr Chen said that the fetishisation and over-sexualisation of avatars were still real problems, but that growing video game markets in Asia were encouraging the industry to accept diversity. Virtual communities The ability to build online communities is another benefit of virtual environments. For queer people across the region, video games and chat rooms can provide much-needed support groups. “It is a way out of oppressive environments,” Dr Chen said. This is what drove Jennaye Lam, also known as tinyandtrash, to livestreaming platform Twitch. For the Vietnamese-Australian content creator, coming out wasn’t as challenging as expected: their family had been very accepting of their queer identity. “I know my experience is quite rare in Asian families. I got really lucky,” they said. However, Lam had difficulties finding people who could understand their day-to-day struggles at university. “Being a person of colour and LGBT, I’ve always wanted to find people like me,” they said. That is how Lam, along with Magdalena and other Asian queer content-creators, started to gain followings on Twitch. Several nights a week, thousands of viewers follow their streams for their gaming skills, laugh at their jokes, but first and foremost, relate to their experiences. “Being myself and sharing my values has helped build this space and community,” Lam said. “For the past two years, I have met so many cool new people all around the world. Most of them are amazing.” As avatars allow one to be “whoever they want to be”, the anonymity they offer can be used for malicious purposes. Death threats are common in Magdalena’s inbox. Just last month, the content creator received an email urging them to stop streaming and playing video games, threatening to “send a Swat team over to my house, to kill me and my family”. “They targeted me specifically, because I’m part of the LGBT community,” Magdalena said. “That was heavily implied in the email.” For Dr Chen, these kinds of threats will only get worse as technology advances. Among the platforms, she’s “not optimistic” about the metaverse. Woman alleges ‘gang rape’ in Meta virtual world Despite its great potential for self-discovery, especially for marginalised identities, she thinks “the danger would be even more severe with it. We already have seen a lot of cyber bullying going on online”. One such concern is worrying number of sexual assault cases that have been reported on the metaverse. The South Korean government sounded the alarm in 2021, after a 14-year-old girl was coerced into taking off her avatar’s clothes in a metaverse and have her avatar perform sexual acts. Dr Chen is positive that without more regulations, the metaverse will become another unsafe place for the LGBT community.