The Queer Warriors fight for video-game redemption at Boystown
Leila Del Duca
"Sometimes we itch all over. We think it's because of the gas leak," says Timmy Moen, a lanky 27-year-old with bloodshot eyes glued to League of Legends, a multiplayer video game. When he turns on the heat, flames shoot from the vent, he complains to his 24-year-old roommate and best friend, Noah Bardwell.
Noah blushes. He is also Timmy's landlord.
The two live at Boystown, a ramshackle house in Villa Park, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on the west side of Denver. Their home is a social hub for a group of washed-up Peter Pans, sick with lung infections and consumed by endless gin drinking, weed smoking and video-game playing. Many nights the two stumble to bed, pass out, wake up, puke and do it all again — that is, if they ever leave their gaming chairs at all.
The Boystown door is never locked. Inside, the dust-caked floor is uneven to the step. Ignored electric guitars and beat-up amps are stacked haphazardly in the corner of the living room. In three dirty bedrooms, dirty sheets cover dirty mattresses surrounded by dirty clothes.
The kitchen — half hallway and half breakfast nook — looks into a small room: the gamers' command center. At the back of the room, a hand-built table supports a gargantuan computer monitor and three small monitors; the computers glow and hum next to a high-end speaker system. Cigarette ash covers everything, including mounds of prescription pill bottles, dried marijuana stems, empty flasks, crushed beer cans and crusted plates.
At any time of the day or night, Boystown may be packed with gamers, queers and punks. Or the house may be dead quiet. Either way, Timmy is likely to be hunkered down in a tattered office chair in the command center, duct-taped headphones covering his ears. His fingers will be tapping at a keyboard and mouse, only breaking to pack a bowl with weed, crack open a beer or light another cigarette.
Chris Nelson loves cigarettes. Trying to quit, he has banned himself from Boystown.
"I've got to warn you, I'm grumpy," he says, grabbing two quarts of sesame sticks from a well-stocked pantry and lumbering down to his basement bedroom at Knox House, a tidy community home in Barnum, not far from Boystown.
"Last couple of years, I've headed over there once a week, and we'd play video games, smoke cigarettes and drink beer," he says. "It's hard to go over there and not partake. I've been over there two times, and both times I cheated. I've got to stay home. It sucks. I really want to be over there."
But with a baby coming next month, this thirty-year-old, curly-haired, flannel-clad bear has to kick his habit. This time, for real — for the kid, for his partner, and for his own health.
"Everything is more enjoyable with cigarettes. Drinking coffee is better with cigarettes. Reading is better with cigarettes. Eating is better with cigarettes. I enjoy it all more with cigarettes."
"I'm kicking so much ass. I'm awesome," Timmy tells himself, his pale, gaunt face lit blue by his monitor.
Even when Boystown is filled with friends trying to reconnect, it's tough for Timmy to turn away from his video games.
Tonight he's playing League of Legends with strangers around the world. On their screens, they share a bird's-eye view of their "champions" battling each other on the "Field of Justice." To the noob — the uninitiated gamer — the visuals appear muddled and incoherent. Gamers study hard to understand the game, and Timmy has put in the time.
"A lot of my friends judge my video-game habit. I've always been open about it, but my friends talk so much shit about it," he says. "I didn't become a full-time gamer until two years ago. I needed something to make me want to live again. Video games are a great way out when you feel like shit."
"Playing video games is a good way to ignore things," says Noah, dwarfed by his mammoth monitor.
"When you've got low self-esteem, you've got to start somewhere," says Timmy, staring into his much smaller screen.
At fifteen, Timmy was a budding hawk in a pacifist, Unitarian community. "I was for the Iraq War. I was really into war and war movies. I grew up on Saving Private Ryan," he says, scrolling through YouTube videos, looking for the trailer for Memphis Belle.
He finds it, clicks "play" and watches the Greatest Generation's finest bomb the Third Reich. A Voice-of-God narrator booms: "We asked these boys to become men. We asked these men to become heroes, but whatever the danger, whatever the odds, we asked them to come home again."
