Essay: Role Playing Games

In my other life, I’ve been thinking about digital media, computer games, and archaeology of contemporary American culture. These musing may be why Evan Higgins’s essay, “Role Playing Games” resonated with me.

It also happens to be a very fine essay that appears in NDQ 87.1/2.

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~  

Role Playing Games

I grew up watching video games, not playing them. I’m the youngest of four—“the baby.” This meant a lot of things when I was little, but at the age of four, it mainly meant I wasn’t allowed near the video game console unless my older siblings were around. My sister, Chloe, is the eldest child in my family and the only girl. My early memories of her are indelibly tied to video games. They center on watching her play the original Sonic the Hedgehog game and its poetically named sequel, Sonic the Hedgehog 2. These games were some of the few we owned for our first console, the Sega Genesis. We spent hours with them.

My childhood family room was roughly rectangular and could comfortably fit our family of six. It had cream-colored walls, off-white carpet, and centered on a turquoise mantelpiece. On one of the walls adjacent to the mantelpiece was a patterned beige, red, and green couch. On the other wall sat the TV, ensconced safely in its forest green cabinet. Attached to it was the plastic black console that introduced my family to video games. We aptly referred to it as “the Genesis.” In winter, my brothers and I watched my sister play the Genesis while gathered around a matte-black space heater. In summer, we laid on our backs trying to catch rays of sun shot into the room through the skylight.

On screen, Sonic careened over the 16-bit landscape of tropical islands, underwater caverns, and industrial wastelands. Speed was (and is) Sonic’s selling point, as opposed to Super Mario’s jumping ability. His early games showcased a frenetic world alive with neon joy. The safety I felt in these moments is hard to explain.

Video games were a family activity back then. When my brother Brandon bought a hand-held Gameboy Color a couple of years later, I stuffed myself into the crevice between the couch and the wall to get the best view. Boxed in, with the minuscule screen taking up my vision, I lost myself in the world of whatever game he was playing.

I think video games were something of a refuge for my sister as well. Growing up, Chloe was a tomboy with black girl hair and a white mother who couldn’t manage it. She is beautiful, but during her adolescence, her good looks were hidden under acne and chicken pox scars. She was stylish and goofy but also awkward and sulky. Of all the siblings in my multiracial family, she had the hardest time being “mixed.”

With four siblings spaced evenly over eight years, each of us experienced a different stage of our school system’s progressing attitudes toward multiracial kids. Chloe, eight years my senior, was never at home with either white or black classmates; she instead found solace in a Southeast Asian-American clique. Brandon, five years older than me, spent much of his teens bouncing back-and-forth between black and white friends, failing to find a space for himself until late in high school. But by the time Ariel, who is two years older than me, and I reached high school, we were able to cross racial lines at ease. We hung out with various demographics separately, together, or not at all. This path wasn’t available to my sister less than a decade before. Her route through school was much more difficult due to its absence.

All this didn’t matter when she turned on the Genesis.In these worlds, she wasn’t just someone else; she was someone with power, purpose, and poise. Part of what makes video games so alluring is their ability to let us inhabit characters who change the world around them, rather than the reverse we’re so used to. And though she bared little resemblance to the super-powered hedgehog, when she picked up the controller she was him—a reflection in electric blue and 90s ‘tude. That is, until our mom called “dinner” and the Genesis went off. Then the spell was broken. She was back to being herself, surrounded by obnoxious brothers, bemused classmates, and desperately trying parents.

By the time Chloe entered high school, she’d “aged out” of video games. Whatever sort of power they held for her was gone. I remember feeling this loss acutely. No more than six or seven, I requested she play Sonic over and over again—but she wouldn’t. Even as a child, as the baby, I felt viscerally her having moved on.

I think I wanted her to keep playing games so desperately because I saw in her a version of the skillful gamer I hoped to become. I think she stopped playing them when she could no longer see a version of herself on the screen. As I started playing video games over the next few years—rather than just watching them—I also struggled to recognize myself in the protagonists I controlled on screen. Eventually, I caught a glimmer during my own teen angst. This recognition gave me strength when I’ve never felt more powerless and isolated.

###

In 2001, after moving into a new house on the outskirts of my leafy, suburban hometown outside Washington, DC, my dad’s company moved out west to California. Over the next five years he struggled to maintain work, as I matriculated to the same high school Chloe attended almost a decade before, Watkins Mill. But where she had found a school without a place for her, the version of Watkins Mill I entered was open to ambiguity.

