My first real game, the one I remember best, was Zork — good, old-fashioned white text on a black background. I was obsessed with it, the challenges intrinsic in playing it, and the mythology attached. I read the books that came with the series obsessively, and even did a school report (sadly not preserved for posterity) on the Underground Empire for a class in school. Infocom ruled my childhood, inspired my imagination, and got me interested in storytelling. Part of what I loved so much about Zork was the lack of a player description. You were an adventurer, and that was that: no gender, no race, none of that mattered. All that mattered was exploration, creativity, and a willingness to accept that sometimes, if you planned poorly, you’d be eaten by a grue. I didn’t even really think about my character, because it was just me, wandering through the map. There was no default.
When I was a teenager I was introduced to the idea of MOOs, programmable environments that followed the MUD format but were excellent teaching opportunities by giving players the ability to explore other people’s programs as well as creating your own. I participated in a MOO specifically for kids called MOOSE Crossing, which had a great sense of humour as well as a safe space to learn some basic programming. It was an incredibly supportive environment, and one where I not only made friends, but other female, geeky friends. You can read a bit about the experience in this thesis (see if you can figure out which character is me!).
But then, as I grew older, I felt more and more alienated by games. My parents tended to encourage me to play computer games that were based on problem solving, and when I initially wanted to stretch out into console games I didn’t find anything easily that had the puzzles I had grown to love. I played Civilization, and Sim City, and Loom, and cursed endlessly at Myst, but couldn’t get into console games outside of Gauntlet Legend. As a queer teenage girl struggling with weight, it made me feel sad to not find characters I could play that reflected my body type or my romantic inclinations.
So I stopped playing. Any gaming interests I had I pushed away, because Everquest seemed expensive, Second Life seemed kind of creepy, and shooting games bored me. I gave up being a gamer, because it seemed like games just had no interest in me as a consumer.
Then I found indie games. Indie games initially really inspired excitement in me, a thrill for gaming I thought was long gone. It was refreshing to see different game mechanics, more focus on puzzles rather than murdering people. That is, until I started to delve deeper and realized that even these indie games — so overwhelmingly created by white straight dudes — repeated the same tired ideas, particularly about women. Yet again, male was the default; you accepted that or didn’t play. Even worse, the developers (at least from what I witnessed online and in Indie Game) are incredibly sensitive manchildren who are prone to throwing fits if they don’t get what they want. Sure, ok, they’re artists, and these games are personal, but these are the SAME GUYS who tell other folks to kill themselves for giving critique or tell women they’re being hysterical when we’re upset by how they portray us. I felt like indie games were often WORSE than the mainstream games, who simply ignored me. Indie games started to feel actively hostile (and sometimes like they were just taking the piss).
There’s nothing subversive about a white cis straight dude insulting me or my intelligence, whether he does that through gameplay or on the street. That’s just the shittiness of normal life.
Last year, a friend from the Internet suggested that I judge a cosplay contest for a gamer convention happening in San Francisco called GaymerX. I didn’t know that much about cosplay, but knew something about the format and costume contests, so I said sure. I knew it was a gaming convention specifically for queer people, which I figured meant a lot of white gay men, but I assumed the costumes would be interesting . Then I met Matt Conn and Toni Rocca, and realized that GaymerX was a lot more than just a Penny Aracde Expo for gay guys who like Streetpass as much as Grindr. I felt safe there,as a femme. I went through the entire con (conference) never hearing a rape joke. The zero tolerance policy was implemented transparently and efficiently. The volunteers had so much fun they hung out together after the con was over because they still liked each other. This was someplace really, really special.
Even so, I dismissed a lot of the video games as not being really my thing, instead choosing to spend my time in the tabletop rooms. It was a defensive gesture, I realized, because I didn’t trust that I’d find what I loved about games even at a queer gaming convention. I picked up games like Bears!, and played Fluxx, and shrugged off the way console games tended to ignore me. It wasn’t anything new after all.
I did pick up a book that weekend in 2013, though. It was called Rise of the Video Game Zinesters by Anna Anthropy, and began to read it, finding myself going from Hmmm, yeah, this is cool I guess to OH MY GOD I NEED TO MAKE MY OWN GAMES in a matter of an hour. I learned about Twine and the push back to interactive fiction; I learned about games that were to teach rather than to “have fun”; and I learned that games didn’t have to mimic the same bullshit I saw in the media all the time, but could be used as a subversive art form. As someone who has longed to be an artist, but is, instead, a writer, I realized that I could perhaps create games to communicate in a new way. I started playing the games I found on forest ambassador, a list curated by Merritt Kopas. I opened a Steam account. I got lost in the queer-friendly, riot-grrl-loving game “Gone Home,” and I became inspired by the game industry writing of Mattie Brice. I bought a 3DS, my first console in years, and began to try new games to see how I liked them. I fell in love with gaming again, in part because I found my people — outcasts in gaming who created worlds I wanted to dive into. Their games and their writing exploded my ideas, not just of the idea of what a game is or why people play it, but society in general.
This year I ran the cosplay pageant for GaymerX2, which was as amazing this year as it was last year (even if they didn’t have a ball pit). I was delighted to see so many discussions about gaming and representation, along with call-out culture working effectively to tell vendors when what they were selling were not ok. I was able to have intense conversations with lots of people and no one told me I was humourless or needed to lighten up. It’s the world I wish I lived in all the time.
At GaymerX2, I did a discussion on cosplay and accountability. While I spoke, I realized that cosplay and DeviantArt should be influencing game developers when they’re trying to figure out characters to create for a new piece, because the desire for diversity is there. Learning about how Saint’s Row 3 deals with race, gender and body size (via sliders) made me realize that this is not only something companies can do, but it’s not nearly as difficult as they make it out to be (yes, I’m looking at you, Assassin’s Creed, who inspired the best cosplay I saw all weekend). Also it MADE ME WANT TO BUY AND PLAY THE GAME, so obviously inclusivity works on a purely capitalistic level as well.
As the Queen of Cosplay, I gave out prizes for usual categories like “Best in Show” and “Audience Favorite,” but I also got to highlight crafting skills with “Best DIY,” femme representation with “Best Glam,” and queering characters with “Best Queer Character.” I realized “Best Original Character” should be a thing, too, to encourage people to cosplay their own characters and to let us know about them. I realized that offering prizes legitimized these areas of cosplay that aren’t always seen or encouraged. Seeing people who are new to cosplay bring their all really made me feel teary and honored.
It wasn’t just about the outfits, either! I got a chance to enjoy a bit of the IndieCade game area at the con, and played a game about depression that spoke to me as an excellent way to describe to someone what it’s like trying to get by when depressed. I felt that same thrill I used to have,”a desire to explore, to learn, to problem solve. And no one told me I didn’t belong for being a woman, or being queer, or even being a sex worker. I was a gamer, too.
GaymerX2′s tagline is #everyonegames and they really made space for that to come to life. I hope game developers take notice and that people like me start making our own games, cross pollinating new ideas, mechanics and characterizations. This weekend made me excited about gaming again, and I’m glad.
Now I have some Card Wars to play.
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[Image by Dirk Wyse for Cosplay SF]