Home, for Timmy, was complicated. He was in awe of his sister and her straight-edge vegan friends, but she hated him almost as much as he hated himself.
"Everybody in my high school sucked. I grew up in Littleton, where the Columbine shooting happened. My friends were assholes," he says, resuming League of Legends.
He was a bullied outcast. He played video games. He longed to fight wars. Timmy was the kind of misfit that the post-Columbine nightly news demonized as a potential threat.
"I wanted to join the Navy when I was seventeen," he adds. "I hated my life and saw no other way out."
One of his sister's friends introduced him to the Derailer Bicycle Collective, a DIY community bike shop run by crusty idealists. There he found punks willing to give a misfit like him a chance. Embraced by a new community, he dropped his military aspirations. It was at Derailer that he met Chris.
When he was eighteen, Chris had found a job working on computers at one of Colorado's largest service organizations for the homeless, merging his budding commitment to social justice with his computer-programming skills. Along with his high-school friends, he devoted himself to building Denver's DIY punk scene. He fixed up bikes at Derailer and hosted punk shows at the Outpost, his dingy home in Globeville, adjacent to the train yards. He spent his days doing nonprofit computer maintenance and his nights drinking and dreaming up a better world.
Those years were crazy, in the best sense of the word, and he was thrilled when Timmy came along for the ride.
"I definitely miss hanging out with Timmy back when we were first friends," Chris says. "You won't find me with a bottle of whiskey in a train yard at 3 a.m. anymore. Derailer was a huge part of our relationship. We'd spend late nights in the shop building crazy bikes. We put in countless hours to keep Derailer going. We'd go down to the shop, work on bikes and then hang out at the shop afterward," Chris says.
This was when Timmy and Chris met Noah, a scruffy, awkward twelve-year-old kid. He was a brilliant, bullied middle-schooler and already an inveterate gamer.
"I was part of a super-nerdy friend group," remembers Noah. "They were all assholes. All we did was play video games, mostly Halo 2."
Noah's parents frowned on his gaming. As Quakers, they preferred peaceful play — at least for their children's hobbies. "Other Quakers' methods of communication were quiet and nice," he says. "My parents fought every day."
From preschool on, Noah was in a public Montessori program in which students' interests guided their educational direction. "It wasn't good," he recalls. "Lots of kids didn't know how to read until fourth or fifth grade, while all I did was read. There were thirty kids at very different levels of education."
In middle school, he suffered through relentless bullying and found himself at the bottom of the social heap. "Being in the least-popular group made us the most fucked-up," he says, adding that even within that group, there was bullying. "Kids made so many racist jokes," he remembers, and he was not one to take racist jokes lightly. But when he criticized his friends' bigotry, they ridiculed him.
"I was always politicized," he says. "In my family, it was impossible not to be politicized."
Noah's grandfather and great-grandfather were Communist Party members in Telluride; his mother worked for Potters for Peace. From the time he was eight, his mother would take him on month-long trips to Nicaragua and lecture him about the evils of United States foreign policy.
In 1998, he saw firsthand the impact of Hurricane Mitch; the devastating storm exacerbated the damage already caused by the U.S.-backed civil war against the Sandinistas, the revolutionary party that had overthrown the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. In Managua and León, Noah encountered people living in houses made of cardboard and plastic bags; simple things like clean water were hard to come by. Potters for Peace focused its efforts on improving water treatment, and Noah found himself on the front lines of an engineering challenge: how to create a press to make uniform ceramic water filters. With his dad's help, he rose to the occasion, inventing a four-rod press. The design is still used worldwide.
Back home, with military recruiters preying on students just a few years older, Noah began to lose patience with the school system. When he was a sophomore, he left school to change the world. He took a job working for the American Friends Service Committee's Youth and Militarism program and devoted himself to stopping military recruitment. He became a pacifist and, for the first time in his life, quit playing video games.
