Building a Queer Geek Butch, Part 2

This meandering bit of memoir is brought to you courtesy of thoughts inspired by friends of the Glitter Collective: Pixel Therapy Podcast, where a couple of very smart and creative queer folks talk to other smart and creative queer folks about videogames and their feelings around them. Check them out! They posted an interview with me and my brilliant wife last week!

Part 1 of this set of posts is here.

Ah, college. This gives the impression any of us ever walked across the quad instead of staying roughly on one side or the other.

When last we left younger!me, I was just finishing high school and was about to embark upon a University Experience(TM), with a 1980s permanent wave in my hair and many pages of original fiction, some quantity of fanfiction, and at least one homebrewed D&D campaign under my leather belt, not to mention an abiding fondness for AIs and dragons and a closet full of Docksiders, turtlenecks, and heavy flannel shirts.

My first semester of college was… kind of terrible. It was a private college a couple hours from my parents and friends. I was depressed as hell and starting to think maybe I was a little gay (all my high school friends, when I eventually came out to them, were like, “You didn’t know?” thanks, y’all). I would have tanked my GPA if it hadn’t been a pass/fail semester (translation: I somehow managed to pass all my classes despite not really attending most of them). One of the few things that kept me sane was the arcade in the student union and the Karate Champ machine.

I don’t want to contemplate how many quarters I dumped into this machine in the course of 3.5 months. But wow, seeing this image gives me the ghost of 30-year-old muscle memory.

I encountered a guy playing it one day in September, watched him for awhile, then tried it myself. He found me playing it a few days later and offered me tips. We spent the rest of the semester trading the top spot in the score list and occasionally playing against each other. I’m not sure I ever got his name. (And honestly, that’s just fine because he clearly had no interest in flirting with me, thank gods.)

The school had a science fiction club that very nearly literally tripped over me as I lurked in the shadows outside the glass-walled conference space where the college Gay and Lesbian Association (GALA) had congregated for their first meeting. I was wearing a black cloak as I hovered in the shadows, and therefore recognized that these people who were also wearing cloaks were likely more My People than the people milling about the snacks in the GALA meeting. I followed them home. I wrote for their literary mag, hung out at their big geek house, and otherwise huddled in my room, watching Star Trek (2 episodes, back to back every night on grainy UHF TV!) and poking at my schoolwork. I bailed out of that school at the end of fall semester and transferred to University of Delaware.

At UD, I was back in my element: PLATO was there, and I promptly got a job in the department that provided PLATO to the school and supported all the other computer classrooms on campus. I was working in the Apple II classroom, which had resources for psychology, nutrition, and nursing students, and it was next-door to the technology classroom. And that room had a Commodore Amiga, with Defender of the Crown on it.

It was the most beautiful goddamn videogame I had seen up to that point. I wanted to spend days playing it. Alas that I didn’t work in that classroom, and only got occasional tries when someone was feeling generous.

When I moved on-campus, I could no longer game outside of the official gaming hours, but at least the classroom where I worked had fairly private terminals where I could let myself in and play late. The technology classroom went away and the first Macintosh classroom moved in next to the Apple classroom, and our staff covered both rooms. These were the ancient black-and-white doorstop Macs, and despite the plethora of games taking advantage of the higher resolution, apparently the guy running the classroom utterly failed to come up to scratch on budgeting to buy any.

I do remember my Avatar character’s name, because I had to come up with it in a hurry: my good sturdy dwarf, Kthunk.

On the up side, PLATO got an upgrade, and that upgrade included =2avatar. This was another dungeon-crawling game, like Moria, except you could adventure in parties. One person could lead a number of people into the dungeon, walk that group around, and then everyone could fight together. The upgrade happened over the summer, which was great, because it meant I was home, unrestricted by UD’s gaming hours, and was the second person at the school to make a character. (One guy beat me to it just because he had unrestricted access normally.)

That summer was also my first time playing in a D&D game, as opposed to running one. I have told this sad tale elsewhere. The TLDR; version is: I didn’t like the sexism, and didn’t play in a game for awhile.

The arcades in the student center and in the Mini-mall just off-campus became my haunts. The student center arcade was substandard, but the Mini-mall had Empire Strikes Back and Road Blasters and a weird, creepy, controversial, horrible shooty game called Chiller (CW for 8-bit-like gore and torture images on this link, but it talks about the history of why and how this game got made, which I never knew before). I got so good at the last game I would be able to play for literally hours, flipping the game repeatedly, and would have to hand the game off to one of my spectators in order to leave for class. In retrospect, I am a bit WTF at myself.

The Mini-Mall also had Days of Knights, the first gaming store I ever found. Got my first Tarot deck there, because of course, as well as more dice than I can ever count and most of my Advanced D&D books. I joined their gaming club (there were only 2 members who id’d as women at the time) and got involved in a Rolemaster campaign run by an older member of the club. It was a terrible campaign with an even worse GM than the one that ran my first attempt at playing D&D. Maybe I’ll write about it sometime.

