by Laura E. Hall
The games and role-play we engage in as children are a fundamental part of our sociological development, and the pattern of learning through exploration continues well into our adult lives.
From the neighborhood playground to our time spent with video game consoles, play is how we learn to interact with other people, explore and practice new skills, and try on new identities, all within safe constraints and known rules.
For me, growing up as a weird kid in a conservative Texas suburb in the late 80s and early 90s, text-based online roleplaying games were also how I learned who I was: as a person and as a woman; as someone capable of desire and intimacy; as someone who could embrace both my strength and vulnerability, a unified whole.
I was raised in Dallas, Texas, the older of two sisters, and I was an unabashed tomboy. I enthusiastically rejected familiar markers of external femininity that were common for young girls at the time; although I was too young to articulate my reasons, my parents quickly learned to avoid buying toy cosmetics, shiny patent leather shoes, or anything pink.
But at the same time that I was outwardly casting off the performative parts of femininity, I secretly admired and wanted them for myself. In the late 80s and early 90s, princesses were at the center of every movie, cartoon, and board game I watched and loved. They were always objects of desire, the motivation for adventure, constantly being kidnapped and won back.
When we acted out Super Mario Bros. adventures on the playground, using the slides and towers to represent the pixel blocks and pipes of the game, I wanted to be the beautiful creature who was being rescued just as much as I wanted to be the one climbing across the swaying rope bridge to do the rescuing. But because the princess was never allowed to have adventures, I knew, deep in my 7-year-old bones, that no matter how much I might desire it, being a princess was not my fate.
I identified with characters who were independent and clever, and who were eventually respected and loved for those qualities. In books, those characters were usually male, but I clung to the stories that featured girls, like the Nancy Drew series, Karen Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, sitting on tree branches and reading my paperback copies until the spines were creased and the pages fell out.
Playacting and dress-up games also let me explore this side of myself. After falling in love with the 1954 Broadway version of Peter Pan, in which the title role is typically played by an adult woman, I dressed as the boy who wouldn’t grow up on Halloween for several years, and for many costume box sessions in between.
School plays also exposed me to new sources of power and control in my life. While the prettiest girls in the class were cast in starring roles, I always chose to be the narrator. I wanted the validation on some level of being the winsome heroine, but more deeply I craved being the one spinning tales, in control of the direction of the story, its color and pacing.
In retrospect, I can see that I sensed even at that young age that I was being presented with a power dynamic; forced to choose, I opted for the one that would make me less vulnerable in my given situation, and give me some semblance of control of my personality, appearance, and identity in the conservative environment that sought to dictate its norms to me.
It would be years before I understood that I could embrace both sides of myself, that being feminine didn’t mean I couldn’t also be powerful, and that being independent meant I could still be desirable. Playing text-based roleplaying games online, where all I had were words on the screen and my own imagination, was one of the things that helped me to grow in self-awareness and reconcile those two warring parts of myself.
When the internet finally arrived in our house in the late 90s, it did so in the form of screeching modems and AOL CDs. These early days of net connectedness seem quaint in comparison to the gif-heavy internet of today; nearly all of our interaction was text-based, simply because the technology couldn’t handle a larger data load. Television news reports of the day frequently covered the textual shorthand of the internet, words like LOL (laugh out loud), CU L8R (see you later), and A/S/L? (a query asking the age, sex, and location of other users in the same chat room).
1998 was a big year for me personally. I was 13 years old, awkward and replete with hormones, struggling to figure out which social groups I fit into. The internet turned out to be both a shield and a respite. Within the context of the games I played online, and through their systems and mechanics, I was exposed to perspectives far more varied and diverse than the ones that I experienced in my day-to-day, offline life. I found friends, developed romantic feelings, and sometimes even established relationships that last to this day.
The intimacy and community that these online spaces afforded me meant that I didn’t experience small town isolation as acutely as many of my friends who were only a few years older than me, or those who were less interested in computers and games. They also let me play at identity, love, and sex in a safe, fairly anonymous way, on my own terms.
During that time I would often dial into a local Bulletin Board System (BBS) to play a text-based fantasy game called Legend of the Red Dragon (LORD). In addition to leveling up a character and learning fighting skills, players could hit on the barmaid Violet or the bard Seth, or interact with other players by sending romantic mail, which let you flatter them, ask for a kiss, buy them dinner, proposition them for sex, or propose marriage.
** ROMANTIC MESSAGE ** -=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=- Your hand trembles as you try to conjure up something to stir your beloved. (N)ever mind. (F)latter Her (A)sk For A Kiss (B)uy Her Dinner (I)nvite Her To Your Room At The Inn Which way would you like to show your love? :
There were stats and strategic reasons for all of these, but in my case, these small, built-in flirtations eventually led to a phone relationship with another player, a boy around my age who lived on a farm about 30 minutes away from my home. We spent hours talking on the phone, queuing up our VHS copies of The Fifth Element and sighing together at the final scenes, in which love quite literally conquers all, imagining ourselves in the lead roles. I don’t remember how the relationship concluded, but I like to imagine we eventually agreed to be just friends, never having actually met in person.
