Making games in transition: designing SECOND PUBERTY

This is a talk I gave for NarraScope 2020. A transcript follows below.

Two years ago, at age 32, I finally corrected a hormonal imbalance I’d been living with for the past twenty years.

Of course, to hear other people tell the story, they’d say I transitioned from female to male. But that’s not how I see it: I was never female, and I don’t know that “male” is necessarily the box I want to end up in. In fact, before starting hormones, I’d already been publicly identifying as nonbinary for a number of years. It’s probably more accurate to say that I transitioned from being perceived by the majority of strangers as female to sometimes being perceived as male instead.

I’m not joking when I refer to my gender transition as correcting a hormonal imbalance, however. This has been made evident by the fact that over the last two years, I’ve felt significantly more comfortable and connected to my body. What used to feel like an inconveniently clumsy meat sack housing my brain now feels like an actual part of me. As you can imagine, this has greatly improved my quality of life.

This isn’t to say that everything in the past two years has been perfect. In fact, as my body has begun aligning itself with what my brain expects, it’s brought to light a lot of trauma from my past. And when it comes to traumatic experiences, we usually don’t get to process them right when they’re happening – it is only after we’re in a safer, healthier place that we finally get that opportunity. If it took me until my thirties to finally feel comfortable in my body, what did it mean for me to live all that time before in such discomfort?

One could say that SECOND PUBERTY, a series of seven minigames, of which two are currently finished, is my attempt to answer that very question. The feelings I have been processing have been feelings I’ve had a very difficult time putting into words, in large part because I was never given words for them. So instead, I’ve been trying to express myself in the way that feels the most natural to me: through the games I make, through visuals, sounds, movement, rules, affordances, constraints, and of course, really bad jokes.

This is game #1, which I call “Super Modesty Bros.” The premise here is pretty much exactly what it sounds like: it’s Mario, but purity culture. You’ve got these ridiculous collage monsters made up of sexy body parts and other taboo objects, and the main verbs here are to either avoid them or kill them with “no” signs. Meanwhile, you play as this equally ridiculous representation of the patriarchy – you’re literally a top hat wearing a top hat, with legs and a moustache and a wagging finger in place of one of your eyes.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that this isn’t a particularly good platformer, at least by most game design standards. It’s not the kind of game you’re meant to sink many hours into getting good at. In fact, it’s almost too easy to get through. Upon closer inspection, you might notice that the monsters aren’t even that hostile – sure, they kill you if you touch them, but they mostly just hang out and mind their own business. It’s you who is the antagonist here, shooting down everything you disagree with and find offensive.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I belonged to a conservative religious community, the details of which I’d rather not get into right now. But suffice to say, there was absolutely no space for me to explore my gender or my sexuality in any kind of a healthy way: we weren’t allowed to have sex before marriage, and of course, marriage had to be between a man and a woman. We even had to abstain from most drugs, including alcohol. As for transitioning genders? That was completely unheard of, but then again, 20-30 years ago, the only trans representation most people ever saw was sensationalist daytime TV garbage.

Maybe if I’d been more self-aware, I’d have seen my restrictive upbringing for the controlling nonsense it was much sooner than I actually did. But as it stood, I was an undiagnosed autistic kid who needed to cling to rules and structure in order to make sense of an overwhelmingly frightening world. I wanted to believe that if I saved myself for marriage, I could avoid heartbreak and find the acceptance and understanding I so desperately needed. I wanted to believe that if I was good and did what I was told and avoided all of the “bad things”, everything would be okay.

It didn’t work, though. All it did was make me believe in awful, hurtful things that only further alienated me, not just from other people, but from myself. I believed that people in abusive relationships and survivors of sexual violence became that way because they chose to have premarital sex. I believed that people lived on the streets because they chose to get addicted to drugs. And I believed that every problem faced by queer people was one they could have avoided by choosing to be “normal” instead.

The reason the premise of this game is “Super Modesty Bros.” is because the original Super Mario Bros. for the NES was the first videogame I ever encountered. It was released the year I was born and became pretty much ubiquitous, and even though I never got any good at it – or any Mario game, for that matter – I’ve always found Mario comforting and familiar. In the same way, I feel it’s important to note that in spite of everything, I have a lot of good memories from my childhood that bring me comfort. I know that my parents loved me, even if they didn’t always express that love perfectly, and many of the members of my religious community were genuinely kind people who felt like family.

