Growing up gay isn't easy for anyone, especially if you've been indoctrinated against your will into a belief system that didn't come naturally to you. Add to this the fact that you are being sent to a very conservative Lutheran high school, and the fact that your anti-sports stance and tone of voice betray you... Sure, I was still standing (I'm still white and male, after all), but high school represented a vast chasm I had to find my way across if I was ever to build a stable sense of self. What it took me some time to realize was just how much games contributed to me making it out alive.
high school represented a vast chasm I had to find my way across if I was ever to build a stable sense of self
I lost many good friends when I decided to "come out" to them all at seventeen. This was a painful process, and since I was the only out gay kid at my school, I couldn't look to anyone for emulation (or romance) to try and muddle through. This forced to try and make new straight friends among the less religiously-biased of the higher echelons. These new friends knew I was gay and eventually came to accept it. Being good little Christians (like we all were - ha. ha.), they were still keen to the occasional prejudices and strange questions. But we mostly avoided the issue, and even when awkward questions were raised or statements made, they were done with the purest of intentions.
Even though I could sit in a room with them without abridging most "awkward questions", fitting in well with this group wasn’t easy. My redeeming qualities were that I could party just like the rest, I could make them laugh, and I could (occasionally) kick their asses in the video game du jour.
I could party just like the rest, I could make them laugh, and I could (occasionally) kick their asses in the video game du jour
Our group would gather in the musty basement of my twin friends A and B's house, deep within the confines of redneck-and-proud Washington state. This basement was a fabled retreat in our social circle-- an Elysium of sorts-- where your average seventeen-year-old boy could drink, smoke, make mistakes, listen to Nirvana or Pink Floyd, and relax with his friends outside of the oppressive confines of the Lutheran high school he frequented. The perfect combination of absent parents and middle-of-fucking-nowhere location, this house had everything: a firepit for s’mores, intoxicated acoustic guitar sing-alongs late into the night, a janky off-kilter pool table which led to many amusing "moves" needed just to keep the game in play, and a widescreen TV with an Xbox 360. The latter was pretty rare among us at that time, so needless to say it was love at first sight. We spent hours in front of the large screen, bathed in the glow of the latest violent shooter, usually a member of the Call of Duty series. These games have a history of fantastic and fun multiplayer combat, appealing to something very deep within the testosterone-high and patriotic-yet-sociable friends I had. A few of them (even A, my straight heartthrob crush) had dreams of becoming Marines and serving their country, leading to no shortage of this type of gaming at the compound.
The game wouldn’t have been my first pick, but shooters always held a rather special place in my heart. I suppose this was due to the brief flashes of time in which I could live vicariously through the characters and feel a sense of power. The specters of unknown soldiers dashing across the screen, in various states of facial hair growth and clothing tightness, was a chance for me to express my manliness in ways that were rarely physically demonstrated. Occasionally these games were even a chance to make quick brushes with something more. The stoic Master Chief in the Halo series, for example, warning Cortana about something or other with a calm and oh-so-romantic voice. You never saw his face, but you'd be hard pressed to deny that he was what you had been waiting for your entire post-pubescent life.
With controllers across the room flickering to life, it was game time. The match would begin, two on two with rotating team members to give everyone a chance to form their own dynamic with a preferred player. "Prepare to be ass-raped," one of my friends would announce to nobody in particular, the gravity of the coming insurrection tightening the grip on our controllers just a little bit more. The map came onto the large screen, and as soon as the countdown was up, we were no longer anchored in the physical world. Confronted with imminent virtual death, as psychologically painful as a physical injury, we were immersed completely in the glow of the game, the equality of quick wits and deft flicking fingers taking precedence over the inequality of masculinity and physical mass that separated us.
Lurking in the shadows, I preferred the element of surprise and the sudden spike of adrenaline to push me forward. It was what I was good at. "Can I help you enjoy that Snickers?", I'd exclaim with a grin, right before lunging forward and stabbing a member of the opposing team in the back with a knife. (This was a reference to an absurd yet somewhat homoerotic Snickers commercial of the time, which for some reason amused us to no end.) The room would erupt in laughter, all save for the recipient of my sudden bloodlust, who glowered and plotted his quick revenge. A moment later, either a swift bullet to the head or a clanking grenade at my feet would send bits of my virtual self exploding across the screen.
"You fucking faggot, that was so cheap!" I'd scream at him, along with a seemingly unending series of other expletives (the lingua franca of the seventeen-year-old boy). The rest of the room cackled away, the irony of my insult surely not lost on them, but still unapparent to me. Even B, the quintessential proto-Marine if there ever was one, would lose his shit at the spectacle.
"Watch the Killcam! Watch it!" my opponent would offer through his guffaws, as if being confronted with my death in instant-replay format would somehow lighten my mood. It certainly did so for the others.
"Fuck you." Altogether back in the physical realm, I'd leap into a violent rage, casting my controller aside and lunging at my friend with hands swinging. The others would laugh all the more, unsure if it was due to the ridiculousness of it all, or to the futility of my attempts to beat up someone twice my size who could put me in the ground at a moment's notice.
None of this mattered, though. The cycle would repeat ad nauseum, match after match, day after day, peppered with more inventive insults and side-splitting laughter all the while. Sometimes my team would come out on top, and sometimes it was otherwise. What mattered in the end was the camaraderie: the sense that all were equal before the glowing monolithic television screen, gay or straight.
all were equal before the glowing monolithic television screen, gay or straight.
Did this subconscious realization help my friends to accept our differences, to love me as a friend and ignore all the rest which they could not understand? I can't say for sure. But it played an important part, and it made all the difference for me at the time. It helped me make it out of that Lutheran high school alive. I’ll always be thankful those bloody, testosterone-drenched games, and for the relationships they engendered.