by Riley MacLeod
Riley MacLeod is a trans writer and activist based in Brooklyn, NY. He is an editor at Topside Press and co-editor of “The Collection: Short Fiction from the Transgender Vanguard,” which won the 2012 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Fiction.
Trigger warning for discussions of suicide.
Everything bad seems to happen to me when playing Spec Ops: The Line.
The last essay I wrote for this site was about playing Spec Ops during Hurricane Sandy and the surreal feeling of playing a disaster game during a corporeal disaster. Over the winter I read Brendan Keogh’s Killing is Harmless and re-downloaded Spec Ops, intending to dig up some of the intricacies he points out, but I never got around to it. Last week, tired of the vapid sexism of Splinter Cell: Conviction, picked up during a Steam sale, I went back to Captain Walker’s ruined Dubai. It was nice, in a weird way. I’d forgotten how beautiful and harsh the environments were, and new headphones wrapped me in the rich sound design, the gritty footsteps and rattling gear of my doomed Delta squad, the solid crunch of bodies hitting glass. I found some new things–the tree that dies when you turn around, the ghost of a dead woman in the windows of a skyscraper, the ending you get when you fight your way through to the very last man. Done with a playthrough, I found myself achievement hunting, which I was dubious about in my essay, and I investigated what I was doing as I played late into the night. I realized that I didn’t want to leave Walker, Adams, and Lugo alone in that fucked-up place, stuck with their demons and their failures. I felt bad for them and what I was urging them to do with a gentle digital hand on their backs. I couldn’t change what happened to them, but I could at least try to guide them, keep them for too long in the corridors and ledges between combat arenas, staring shiftily at each other before they had to learn what atrocity I knew was coming next.
The next morning, I learned that I’d probably been playing Spec Ops when Donna left the house to kill herself.
Donna was trans, and my neighbor, and my friend, and an author in the book I edited. We won a Lambda Literary Award for trans fiction (the first transpeople to do so) the week before she died. We had a free ticket to the award ceremony and tried to encourage her to come, but she didn’t want to. When she didn’t want to do things, I always assumed she was gaming. I saw her in my Steam friends list constantly, ever since we got together to play Left 4 Dead 2 one night. She was better at it than I was, and she laughed at me as I sat cross-legged on her bed, screaming and swearing and engaging in the general constant chatter I keep up when I game. She teased me for calling the AI “robots” and for lording my humanity over them when I succeeded where they failed. I got a couple other friends into it, and we tried to get her to play with us, but she was usually playing something else. She tried to get me into Borderlands 2, but by the time it went on sale she was done with it. She was really into XCOM, and I took a peek at it after seeing how much she played it, but it seemed a little too slow for my tastes. We talked about the Mass Effects, and she played Dishonored in April, but according to her Steam stats it doesn’t look like she finished it. She gave me a copy of DotA 2 I haven’t installed. She played a lot of Civ 5 with my L4D2 friend, which they tried to convince me to play, but I could never justify the price. While I don’t like blockbuster shooters per se, at the end of a long day of work, I usually want to disappear into a game that won’t offend me too much but won’t require too much of me either. I usually say I need a game I can drink to. Indie games or puzzle games or non-shooters, though I love them, require brainpower, awareness, and energy, which are often in short supply when I can make the time to game.
When I got the call that Donna died, I laughed and said, “No, she’s probably just playing games.” I logged on to Steam, and she wasn’t on. She hadn’t been on in 9 days, according to her profile. Strangely, for the first time, I thought, “That’s a long time. I wonder if something’s wrong.”