Sarah Bardwell, Noah's sister, was a founding member of Derailer, which was based at a legendary punk house called Villekulla. Worried about her brother, she and her mother fretted over how to get him back on track. "He was thirteen or something when he started coming over to Derailer," Sarah remembers. "I don't want to say it wasn't his own free will that he got involved in bikes, but it was sort of planned by my mom and me. He dropped out of high school, didn't know what the fuck he was doing, and we thought he should get involved in something."
By the time he was sixteen, Noah was showing up at Derailer regularly. Using his engineering skills, he fixed bikes, taught mechanics and bonded with his new, older friends.
"He was a little annoying," his sister says. "He would piss people off because he was argumentative and talked about things where he didn't know what he was talking about. He hung around and was more peripherally involved in Derailer. He and Timmy became friends, and at some point they lived together at his mom's house."
Chris and Sarah had worked together at Derailer for years. When Noah started coming around, Chris was wowed. "Noah's one of the smartest people I've ever met, but his intelligence is coupled with verbosity and a particular kind of inarticulateness that makes things weird," Chris says. "He'll be convoluted with technical jargon. His brain works faster than his mouth.
"We got really close when I was building a fingerprint access system," Chris continues. "I'd had lots of experience with software. He knew hardware. We built a super-fun thing that I'm proud of. If you look at the timeline of our friendship, it's been mostly electronics projects and playing games."
Chris sits in the basement at Knox House chewing sesame sticks and listening to Timmy and Noah, who are over at Boystown, bicker through his buzzing speakers. Chris needs alone time, a lot of alone time, time to read the cracked-spine paperback fantasy novels stacked in every corner of his room and time to work on engineering projects. But God darn it, he wishes he could be smoking weed and getting drunk at Boystown.
Chris plays alone on a humble-looking laptop on a small, polished wooden desk. Lola, an ancient Jack Russell terrier, burrows under a quilt on his queen-sized bed; Chris makes sure the dog is warm. The faint smell of nag champa and marijuana infuses his room with the manly scent of a sweet cigar. Framed pictures of wizards, cowboys, owls and lions decorate the wood-paneled walls. Chris's pipe, long, green and yellow, looks like a glass-blown version of Gandalf's. He takes an occasional puff.
"I'm so high," he says, giggling self-consciously. Everybody over at Boystown is high, too. Chris has nothing to worry about.
"I feel like playing DayZ," Noah says through the speakers.
"Cool. I'll load it up," Chris says.
With a few taps on the keyboard, he brings up a list of servers. He clicks one, and Chris, Noah and Timmy's avatars appear in a desolate, zombie-riddled landscape.
The avatars wander like teenagers playing on train tracks. They scurry through empty fields and explore abandoned buildings. Scouting out ammo, guns and canteens and quenching their avatars' thirst at the occasional well, the gamers invent the rules and define the terms of their own adventures.
After the characters wander for a while, with no zombies attacking and no other players' avatars to interact with, Chris says, "Okay, guys, I'm bored. Let's go kill people."
"Okay," Noah says.
"Should we dance? Let's do a little dance first," Chris says.
The three avatars dance awkwardly in the middle of a field.
"We're not very good at dancing," Chris says.
"You need music for that. Let's go find people with good outfits and kill them," Noah says.
Everybody laughs. Fifteen minutes later they find another player's avatar standing in a corner. Chris approaches him.
"Hello...hello? I'm a friendly," Chris says.
The avatar does not reply.
Tired of trying to engage, Chris opens fire. His computer lags behind the game, so it takes a minute for the character to fall down dead.
"I've got to get his pants. I hate my guy's style," Chris says, ashamed that his avatar looks so Colorado-casual.
"Are they black? If they're black, can I have them? I really want a matching outfit," Noah says.
Chris concedes, and Noah's avatar approaches the dead guy.
"I like his pants," he says, taking off his own. "Oh, my God, I have no pants on."
He rips the pants from the corpse and dresses.
"Oh, my God. Oh, my God," Noah screams.
"What is it?" Chris asks.
"I look like a badass. I look like a fucking badass," Noah says, as his avatar dances. "Check this lady out."
"Guys, I'm getting bored. Let's go kill some people," Chris says, struggling to get on with the game.