I also spent a lot of time in AOL chatrooms. In 1998 there were around 15 million users on AOL, with 19,000 chatrooms available, catering to a huge variety of niche interests. The chatrooms I frequented most were for roleplaying, in which users wrote out their actions in text form, indicated by the use of asterisks or double hyphens:
::Nods to the other patrons of the Rhy’Din Tavern as she glides into the room, her amber eyes sparkling mysteriously::
Visiting vaguely medieval-themed chatrooms, using usernames like XxLdyElenaxX, I presented myself as a mysterious, sexy, desirable badass. At that age, I didn’t have a very nuanced concept of desire; I understood, however, that it was desirable to be desired, and that was something that felt elusive to me. I designed characters who were strong but beautiful, with amazing hair, svelte bodies, and cool weapons. They strode confidently into taverns and demanded attention, laughing and flirting.
I had never kissed anyone in real life. But entering one-on-one chat conversations let me explore my sexual feelings, recreating textually the scenes I’d seen in movies, read in romance novels and fanfiction, or simply imagined.
I don’t remember much about the details of those conversations now, except the guy who was very into vampires. He, in the guise of his character, wanted to bite me at the height of our digital lovemaking passion, during the moment of climax, an exchange of fluids that is in truth rather Victorian. It hearkens back to the blood transfusions from lovers that preserve the life of the sexually adventurous Lucy Westenra in Bram Stoker’s Dracula or the drops of blood fed to Mina Harker that put her into a hypnotic trance, and speaks of desires that are still being expressed in vampiric form in our media today.
I also spent one entire summer sleeping next to the family computer, watching Star Wars VHS tapes on repeat, and frequenting a Star Wars-themed chat room, where I played as a kick-ass bounty hunter with a long braid and a purple lightsaber. My “boyfriend” and I would spend time standing on the prow of his spaceship (described in intricate detail in private chat). We “held hands” and “kissed”, but mostly we gazed out at the cosmos.
My interests gained nuance as I got older, and the nature of my online relationships with other people evolved as well. Around the age of 14, I began playing a Multi-User Dungeon (MUD), a persistent, collaborative chat system whose gameplay mechanics facilitated the development of politics and culture in that world. I got to be a diplomat and storyteller, spending long hours in the game spinning silly and serious tales with my guildmates and companions.
My character description had started out with lovingly elaborate details about eye color and figure shape, but eventually I learned to have fun with it, changing my description to that of a plant found in the game, and having my character wander around the forest nude, visible to other players as “wearing nary a shred of clothing”; it was more jovial than sexy. I had an in-game boyfriend and we even became engaged through the game’s built-in marriage system, but aside from one attempt on his part to initiate a cyber-makeout, we never engaged in intercourse.
Although I continued to play that MUD well into college, my attention moved to other types of games, ones that not only explored but were designed specifically to catalyze community formation and interaction. While a great deal of my energy had been diverted into relationships both platonic and romantic in my offline life, I still formed friendships through the internet that last to this day.
In particular, I was deeply into the Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) community. These were interactive story games that relied on an ongoing, symbiotic relationship between a group of people who gathered in online forums, and game-makers who interacted both through the internet and via the real world.
These games were generally stealth marketing tools, which enabled large budgets and intriguing transmedia experiments, like hidden codes in movie posters, massive, coordinated payphone interactions, and live events with helicopter fly-bys. They were powered by a group of people coming together for months at a time, depending as much on the players’ choices and desires, as it did on the game makers’ live responses to those actions. This call-and-response ended up shaping the path of the story, rendering the game as a whole unrepeatable and completely unique in its ephemerality.
With ARGs, I had found for the first time a game that truly relied upon real relationships with real people for its success. In the context of the game, we contributed our knowledge and skills, without taking on the guise of fictional characters; in essence, we played as our best selves.
I know a lot of people in long-term relationships with people whom they met through those experiences, including myself. I found a lot of fulfilment and satisfaction in those interactions, and I had grown enough as a person over the years to be able to address, often with the help of the friends I had made in that community, many of the insecurities and conflicting desires that had set me on this path in the first place.
ARGs had their heyday in the mid-2000s when I was in college, dovetailing neatly with a time in my life of intense identity formation. I’ve continued to play games since then, but now I find myself seeking different things from them, and those games and online community experiences have themselves evolved, alongside the technologies that power them.
Today, we’ve hit a tipping point for ubiquity of tech and accessibility of game-making tools to help new voices and visionaries express themselves. From Twine, an engine that powers interactive, non-linear text-based games, to Stencyl, a drag-and-drop tool for building sprite-based games like Super Mario Bros. or The Legend of Zelda, new tools have opened up the doors for exploring intimacy and expressing vulnerability in games, parts of ourselves that can often feel dangerous when exposed.