I hung out with friend groups of varying backgrounds while there: One centered around our black plurality football team, another on the white majority lacrosse team, while others were too vague in origin to categorize. These groups were diverse in their own right, but more importantly, they intertwined. They sat together at lunch, hooked up, hosted and attended the same parties. It was far from a utopia for mixed-race (or POC in general)—I was called out regularly by classmates for being too “white” or too “black,” for instance—but overall my diverse heritage opened more pathways for friendships than it closed at Watkins Mill.

During the same span of years, I fell in and out of video game series. Moments of pure joy stand out: Racing my brothers in Mario Kart 64 during endless snow days, naming my rival in Pokémon Silver after my best friend, controlling the mute protagonist of Grand Theft Auto III for the first time at a sleepover. But I never thought of myself as a “gamer,” that term used to erect a barrier as often as to establish a bond. That changed when, after my first two years at Watkins Mill High School, my family moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, for my father’s work. It wasn’t until I left Watkins Mill that I realized how progressive the school was.

A former boss at a summer job in Charlotte told me the city adopted the slogan “Gateway to the New South” in the 1980s. I can’t verify this, but I think it’s apt for the rapidly expanding version of the city I encountered in the late aughts. Charlotte’s downtown, once purely a commercial district, was then adding apartments, restaurants, and a monorail. I noticed the growing pains as much of the city’s exterior was replanted, even while the roots stubbornly remained. The same was true of the city’s subconscious. During my junior year at Myers Park High School, one of the most affluent public schools in North Carolina, I faced a type of racism that was entirely new to me. At Myers Park, there was a casual but firm assumption that races didn’t mix socially. I imagine it’s akin to what my sister went through in her own time at high school.

I rely on the word ambiguous to describe my looks. I have a rounded nose, medium-sized lips, thick eyebrows and small, almond-shaped eyes set in deep bags hidden by glasses. In the summer, I would fail the Brown Paper Bag Test. The rest of the year, I might pass. I’ve been mistaken for and told that I resemble nearly every race. My classmates during my junior year at Myers Park High School struggled with this ambiguity. Unsurprisingly, I fell in with one of the few racially mixed cliques after several weeks of hiding in the bathroom at lunch to escape the shame of eating alone.

###

Myers Park, as opposed to Watkins Mill’s single sprawling structure, is laid out like a traditional college campus. Buildings surround a central lawn with dirt pathways and leafy trees that throw off shade. At the top of the quad is the cafeteria. Seating spills out of it in the form of picnic tables. I ate lunch with a multiracial clique of three other students at one of these tables most days for a few months that year. What initially attracted us to one another was our recent transfer status. What kept us together, for a time, was our love of video games.

The leader of our group was a white stoner who moved from outside Asheville, a hippie vacation spot in Appalachia with a not-so-secret opioid problem. I was closest with him, and we thought of ourselves as the intellectuals of the group. At the time this meant talking about the unfairness of “the system” in vague terms. The highlight of our friendship came one afternoon when we got stoned at my house, played Gears of War (a post-apocalyptic game featuring a quartet of brawny bros), and ate Chick-Fil-A that my mom picked up. He spoke often of returning to his brother who was back home with a serious drug addiction, but I think he was secretly relieved to have escaped. And crushed by guilt for feeling this way.

The other two were the serious gamers in our bunch. One of the two described himself as a Filipino-American army brat. He was a pathological liar, though, so it’s hard to say for sure. He made up stories of his father killing people on a whim or his wild threesomes with girls. Then, when tested, he collapsed into rolling belly laughs, neither confirming the stories nor denying them. When he talked about The Legend of Zelda games, a storied high-fantasy adventure series, his eyes lit up with something purer. He reminisced about sailing over the open blue ocean in The Wind Waker or riding a horse across the grassy plains in Majora’s Mask. The absolute freedom of the protagonist must have seemed boundless to this army brat whose life often changed drastically without his input. The independence these games offered was far too sacred for him to embellish or fabricate.

The last boy in our group was an East Asian student who didn’t talk much, I suspect, because of a language barrier. He played more video games than the rest of us combined. He also missed days of school sporadically. Upon his return from these absences, he would inform us he had faked sick to play Tales of Symphonia, Devil May Cry 3, or another game with similarly dashing heroes for thirty hours on end. He told us about these capers in the cadence of a joke. I wonder now if he was missing school because of something more acute. I certainly was when I pleaded to stay home.