"I have to pee and roll a spliff," Noah says.
Noah disappears from his microphone, while Chris stands and stretches out his sore muscles. He sits back down and takes a hit from his wizard pipe.
Denver's anarchist scene was vibrant in the Derailer era, from 2002 to 2011. Chris does not like talking about the magic of those days in the context of his present life as a gamer; it feels disrespectful to a past he holds sacred.
Packs of punks would bike to dumpsters across Denver, dig around in the trash, rescue not-totally-rotten food and pedal it back home to cook up for a midnight snack. Instead of watching TV, they organized anti-racist study sessions, Spanish-language classes, anti-war affinity groups and street-art teams that spray-painted the city. They marched in solidarity with the American Indian Movement against the annual Columbus Day parade. They made meals for Food Not Bombs and served them to strangers in the park. They wrote zines, formed bands. They shared food, chores and rent. They built gray-water systems, dug gardens and cooked their meals at home.
"We were all in our early twenties. It was like, 'Oh, man, we are going to change the world,'" Sarah remembers.
Nobody had time to play video games, Noah says. The community was politically committed, and nobody was ever alone.
But living with seven to nine people at Villekulla was wearing her down, Sarah says. She turned to heavy drinking to stay sane. "It was just crazy. It was Food Not Bombs twice a week," she remembers. "It was Derailer two to three days a week. There were just dozens of people here all the time, and lots of drinking."
Chris's home, the Outpost, had become a rowdy stop for touring punk bands, all-night parties and wild parades snaking through the train yards, from bonfire to bonfire.
"Living at the Outpost started out awesome, with fun times. It got darker and darker, and not in a good way," he says. "It became far more insular, and less about doing Food Not Bombs and Derailer and more about, 'Let's get wasted tonight and have a fire.' Then it was, 'Let's just get wasted.' It got to be depressing, sad and stagnant."
So in 2011, Chris packed up and moved across town to Villekulla, but the social fabric of that house was tearing, too.
Sarah's mom had taken out a loan on the house and put Sarah's name on the title. "I think that the understanding was that whoever was living there at the time was going to work together to somehow get our shit together to put our house into an LLC or a land trust or some shit like that — a real collective, community-style ownership," Sarah says. "Then everything drove me crazy and I left. I moved in with my mom. Then I tried to get married and moved to Minneapolis."
When her marriage plans fell through, she decided to move back to Denver. "I was thinking of moving back to the house," she remembers. "It didn't make sense to move into a new apartment. I didn't want to live with eight or nine people. I talked initially to the three people I'd been in an agreement with. I told them I'd live with them and not with anyone else, and nobody liked it. From then on out it was a shit show of hurt feelings and betrayal and all of that kind of stuff.... I couldn't deal with the lifestyle other people wanted to live. It was not conducive to me being sane. I had these series of nightmares about people storming the house and tearing it apart. It made it clear to me that things were not healthy. I talked to those people on the phone from Minneapolis. By the time I moved back, bad conversations started happening. People were obviously pissed."
Timmy, who was part of the agreement to collectively buy Villekulla, was heartbroken. "I checked out because my relationship with [Sarah] and the house was so insane. At the house, I felt I was just a boy in the basement," he says. "I didn't get invited to things, which hurt my feelings. Trying to keep a relationship with [Sarah] sane while she was making my friends cry was hard. It was all my friends being mean to each other. It was weird being caught in the crossfire."
As his friendship circle fractured, Timmy played video games in the basement and Chris played video games upstairs. They connected with each other and several of their friends through Skype. They drank, they gamed, and they buffered themselves from the house drama.
Things came to a head between Sarah and the Villekulla housemates. "People said, 'Nobody here is going to move out,' and I was like, 'Everybody has to move out,'" Sarah remembers. "It felt like a group of people who had decided on this new situation, which was that I'm a terrible landlord, and I think I just didn't want to deal with it. I felt like, okay, that's a decision you made."