The only words in “Super Modesty Bros.” are me intermittently singing the phrase, “white men tell you all sorts of lies about how to live your life,” and it really sums up how I feel about the whole thing. Because when I take the time to really think about where those hurtful beliefs originated, I think about white supremacy and colonialism and patriarchy, about power structures that are upheld over many generations, controlling what people can and can’t do with their bodies. And how that control can perpetuate itself so insidiously, even among kind, well-intentioned people, that in the end, I was the one doing it to myself.

This next game is called “hold in your farts or die”. This time around, you play as someone who uncontrollably farts rainbows – not very subtle at all – and you have to go through this maze. Everything’s fine until you encounter other people, who look just like you and seem friendly at first, but quickly get angry and chase you as soon as they smell your farts. And if any of them do catch you, you get abruptly sent back to the start of the maze.

However, you can also hold in your farts, and that way avoid angering anyone! Except holding in your farts slows you down and triggers a little voice in your head that verbally abuses you. And the more time you spend holding in your farts, the more verbal abuse you start to hear, eventually overlapping itself and turning into this overwhelming cacophony of verbally abusive noise. But at least this way, you can actually move past other people and complete the maze.

While I was working on this game, two major things happened to me. The first was that, after many years of being pretty sure I’m autistic, I was finally able to get a professional to confirm it. The professional in question didn’t really tell me anything about myself I didn’t already know, but what they did do was give me peace of mind: there had always been this anxious part of me that was like, what if I’m not really autistic? What if I’m just making up an elaborate excuse to be an entitled asshole?

And while I’m very relieved that turned out not to be the case, it actually makes a lot of sense that I would feel this way. There’s a thing some autistic people can do, which we call masking, which basically entails being able to convincingly pass as neurotypical, at least some of the time. If you think of brains as having operating systems, it’s kind of like running Linux when everyone else is on Windows, but also having a Windows emulator so you can run some of the same programs everyone else is using. Of course, as anyone who has ever used an emulator knows, it’s a lot slower and takes up way more processing power than running native code.

For the longest time, I was under the misconception that there wasn’t anything different about me. I thought that everyone made the same rainbow farts as I did, but they were just way better at holding them in than I was, and that meant I had to keep up, because if I couldn’t, that meant I was rude and lazy and selfish. So I spent a lot of time consciously studying how to interact with other humans, how to come off as charming and likeable and tell jokes that made people laugh, all the while suppressing the behaviours that came most naturally to me. And though I’d sometimes be successful, I’d still come out of most interactions feeling deeply lonely and misunderstood.

There are, of course, a lot of parallels to being trans in these experiences. Many of us have to work hard to convincingly pass as cis when we’re out in the world, lest we risk threats to our safety. Many of us have gone through most of our lives thinking everyone has this secret desire to be a different gender, but unlike us, they’re all just better at accepting the bodies they have, so we better just suck it up. No one ever gives us words for the feelings deep inside of us, so we go through much of our lives not even knowing they’re there.

The second thing that happened to me while making this game was the same thing that’s been happening, and is still happening, to everyone else in the world: the COVID-19 pandemic, the very reason I’m giving this talk online instead of at a physical conference, like I was expecting to up until three months ago. And I tell you, it was an incredibly weird experience to be making this game about masking and keeping your distance from other people, and then all of a sudden, get thrust into a world where everyone now has to practice social distancing and literally wear masks.

It also feels profoundly unfair that just as I was starting to feel more comfortable as a human body interacting with other human bodies out in the world, suddenly, I now have to go back to staying home and spending most of my time on the computer: the very thing that felt most comforting back when I felt like a disembodied brain in a meat puppet. It sometimes makes me forget about all the growing and changing I’ve done in recent years, taking me back to times I was more scared and more dysphoric than I am now. Yet, even back then, I was still able to make games, and even use my games as a way to connect with other people and find community. It helps to remember that that’s something I haven’t lost.

I don’t know what the next five games in the SECOND PUBERTY series are going to be, though I know there will definitely be five of them. I only have vague inklings as to what they might be about. I also don’t know how long it’ll take me to finish them, though I hope the answer isn’t “forever”. It’s hard to be sure of much of anything, especially now.

I’m doing my best to hang in there, though it really hasn’t been easy. But the thing that keeps me going is knowing my story isn’t over yet, and in spite of everything, I still really want to know what happens next. Not just to me, but to all of us.

Anyway, I hope everyone listening is doing okay, or at least, as okay as possible given the circumstances. Thank you for being here.