Whenever conversations pop up about coming out, I find myself confused on how to add my own story without seeming embarrassment. My real-life coming out is a hazy memory in my mind, largely because it didn't hinge on any one event. Instead, what I recall much more vividly is when I did so in a virtual game space.
The year was 1997. The game was Sierra's The Realm Online. The guild was called the Schattenjägers. I was fourteen.
By this time I had accepted that I was gay, and was in that phase where I was searching out every bit of media that could be related to such. This also meant tentatively testing out waters. I wasn't lacking in real life friends, but being in (what I considered) a small town in Tennessee meant that I wasn't exactly keen on testing those particular waters. This meant that my virtual friends (in an age before Facebook, Twitter, or even easily-accessible blogging) were the prime focus of that experiment.
It also just so happened to be a year after Sierra had released Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of the Flesh, which featured Curtis Craig, a bisexual protagonist who engaged in a same-sex kiss in an FMV adventure game.
I can't recall the circumstances behind it, but one of my guildmates happened to be chatting with me about the game. While I never played the first Phantasmagoria (my mother forbid me based on the rape present in the game), I was more than thrilled to discuss this game with someone else. As I recall the chap (whose name I don't recall, so we'll just call him Chris) was a college student at the time. I considered him among my good friends online; his being older mixed with that fact meant that more than anything, I sought his approval.
Talking about the game resulted in discussing the implications of sanity as presented in A Puzzle of Flesh. In my nervous way, I kept trying to shift the focus to the aspects of sexuality explored, which hardly narrowed down the field of my particular interest. As I stated, the protagonist is bisexual, so there were also heterosexual pairings, along with themes of S&M.
When Chris finally got around to the sexy bits of the game, he stated that it just really weirded him out. Probing, I tried to discern if the nipple piercing had been the culprit. No. The exploration of S&M? Nope.
"I just couldn't get into the head of someone who was gay," he typed.
"Oh, I could." As I typed it, my palms were itching, as they are prone to do when I'm incredibly nervous and have just done something which causes me to wonder if this will be one of those "I will regret this" moments in my life.
It was the first time I'd actually told anyone I was gay, and what proceeded made me contemplate how I would present that fact to people, if and when it became relevant in the future. At that moment, Chris and I had defeated some Kilrogs, a demonic type enemy in The Realm, and as I walked on to the next screen, I noticed he wasn't following. The silence that followed was a pre-cursor of knowing how to proceed in future IM conversations that were beyond the normal fluff of 'Hi!' and 'How are you?' fare. Basically, I didn't know what to do or say next, so I waited.
Chris, knowing my age, was probably trying to figure out how to proceed as well: my coming out to him likely brought up questions of whether or not I was hitting on him, whether or not his previous statement had offended me, and any other of a myriad of reactions. Reactions I wasn't seeing at that time, focusing instead on rubbing my palms together and biting my lower lip.
"So... how do you know?" flashed in my chat window as he walked on screen, and initiated combat with the next group of mobs. Then we talked about it, he cracking jokes to relieve the tension as we continued on through the dungeon.
Generally speaking, I don't divulge my sexuality in MMOs, unless I'm part of an LGBT guild. Yet, I wouldn't take back this experience. This was a time before I saw gay being slung everywhere as a pejorative, and while there was a sizable community playing games, it was dwarfed in comparison of what we see today. What The Realm gave me, indirectly, was a chance to overcome that immense anxiety that can result from wanting to come out, but not knowing how the other person will respond.
Had he reacted negatively, I would likely have been much more quiet about my sexuality as a teenager. At the same time, it was a circumstance where I felt the risk was mitigated in some regard. It was a place to practice the casual way of letting people know their assumptions of me as straight were incorrect.
Games have the ability to transport us to new worlds and open up different viewpoints, sharing those experiences with our friends. Due to such, it is a fallacy to imagine that our identities don't affect how we see and experience a game--our lives affect how we interpret different events, and as my conversation with Chris highlighted, how we can react to a protagonist. He may not have been able to get into Curtis's head in A Puzzle of Flesh, but he was willing to hear how I could.
In the current environment of online games, I'm not sure I would have dared the same thing I attempted back in 1997. I find that a shame.