My parents sold my Intellivision at some point during college since I wasn’t playing it very often, and I still regret losing it. I did manage to get hold of videogames for the C64, and I played them late into the night:

  • Defender was one of my favorites, a sidescrolling shooter I could play mindlessly for hours and hours
  • Dragonriders, always Dragonriders, because I’m apparently a low-combat high-management wonk
  • Dunzhin, a cheap dungeon-trawling game that was essentially identical to all the other dungeon-trawling games I was playing, like =0moria and =2avatar, but didn’t have multiplayer distractions
I never actually bought any Forgotten Realms books, but I played the heck out of this.

And then… and then, TSR and Strategic Simulations put out the first AD&D game for the C64: Pools of Radiance.

Yeah, I lost a lot of nights to building my D&D party and plowing through dungeons.

Meanwhile, out on PLATO, I had my own notesfiles (also known as threaded forum boards; the PLATO notesfile code was the origin of Usenet’s threaded message code, as I understand it) for friends to hang out on (and a private one for me to store old p-notes) and was noodling around on international notesfiles, such as the one on which I followed the development of the new Star Trek series, The Next Generation. I saw early discussions of the new Enterprise, casting notes for the different characters, Michael Okuda talking about using a Honda air filter for Geordi’s early VISOR design, and discussion of every episode. Every year I sent animated Xmas p-notes to my gaming friends, having grabbed or made ASCII animation. I participated in =ipr, an anonymous notesfile called Interpersonal Relationships, sponsored and moderated by our campus peer counseling group.

Let me tell you how much going to graduate school for genetics sucked after this.

Grad school:

  • Did not have PLATO, only VAX
  • Did not have videogames, only VAX
  • Did not have time to play videogames, only study and do lab rotations
  • Did not have roommates who paid their own way, only played videogames on my C64 and convinced/wheedled/manipulated/bullied me into running tabletop games in the spare time I did not have (the dynamics here are well beyond the scope of this post)

During late nights in my lab rotations and dissertation research, trawling through the university VAX system, I discovered Relay Chat, which was the origin of IRC; Usenet, which was the next iteration after PLATO notesfiles; and the World Wide Web. No games, but geekery aplenty. Meanwhile, my tabletop games went forward apace. There were periodically some other folks running games (including D&D, RoleMaster, and Champions), but I had probably half a dozen campaigns running simultaneously at any given time, including:

  • an ongoing campaign that started in the Villains & Vigilantes system my junior year of college and eventually transitioned to Marvel Superheroes (this included a dozen players over the years I’ve been running it and at least 600 characters)
  • a good D&D (1st ed) campaign and an evil D&D (1st ed) campaign
  • Vampire: The Masquerade (1st and 2nd editions) campaigns, several from a Camarilla POV and one from the Sabbat POV (I started a Vampire game within a week of its first release)
  • various short campaigns as Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Mage: The Ascension came out
I’m honestly impressed Wikipedia has an entry on this game.

In the absence of videogames and social connections via pre-Internet, I apparently defaulted to going way over the top on tabletop games.

The geek butch in straight vampire LARP game costume, as opposed to their daily straight drag for 1990s graduate school

And the LARPs started to come out too. Not the short on plot, heavy on weaponing (and misogyny) LARPs that I’d heard about in the late 80s, but plot-heavy mechanics-light Vampire LARPs. We didn’t do campaigns, mostly one-night one-shots with some light costuming. I ran some, I played in some — I’m mostly garbage at costuming, but by this time I was costuming daily, pretending to be both straight and femme-ish. LARPing wasn’t much different, just needed a few vampiric accessories.

My roommates had acquired some more D&D games for my C64, but by the mid-1990s, no one was really producing anything new for it. The one game I gave myself permission to play a lot circa 1991, when I was trying to pass my comps was Pirates! by Sid Meier (back to my low-combat high-management roots). I got really good at pirating the Caribbean, but then one of said roommates managed to put a highly magnetized stereo part down on the 5.25″ floppy. So much for my one videogame. (Yes, I loved it enough I found a later remake of it and have it on my Xbox 360.)

Reading time was thin on the ground, but while I was trying to write my first academic article, I also found a local used bookstore. I blew through all the Thieves’ World books again and started chewing up the bubblegum that was the Robotech novels.

I started to go to conventions, too. For several years, my convention of choice was Sci-Con in Virginia Beach, where I acquired Chill by Mayfair Games (no relation to the Chiller videogame) on my first con, and then became known for running one-shot games of it at subsequent cons. I had return gamers every year, which was fantastic and an enormous ego-boost (at a time when I really needed it). It’s a terrible system, particularly for character generation, and it definitely couldn’t compete with Call of Cthulhu in the horror ttRPG market share.

About the time I felt a firm academic hand on my shoulder, guiding me toward the door with a somewhat lesser-than-intended sheepskin in my grip, my tabletop gaming spun a wee tad out of control. I was running a large group game every night, and if I wasn’t running a game, I was playing in one. My schedule for the next 2 years was 8 am-5 pm temp work, 5 pm-3 am tabletop RPGs. Sometimes, when I was really losing my mind, I took freelancing gigs writing for some of the tabletop games, because that was how I paid for utilities sometimes.

Between grad school and gaming, after age 27, I have been unable to drink coffee ever again. (Photo by Mike Kenneally on Unsplash)

I think I will break here, approaching blessed 1995, when my life took a major upturn, both personally and (sleep- and) gaming-wise, and head into Part 3.

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