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 very smart and creative queer folks about videogames and their feelings around them. Check them out!
I am a longtime fan of science fiction and fantasy. I teethed on the early syndication of Star Trek (the original series), shown on UHF channel 48 out of Philadelphia, watching it in black and white. Later, my mother got into the PBS showings of Doctor Who (with John Pertwee and Tom Baker), and I watched along with her (and Dad, when he wasn’t working on something). These, along with Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, and a variety of half-remembered Japanese shows (like Ultraman and Space Giants, grainy and badly dubbed, shown on UHF Channel 17) were mainstays of my childhood, along with, of course, Star Wars.
These shows gave me an incandescent spark of pleasure and wonder that other shows — the sitcoms of the 1970s, for instance, or the 1960s drama reruns I watched obsessively for a couple of years, like Marcus Welby MD, Emergency, and Adam-12 — did not. I viscerally wanted to fly one of the fighters, X-wing or otherwise, to the point that I made myself starfighter dashboards from graph paper and cardboard and imagined myself into the cockpit, all blinking lights and buttons and switches and machines that went ping.
Imagine my delight the first time I saw Pong and Space Invaders and saw the potential for virtual spaceflight.
My family didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up, so an Atari console was too steep for us, but I apparently made enough noise about my longing for videogames that they found me the best. game. ever. in a relatively inexpensive RadioShack Pong knockoff that had Six! Different! Games! And even had a plastic gun attachment to do a shooty game.
At school, I had whole periods where I was working in the library or the audiovisual room because my allergies were such that if I went outside for recess or gym, I would be out for a week with something else vile in my upper respiratory tract. This did not improve when I got to junior high, so I happened to end up hanging out periodically in The Room With The Computer. Said computer didn’t even have a screen — it had a printer. It was a dumb terminal (a technical term for a machine that’s just an interface with no real processing power or operating system of its own), talking to an external network. What did I do with that access? Well, I learned a little BASIC programming, but more importantly… I played videogames.
I was basically the only assigned-female-at-birth (afab) person who loved these games so much, and the boys had no idea what to do with me, so they left me alone. \o/ My peers were discovering makeup and fashion. I was discovering computers and my father’s castoff flannel shirts.
Around this time, my father got a transfer into a training position at his company and his office got in a whole bunch of terminals for the PLATO mainframe. And he had the power to make logins.
It was around 1981 and I was the first person of my agepeer acquaintance to have email (called Personal Notes, or p-notes), live online chat/texting (TERM-talk), online forums (notesfiles), touch screen computers, and… online mainframe multiplayer videogames.
I, of course, found the Star Trek game: =0empire.
Though, even better, I found my first dungeon-crawling game, =0moria.
Which probably helped me realize that Dungeons & Dragons was a thing. The books were spendy and I was not someone who babysat for cash, so I made up games for me and my neighbors to play based on my understanding of what D&D was. Then my neighbor got the Basic D&D Red Box set for Xmas one year and basically handed me the books (I suspect his probable undiagnosed ADHD made it hard for him to read through them). I ran games for him and his sister for several years after that, and very slowly acquired the Advanced D&D books, starting inexplicably with Monster Manual 2.
While I had experienced anime (or Japanimation, as some folks called it back then) early in my life, with Speed Racer and Marine Boy, I had never really gotten into a show. Until Star Blazers showed up on Channel 29 (out of Philly) and hooked me with having a *gasp* continuing plot. (My mother referred to it as a soap opera.) Every day at 2 pm over the summer, our D&D games would break for us to go back into our air-conditioned houses and watch the next installment of OUR STAR BLAZERS. I think I managed to get through nearly every episode of all 3 seasons, though of course the first was our favorite. Sadly, Robotech hit local TV when I was in high school and didn’t have nearly as much time to watch, but I still watched enough to understand the general (Americanized) plot and, you know, see my first real crossdressing (trans?) representation (what little there was that wasn’t apologized away) in the guise of Yellow Dancer. (It was the era of Boy George, and I think I took both the character and the person as permission to continue to be gender nonconforming through most of high school.)
In my first year of high school, I was the only afab person taking Introduction to Computing. I learned more BASIC programming on the terminals and was roundly ignored by the strange little man who ran the class. And in my second year of high school, my parents got me my first “real” videogame console: an Intellivision.
I took more computer classes when I switched high schools (largely bullying issues, of course, some of which came from teachers) and had an actually good computer teacher, one who was progressive enough to delight in the fact that he had afab students (multiple!) and treated us the way he treated the amab students. I learned BASIC, a tiny bit of how to do things in binary, and Pascal. And my parents got me my first home computer, a Commodore 64, which I used for word processing (so many crappy stories), programming (its intended use), and, of course, videogames.
High school is when my science fiction/fantasy media and book fandom collided with computing, tabletop RPGs, and my penchant for writing. My first fanfic was Star Trek and Star Wars parody (starring Captain Jerk and Princess Playa Piano, respectively, as I recall), but my second was a performatively straight Dragonriders of Pern self-insert fic. My D&D campaigns spun out into long sagas of the Gildentree family and their adventures (as my neighbor kept making new half-Elven characters in new classes and giving them the same surname, but I mostly blame my dawning interest in genealogy). I finally read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and was tearing through the DAW yellowbacks on the shelves of my local library, particularly wearing out the pages of Tanith Lee’s science fantasy novels.
I started writing original fiction, mostly filling stenographer’s notebooks (it’s what we had in the house) with my scrawl before transcribing it over onto my C64. My best friend and I were each writing our own portal fantasy novels (before the term existed), and we stalled out around the same time. I had the bright idea to mash them together and so we rewrote everything, figuring out on the fly how to plan chapters ahead and plot character relationships. This informed my tabletop RPGs and the haunted mansion text adventure that I wrote and programmed as my final project senior year.
Meanwhile, I had started hanging out with my two (2) friends on weekends at the mall in true 80s teen style, seeing movies and going to the arcade, which was a dark hole of whoops and pings and whirrs. My favorite game there was the Empire Strikes Back. I got rather good at the meteor field.
This is getting long, so maybe I’ll do a Part 2 next week — college, grad school, and my videogame desert of the late 1980s/early 1990s.