Whenever I play a game with a character creator, inevitably I begin it by typing the name “Rihanna.”
I think it started when I was frustratingly trying to find a hair option in Fallout: New Vegas that satisfied me. I had made a face that, more or less, looked like mine, found a skin tone that kinda sorta matched my own, but the hair, the hair. Eventually, after a beer or two, I changed the hair color from black to blonde, and remade myself in Rihanna’s image.
I went natural right before college, guessing, correctly, that I just wasn’t going to have time to do my hair every day. I went natural by grabbing a pair of scissors and just chopping it all off. Black hair, even for mixed people like me, is hard to make “neat,” or “professional,” in the way that we as a society think of those things. Black hair grows up and out, not down. Black hair does not like to be slicked back or contained in anyway. Now that I have been natural for years, in the summer my hair spreads out from my head like a humidity powered halo. Black hair is wild.
Every time I play a game with a character creator, it makes me wish that I still had chemically straightened hair. No one I make will ever look like me. There’s always two option for black women’s hair in games—braids, often rendered to look like polygonal snakes, or a 70s afro. Sometimes there’s a bald option.
Character creators seem to exist for the purpose of full immersion, of the players of this game seeing themselves in the action. For me they are a reminder that I can’t ever have that. I can’t make myself as myself, not with my tattoo or my dark-but-no-wait-not-THAT-dark skin or my piercings or my curly, thick, unbrushed hair. So I make myself as Rihanna.
The first time I made myself as Rihanna, I did it because my friends told me that I kinda look like her. Each subsequent time I did it, it was because I liked the way I played when I imagined that I was her. In New Vegas, I was a little more aggressive than I would have been otherwise. Usually I like to play as stealth characters, I like to snipe, I like to be in and out without having been seen. But Rihanna, she liked explosives. She liked machine guns. She liked the carnage and the thrill. She liked people to know where she had been.
The Rihanna I made in Fantasy Life had pastel purple hair and crafted beautiful weapons and armour. Gita would have been a seamstress. In The Sims 3, Rihanna had the Heartbreaker aspiration, meaning she wanted to have 10 boyfriends over the course of her life, while Gita would get married as soon as possible. In Fire Emblem: Awakening, Gita wanted to stay out of the spotlight but Rihanna married Chrom, became a Queen and loves to set people on fire.
I will not ever be myself because I like not being shackled to being myself. As Aevee Bee writes in “I Love My Untouchable Virtual Body,” for Offworld, “Having a body feels like risking it constantly. The stakes feel so high now, and at the exact moment someone wants to touch me I’m a lot more scared of what I could lose in being touched.” I am the kind of person who hates waiting at the bus stop at night. I am the kind of person who likes going to parties on time and leaving early. I am the kind of person who can’t risk herself, her safety.
But Rihanna can. Or, my perception of Rihanna can. RIhanna shows up to awards shows with her hair still wrapped, her eyes rolling, giving significant Looks to her friends because she doesn’t ever care what she risks. When she emerges glorious at the end of the video for “Bitch Better Have My Money,” covered in blood, staring down the camera, I cheered. Get what’s yours, girl. Take it. Have it all.
When I am in a virtual space, however, I am not Rihanna because I want to be, but because I have to be. Having to be something isn’t a happy feeling—it isn’t fun to put up all those defenses, to wear my denim vest and Doc Martens and my huge, huge headphones because I Do Not Want You To Talk To Me, Sir. It is a trial to not be vulnerable. It hurts almost as much as vulnerability can hurt you.
Is this the price of reinvention? Of feeling like you’re losing part of yourself? Honestly, I cherish my sensitivity. I never used to cry at all, I used to be so numb, so now every tear feels like a measure of how much I’ve grown. I can be open. I can be strong even if I feel like I am weak. But games do not allow for weakness. Gita Jackson cannot exist in a games space—not as a visual representation, not as one that feels emotionally honest. I can only ever be Rihanna.
Videogames with character creators, often open-world games, pride themselves on their limitless possibility. In Skyrim, where I named myself Rihanna, people told me stories of wandering the map and getting married and owning houses and using it as a playground to understand themselves as themselves. I can only see the limits to those narrow imaginations. I can only see where the possibilities end.
My boyfriend made a character that he named after me in his own playthrough of Fallout: New Vegas and when he showed her to me, he apologized. It’s close enough, it’s good enough, she’s blonde like how I always imagine myself. She plays like Rihanna would play, and when she kills, people die scared.
He Skypes with me to tell me of her exploits, and I know he knows that I am not like her. I want to be, and I don’t want to be. I want to have that courage without losing my sensitivity. I want to be that deadly while still being able to cry over what I’ve lost. I don’t want to have to be Rihanna. And yet, here I am, starting up a new game and typing, slowly, R, I, H, A…