I wish I could say I found in this group a glimpse of those sun-drenched afternoons gathered around the Genesis. I wish I could say our trio formed a second family that spent hours together playing and talking about video games. I wish I could say we stayed bound together though a lack of preciousness around race.

We didn’t.

After Thanksgiving Break that year, I arrived at lunch one day to find the East Asian student gone from our table. Two white skater girls were sitting in the places he and I usually occupied.

I looked to the stoner, the one I was closest with. “Hey, man, what’s up?”

“Hey, man,” he sarcastically mimicked as the army brat laughed. The girls stared at me, uninterested.

“Uh, what’re you guys up to?” I asked, on the back foot already. Prior to moving, I was comfortable around girls. That was before I gained weight and lost self-esteem.

“I think we’re just going to hang around…you know,” he responded. By not giving me any information, he provided me with everything I needed to know. I was confused about why this was happening and who these girls were. I was certain I was dismissed.

“Okay, guess I’ll see you around,” I said as I walked away.

After I was a few feet away, the army brat yelled out, “No, you won’t!” The whole table broke into laughter—except the stoner. He looked chagrined. It was pretty mild as far as bullying went but felt all the more brutal for it. I was alone, again, sort of.

I had played and watched games all my life, but my time with these kids expanded the types I was comfortable with. Video games, like every other type of media, have a difficulty curve that results from countless factors, which can be strategic, narrative, dexterity-based, or otherwise. These kids taught me that, like most literacies, video game competency just takes time and patience. They had opened a door even as they locked me out.

Over the next few months, I spent hours in my bedroom immersed in games I had always wanted but had been too intimidated to play. During my junior year of high school, we lived in a temporary single-family house. It was simultaneously new and shabby, with a distinct feeling of having been assembled hastily. My small, dark room above the kitchen had a lone window and was crowded with books, graphic novels, and DVDs. The TV my parents guiltily gave me sat opposite the bed, surrounded by video games and their respective consoles. I found solace in the worlds they allowed me to visit. None more so than that of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic.

Knights of the Old Republic, as its many fans will tell anyone within shouting distance, is the best representation of the Star Wars mythos outside the original trilogy of films. Less talked about is the game’s character creator that allows players to determine the race and gender of its avatar and savior. It’s by no means the first game to do this, but it was the first I played that did. And because of this, it was the first time I controlled a protagonist who looked like me.

The mainstream video game industry, like its television and film counterparts, relies heavily on white, male protagonists. Players who fall outside this singular demographic can easily play dozens of games every year without ever controlling a single character who looks like them. This leaves minority players with a world of stories where characters who resemble them are absent or, worse, clichés and villains.

At the time, I probably would have downplayed how important seeing a heroic version of myself on screen was to my devotion to Knights of the Old Republic. The five different characters I created during my playthroughs, all of which present as black, speak otherwise.

This game was the first to give me a glimpse of a hero who looked like me. It did it at a time when I had never felt less visible. Not unlike my sister, I saw in my avatar all the agency missing from my life. Unlike her, the avatar I used to change the world looked like me. Sure it was a token recognition, but that made it no less heady. I returned again and again, unaware that what drew me to the game was, in part, this soft acknowledgment of myself. Sometimes, seeing is believing.

###

After a while, I fell in with a larger, more formal group, the Myers Park Rugby team. I joined this club late in the fall after football proved too punishing a sport to play without friends. The Myers Park Rugby team, at that time, was almost entirely white and made up of a mixture of stoners and jocks. I got on well with them but occasionally ran into the racism I noticed elsewhere.

One day, I received a ride home from a match. It was me and three or four of my closest friends from the team inside a weathered minivan borrowed from the driver’s parents. The car was full, and I sat in one of the two middle seats. Outside, we drove past blossoming trees, lush and green in the early spring. As we talked about the match, the subject changed slowly to how things were different up North. The rest of the people in the car were white and raised in Charlotte.

“Well, at my old school, black and white people are friends,” I said. It must have sounded like a dig. I probably meant it as one. Regardless, it confused the driver.

“We’re friends with black people,” he said.

“Yeah, but they hang out together at my old school,” I replied.

“There are black people at some of the parties we go to,” he countered.

“Yeah, but, like, we all sit at the same tables at lunch.”

“Huh,” he responded eventually, “weird.”

And then silence.

“You know I’m black, right?”

More silence.

“Yeah, but not like them,” he finished eventually.