I know a lot of transpeople, myself included, who probably play games too much. I worry about it, sometimes. I wonder what it means, and if we’re escaping, and how you know if escapism is becoming a problem for you. These days, I usually find myself longing to inhabit the bodies of digital men more than my own, and sometimes I’m hard-pressed to understand if I actually have a body at all. Your body never fails you in games, besides short absences of stamina, and when you screw up, no one tends to mention it. No one harps on it and berates you, and they’re just as awed when you succeed as if you’d done it on the first effortless go. Everyone wants to be with you to celebrate your achievements, trusts you and is trustworthy, wants to help you–and, if they don’t, you alone are still enough. You can almost always win, and you’re almost always the hero. The right way to go is laid out on your map or with an arrow or a way marker, and one success leads to the next like a reliable, glittering chain. In many games, you’re the strong one, the tough one, the one scaring other people and making them run. The one who can go anywhere with ease, who isn’t afraid to leave the house at night or use a public bathroom or go to a party or an awards show or a friend’s house. The one who doesn’t need to see a doctor or a therapist or a surgeon or a beautician to force yourself to fit into the world. The one who can sweep love interests into their arms and a cut scene without a second thought, who can pick and choose, who desires and is desired. When I think about it that way, I can’t really be surprised that myself and some of my other trans friends game maybe more than we should.
I’ve been a long-time advocate of games as self-care, which I’m often very vocal about when self-care strategies come up in my radical political circles. Amidst talk of creating a support network, acupuncture, eating well, or herbs, I champion games. I usually say: think about it like this. In a game, you have a clear enemy and a clear goal. Nothing is complicated or tricky. You know you can win, and you can usually do so through the unilateral application of force, which you get to have instead of the cops, politicians, and capitalists of real life. You can always save the world, or meet whatever successful end state the game’s designers have laid out for you, and, besides in games like Spec Ops, everyone is pretty proud of you when you do. It’s the perfect antidote to the long haul of radical politics, I say. The game world is made for you, exists solely for your pleasure and success and violent, self-centered wants. I come away from games not feeling afraid or confused or powerless. For whatever hours I slip behind my keyboard and tug my headphones over my ears, I’m not on the losing team.
And then one of us turns the game off, and maybe those hours of winning aren’t enough.
The day after Donna died we all hung out in Harlem and cried a lot. Sometimes I forgot why we were there, excited to meet some of her friends I’d never known. A number of folks were gamers. At one point, maybe a little too flush with grief whisky, I was eagerly explaining a presentation about queering game mechanics that I’d given at a conference when someone new entered in the corner of my eye. I glanced briefly toward the door, thinking, “Oh, I hope it’s Donna; I don’t think I ever told her about this.” It wasn’t, of course, and I fell silent suddenly. It didn’t seem real. It felt like a joke, like she’d “Huck Finn-ed us,” as one of my friends said. I’ve lost people before, but there was some absurd part of me that kept thinking things would just reset the next day. I mostly saw Donna in my Steam friends list, inhabiting the same imaginary world as I did, one where death tends not to be a permanent condition. It seemed sad, but surely she’d played enough hours to earn an extra, real life.
The next day things were basically the same, except I was alone at my apartment with no idea what to do with myself. I played games. I stared at Donna’s name in my friends list, texted sadly with another of our friends who was clearly burying himself in Civ 5, now down a playmate. I played Doorkickers, an indie squad-based tactical game whose perceived mechanics intrigued me even though playing a SWAT team made me nervous. The game was still in its alpha stage, and the controls weren’t as responsive as I thought they’d be. Added to that was my own unfamiliarity with strategy games. I rushed headlong, stumbled through doors, planned poorly or not at all. My little pixel troopers became injured and then died. They had little names and little voices that cried out when they were shot or lost a friend.
Even though they were just 1s and 0s, I was sure they hated me.
I found myself replaying missions over and over, at first restarting when one of them died, and later aborting the mission the moment one of them was hit. Like Walker and his squad in Dubai, I wanted to protect them, I wanted to steer them through. I can’t remember at what point I started crying, started snarling in frustration every time they barked “I’m hit!” before I took them back to a time before they had begun the foolish adventure of trying to be part of a world designed to slaughter them. They were poor, ridiculous fucks for thinking they’d make it, for expecting me to help them. They were woefully unprepared. They couldn’t respond fast enough; they didn’t know what was coming; sometimes the tools they were equipped with didn’t function correctly to keep them from doing something stupid and deadly and making everyone miserable. My own inadequacy stared me in the face, and every reset brought a new dark level jammed with corners hiding monsters that my squad, at my hands, had no hope of overcoming.
