I knew at the time that I was wasting my teens. Not drinking, smoking, doing drugs and having sex. (This would not have been wasteful.) I spent most of mine, as a deeply depressed boy in a small Surrey town, in my bedroom, watching football, writing lyrics for terrible punk bands, furtively cross-dressing whilst suppressing my wish that I’d been born female, and playing computer games, mainly on my Commodore 64.
The ones I preferred, besides shoot-'em-ups, football and platform games, were those with an unusual concept. I was intrigued by, but too young to understand space trading epic Elite or the surreal 3D world of The Sentinel, but engaged with some interesting ideas elsewhere. I tried to get into the mysterious world of Hacker, in which you had to break into a mainframe computer: it came without instructions and opened with a stark ‘Logon Please’, crashing if you failed to guess the password before letting you in via another route. Then, I discovered Frankie Goes to Hollywood, the magnificently bizarre collaboration between Futurist record label ZTT and coders Denton Designs, where you had to help ‘Frankie’ develop a personality by solving puzzles and mastering various sub-games before he could escape Mundanesville and enter the Pleasuredome.
It wasn’t just Frankie that invited me to live an 8-bit life. I explored Deus Ex Machina, which came with an audio tape to be played alongside it, narrated by Ian Dury, actor Donna Bailey, E P Thompson and others. Here, you controlled the progress of an ‘accident’ born inside the ‘machine’, trying to keep it away from the Defect Police (voiced by Frankie Howerd) who want to terminate it. Although Deus Ex Machina was a fascinating experiment, I much preferred Alter Ego, published by Activision in 1986.
Alter Ego was a text-based ‘fantasy role-playing game’, frequently cited as one of the best C64 games ever made. The ‘role’ was that of a person: specifically, a cisgender, heterosexual Westerner, as an only child born into a two-parent family with a married mother and father. I first read about Alter Ego in an old issue of Zzap! 64 magazine. I was immediately attracted by the tagline – ‘What if you could live your life over again?’ – and desperate to play it after Zzap! awarded it 98 per cent, stating that ‘the writer. . . displays a great sense of humour and a surprisingly perceptive view of all the problems both the young and old face in their lives’, calling it ‘original, unusual, compelling [and] varied’. There were male and female versions: the male one was released first, and it was this that I managed to find, ten years after its release – by which time the male version was a rarity, the female one virtually untraceable.
Both editions were created by Dr Peter Favaro, a clinical psychologist who interviewed hundreds of men and women about their most memorable experiences, putting those that ‘many people shared’ into the game, along with others that he devised. (Favaro also discussed an infant version called Child’s Play with Activision, but this collapsed due to financial difficulties.) He understood that Alter Ego could only ever be a small quotation of life: the instruction manual asserted that ‘Alter Ego is first and foremost a game. It was designed to be entertaining, not clinical. There are certain insights that can be gained from playing the game, but life improvement or self-analysis should never be the goal.’
The manual also said that ‘Because of the authenticity of the life experiences explored in the program, Alter Ego contains explicit material which may not be suitable for computer users under the age of 16’, and in the US, the game was not to be sold to them. There were no such restrictions in Britain, and in any case they would have been impossible to enforce by 1996, so with all this in mind, I clicked on the game’s first experience icon and threw myself into its alternative reality.
Immediately, it became clear that Alter Ego posited life as a selection of choices above all else. ‘You are in a warm, dark, comfortable place,’ said the narrator. ‘This has been your place since you became aware that you are alive. It’s almost time to enter a different world now.’ There followed the invitation to ‘Select an action’: ‘Come out fighting’, ‘Come out peacefully’ or ‘Stay in a little longer’. If I chose to ‘come out’, the game offered another chance to reconsider; if I kept opting to stay in, eventually my alter ego would be born by Caesarean section, and my mother might subconsciously resent me.
‘Happy birthday and welcome to the world,’ continued the narration screen. ‘From now on, life will begin to change rapidly. You will have to learn to accept responsibility, build up resources, and manage yourself physically and emotionally’, it said, implying that progress is a matter of individual choices of mood and action, with no suggestion that your development could be shaped by socio-economic factors, dumb luck, or much else beyond your control. Interactions with your parents would affect your character, but you did not directly inherit any traits, perhaps because this would have required the game to generate personalities and circumstances for them, and for a potentially limitless number of people (family, friends, lovers, teachers and colleagues for starters) whose actions and behaviour influenced yours, and the technology that allowed something close to this, in The Sims and later Second Life, simply was not available in the mid-1980s.
Next, however, Alter Ego offered not a life experience but a questionnaire, designed to generate opening percentage scores in personality 12 categories: Familial, Intellectual, Physical, Social, Vocational, Calmness, Confidence, Expressiveness, Gentleness, Happiness, Thoughtfulness and Trustworthiness. (You could let the computer determine these, but the instructions recommended doing it yourself, and I always did.) There were 26 to be answered True or False, but if you answered True to number 6, ‘I think that questions like this are stupid and meaningless’, it terminated early, and you began with lower Intellectual, Social and Thoughtfulness ratings.
