Videogames are a billion dollar, multi-media industry. At this age, there isn’t a single place you can go without someone at least knowing what Super Mario Bros. or Angry Birds is. This is a generational technological medium that has spanned 50+ years. Sure, most of us are part of the second wave starting with the NES in the 80’s, and younger kids are more familiar with Xbox and PlayStation than Nintendo probably, but we’re all a huge community. I’ve made countless friends on and offline that I will have memories with for years to come. Forums, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, Reddit, whatever; no matter the social media application I use to converse with them, they are never more than a few clicks away. I can load up Steam and there are a million people I can game with and who will game with me. This is a terrific time to be a gamer, and it’s going to get even better as we go along. That’s what it was rather difficult growing up in my situation as a gay individual in rural NC.
Now, now, I don’t want this to be a sob-story or anything, nor am I saying my “plight(s)” are any worse than anyone else’s, this is just a very personal piece about my lack of ability to emotionally connect to the thousands of personas I’ve embodied over the last 20+ years of my gaming life. Okay, first thing you should know about me, I loathe labels and classifications; yes, I’m gay but I think labels are annoying and I feel they’re designed to help designate and tag people to make it easier to separate and single someone out. I get they’re existence and use, I’m not stupid, but my race, orientation, looks, hair; all of that, shouldn’t be able to be sorted and cast me as ‘x subject’. I cheat a little here and there and am a bit of a hypocrite when I call myself a nerd, geek, or gamer, but since labels are pretty much here to say, may as well embrace them, yeah? May I detract really quickly and speak on the ‘gaymer’ portmanteau we’ve all likely seen over the last few years before I get back on my personal history? I like it, I think it’s charming, and it’s unique. Would I necessarily tag myself or put that on a business card? Likely not depending on the scenario, but not because of shame or anything, but because I don’t want that to be what I’m known as when people introduce me or think of me.
Personification is important, there’s nothing wrong with that, but, you also need to be able to distinguish yourself from the rest of the herd, as well as know when it’s appropriate to be yourself. Again, I must stress this: please, PLEASE never hide yourself, your true feelings, or any of your ambitions, but you also need to be aware that as open and more accepting as this world has gotten in the twenty years, there are still a lot of bad or ignorant people out there that couldn’t care less about your intentions; they will hurt you, physically or emotionally. I think online gaming is enough of a poor example of what I mean by that. For the same reason a black person is smart enough to not attend a KKK rally, a gay person is smart enough to not go into a heavily Christian or god-fearing religious based area and make out with their significant other. You want to show equality, but all they wish to do is follow what they think is right and shun you and cast you from the Earth. Be smart, that’s all I’m saying.
Anyway, back to my personal story, sorry about the derailment. So, like I said, I grew up in rural NC, right along that wonderful thing known as the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt, for those unaware, is essentially a hotbed of religions that covers a majority of the south of the US. So, you could imagine, as a gay kid, my orientation was very taboo and something I hid for years; among other reasons. I was never embarrassed or ashamed of myself, I was, like most other kids in my situation, scared and confused. We didn’t have a lot to look to for answers, at least not where I was. I couldn’t tell friends, or even worse my parents or family, because I’d seen and heard the comments they had made at gays in various situations. Scathing comments, rude gestures, homophobic remarks; they all happened continuously and scared me even more to staying in the closet for years. Funny story (not really, but you have to mask the pain with comedy) one time my friend and I, who I’ve been friends with for nearly ten years now, were talking after work, and I asked: “if you had a gay friend or family member, what would you do?” “I’d abandon them and cut them out of my life.” Whoa, I was never expecting that as a response. To be fair, his upbringing was that of the people in the Bible Belt, so I half-expected that, but it was still jarring. This was around 2007, so not too long ago either. He’s since changed his views and he’s super supportive of me and realizes what an awful thing it was he said.
I guess, looking back, I didn’t have it so bad in the grand scheme of things, but it was still a very scary world out there when you looked at what a lot of anti-gay groups were doing. For kids these days, there are a ton of role models, shows, artists, movies, or other mediums to find inspiration and comfort; I’m almost jealous, ha ha. All I had were shows like Will and Grace and stereotypes that would grate on me and I vowed to never fulfill. I not a self-hating gay man, but at the same time, I don’t like fitting an image that society, based on clichés, has defined me to be. “Oh, you don’t have a lisp, but you’re gay, right?” *SIGH* I’m a rebel by nature I guess. I’ve never liked fitting any specific setting or motif; I’m happier being very carefree and going with the flow, but I also realize I can be very opinionated and contrarian. Which I think is why videogames were very appealing as I kept playing them and grew up with them over the years. They presented an infinite amount of playgrounds and areas to allow myself to be whom or whatever I wanted to be.
