How video games helped me come to terms with male pattern baldness

December 26, 2020
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“Screw you, you baldy bastard,” cried the man I’d spent the last 15 minutes alongside, slaughtering Russian mobsters and seizing bag-loads of drugs. We were at the end of a Grand Theft Auto IV online mission and things had gone wrong; somehow, I was getting the blame, despite the fact that he was the one who nearly blew the plan by leaving me behind at the helipad. Nonetheless, a belligerent grenade, tossed at me in spite, marked the end of our contemptuous partnership. It was his words however, not the explosion, that cut deepest.

He couldn’t have known it of course – we spoke over headsets, and his remark was aimed at my onscreen character and not at me – but I was going through the early stages of male pattern baldness and the associated dawning denial that accompanies the ordeal.

This was back in the early stages. My widow’s peaks were ever so slightly creeping backwards towards my crown – the sideswept look I’d pulled off for many years was beginning to look a little less convincing. It wasn’t a massive concern, but it was happening. And somehow, the bald-headed GTA avatar I’d designed for myself, using the game’s character customisation tool, was an attempt to outwardly reflect the inevitable. It was a mark of virtual defiance.

There are basically two types of players when it comes to character customisation in video games. There are the eccentrics who want to contrast their real-life personas as much as possible, often wearing nothing but Y-fronts, fluorescent pink clown shoes and motorcycle helmets. Then there are the players who try to match themselves, or how they wish to be perceived, as closely as possible.

I fall into the latter category, and thus my virtual incarnations have reflected my gradually devolving coiffure. Shoulder-length, Gareth Gates-esque spikes, bleached blonde – I’d had them all in my formative years. But the bottom (hair) line was simple: as I started thinning up top, I began to slap hats, bandanas, and helmets onto my digital doppelgangers. I’d become convinced that I was lying to myself otherwise.

Screw you. You baldy bastard. The words echoed. My new onscreen embodiment, designed to empower me, had become something to insult. It had backfired. Was this a sign of things to come? Would I face this torment in the real world? Perhaps most importantly I began to ask myself: why did it bother me so much? After all, many men accept male pattern baldness. Many even look better for it.

“I think it’s simply a matter of confidence, really,” explains Nadeem Uddin Khan, the owner of the Harley Street Hair Clinic in London, the centre at which Wayne Rooney had his hair transplant in 2011. “It can age the person prematurely, and having hair is really about confidence in appearance and a sense of wellbeing. Some people aren’t bothered by it but, unfortunately, nowadays looks, appearances and presentation have become more important than they ever have been, and it seems every decade it increases. Which is why everyone, including the president of the US is taking selfies – that’s the trend.”

The parallels that can be drawn between real-life hair transplants, and adding hair to virtual clones are quite striking: both act as vehicles through which you try to alter how others view you. I had tried to embrace baldness with my avatars, but I could understand the instinct to go the other way.

“In games like Destiny and Second Life, players tend to want to look like what they look like in their minds,” continues Uddin Khan. “In their mind, the key is, a lot of people don’t see themselves as bald, and when you pick an avatar or a third [person] character, you kind of want to look like this image in your mind or in your imagination. Usually this is not the reality – for some people it is, the lucky few, but also games are about fantasy. No one fantasises about being bald, do they?”

No. No they don’t. And no one fantasises about it becoming an insult, either. What strikes me most about modern video games in this vein, however, is the distinct lack of characters who have gone progressively bald. Sure, there are scores of bald characters in games, and even characters who are receding, but there are very few, if any, who’ve went naturally bald over time.

The Tekken series, for example, has done a fine job of gradually aging its characters, yet none have lost a significant amount of hair throughout the generations. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake looks to be garnering a little bit of gray in the screenshots for his forthcoming adventure, yet he’s still sporting an exquisite full head of hair. Even Metal Gear’s Solid Snake, who was subjected to an accelerated ageing process in his last outing, went Steve Martin white, but still enjoyed a deep and convincing hairline nonetheless. In the cop drama, Max Payne 3, the troubled lead character shaves his head in a sort of symbolic act, representing his descent into drug-fuelled madness. That’s not very encouraging. Of course, none of these characters should have to go bald, but it’s difficult not to appreciate the misrepresentation across the board. Especially when it’s happening to you.

Which brings me to my saviour: Dark Souls, From Software’s brilliantly challenging role-playing adventure. Up to this point, many customisation menus had offered characters with sort-of widow’s peaks – essentially bald but with little stubborn tufts of hair; Dark Souls was the first to offer something which truly related to me. Amongst many other on-screen options such as “Shaved”, “Short”, “Swept back” and “Pony tail”, there was one possibility that stood out: “Receding”.

There it was – categorically spelling out a viable middle-ground option amid the hair-or-bald dichotomy. I still had a few years yet before brutal, unconditional baldness, and in this liminal stage, Dark Souls termed me, “the rough warrior”. Baldness is something many don’t bother about, but for me, this was liberating. Suddenly, for the first time, I felt better able to embrace my evacuating follicles in both virtual and actual reality. Suddenly, I felt compelled to revisit Liberty City.

“Hair is always there or thereabouts in the newspapers for one reason or another,” says Uddin Khan. “Hair is a symbol of confidence, vitality, youth. If I restore my hair – which I have done – I’m restoring something that I’ve lost. It’s not me asking for something better, I’m not doing a cheat on a game, I’m playing with all the options, playing so I learn the game properly. Restoring isn’t a cheat – it’s just restoring back what you would have had a few years ago.”

Of course, Uddin Khan has a vested interest in this point of view, but I don’t disagree with him. Many men do and will continue to get hair transplants: according to the International Society of Hair Restoration Surgeries, over 300,000 restoration procedures are carried out annually, and the numbers are increasing as the stigma attached to the process declines.

Ultimately, though, hair transplants cost a lot of money. If I had the cash, I don’t know what I’d do. For now, I can get Dark Souls – and the solace it provides – for 20 quid. And I get to fight monsters in the process.

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