The queerness of being Super Mario: On simultaneously being and not being oneself

The most arresting moment for me in the video game What Remains of Edith Finch is not the scene when I am a shark, matter-of-factly stalking, and devouring, sea lions, but when I am a little boy on a swing. With one foot in a cast and another in a shoe from the early 1900’s, I pump my legs out and in by way of two tiny joysticks, powering myself to ominously dizzying, and ultimately tragic, heights.

I know this little boy is me because perspective tells me so. I “look” down and see little boy legs as I now see a small grizzled dog asleep on my lap. This contemporary video game, like so many other successful ones, disarmingly exploits my reliance on perspective to persuade me of who I am. Of course, the game doesn’t entirely succeed — I never fully buy that I am that little boy — but it throws me into an exhilarating identity hotbox in which I dance from one sense of self to another. It is disorienting, disconcerting, and tremendously fun.

I will call this experience magical, knowing that this probably outs me as a middle-aged woman whose last deep first-hand experience with video games required feeding quarters to Centipede at Pizza Hut. But I can’t share my philosophical wonder at contemporary video games without recalling my early life as an evolutionary journey of blips and pixels. It was a path that wended through Pong, Merlin, and Simon, and on to Asteroid and Pac-Man. But it mostly stopped there, just as video games’ potential for robust first-hand narrative experience was blossoming. For me then, descending into the recently constructed worlds of Edith Finch, Zelda, or even Mario, is exhilarating.

As a kid, I was promised a Jetson-esque future of hi-tech living that never quite materialized in everyday life. Though they have been impressive, the gadgets and gizmos just didn’t keep pace with the mid-20th-century imagination, illustrated by the fact that I still don’t have a jetpack. But the relatively small-scale artistry of video games that can suck one in like a full-body novel, are a reminder that the fundamental challenge of creating this new reality has always been more about commandeering perspective, a psychological and artistic sleight of hand, than about massive scale technologies that radically alter the landscape of physical reality. It’s no wonder than many of these “games” owe much more to Dali or Dadaism than to Hasbro or Mattel.

In fact, the flickering queerness of identity evoked by some contemporary video games can feel very much like being in a dream. In dreams, I typically know that the person gliding over forests or driving off the cliff is sort of, but not exactly, me. But my oblique, sleeping awareness of my identity’s prismatic complexity doesn’t keep my heart from racing so fiercely that I wake up in a sweat. “I” sailed off the top of a skyscraper with a parachute that came apart like tissue paper in my hands. “I” “know” it because “I” experienced it. And it does zero justice to the phenomenon to later insist that it was just a nightmare, that is, that “I” never “really” fell at all.

Such vivid dreams remind me that the waking identity I defend so earnestly, and take so casually for granted, is itself an illusion created by decisions and commitments of perspective, combined with my own, and complicit others’, willing suspension of disbelief. Instead of seeing video games as a wholesale escape from reality, then, it is evident that they might also function as doorways into a queered reality where one must straddle the contradiction of being both oneself and other. And, miraculously, while this is happening, it feels less like a problem to be solved than an invitation to relax into the fundamental weirdness of being.

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