One day I could be an Italian plumber saving a princess, the next a spy infiltrating an Alaskan base, to finishing the weekend as a footballer. Sorry, my dad and brother liked to play a lot of sports games, so since I was the youngest of three kids, I got stuck joining in their entertainment for several years. But that’s not the point, the point was that I could create a new persona every day that was decidedly different from the previous one and look forward to doing it again the next day. Unfortunately, as I got older, the more and more I looked for role models in videogames that fit my lifestyle, orientation, or way of life, they were few and far between. Most of them that I found were much like the tired tropes I’ve been watching in films and movies for years. Super-effeminate or super-muscular guys who never outright said they were gay (because that was a taboo back then) but were 99% created that way by the production team. That only reinforced in me that ‘how I was’ must be a defect.
Despite having a thousand possible personas at my disposal, as I grew older, I grew less interested in a lot of the characters coming my way. They were becoming stagnant, and any characters that fit the already tired ideas of gay in the medium I immediately dismissed and threw out. Why was being gay in videogames, a medium where you literally can create something millions of people can play, still such an unmentionable idea? It wasn’t until the PS2-era that more and more devs were presenting the gay community in a better, less-typical light. But, if I had to give my favorite, most poignant gay character in a game, it’s The Last of Us’ Bill. I won’t spoil the fantastic creation that is The Last of Us, but I’ll indulge you briefly in why Bill is one of the strongest gay characters in videogames ever.
Bill was a small portion of The Last of Us, his role only making up about 30-60 minutes of story, but in those short moments we get some great characterization and storytelling. Now, Naughty Dog did that implication thing that very many devs did, but they oh-so-subtly told a tale about Bill and his now-dead partner Frank. “Partner”, in this day and age, partner could mean a few things, but it’s primarily interpreted in this context as boyfriend or significant other. It helps cement the implication even further when Elle takes an adult magazine from Bill that’s all male, so it’s pretty cut and dry there. Subtlety, that’s what I liked about Bill’s character. He wasn’t a bouncing, lisping gay man (again, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that); he was strong, stoic, and smart. He wasn’t a stigma we’ve seen time and time again, he was empowering and the focus of his character was never his sexuality; that was a part of the world that you either picked up on, or didn’t, and that’s okay. Naughty Dog said what gays have been saying for years: don’t define and classify us as this one thing or group. We’re members of society as much as anyone else, and deserving of the same treatment and respect. If The Last of Us isn’t enough of an example of a game developer just getting it right, I urge you to check out the brilliant Gone Home from The Fullbright Company. I’ve said a lot on this game already, but if you want to see it, here you go!
It makes me so happy that more devs are willing to take a risk and include gay characters like Bill in their games. I personally think it’s one of the best industry innovations of the last ten years, and I hope to see more gamers, who were like me when I was younger, getting a chance to connect with a character that personifies their reality. In the same way I hope more ethnic cultures get their time in the sun too. We’re all the fucking same in the end (sorry for swearing), we just have slightly different appearances, opinions, and views, and that’s okay. We live in a time where you can be whatever your heart desires and you want to be. Prejudice and hate still exists too though, so be smart, be wary, and be goddamn proactive. You’re a perfect specimen as you are; please never let anyone tell you otherwise. I’ll tell you one last story before I bid you farewell today, and this is absolutely true, I promise. When I was coming out to my parents a couple of years ago (yes, it took me 27 years to come out to them, out of fear of their reaction and misunderstandings), I had an expectation of what would happen: my mom would be a silent, sobbing mess, and my dad would be either quiet or super angry. To my surprise, the script was flipped and the roles were reversed. My dad’s eyes were full of tears and my mom was relatively hushed, but still managed to utter one of the silliest (in the nicest way) comments I’ve ever heard. “Are you sure, do you want to date a girl just to make sure?” I laughed and assured her I was definitely sure, and they are some of the most supportive, caring, and helpful people I have in my life. I would be nowhere without them and I’m endlessly grateful to them for every single thing they’ve done for me.
Coming out is one of the most important moments of a gay’s life, do not push them, do not reprimand them, and do not shun them. Love them and support them. Let them know that you still care about them and that no matter what, you always will. Ask those questions you want to ask, not rudely of course, but to help yourself understand. The gay community is really no different from the straight community, so the allegorical fences between the two are paper-thin and easy to break through, but let the person do it. Let them help you, and you do so in return. I’m obviously no go-to master of gay studies or the community, hell, I’m still learning a lot every day, but I’m always here to lend a helping hand or ear to listen. Find me on Twitter @zabu_san I repeat, you are not a stain on society and there is nothing wrong with you, you’re as
normal (no, let’s ditch that relative term) you’re as much as anyone else that walks this earth, and you should never be scared to show that.
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