This piece contains sexually explicit discussion, and talk about dysphoria and suicidal thoughts.
When rain mixes with cotton, it sticks gently to my skin. Layers of clothing blend together in the wet, rough plaid over-shirt and soft black t-shirt forming an armour that encases my torso. The rain spills down upon my exposed skin, cooling my burning head. Keeping me alert. Keeping me alive. Technically, I’m a wanted fugitive hiding out from the CIA, but in all honesty, I can’t remember where I was going. I don’t care who happens to be chasing me, and I don’t care whether I get away. I just want to stand here for a while longer, shirt clinging to the curve of my hips, hair cropped yet shaggy, blowing over my face in the wind.
I don’t want to do anything. I just want to be.
Before I played Beyond: Two Souls, I’d never felt this so strongly. We played that game eight months ago, and in the time since I haven’t once tried to write down this reaction, to codify and analyse it, or even take the time to understand it for myself. The game had tapped into an unease within me, and for the first time I consciously acknowledged the dull pain I feel every day. The pain I feel when I catch a glimpse of my face in a mirror, when I get undressed to shower, when the man at the restaurant firmly shakes my hand. Playing this, I Iet myself, for just a moment, to imagine what it would be like to be free of that pain. The sensation I felt being Jodie Holmes, simply felt more correct than I how I felt trapped inside my own skin.
The first time I watched porn, I was staying at my Grandma’s. At home, the computer was old and slow, as well as being next to the dining table, with the window looking out onto the street. But my Grandma kept her computer in the spare bedroom, a box room that I’d stay in whenever I was there. I brushed my teeth and hugged my Grandma goodnight. I was twelve years old.
I’d seen porn before, of course, it had been shown to me by boastful classmates and I caught snippets of it around the internet, whether playing games on Newgrounds or simply searching for images to use in presentations. But this was the first time I had actively set out with the intention of watching it, and I’d spent weeks working out the perfect scenario in which to get myself off. After this, I told myself, the other kids would stop bullying me for being too weak to go through with it, and finally, I would feel like I belonged.
Fifteen minutes of searching later, I’d found a website, and I loaded up the top rated video. A girl with cute black hair lay naked on the bed, already covered in sweat and out of breath. With no regard for her state, a man pulls her on top of him, and they fuck for a while as I watch, slightly bemused. A minute later, another man walks over, and she reaches her arms behind her, pulling him into her. The camera zooms in on her alone as her eyes close, her voice explodes and her entire body starts to quake. In that moment, she was the most important person in the world, and she may as well not have existed. I had never wanted to be somebody else more.
Only in the years that followed did I realise that I’d been watching porn ‘wrong.’ My classmates’ sexual fantasies were those of power and control, emotions that could not have been further from my ideas of intimacy. They spoke of their ideal partners in the same tone as they spoke of me: someone below them, someone not good enough, someone they could make scream. I wonder to this day how many of them matured enough to make that blisteringly obvious connection.
I blamed myself. For a while I wondered if I was gay, even hoped that I was, just so I’d have a concrete explanation that would allow me to never have to acknowledge that dull pain. I found boys cute and all, but whenever I experimented with watching gay porn, it wasn’t the same. I had no emotional connection, no opening with which to insert myself into the fantasy. The only other explanation was that I was weak, just like the boys in class would constantly remind me. This explanation was reinforced with every film I watched, every book I read, but most importantly: every game I played. I’d go to bed suicidal that I wasn’t strong enough live out my classmates’ masculine fantasies of power and control, despite the fact that was never a live I wanted to live.
A near decade later, I played .error404, and I relived the feeling I had watching that first video. A tale of a computer, its expression of sexuality through metaphor allows it to shift focus from the doing to the being. Clicking through each word, the intensity ratchets up until the very fabric that is holding the games code together breaks, and the game crashes. .error404 portrays sex as not just the surrender of control, but a single minded act of self obliteration.
When I finished the game, without any guilt, I closed my eyes. Saw myself lying on the bed naked, a cute girl with black hair, who may as well not exist.
I rarely wear purple, but I let that slide when I created my character in Saints Row 2. Aside from that little detail, the guy looked like me: open white shirt and a purple T-Shirt, with bushy red hair and boot cut jeans. He wasn’t a perfect recreation, I ended up making him a little trimmer, of course, in addition to being hilariously well endowed. I remember first trying to set that value as low as possible, uncomfortable with the idea that my sense of self had to permanently be linked to what I saw as physical maleness. But even with the slider set to zero, they’d rendered that cock with such loving detail that you could see its outline and ridge through the fabric. The only other reasonable response was to turn it into a punchline.
My fifteen year old self never considered making my avatar a woman, because after all, this was meant to be me. I was a boy, I went to an all boys school, I dressed in jeans, I played video games, and I listened to Blink-182. I had at least four years to go before I would even entertain the possibility of both my gender and sexuality being anything less than known quantities. Then those years passed, and in them, further Saints Row games were released, each one increasing in acclaim. I watched as my twitter timeline sang the praises of both character customisation and romance options, Saints Row IV a playground of self expression where each choice was as valid as the next.
This time, I created a new character. Honestly, she still looked like me in most ways. She wore the same combo of jeans and shirt, but she was a little shorter, and had cropped, black hair. I told myself that with a different avatar, I’d be able to see a different version of myself that I had more control over, and in turn feel more assured. I played the first few hours, watched the first few romance scenes, and began to become anxious that I’d done something wrong.
Each felt like a hollow disguise, each romance option was thoroughly devoid of heart. Saints Row IV’s approach rendered identity meaningless, self expression that fell upon deaf ears, these friends of mine indifferent to each and every one of my attributes. To the game, changing my sense of self was as impactful as changing my shirt. Every choice was equally invalid. It was a game where I could do whatever I wanted, as whoever I wanted.
It was never a game where I could be.
I don’t have a conclusion.
I’m writing one anyway, because I feel it would be irresponsible not to. Something about this post feels incomplete, it’s a series of short, introspective monologues about my struggle with sex and gender, and a few of the myriad ways games have intersected with that. Yet, this is something I’ve never opened up about before, and as such there is work I have to do in my own head before I feel like myself. Maybe I never will.
And that’s okay, because much like this post, I am also unfinished. It’s good to be a work in progress, it’s bad to think yourself complete. There are still nights where I try to lose myself in sex, desperately imagining what it would be like to feel someone inside me, until I come, and I see my body lying below me somehow. I feel then as if my mind sinks back down into my head, my momentary freedom sending me away like a sigh. Those are the nights I cry myself to sleep.
So I carry on. Hopefully one day I’ll revisit this topic, and everything will be more complete. But if there’s going to be no catharsis here then please take away this: A world where games are often defined by their verbs, by what they do, is limiting and tragic.
Being is the thing that makes us human, and art that resonates with that centre of ourselves is the most powerful and important of all.