One final guest post from Anna Wiggins. Also, just FYI, we’re currently $1 below the threshold for Class reviews on Patreon, so if you were enjoying those, you might want to toss me a buck.
It was always going to end like this. When life transforms into narrative, wyrd into orlog, endings become inevitable, foreshadowed in a way they never were at the time. This is the dread magic of stories. And tragedies, in particular, only ever end one way.
In the Spring of 1998, a fourteen year old trans girl, closeted even from herself, tried to end her life in a patch of woods in rural North Carolina. She had run out of hope, her every refuge invaded. No one came to save her, and she didn’t know how to save herself.
Super Mario RPG was released two years earlier, of course. She never even played it; in retrospect this is surprising. It was a Square-made RPG, manifestly her favorite software developer at this point. But it slipped past her radar, probably by being part of the Mario franchise. Playing it now, I think she probably wouldn’t have liked it. The combat system is turned-based, but with poorly cued proto-quick-time events thrown in. The RPG elements are pretty simplistic: three equipment slots, a handful of stats that monotonically increase, 4-6 magic attacks per character, a shared MP pool. It stays on the shallow end of the RPG pool, and feels more like ‘turn-based Mario’ than ‘Mario-themed Final Fantasy’.
By 1998, her older brother had a Playstation. The SNES was starting to collect dust, unused except for the occasional return to Secret of Mana, Chrono Trigger, or Final Fantasy III. She still preferred the old sprite-based art of the 16-bit era; the character and concept art of Final Fantasy III seeming entirely more palatable than the blocky polygons of Final Fantasy VII. More broadly, though, VII just felt less inviting to her. It had snowboarding and large-breasted characters serving explicitly as eye-candy for boys. These things feel out of place in her vision of what video games ‘for her’ are like.
So it would be facile to suggest that Super Mario RPG destroyed the refuge she had in video games, but it stands as an important symbol, at least. Video games fell distinctly into the categories ‘skill-focused’ and ‘narrative-focused’. RPGs were designed to be narrative-focused. It was ok to be bad at them, because the goal wasn’t to be the best, just good enough to watch the story unfold. Super Mario RPG had more narrative than most Mario games, certainly, but it was still part of a franchise that was solidly in the ‘skill-based’ category, the games her brother and cousins would play and boast about, loudly, to each other. She rejected it on principle. It was an invasion, this RPG from the other side of gaming, from the world of Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden and Sonic the Hedgehog. And arriving as it did at the end of the SNES era, it was like a death-knell for the sorts of games that had sustained her for so long.
This strays from the master narrative of this project, which pits Mario and Sonic on opposite sides of the video game culture war. But this shimmering pink thread I’ve woven into the narrative has always strayed in its own direction. There’s no reason to make a sensible shape out of it now, as it frays at the end instead of ending in a tidy stitch. It is enough that for her, the choice of console was less important than whether you chose to play Donkey Kong or Ys.
She didn’t die, in those woods; she failed, which embarrassed her, even though she hadn’t told anyone about it, before or after. In the weeks and months that, she was empty, hollow. Nothing made her happy. Eventually a classmate noticed the wound on her wrist. The school sent her to talk to a counselor. She said very little, insisted she was fine. Nobody pushed it further than that.
But she did die in those woods, or at least suffered a mortal wound. She knew she couldn’t be a girl. She couldn’t bring herself to try suicide again. So she decided to be a boy. She set herself on fire and he rose like some perverse phoenix from the ashes.
The boy was, to put it simply, an asshole. If he was going to be a boy, he would be as boy as he could. (based on his peculiar understanding of boyness) He was smug. He made fun of people who seemed less intelligent than him, because intelligence was the one arena where he could compete more or less uncontested. He ran D&D games for his friends which were horribly difficult, unfair and capricious. He laughed when their meticulously crafted characters, complete with backstories and motivations, died in the face of his unimaginative minions. His biggest gripe with the Tomb of Horrors was that it was too easy. For some reason, people kept coming back to play more of these games.
He got pretty good at Unreal Tournament, Soul Caliber, Starcraft. He became a Libertarian. He hung out in the shitty, dark corners of the Internet and laughed at the rape jokes he found there. His favorite movie was Fight Club. This was before 4chan, but he found the closest analogue he could.
If you can’t beat them, join them, right?
This is the secret at the heart of Gamergate. Internet shitlords don’t appear out of thin air. They are created in the crucible of our society, forged by trauma, by insult and injury, real or perceived. (and after enough real injury, it becomes all too easy to perceive more even when it isn’t there) They are the broken products of an increasingly broken world.
Of course, they also attack and dehumanize and threaten women and other marginalized people. They willfully commit tangible acts of harm. They certainly don’t deserve your sympathy; they are thoughtless, gullible jerks at best, and more often downright malicious, duplicitous trolls.
But sometimes, looking at them feels like looking in a mirror and seeing a younger version of myself. And I genuinely don’t know what to do with that. It’s not like I can just reach across the divide and tell them all “It’s ok, you can stop subsuming your pain into hatred. You can be a girl if you want to.” I know how that would go. But I hear so many stories of kids growing up on 4chan until they come out as trans, or queer, or just get a better sense of themselves and stop needing targets to define themselves in opposition to.
The Internet is a lot more ubiquitous now than it was 15 years ago, and a side effect of that is that the collateral damage from tens of thousands of kids working through their own damage has become terrifying. What was once one confused teenager being a jerk to a few dozen other teenagers has escalated to fake SWAT calls and other targeted harassment campaigns.
I don’t have a solution to any of this, of course. But hey, if you’re hate-reading this? It’s ok. You can be a girl, if you want to. It actually works out great. Just keep that in mind.