Those feelings are well-trod ground in the world of literature, but how do they translate to, say, a game controller? What sorts of things are being created by generations of young people who grew up with similar exposures to technology during their formative years? What does love, friendship, or sex look like in a system of mechanics that allow for agency, structure, constraint, and release?
Many of the best independent games on this topic are expressions by members of marginalized communities; one of my favorite aspects of expression through this new medium is that we’re able to inhabit their experiences and live their voices.
Nina Freeman’s Cibele is an autobiographical story of a teenage girl who develops a relationship with a fellow player of an MMORPG. Players inhabit Nina’s character from the point of view of her computer’s desktop, actively playing the fantasy RPG with an in-game partner, listening to their conversations, and exploring the contents of her computer.
The content of Cibele is based on Nina’s actual chat logs, and the folders on her desktop contain real photographs and artwork from her life at the time of the events of the game. It’s raw and visceral, and for me is one of the first and only times I’ve seen something I so closely identified with expressed in art.
Created with the visual novel tool Ren’Py, Christine Love’s Digital: A Love Story is a fictional story set in the late 80’s, themed around BBS systems used for chatting and the early days of hacking. In it, you connect to various dial-up systems and exchange messages with other users, working to eventually hack into computer systems to solve the mystery of why AI personalities are being deleted.
The game begins with you reaching out to and befriending a bulletin board denizen named *Emilia, and the story and relationship that develops is exciting and poignant, made richer by the waves of nostalgia that occur when you’re being made to wait as your modem connects, and the familiar excitement of seeing a new message pop up from someone you have a crush on.
Robert Yang’s Cobra Club is “a free photo studio game about body image, privacy, and dick pics”, in which you control a photo booth view of a man’s body, customizing his skin color, and the length, girth, and level of erection of his penis. You can change the angle and framing of your dick pic before sending it to other, fictional users of the Cobra Club, a network dedicated to these photo exchanges.
In addition to illuminating a part of internet, phone, and contemporary sex culture that many participate in but few engage with seriously, Cobra Club also explores issues of consent—you and your fellow Cobra Club members enter into willing exchanges of photos, but the game also raises issues of government surveillance of user data, and the privacy or lack thereof that it entails.
Then there are the projects that engage with the medium of games by asking us to reconsider our personal relationship to them. JP LeBreton’s games tourism guide helps users to bypass games’ sources of conflict like stealth or fighting “with cheats, mods, or built-in functionality … the aim is to refocus attention on the game’s architecture, aesthetics, storytelling, and atmosphere.”
Many major-release games ask you to perform violence unquestioningly, while at the same time touting the depth and realism of their environmental renderings. It’s exciting to be able to grant oneself agency and control over a system of mechanics, rather than automatically reverting to a state of plowing through it with the simple goal of progression and mastery.
These games and works of art aren’t limited to digital-only pieces; there’s a significant amount of work in game design that explores these themes with physical, real-world pieces as well.
Nicole He’s True Love Tinder Robot is a physical installation comprised of an Arduino-powered robotic hand and metal plates, facing a phone with the dating/hookup app Tinder. It works by reading the galvanic skin response of the user’s palms, which causes the robo-hand to swipe either left or right on a Tinder profile.
“Does the computer know us better than ourselves?” it asks, “[making] the user confront what it feels like to let computers make intimate decisions for us,” while also bringing awareness to the potential interplay of algorithms on dating sites and consumer biometric devices.
Naomi Clark’s sex (-) mix instructs two (or more) players to create a collaborative music playlist to be played during sexual activity, featuring songs designed to make one’s partner react, laugh, “make a ‘grossed out’ face”, or disengage completely. Stakes and win/lose conditions are decided by all players beforehand, although any players who haven’t been eliminated by the time the playlist concludes are considered winners.
As I grew older I came into my own, eventually understanding that my personal identity didn’t have to exist in the false dichotomy I had known until then, but could encompass both sides, and more. I began to revisit feminine clothing and presentation. It took some time, but I learned to embrace that part of myself, and even revel in it.
It’s thanks to internet spaces, diverse communities, and quickly evolving technologies, that I had the the safety to try on different guises, meet and grow close to so many people, and be exposed to the perspectives that would carry me away from the confines of my conservative suburban upbringing. I learned that the use of my own words could give me power and control in the expression of my personality and my voice.
As a child, I clung to any example I could find of intelligent, independent women whose experiences were depicted with nuance and depth, and it benefitted me immensely. Now that desire is increasingly being realized in the incredible work being created by independent gamemakers. Today’s children are growing up in a world where their potential no longer seems limited by narrow bands of media; where they can explore who they are, and be comfortable in what they find there.
Laura E. Hall is a writer, artist and experiential designer focusing on the intersection of storytelling, play and technology.