Summer has turned into fall, the weather still hot and sticky in Southern Illinois, and I’m in grad school. I’m the only person of color in the Fiction half of my MFA. One of two, maybe three in the entire program. The only international student. One of very, very few brown faces in this little college town. The fractions of otherness are a depressing equation, and it never solves in my favour.
I’m a long way from home.
I am alone in my matchbox-sized studio, playing What Remains of Edith Finch. Videogames, always a delight, have become my last bastion of sanity in grad school, a way to refill my creative well while taking a break from the written word.
Edith walks through an empty house haunted by memories of her once-large, once-beloved family. All dead. All gone. She adds to a hand-drawn family tree in a notebook, inking in faces to match the names tucked between branches and leaves as she visits each abandoned bedroom.
When we find our way to her mother’s room, the first thing that catches my eye is the familiar colours and geometric shapes of the wall hangings. We look through her mother’s dusty belongings—photos, travel booklets, an itinerary, a calendar—and it slowly dawns on me that Edith’s father was Indian. That she and her brothers were born in India. I keep reading, and realize her father was from Calcutta.
Calcutta. My hometown. My Calcutta, where I lived all my life before I left for America and grad school.
(I roll my eyes a little at the pictures of Edith’s well-meaning white mother surrounded by skinny brown children at a non-profit, but that’s nothing, means nothing, compared to suddenly hearing the name of your home when you least expected it.)
I forget the quest progression for a while. I’m suddenly mad at the game for being in first person, leaving me unable to see anything but Edith’s outstretched hands—hands whose exposed fingers I’m staring at now, wondering, are they the same colour as mine? Have they been the same colour, all this time, and I missed it because of the gloom and the dust and the lighting in this creaky old house?
I run up and down the stairs in the manor, ramming Edith up against walls and hitting zoom so I can stare into framed family photos. In those few blurred and fractured pixels, probably stock photos pulled from the internet and stamped with the artificial textures of age, I search for hints of desi in Edith and her brothers’ faces. A nose, a mouth, eyes that I can recognize.
Are you like me? Am I like you?
Am I not alone?
I’m playing Overwatch. I don’t use voice chat when I play, though I have a perfectly good mic. I’m self-conscious of my accent, of giving myself away as a woman, as not-American, and what that might invite.
I’m playing as Satya Vaswani, also known as Symmetra. She’s Indian, a STEM prodigy. Her skin is even darker than mine. She’s proud and precise; many of her voice lines are sarcastic, unimpressed, unflinching. She has an accent.
I’m really, really good at playing Symmetra.
I win Play of the Game. There are sore losers saying derisive things in chat. I summon my courage, hit the voice button, and repeat one of Symmetra’s snarkier voice lines. They’re stunned briefly into silence before lapsing into a chorus of what the fuck and holy shit.
I am cackling internally with delight the rest of the night, unable to say exactly why I feel so pleased.
Later in Edith Finch, moving through the unhappy memories of her brother Lewis’ last days of life, the game presents me with a choice: did he dream of finding his prince, or his princess? I don’t even have to think before I hit prince. The sequence that follows makes me cry.
Lewis could have been just a lonely boy, and I would have felt for him. But now I know he’s brown and I know he’s queer and I know he felt like he didn’t belong… and my heart breaks in two. His pain is as familiar as the shape of my own hands, and also like a lightning rod, too brilliant and electric to touch. I hold it close, even as its blade scrapes the bottom of my heart, because he’s like me, he’s like me, he’s like me.
He’s like me. I am not alone.
I am known.
I feel the same way when I play Death of the Outsider, later that year, and watch a black woman talk about the girl she loved when they were young. Billie Lurk is scarred and disabled, bisexual, grumpy. Billie Lurk isn’t pretty. Billie Lurk faces tragedy, and is knocked down, and builds herself back up again. She carves her way through a world that tries to grind people like her down under its heel, and she doesn’t break.
Billie Lurk means everything to me.
And unlike Lewis, Billie Lurk gets to live. She gets to win. She can choose to set aside revenge, at the game’s very climax, and show compassion to another innocent victim instead.
I used to play a lot of MMORPGs. When the game allowed it, I often gave my character brown skin. It felt right, but it wasn’t the same. My skin isn’t an unlockable, a limited-edition special event item, an option in a character creation page. I didn’t get to choose it. I don’t get to take it off when I exit to desktop.
And if I did, the world around me wouldn’t continue unchanged.
I play Prey, where I declare my Morgan to be a woman. An Asian woman. We begin in Morgan’s apartment, which means that when I exit it, the second living human I see in the game is a desi woman. The shock actually makes me stutter to a halt and stare for a while. Her name is Patricia Varma, and she’s a technician, kneeling to fix something in the hallway.
I keep playing. I take in the facts of Morgan’s life—the pressure to perform, to please demanding parents, to measure up to an impressive older sibling, and I nod. This is a familiar song. I know the words by heart. You may think it a small thing, letting her be Asian rather than white, but that one miniscule tilt of the prism refracts the story into many-hued layers of significance for me. It means more when Morgan jeopardizes her own health to push her experiments further. It means more when I get to say she dated her female co-worker, and later in the game, temporarily abandon rationality in an ill-advised, risky bid to bring Mikhaila her medicine and save her life.
Patricia Varma dies soon into the game, but, well, so does pretty much everyone else in Prey. I don’t hold it against Bethesda, because…
Because, though it takes a stunningly long time to dawn on me, its world is the most diverse I have ever seen.
Under glass domes curving against the star-shattered vastness of space, I walk through the battered halls of a space station, and I see people of colour every way I turn. Desi, Asian, black, Latinx; engineers, technicians, security officers, psychologists. I find them hiding in their quarters, holding the line against alien attackers, protecting small clusters of survivors. I listen in on the audio logs and read the emails of two queer women falling in love.
I don’t see it for a long while. But then something prompts me to try to count the white men I’ve met in the game’s supporting cast, and I can’t come up with more than two, maybe three.
They’re outnumbered three to one.
In the moment, I’m only surprised it took me that long. Yes, I was busy—tracking, collecting, shooting, solving—but I’m usually quick to notice when a space is most or all white. Every marginalized person is; we feel it in our bones. So why, when the reverse happened, was I oblivious for half the game?
Did I let down my guard? Even blood-stained, glass-strewn, snapped wires and tables knocked over and black alien ichor tracked across every surface, did this world filled with people like me feel right?
Months later, I write this essay in a world on fire. Queer, brown, immigrant; everything I am seems like everything America hates. America is burning, and the people who think people like me don’t get to live and prosper, let alone have our stories told, are very loud. As loud as the voice in the back of my skull that reminds me, periodically, that I was stupid to try to make a life here, that it’s not too late to turn and run.
And most people don’t think much of videogames, and maybe they’re not worth much in the grand scheme of things, but it comforts me to know that millions of people are out there playing a game with a woman who sounds like me. A game where humanity went to the stars and took people like me along.
That we lived. That the future includes us.
My mirror is someone else’s window. I need to see myself just as much as you need to see me. I need to know I’m not alone, and you need to know I exist. In a medium that might just be the future of storytelling, or at least a kind of storytelling we’ve never seen before, I hope you have to see my hands on your screen and see the world through my eyes. I hope my stories get inside your head. I hope you are suffused with them, blasted on all sides, until your ability to see me as Other has been entirely scoured away and you know in your skin and your every brain cell what I struggle each day to tell the world: I’m here. I deserve. I live.
I’m not alone. And in my stories, I am known.