During that tough time, a new kid came to town. Twenty-seven-year-old Chris Spaght, an industrial-noise musician, had grown up a military brat and was sick of his narrow-minded Arkansas town. "I was there the last few weeks of Villekulla," he recalls. "It was really important to my growth as a queer person and my political views. It was magical."
Spaght and Timmy started hanging out. "I became Timmy's friend, and I made gaming look cool and okay. He hadn't seen it that way before," Spaght says. "The gaming community emerged out of the end of Villekulla. It was a really emotionally intense moment for us. It emerged as a form of therapy, or a depression tool."
The week people were supposed to move from Villekulla, Timmy fled. With family money, Noah had purchased a house — the house that eventually would be dubbed Boystown — and Timmy crashed there. "I just checked out. I could have helped move, but didn't, because I was here playing video games with Noah. That was the worst of my alcoholism. I was working a custodian job, and that sucked out all my life. It sucks working a job that doesn't feel good," he says.
While Sarah settled back into the house, the rest of Villekulla's residents scattered across Denver. Some rented new homes; Chris had plans to buy a house. Timmy officially moved in with Noah. The three stayed in touch, frequently via Skype, most often playing video games.
Derailer changed hands and eventually closed. Food Not Bombs found a new home. New punk venues opened. The friendship circle was shrinking for some and growing for others. Either way, life was moving on.
Weeks have passed, and Timmy and Noah are still in front of their screens, still bickering.
"You didn't communicate your feelings very well," says Timmy.
"I stopped talking because I didn't want to upset you," says Noah.
Timmy says nothing. He glares into the screen.
"We lost because we fought. We always lose because we fight," says Noah.
Minutes later, Noah and Timmy start bickering about which avatar they each want to play: "You can be a bunny rabbit or a badass," Noah says. "Timmy wants that carrot in his butt."
"I didn't say that," says Timmy. "Have you been drinking my plum wine?"
"No," says Noah.
"You sure?" asks Timmy.
"No," says Noah.
Noah walks over to the bar and debates the merits of plum wine versus those of gin. He comes back with a mix of the two. Timmy and Noah share a cigarette. In the corner sit an empty chair and a monitor — the one Chris might use if he could come over.
He will not. He is at home, playing with his Boystown friends through the speakers, and by 2 a.m., he is exhausted and drops out of the game.
As he signs off, a new cadre of gamers joins Timmy and Noah via Skype. The crew will play long past sunrise.
Back when Villekulla split up, Timmy quit his job as a school custodian, packed up and headed to Olympia, Washington, hoping to get a break from the drama that had swept up his friends.
He took a job geoducking. "It's a delicacy that only grows in certain places," he says of the large clams. "There would be 20,000 cups. We would remove mud and moss from the cups and work as hard as we could to harvest them. It was grueling labor. It sucked, but it was well paid."
He worked with hardworking, honky-tonk dudes who were too stupid to know that they were being homophobic as they bantered on the job. "There was an oaf with a beer belly who was so cute," Timmy recalls. It was not clear whether the oaf was gay or straight, but either way, he had a problem: Whenever he chewed on a plug of tobacco, he would accidentally spit his brown slime on Timmy's hand.
The spit was not as grotesque as the fungus that developed under Timmy's fingernail. The pain kept him from working. Then his teeth started aching; they had hurt for most of his life, but never this badly. He felt his immune system collapsing. He looked up his symptoms and suspected the worst: liver cancer. He returned to Denver and moved back to Boystown, where he played video games to avoid the pain.
He wanted to see a doctor, but could not figure out how to navigate health insurance. His parents offered to pay, but he refused their help. He says his sister thought he was living out a death wish.
After weeks of anxiety and conflict, he realized he could access indigent health insurance. He had the fungus and his teeth checked. He did not have cancer. The fungus came from geoducking, and the doctor prescribed some pills. His friends loaned him cash for his dental care.
But his depression worsened. He continued drinking. He sank to a suicidal low, and the only life jacket he had was his gaming habit.
