Games Boys Play

How Gears of War helped me come out

Man sits on top of video game remote.
Rose Wong

I came out to my dad while we were playing Spider-Man 3 on PlayStation 2. People ask me if it was hard—he’s a political conservative and a Christian, and they wonder if I was afraid he would condemn me. I wasn’t. My father is an artist from a family of New York intellectuals. On social issues, he takes a laissez-faire stance: Live and let live, just don’t hurt anyone. I was pretty sure he’d react all right.

But it was still hard, because coming out to your dad is hard. Sons want to be like their fathers—they just do—and fathers want to see their sons become men. Marrying a nice girl and getting her good and pregnant is part of that, just like playing catch in the backyard is. He teaches and shows, you watch and learn, and a vision of your future life emerges, a picture of successful manhood that is in some ways the most cherished thing you and your dad share. At the very least, that vision would have to be radically reconfigured once I told him I’d only ever had romantic feelings for other boys. I was 16. We were playing Spider-Man 3, and somehow, that made it easier.

Video games were something we always did together—half an hour or so every weeknight. The normalcy of that ritual was comforting to me. The game also gave us something to focus on, so we wouldn’t have to look each other in the eye. I still felt icky using the word gay about myself (“I’m … not straight” is what I said). It would have been intolerable to tell him face-to-face; I almost certainly would have choked up, as I had while telling my mom earlier that day. Coming out felt emasculating enough. Crying would have been utter humiliation.

He took it great, as I’d predicted, but I think we were both glad to have something in front of us that we could look at while we talked. The task of swinging on webs through Spider-Man’s pixelated streets absorbed enough of our attention that, looking at him with my peripheral vision, I could tell him this raw truth.

Men are good at relating to each other in this way. We get along well when there’s a project in front of us—when we’re side by side looking at some third thing. All of the classic “male bonding” activities are like this—when you’re hunting, or working on a car, or shooting free throws, you can look together at the deer, or the transmission, or the basket, and talk. The common objective gives you something to talk about, and not having to face each other means you don’t have to lay the full weight of your emotions on each other.

I suspect that’s why so many of my closest male friendships have evolved at least in part around gaming. My three best buddies in high school all played. As grunty teenagers to whom conversation didn’t come easy, we could spend hours on the Nintendo GameCube in my family’s back room. After my parents, they were among the first people I came out to, and boy was that scary: What if they thought I had a crush on one of them?

They didn’t. They were in fact models of maturity. It was my first time really being vulnerable with them, and they showed themselves to be the stand-up guys they have remained ever since.

After what felt to me like an explosive revelation, the routines of our friend group took on new significance. Wandering around town, going to action movies, calling one another gross names—the mere fact that we kept doing that stupid stuff showed me I was still their pal.

That’s another important feature of male friendship, I think: the unspokenness of it. Your bros show up for you without calling attention to it, and you never have to thank them. In fact, they’d probably prefer if you didn’t, otherwise things might get awkward. My high-school friends demonstrated their care for me in a thousand tiny ways, most of them involving swift and gruesome death at their digital hands.

That they didn’t go easy on me may be what I appreciated most. They schooled me at Halo and shot my head clean off in Gears of War. They continued to give me endless shit, too. Verbal abuse is another way to show affection indirectly, and we were ruthless because (though we would never have said it) we loved each other. Being gay was another thing for them to make fun of me about, the way I made fun of them for having acne or being short.

Our verbal roughhousing was egalitarian: One of us had obsessive-compulsive disorder; we made fun of him for how long he spent going back over every level to pick up all the ammo. One of us was a first-generation immigrant; we used to say that he couldn’t understand English when he got a game’s instructions wrong. And I know how this sounds, but I would have been devastated if I hadn’t gotten called faggot a couple of times. It was how I knew my friends weren’t going to treat me differently, and that meant everything was going to be okay.

That kind of insensitive banter has fallen out of fashion; in some circles it has become anathema. I get it. Kids can be cruel, and bullying can have terrible consequences. I understand the impulse to defuse it at all costs. But in my own case, policing schoolyard taunts would have been counterproductive. Goading one another was part of how my friends and I were able to connect. You couldn’t have stopped us without blocking off one of our main routes to true friendship.

In the past 50 years, Americans have moved from stigmatizing homosexuality to tolerating or even celebrating it. When progressives tell that story, they often cast straight, cisgender males as the villains: Change would have come sooner if society weren’t so hidebound with outdated notions of manhood. We should therefore expunge traditional forms of masculinity from our public life so gay people can be liberated, along with women and anyone else who might feel alienated. Video games, according to that narrative, are breeding grounds of the boorishness and exclusivity that can make maleness so harmful.

None of that rings true for me. Like everything else, video games and masculinity can go wrong—if unchecked, they can foster aggression or even violence. But those are corruptions of things that are, to me, inherently good. The playful belligerence, the bravado, and the intense competition with which my friends and I gamed together weren’t obstacles to our acceptance of one another; they were how we formed and expressed that acceptance. I know plenty of other guys who came out as gay, or bi, or trans with a controller in hand. For many of us, gaming is a way of talking and relating to other men that feels normal and relaxed—a way to be one of the guys while still finding space to open up.

My boyfriend, Josh, is a gamer too. He and I have been separated by the Atlantic Ocean for much of our relationship, and playing together online is one of the ways we deal with the distance. We spent a formative few months playing Diablo III, a collaborative game in which you slay undead demons. Most of the time we played with two other guys, who are also a couple. I’d stumble to my laptop in the dark at 5 a.m. in England, while Josh and our friends would settle in at 9 p.m. in Los Angeles. Over a four-way Skype connection, we’d alternate between strategizing and small talk.

Sometimes, as the hours wore on, we’d find ourselves tackling tougher subjects: our dissatisfactions at work, or our fears about coming out to folks who might not respond well. We joked that we were taking down CGI demons in the game and personal demons in our conversations, helping one another defeat whatever we were facing, online or in real life. These bizarre and distinctly modern get-togethers were like virtual double dates—part hangout, part support group, part romance. We called ourselves “The Boys Who Fight Hell.”

Josh and I also started playing online with my father, so that the two most important men in my life could get to know each other. I couldn’t help thinking back to that day playing Spider-Man 3, when I had told my dad the secret I feared might change everything. Here we were 12 years later, and it seemed as if almost nothing had changed between us. It was still him and me, talking and laughing and playing games. Only now it was him and me and Josh.