thank you justin bailey

finding yourself through cheat codes and indie games

by eric

I hop effortlessly from platform to platform in Phendrana Drifts, relieved that the threats from the previous caverns are behind me. The frost clears from my visor, and I allow myself to get lost in the atmosphere. For the moment, I don't have to work in the morning and there aren’t any dishes waiting for me in the kitchen. But more importantly, I have no five o'clock shadow, I don't have to worry about how I look in a tight t-shirt, and I definitely don't have my grandfather's hands. For the moment, I'm Samus. I can be a six-foot tall badass and it doesn’t compromise my femininity -- I'm respected for it. I'm in my skin. As lonely as I am, as difficult my mission is, it's right. It fits.

Not long after coming out as genderfluid, I began to notice a pattern of behaviors that, in retrospect, almost makes my newly understood identity seem obvious. I catch myself wishing I'd been able to identify and decode those moments earlier. You can't see the forest from the trees though, and everything happens in its own time, but games certainly expedited my realization. I had few external examples of strong femininity in my life, and certainly none that I could pour myself into as I did with video games. I do have a sister, but she's my only sibling, and lived with my mother out of town. I was, for all intents and purposes, raised as an only child. When you’re an awkward kid in a small town video games quickly become the defacto pastime and escape.

i can be a six-foot tall badass and it doesn’t compromise my femininity -- i'm respected for it

When I wasn't playing games, I was reading about them, and when I wasn't reading about them, I was talking about them. Games were central in my life, and it's no surprise that I was so invested in the characters I played. Still, games were mostly fun diversions until a few key moments that began to shape me as a person. Among the first was reading the Super Mario Bros. 2 manual. In it, the mini-boss Birdo is characterized thus: "he thinks he is a girl." While we recognize this is problematic in hindsight, and odd as I found it then, something clicked. I'd never entertained the thought that you could *want* to be different than you were raised. Still, I filed it away.

While I was good at games, I had a short attention span, so I never stayed with most of them long enough to finish, but I stuck with Metroid. Besides, it was the perfect playground for the school yard currency that was the cheat code. I didn't know who JUSTIN BAILEY was, but I was thankful that he made the game immeasurably easier. The famous password revealed Samus to be a woman and completely filled out her arsenal. By the time I'd traversed Tourian, Norfair, and Brinstar as the tall, powerful heroine, I was personally invested. I shared in Samus's journey. Though I never felt I was Samus, I did empathize with her solitude and her drive. I may not have wanted to be her at the time, but I wanted to emulate her.

I'm not sure if it's solely due to the green-haired, grey-skinned bounty hunter, but I gravitated towards women characters whenever given the chance. The blatant machismo exhibited by their male counterparts was an instant turn off, and I simply couldn't see myself in the role of the shirtless gunman, the sword-wielding barbarian, or the thuggish brawler. There wasn't that same disconnect with women. I was ashamed that I didn’t identify with the masculinity I was taught to aspire to. When I realized that my rejection of masculinity would have consequences, I thought up an explanation that my friends would find suitable: "I'd rather stare at a woman's ass for hours than some jacked up dude". Either that, or I’d explain that I was just better with speedy or magical characters. Neither cringeworthy explanation was ever questioned.

I found many women role models in games. I barely touched Rikimaru in Tenchu, Lammy was *far* superior and believable than Parappa, and my Ultima Online character was a powerhouse of a matriarch, who founded an entire village dedicated to developing players who had no guild affiliations. Hell, as far as I was concerned, even Arial Tetsuo made Auricom the best choice in Wipeout. Playing as a man felt forced, and I always felt at odds with how I wanted to be perceived.