"Without video games, I'd probably be dead," he says. "A lot of my friends didn't know what kind of a place I was at. People are totally judgey about gaming. They don't want to talk to me about it. They don't want to hurt my feelings. When I tell them I was about to kill myself, they say, 'Sorry, I wasn't there for you.' I try to tell myself that they care, but it's hard. I need my friends to listen to me. Video games are my people. With my video-game friends, we're supporting each other. We're sad and depressed together, and we're all trying to get out of it together."
One of the gamers Timmy plays with most regularly is Zeke Moreland. Like Timmy, 27-year-old Zeke is tall, lanky and handsome in a beleaguered-vampire sort of way. Also like Timmy, he has spent most of his life in and out of depression and in and out of gaming.
When he was six, Zeke started playing on a Nintendo. By sixth grade, he had fallen into a crippling depression and refused to go to school for a month. He worried his parents and teachers, who eventually sent him to a psychiatrist for an evaluation. They put him on antidepressants, which did little to improve his mood.
"I slogged through middle school, and my parents wanted me to go to New Vista — it's an alternative school," Zeke recalls. "With my poor GPA and lack of caring, the school didn't want me in. I was under academic probation and mandatory study hall. I failed half the classes I took and didn't do any homework."
In high school, he borrowed his sister's drum kit and taught himself to play. Music freed him, but his hatred for school was growing. "I quit antidepressants and dropped out," he says. "I was playing Final Fantasy. That was all I was doing for six or eight months. That was not the best time for me. I was playing the game and chain-smoking. It was fun, but I don't remember a whole lot of it. I fucked around for two years and tried to grow up. I would wake up, play, drink coffee, play for three hours, leave for a six-pack and play the rest of the day."
Eventually, Zeke took the GED test and missed just one question. He took a job at the Mercury Cafe; when he wasn't working, he was drinking, smoking and gaming. Often in games he would succeed at tasks that he was struggling to accomplish in real life. "I'd get home from a night of bartending and bartend in the game. The house will be a mess, but I'm building a house in Minecraft," he says.
Zeke quit playing drums. Instead, he used an old Game Boy to make chiptune music — electronic music using or making reference to the sounds of old computers, video games and arcades. Playing under the name Zeke Mystique, he's found some success.
But lately he hasn't been playing much music; he's also been slowly leaving his job at the Mercury. He's worried about the future, but he feels relieved. He's settled into a new apartment with his girlfriend, Terryn Green, who is warm of heart and tough as nails.
Terryn, who asked to use a nom de guerre because she fears government scrutiny for her Maoist leanings, became a gamer largely to share a hobby with her boyfriend. She has learned to love their all-night sessions. Terryn and Zeke play at adjacent desks beneath a Soviet flag. The flag looks ironic, but it is not. Terryn's life as a Maoist-Third Worldist still shadows the house, despite the fact that she hardly identifies as an activist anymore.
When she was in her early twenties, Terryn was part of a group of friends who would meet up, smoke weed and listen to conspiracy theories on the radio. By the time the Democratic National Convention came to Denver in 2008, she was part of the Revolutionary Anti-Imperialist Movement — a group that soon developed a sour reputation in Denver's anarchist community, which criticized RAIM for using racist, misogynist and homophobic language. In turn, the Maoists accused the anarchists of succumbing to tired identity politics, a bourgeois distraction from the issue that really matters: the armed resistance of Third World people suffering under the boot of "AmeriKKKan" imperialism. "There was a lot of conflict, which I don't understand," Terryn says. "It was hard to get people to work together."
A half-dozen years later, Terryn worries about spending so much time playing and so little pursuing revolution. "It's hard to be in the First World and pretend that you're a revolutionary," she says. "So many resources go into gaming, and they are ill-begotten. I have a lot of guilt associated with that. It's a complicated relationship. I have become more interested in gender politics now that I'm around more anarchists."
Those anarchists have also helped make the often misogynist gaming world a safe place for Terryn. "It's awesome to play with high-level players, and they're really nice," she says. "Those dudes have been super-cool and fun to play with, and encouraging. That gaming world can be big and scary sometimes."