Obviously all of this allegory got to me. I paused the game and sobbed explosively, sobbed until I thought I’d be sick. I wanted to talk to someone but couldn’t think of anyone who wasn’t dealing with their own grief, anyone whose attention I imagined I deserved. Eventually I made a couple phone calls, received an unsolicited text, and went out and got drunk with a friend. Our first beers were flat, and we didn’t know what to do. Eventually my friend kindly confronted the bartender, who thanked us for letting him know and gave us two rounds on the house. It felt good to be looked after, even in that small way. It felt good to have someone stand up for me and to win in the real world. I wandered home on an airy cushion of booze and grief, lecturing myself that I should reach out to people more often, that that was good self-care, and doing the math on how late I could sleep before I could reasonably get drunk and game.
There’s an achievement in Spec Ops called “A Man of Patience,” which I wouldn’t have known was possible without mention of it in Killing is Harmless. You can get it when your squad is harassing you about whether to save Agent Gould or a handful of civilians. If you ignore Lugo, whom you will also ignore later, and follow Adams, you drop down into a sun-dappled area behind some trucks. There, you hide for too long while Gould is tortured, one last chance to doubt yourself and open fire. If you wait, you can follow Adams as he murders someone, pick up their silenced gun, and take out a soldier when Adams fucks up. I fucked this up about ten times, raging, before realizing I just hadn’t pressed “C” to equip the gun’s silencer. After that, it’s a quick, crunchy crouch across a sandy lot strewn with exercise equipment and a basketball hoop for the soldiers who won’t attack you if you succeed at your stealthy quest. If you hide behind some boxes, you can hear two soldiers trying to decide who has to kill the remaining civilians. They want to draw straws, but they don’t have any. They want to flip a coin, but they don’t have one. One suggests flipping his Army service medal, which the other is a bit dubious about, but they proceed. They’re silent for a moment when the verdict is delivered. The one who won, who doesn’t have to kill the civilians, apologetically offers to go two out of three, but the loser refuses this kindness with a shaky, “It’s fine.” They vacillate a little, kick the dust and shift their guns from hand to hand. It’s at this point that I kill them.
In a cut scene, Adams assures the civilians that they’re OK and removes their bonds. They’re two young Arab men, one older than the other, I think. One runs away immediately. The other pauses, looking back at Adams and Walker, and mumbles an accented “Thank you.” He looks like he’s really had to think about it, like he hasn’t used his English in a while, or like he isn’t completely sure he’s thankful. Adams waves him away. When you regain control of Walker, the achievement pops, and Lugo is yelling at you to come see how dead Gould is.
As far as I can tell, these are the only two people Walker actually saves in the course of the game, and there’s a good chance he kills them when he climbs the next ridge to the Gate. The friend who took me out for a beer the night after Donna died, along with a handful of others, unequivocally saved my life when I was going to kill myself roughly two years prior to that night. I remember how much I hated my friends for it, how many painful, fucked up things I felt forced to still be alive for in the days and weeks and months that followed. I don’t know if I ever thanked them for what they did. Two years later, though I’m in a very different place, I’m not completely sure how far my gratitude extends. In the real world, unlike in games, there’s so little you can do. There’s no waypoints, no mission objectives, no achievement stats. There’s no ultimate win state, as much as we keep slogging toward one. There’s just trying and sometimes failing, sometimes succeeding. There’s escaping and confronting and trying to find the balance between taking a break and escaping too much. There’s keeping yourself alive for your friends, and there’s the horrifying understanding, as one of my friends told me, that sometimes shit is so hard that we don’t owe each other another hour on this planet. There’s being enough for someone sometimes, and sometimes not, and people being enough for you, and sometimes not. There’s holding each other and saving each other, and losing each other, and having no idea what comes next.