My wife noticed a female slant in my gaming habits, and our conversations about them me to be more thoughtful about my decisions. This was followed by a deluge of powerful women leads: Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fallout, Persona 4, and Tomb Raider all featured wonderful heroines or allowed the player to create a leading lady. These games spoke to me, and I spoke through them, but I had a difficult time taking ownership of these women’s stories without a sense of appropriative guilt. But these women planted an important seed in me. That seed grew into a question, then an answer, and then acceptance. I could want to know these people, and want to be them as well. There really is no shame in that. Something was eating away at me as my wife and I prepared for our first long distance biking and camping trip in August of 2013. I didn’t want that something to sit with me the whole trip, possible ruining our trek. Better to have it result in a cancelled weekend than to blurt it out on the road, and have to spend a day biking back in uncomfortable silence. I told her I thought I was bisexual, and she responded with an enthusiastic and reassuring "okay." She held me for what seemed like forever, but was somehow still not long enough.

playing as a man felt forced, and i always felt at odds with how i wanted to be perceived

My sexual orientation wasn't the only thing I had to question, either. While I reflected on gender expression and masculinity, I quickly realized mine wasn't a question of only expression, but identity as well. In just a few short months, I went from coming out to close friends and loved ones as bi, to also identifying as genderfluid.

Around that time, I had played several experimental "empathy games" (a subset of indie games that are highly autobiographical, though their authors sometimes reject that label), and one awoke something in me. I saw Merritt Kopas' Lim as a touching concept, but mostly focused on the game’s mechanics. Lim is a game about blending in as a means of harm reduction. [But maintaining your disguise is disingenuous to yourself, painful as a result, and doesn't convince everyone anyway.] Once I noticed the game’s parallels to my life, it became a frustrating, painful exercise in futility. Where I was able to sneak by in the past, I was now attacked with such frequency that I found myself mashing the directional keys harder and harder, my blood pressure rising, angry with myself for not fitting in better. I was angry at the aggressors, for even giving enough of a damn so as to make walking through a hallway an impossible feat. Each playthrough ended in my little cube avatar being ferociously knocked around, and eventually out of the game’s play area.

i'd been playing a role my entire life without even knowing it, and it had caused me real pain

It hit me all at once. I wasn't emulating someone else’s experiences; those experiences were mine. I was the Amazon warrior, navigating a world of masculine dominance. I was the bounty hunter, searching to maintain peace. I was the tiny, multi-colored cube, who just wanted to live in peace, and meet other tiny, multi-colored cubes without worrying about being judged. I'd been playing a role my entire life without even knowing it, and it had caused me real pain: I suffered from depression, anxiety, anger issues, and a compulsive desire to please, even at my own expense.

Without the tools to understand that my identity was a possibility, I'd only just been blending in all along. Thankfully, I began my self discovery before that damage consumed me. I escaped experiencing life from the outside, or worse, not being alive at all. My life was Lim; there is safety in isolation, but that there is sometimes a point of no return, where even good relationships are tainted by the barriers we put up. I was determined not to let that happen.

I bought a copy of The Fullbright Company’s Gone Home the first time it went on sale. The game not only had a queer narrative, but it’s also set in the nostalgia drenched 90s (a sure recipe for emotional resonance). While I was young in the 90’s, I had the privilege of having an older sister who lived that decade in a way I never could, and she left an indelible mark on me. I felt her alongside me as I walked the halls in Gone Home. She was there as I listened to its various mix tapes, and pored over its posters and 'zines.

I bought my sister a copy of Gone Home, though the chance she would play it was slim. But I wanted to share this game with her because of the beautiful relationship between the protagonist and her sister, Sam. Sam’s story in Gone Home is particularly important to me because she represents the teenage girl I could never be, and even the relationship I couldn't have with my sister. If I ever do come out to members of my family, she’ll be the first to know. As an adult, I found myself in Sam’s story, Lara Croft’s story, Samus’s story, and that little cube’s story. I'm past the point of worrying over having come out "late", but there will probably always be a small part of me that wonders how it would have been to make these discoveries in my teenage years. There's nowhere to live but now.

It sometimes feels silly to place so much weight on gaming, but we have always explored who we are and who we want to be through play. Games were there for me when the real world didn't make sense. And now that my real world is finally comprehensible, games will be there for me to further explore who I am, and share that with others without having to hide behind an excuse. Better still, a whole new world of play is open to me, and I can engage creators and other players to discuss our experiences and how they shaped our identities.

In the meantime, I'll be rocking a purple pompadour and stiletto heels in Saints Row, feeling no shame.