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April 9
2014

Trapped in the Nerd Closet

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spyro bump
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The process lasted no more than nine hours over the course of three separate days with barely any time for more than handshakes. Some of the cast members were familiar friends and colleagues. Others were performers I hadn’t met before we gathered for the gig.

Whenever an artistic quickie ends, the inevitable slew of Facebook friend requests immediately rolls in. Even though it’s the product of an obligatory gesture, I love seeing the virtual faces of people I would otherwise eventually forget. Realistically the likelihood of effectively balancing all these new could-be-friendships is discouragingly slim. Impossible really.

Let’s call the one tenor Sam. My chair was next to his in the workshop, yet we spoke surprisingly little – maybe about five or six words and even that’s a stretch. Sam only performed his role two out of the three days since he had to hightail it back to middle-of-nowhere Indiana before the finale. There wasn’t time for words seven, eight, and nine.

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Sam was like a shimmering, golden Chia Pet and I was stupidly intrigued. I also remember liking his voice a whole damn lot and thinking his skinny frame and blonde curls fit the part of a Roman harem boy impeccably. But I didn’t consider our relationship familiar enough to make erotic Greco-Roman allusions out loud. Instead I kept to myself.

His friend request patiently awaited my response soon enough. Nothing out of the ordinary, and I accepted because, like, why the hell not?

I’m not entirely sure how it started. Maybe I was the one who noticed he had an admiration for Reality TV show gifs first, or it could have been the other way around. We were both passionate about communicating with images, gifs, and YouTube links to arouse some sort of reaction or to indicate all our feels about whatever. Weeks later, we were engaging in gif wars on Facebook threads and calling each other virtual pen pals. We still haven’t physically spoken a word to one another.

Sam liked to joke he was in an “emojional” mood whenever he used any emojis at all. One time, he typed in this weird little bugger that I thought vaguely resembled Uka-Uka from Crash Bandicoot: Warped. Should I bust on out of my nerd closet for the sake of referencing a game he’s probably never played? I chanced my arm:

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As evidenced, that’s all it took to level the both of us up to soulmates. It only took a single video game reference, and then we were textually inseparable. And yes indeed, we still haven’t seen each other since that workshop.

This got me thinking about video games as tools for community building. Playing video games can bring us together, that seems obvious. What about discussing video games with no actual play involved? Although Sam and I bonded about lots, it was always sans the video game topic until the fated Uka-Uka emoji came into our lives. On a guess, neither of us knew how the other would respond to the video game bombshell, so why bother mentioning anything about it? Forming relationships involving face-to-face banter on the subject of video games can still be a scary venture for even someone like me.

Uka Uka and Aku Aku

Sam isn’t the first of my gay friends that I’ve deliberately avoided talking to about video games. He’s also not the first of my gay friends to swoon with nostalgia over the golden days of gaming once its been brought up. And yet somehow, the video game topic still seems taboo in much of my gay company.

If a straight man likes video games, that’s normal! It’s even expected. If a straight woman likes video games, that’s cool – she admits to regularly engaging in a perceived masculine activity that earns her a “cool girl” moniker – in the same way a woman who watches football every Sunday is such a friggin’ cool person! As for a gay man who plays video games: that’s more difficult to decode. The world might have you believe it’s weird or unexpected for a gay man to derive any pleasure whatsoever from a video game or two.

If more gay gamers exist out there, many are in hiding.

I don’t normally play games online. I’ve tried many times to get into online gaming and continue to find it repellant. They feel like breeding grounds for animosity that aren’t just homophobic. If you’re any sort of “other” participating in an online death-match – be you female, homosexual, transgendered, elderly, or any race other than white – you’ve likely been met with some kind of anonymous retaliation. It may not always be directed at you, but it’s absolutely there. But there’s the odd impression that even the most trolly players slinging the invectives don’t want to be there either. A shield of anonymity inspires this sort of mindless behavior that of course would humiliate the delinquent player in question if anybody found out. Listening in on an Xbox headset is a lot like hearing YouTube comments read to you aloud. So I miss the friendly living room environments home to Super Smash Bros. Melee competitions between friends both new and familiar. Now the majority of gamers compete with other players in secret and the gaming chatter is by and large foolish.

stock-footage-friends-playing-video-games-while-laughing-in-the-living-room

We can hide ourselves away playing video games very easily. Engaging in video game activity, though cozy, is kept private because its discomfiting. We worry we appear frivolous and immature for entertaining video game entertainment, especially when performed solo. We’re all Bree Vandekamps drinking alone.

As homosexuals, we thrive on shared experiences. These often manifest in pieces of history and culture. Gay men might instinctually bond over shared enthusiasm for Cher, Madeline Kahn, and The Carol Burnett Show. Gay women might connect through Melissa Etheridge or listening to vintage recordings of Marlene Dietrich. So much of it is diva culture and admiring those people who possess either the masculinity or femininity we wish we had. I believe this is also true of video games and the avatars we strive to control. We want to be the avatars we play more than we let on. We want to be enraptured, transfixed by these games.

I play games because they appeal to my senses. I play games because I think of them as more than fun diversions. But most importantly, I play games because they appeal to my sensibilities as a gay man, whether the developers of these games realize it or not. Although the appealing stuff isn’t always the healthiest medicine. That was particularly true for me growing up as an outcast adolescent in the proverbial gay closet.