The Boystown gamers actively fight any homophobic, racist or misogynist attitudes they encounter. This is one lingering aspect of their politics that they have brought online.
Spaght even advocates for gaming as a political act: "The way gaming is sold, it's hetero-male-dominated. We're trying to check that and break that. Patriarchy and misogyny run deep in the community and keep a lot of people from playing."
When given the chance to play under a name, the Boystown players call themselves the Queer Warriors. Timmy eyes the game chat rooms, waiting for people to say something racist or homophobic, and when they do, he rages, attacking them with words and killing their avatars.
"When someone online tells a rape joke, we feel compelled to say something. You're your full self online, and not saying something would make things worse. Political ideals fuel my gaming experience," Spaght says.
"They are just people online that are fucked up, but people in the real world are fucked up, too," says Timmy. "Finding the right gamer people is hard."
"I recently talked to Zeke about what community looks like," Spaght says. "We're supposed to be doing Food Not Bombs, organizing punk shows, working in bike shops and starting bands. But sometimes we don't feel like it. Does that mean we're not really into community?"
Zeke, who describes himself as an introvert, says gaming gives him control of how he socializes. "It's important to me," he says. "It's my alone time. It lets me exercise parts of my brain, the creative ones. I decompress. It's how I gather myself back. Socializing with people online, I'm in charge of my time. Whether it's four of us on the Internet or just me, it's the same kind of feeling. You can always just quit. 'Okay, guys, I'm gonna quit.'"
Spaght, who identifies as an extrovert, also likes the way he can dip out of a game if he gets bored or is ready to move on to something else. At a show, he can't just leave after a band plays two or three songs. But with games, he can play as little or as much as he wants. And he values that online, introverts and extroverts can share space without stressing each other out.
"A lot of trans folks come out on the Internet before they do AFK [away from the computer]," Spaght says. "It used to be that people talked about IRL [in real life], but we're trying to get away from that now. That diminishes Internet experience as less real. People believe digital life is just as real as life away from computers."
Whether AFK or online, Spaght's goal is to build and maintain relationships and to be there for people. "I want to find ways to talk about our gaming community and our shared identities," he says. "Gaming becomes our common ground. This is how we relate to each other. Sometimes I buy a friend a $40 game so we can spend time together. You're building memories and moments in time. That's all life is; it's a series of moments in time. Why not build these really awesome moments where you're a knight and I'm a wizard and we slay the dragon?"
Games also provide a chance to practice failure. "Failing and realizing you're going to be okay is a huge part of gaming," he says. "It's a key element to why gaming has been helpful. When you first sit down to play a new game, you fail. Learning, failing and enjoying that. Gaming is a training ground for a life that is failure."
The night is droning on. Chris cleans his wizard pipe with the tip of a pencil affixed to an ashtray. His current League of Legends avatar is the Monkey King, who spews affirmations:
Is that all they got?
Show me the path.
My journey is only beginning.
Adapt to all situations.
Put me to the test.
Every mistake is a lesson.
The Monkey King sounds like a new-age mystic hypnotizing players into an endless journey down the wormhole of the game. The voice suggests the possibility of eternal growth and purpose — but only if you never leave your seat.
Fortunately, the Monkey King dies; his death is a welcome break from his endless litany of self-help garbage. Chris spits out a "God darn it" and snickers.
"Did you hear about Flappy Bird?" Timmy asks.
"Yeah," Chris says. "Flappy Bird is a simple game. A very simple game. I guess that was part of its charm. The developer was bringing in $50,000 a day. It was free to play, but he was bringing in $50,000 from ad revenue."
"Did you hear why he took it down?" Timmy asks.
"No," Chris says.
Timmy explains that the addictive nature of the game disturbed its creator, Dong Nguyen, who couldn't stand that people would shortchange their lives just to play the game. He hated his own creation.
Dozens of clones were released after the app was taken offline, and there are rumors that a new version of Flappy Bird is available, this time boasting a warning.