I’ve had a version of this conversation for as long as I can remember. My blackness is not only a constant source of confusion but when asserted, it’s often questioned. Here, though, was a new wrinkle. The driver was claiming he hung out with black people while not wanting to admit he was currently doing just that. This was one of the first times I encountered someone “comfortable” with another race in the abstract but not the actual. Prior to this, I had mostly experienced the reverse.

I don’t remember how this conversation wrapped up. I’m sure I argued back, but I doubt what I said lingered. What surprised me was how divided the driver saw blacks and whites—the respective races of my parents. I shouldn’t have been. This same divide was mirrored on the quad every day at lunch. There were different groups, jocks, stoners, headbangers, etc., but they were mostly sorted along racial lines. That night, after I was dropped off, I fell into a game that showed me a world less hostile to my existence: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

The Grand Theft Auto series is one of the few franchises recognizable outside the video game community. This is largely due to its well-deserved, pearl-clutching infamy. San Andreas, the series’ sixth major entry, is both violent and sexist. The game allows you to murder thousands of civilians with little repercussion, as well as play a dating mini-game focused on seducing “girlfriends.” A sample bit of the humor found within is the ability to use a large, purple dildo as a weapon. But when I played it in 2007, it gave me another dose of hope through recognition.

The protagonist of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, CJ, is a black gangster from a facsimile of Compton, California. He’s newly released from jail, a gangbanger and a murderer. He’s also a devoted family man, a faithful friend, and an anti-drug crusader. He’s the first sympathetic black protagonist I controlled in video games. Sure, Knights of the Old Republic allowed me to choose various characters with the same skin tone as me, but San Andreas is a game where the main character isn’t just darker skinned.

He is black.

During my first playthrough of this game, I lived in a predominantly, white, affluent Southern town; Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas takes place in a gang-controlled replica of Los Angeles. It’s hard to think of two more disparate parts of the country. But I saw in CJ’s unapologetic blackness something of myself. This blackness is reflected throughout his actions. When CJ encounters a cop, he is immediately on edge, filled with the fear that is the legacy of how his people have been treated. When CJ interacts with those who share his struggle, there’s an inherent warmth. It was impossible for me to not recognize myself in these moments.

San Andreas did more, though, than just show me I wasn’t alone. It pointed toward somewhere I couldn’t see myself finding again, somewhere with a place for me.

###

Around New Year’s Eve of last year, I brought out a Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES, a contemporary console of the Genesis my sister played so many years ago. We were in my parent’s new single-family house in Northern Virginia. They moved back to the DC area after four years in Charlotte. This current house is a rental with hardwood floors, yellow walls, and low ceilings. The family room, which is adjacent to the dining room, is bursting with furniture my parents collected as they upsized and downsized over the past decade.

That evening my sister, her husband, and her two little boys were visiting as well as my girlfriend, Kate. I figured the console would calm the stir-crazy kids, who were rebelling after having to sit past the end of dinner. Maybe I also hoped my sister would pick up the controller and start playing. After getting the NES from upstairs, I plugged it into the flat-screen TV over the mantelpiece where new stockings hung, our old ones lost to time and multiple moves.

As I booted up the original Super Mario Bros., my ploy both worked and failed. Rather than my sister getting up to play, my brother-in-law, Eric, came over to join. We played for about an hour, taking turns, changing cartridges, and teaching the restless kids how to use the controller. They enjoyed watching us play but had none of the same zealous rapt that consumed me when I was their age. My sister also became bored after a few moments of initial recognition and never picked up the controller. She claims she’s lost her ability to play video games, but I wonder if this ageing-out would have happened if she had discovered avatars that more closely resembled her.

There’s a famous reveal that occurs at the end of the original Metroid video game for the NES. After playing through the entire game as an apparent robot, the protagonist Samus Aran removes its helmet to reveal that “it” is a “she.” Of course, Samus is still white with (at the time) red hair, but she’s also recognized as the first major female video game protagonist. She remains one of the few heroines continually at the helm of a AAA series—the big-budget movie equivalent of the video game world.

I wonder what would have happened if my sister had controlled this courageous heroine instead of that blue hedgehog. I wonder if she would have kept playing. I wonder if she would have recognized a portion of herself in Samus. I wonder if this recognition would have shown her she wasn’t powerless. I wonder if this empowerment would have convinced her the world had space in it for her. It had for me.

~

Evan Higgins is a writer based in Brooklyn. He’s written on interactive projects for major video game studios and indie developers, as well as television companies like HBO. His nonfiction work has been published on Slate and Quartz. He holds a masters in comparative media studies from MIT.

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