I never felt more “masculine” growing up than when I was playing video games. I was never cool, but I was a badass playing video games. I could rescue Zelda and earn Princess Peach’s affection, meanwhile girls seldom glanced at me in school. I grew up imagining these models of hyper-masculinity should emulate my own life: conquer, get the girl, prosper, and/or live happily ever after. Consequently, I was disengaged socially until about 11th grade. I didn’t know how to act and I had no gay role models in my life.

Now that I’m waaaay out and proud as a gay man, I take serious issue with the expressions of hyper-masculinity that plague mainstream video game titles. I often look back on my childhood and remember how utterly confused I was. Young gay gamers have depressingly few heroes and heroines to look up to. It’s a shame these dubious portrayals of hyper-masculinity still run rampant, since a truly transporting video game can deliver so much more. There’s a lot about a video game that can appeal to LGBTQ youth (and adults too). Escapism comes to mind in particular.

My favorite video games growing up built worlds that could only otherwise exist in my head. When school was too unbearable, I always looked forward to getting home to stimulate my overactive imagination. Zelda left me in awe. Mario made me smile. RPGs demanded more of my attention, and I had to learn to be organized, purposeful, and thorough. After being warned Xenogears was like reading a convoluted novel, I shrugged my skinny shoulders and responded “that’s fine.”  True, too much escape can be like a bad drug, but rather than disconnect from the real world altogether, I began to understand there were places out there beyond my stifling little suburb. Not just the video game places, but the real places too. It’d take patience, but I’d get there someday.

Spyro again

Spyro the Dragon seemed like the logical progression. I asked Sam if he played the game. I remember loving the trilogy’s color palette and Spyro’s spunk. He was diminutive, purple, a bit weak, and yet…kind of cool. Despite being the underdog, Spyro successfully fights to save the dragon denizens of his community, garnering praise and respect from his superiors while still managing to stay cute all along the journey. I think back on it, and it really wasn’t so strange that I related to Spyro. And as I expected, Sam loved sitting down with Spyro back in the day too. He also threatened to burst into tears if I sent him a link to the ending theme of Final Fantasy X – a sentiment I understood completely.

Sam and I were out of harm’s way growing up on video games. We were secure and innocent playing Spyro or Crash Bandicoot or Final Fantasy. But nowadays it’s simpler to reach beyond your bedroom into cyberspace – a more dangerous and unpredictable sector. Would I feel safe if I was hearing “fag” echoing across my headphones at just ten years old? I played games to escape those verbal abuses, but today it’s the players themselves perpetuating such hostility. Video games aren’t as safe as they once were for us “others.” Therefore I wonder if some gay men are ashamed to admit they like video games on the basis of hypocrisy.

Perhaps these musings are overanalyzes. We were all kids once and loads of us played video games, especially boys bred in the 80s and beyond. I was one of them. My video game love affair formed long before I learned to categorize facets of my identity and personality. Yet, it’s indisputable that video games were a core component to my adolescent development, and they still inform me as I continue to mature. So if video games can be appealing to the narratives of us “others,” why are they continually marketed outside a more inclusive rainbow spectrum? For this, we may be partly responsible, so long as a great many of us  embarrassed to be visible members of these “other” gaming demographics.

Next time you make a new friend, why not ignore your apprehensions and ask what games he or she played? You might just find a new and unlikely soulmate. After all, it’s worth the search to share your otherness with…well, others.

Gay Gamers Marcing in Toronto

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About Brad Baron

(Writer) Brad grew up on poorly translated JRPGS, Zelda, Crash, and Spyro. If ever a nerd there was, that nerd in fact was he. These days, he's a singer, actor, playwright, and blogger. He also fancies himself a curator of the cyberspace museum that is YouTube. He graduated Princeton University with a BA in English, just like that cute puppet in Avenue Q. When he isn't lip trilling, he's openly weeping while listening to the Ni no Kuni soundtrack or slaving away on yet another Assassin's Creed escort mission. In addition to writing for GayGamer, he frequently updates his personal blog "Mind Shuffle" and his Tumblr "Baron as in Red."

2 Responses

  1. avatar Matt says:

    Love this article (and your previous one about Game of Thrones)

    Gaming has always been an escape for me, whether it was from sexuality related issues or not. same with fantasy/horror novels and tv shows. It’s nice to get wrapped up in a story that is not your own sometimes.

    I love it when gay and gaming comes together though, because then I can truly connect with 2 important parts of myself.

    I’ve never felt afraid to tell people that I’m a gamer though, it’s so ingrained in me that people just have to put up with it if they want to be around me :P

  2. avatar Kevin (Ket) says:

    I think the difficulty in revealing you’re a gamer is that gaming is still generally viewed as low culture by anyone who is a non-gamer. The stuff of manboys and basement dwellers. That gets exacerbated by this cultural expectation that gay men are somehow more cultured than most people.

    Going through dating profiles a bit, either most gay men really aren’t nerdy, or they are loathe to admit it to other gay men. We’re far more likely to declare our love for exotic foods, or the arts…or the gym, but that’s another expectation entirely that also meshes poorly with the impression of gamers.

    I remember, at my last job, I was known for being a fan of science fiction and video games and the like. Soon enough, my only other friend in the office was another science fiction/video game fan. Meanwhile, I listened as everybody else talked about gay men as though our shoe laces were woven from pure gold.

    ‘Course, the sad thing is this ain’t limited to just gay men. In just about any setting, if you tell people your first love is games, that just make for awkward conversations of “Oh, I haven’t played any games since middle school.” Which is not to say there are no gay nerdy people. I’m in a gay gaming group and it’s liberating to be able to nerd it out openly around others.

    None of this, of course, takes away from your point about toxic homophobic culture within the gaming community either.

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