For four years, Noah worked as an engineer at a green battery company, building systems to power electrical vehicles. He quit his job last year. Timmy and Noah have been taking classes and covering their few expenses with student loans. Timmy enjoys studying computer science, though he just dropped out for the semester to take care of health issues. Noah continues to dig deeper into engineering, though he has not been attending school as often as he should. He hopes that one day he can create an open-source database of social-justice-oriented engineering projects. He is currently building a grow controller for his marijuana crop.
Their house is a mess, and their diet is, too. Timmy jokes that they suffer from "gamer belly."
"I make one giant plate of food and eat off of it all day," Timmy says. "It's gonna be a burrito, tacos, a pot roast, or sometimes steaks and a salad. We try to get on the healthy train, but a lot of it is shitty food."
Half of Noah's nights are spent at his partner's house; the other half he spends gaming with Timmy. Occasionally he and Chris sneak off to work on building quad-copters.
Timmy wishes he had a relationship, but he says games comfort him more than people can. His years of struggling through hard romances fraught with bitter accusations have left him more interested in games than love. "If I was in a relationship with somebody, I'd make out and do that," he says, "but I'm not, so I do this."
The police recently sent Timmy to detox, saying he'd crashed his bike into a car, so he has slowed down his drinking again. He has been picking up his guitar and talking with old friends about forming a new band. He plans to help produce a high-school romantic comedy, a short movie based on the films of John Hughes. He cycles between mania and depression and uses games to temper his mood. Summer is coming, and he hopes to get out of the house more.
In his basement bedroom, Chris scrolls through the servers to find another portal where the Queer Warriors' avatars can enter DayZ. He listens with bemused horror as Noah and Timmy shoot caustic words at each other. The game is going badly. Chris mutes his microphone to giggle at his friends.
"If I say go to the right, I mean go to the right," Noah shouts. "If I say go to the left, I mean go to the left."
"Why don't you just say south?" Timmy asks.
Chris unmutes his microphone.
"Both methods are bad," he says. He hits "mute" again.
"I'm just trying to pick one method to stick to," Noah says.
"Calm down, Noah. Calm down," Timmy begs. "You're being naggy again."
"I'm just expressing my opinion," Noah says.
"You're expressing your opinion over and over again," Timmy says, as Chris tries to suppress his laughter.
Timmy continues: "You hurt my feelings. You're controlling, Noah."
"I'm not trying to be controlling."
"You're being controlling."
"I'm expressing my opinion," Noah says.
"Everyone who plays video games fights sometimes, but Timmy and Noah are especially bad," he says. "Normally they work it out, but this time Timmy may leave."
After the loss of Villekulla, Chris saved up and purchased Knox House, the home he shares with some of his best friends and a partner he loves. He does not play video games to cope; he plays them because they are fun.
When he's not playing, Chris and his housemates are getting ready for the baby and working to build a stable life. They are bracing themselves for new responsibilities and leaving old habits behind. "When I told Timmy I was having a baby," Chris recalls, "I said, 'Guess what? You're going to be an uncle.' He said, 'Noooooo. We can't be boys anymore.' They're worried about our friendship."
"Oh, my God, it makes me so sad," Noah says. "I love babies, but I hate babies. It makes me sad I haven't played games with Chris. He's trying to quit smoking. Whenever he comes over, he lets the temptation get to him. I would love to make this a space where nobody's smoking for him."
Chris feels confident about the future, though. "The gist of it is that I have no worries that our friendship will continue," he says. "I can't wait to be a dad, and I hope to find a couple hours here and there for games."
Chris is bored. He points his avatar's gun at Timmy's and Noah's avatars and pulls the trigger. The argument stops.
"Stop shooting at us," Noah says.
"You almost hit him," Timmy says.
"Sorry, guys," Chris says.
"Oh, no, guys. Oh, no," Noah says.
"What?" Chris asks.
Are zombies coming? Is another player trying to kill them? What?
"I don't have any spliff papers," Noah says.
Chris shakes his head; this game is going nowhere.
"I wanna get killed," Noah says.
"Me, too," Timmy says.
"Let's go kill some people and get killed," Chris says.
Soon all the avatars are dead.
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