These rose or fell as you negotiated Alter Ego ’s Emotional, Familial, Physical, Intellectual, Social and Vocational scenarios, presented as icons on a flow chart, with seven stages: Infancy, Childhood, Adolescence, Young Adulthood, Adulthood, Middle Adulthood and Old Age. You could start anywhere, playing sections more than once or skipping them entirely, with the narrator commenting on your progress at their end. As you got older, more icons appeared: Risks, Relationships, High School and Work in Adolescence; Family, College and Major Purchases in Young Adulthood. At these points, you could find education, jobs or partners were denied because poor decisions meant that your status scores were too low – you couldn’t play certain vignettes without a job, or a steady partner, or a child.
Alter Ego expected you in play in character, with its other ‘voice’, your Conscience, pointing out uncharacteristic choices, or when your status suggested that you were incapable of achieving the desired outcome. For instance, in the male version, you could, as a married man, offer to drive a shop assistant home and have sex with her, but if this was inconsistent with your previous behaviour then your conscience would tell you that ‘You have been a very trustworthy person so far. This trustworthiness causes you to feel terribly guilty about having sex with this young man. As a result, you are thrown into a deep depression. You leave feeling resentful and foolish.’
Two things got me addicted to Alter Ego, both in the mid-Nineties on floppy disk and a decade later, when I found it at playalterego.com . The first was the sheer wealth of options it presented, which often lead to unexpected outcomes. In one of the earliest episodes, I chose to cry when my mother went to answer the door. I thought that the game would tell me that this was an inappropriate way to get attention – several Infancy vignettes focus on this – but it turned out that she was grateful that I helped her to get rid of a salesman.
The second thing I loved was its tone. The narrator could occasionally be a touch sanctimonious, but Alter Ego was mostly funny and friendly: subversively complicit in harmless youthful misbehaviour; gently scolding of choices in which you denied yourself the full richness of life, particularly in Old Age; stern when you did something reckless or callous; and rewarding when you demonstrated kindness, open-mindedness or selflessness. The mood could shift in an instant: in Childhood, for example, you could go from being caught by your parents playing ‘doctor’ with a friend of the opposite sex to being abducted by a child murderer outside your home, and the first time I encountered this, offering to help a stranger find his ‘nephew’ before being told that ‘This man is very sick. You are tortured, killed and buried in a landfill. Your body is never recovered. This game is over,’ I felt genuinely numb. (The next time, I chose different responses and got him arrested.)
From the start, your experiences were emotionally complex, weighing against playing as the nastiest, most self-destructive or irresponsible person possible – for example, in Childhood, if you opted to keep playing with a box of matches, ignoring your conscience’s repeated exhortations for you to stop, you could burn down your house. You would not be killed here (although one approach was to find all the choices that could lead to your death – I died in a car crash, took an overdose, committed suicide, ignored an ultimately fatal illness and collapsed during a senior citizens’ softball game), but you could cause considerable damage and traumatise your parents; one of the most striking moments in Alter Ego came with the ice-cold conclusion that ‘You are never punished, which somehow makes you feel worse’.
My favourite episode, then and now, came in Childhood, with an elderly woman known as ‘the witch’ because she kept calling the cops on kids, screaming at them, keeping her light on at night and staring out of the window. Her light goes out for a few days, and your friends gather outside, singing ‘Ding Dong, the Witch is Dead’. If you select ‘Happy’ as your mood and ‘Sing with everyone else’ as your action, the narrator explains that: ‘Sometimes children don't realize how mean they can be. The woman can hear you taunting her outside, and spends her days crying, wishing for her life to come to a peaceful end. Then she could be with the people whom she loved and who loved her. Three weeks later she really does pass away. Almost no one in the neighborhood notices.’
If you select ‘Sad’ and ‘Try to see if anything is wrong’, however, and persist in reaching out to her, she eventually says that the bulb is broken. If you offer to fix it, she tells you that she once had a husband and a child, about your age, who were both killed by a freight train after the child got his (or her, in the female version) foot stuck on a railway line and the husband tried in vain to free him/her. At this point, you can choose to do more odd jobs for her, whereupon you are told that: ‘You have done a much kinder thing than you can probably imagine at your age. You've given this woman a reason to live.’
By my final years at secondary school, I’d realised that the experiences glamorised by TV shows and valorised by my peers weren’t for me, and Alter Ego helped me to accept that I wasn’t really bothered about getting drunk, taking drugs or having sex – not straight sex, anyway. The Risks option in Adolescence just amused me, offering the (potentially fatal) chance to see how fast a car could go, amongst other things: I was so introverted that I was most likely to die listening to my Walkman, deep in thought, and not looking before I crossed the road. Sometimes I wished I was wilder, or more sociable, but as Alter Ego told me when I tried to ingratiate myself with free-spirited arty types at a party, as I was starting to do in real life: ‘You aren’t capable of making such a radical change in your personality’.
The more I played, the more I struggled with the heteronormative future that it offered. I liked having the chance to act this out, graduating from college before starting a career, going steady with a woman and then getting married and having children, but I knew this path to be off limits for me. I appreciated that the game’s practical and technological limits (the C64 had 64 Kilobytes of Random Access Memory, not all of which could be used) meant that not every life experience could be featured, and tolerated its American setting and ethnocentrism, but by my mid-teens, I was sick of people assuming that I’d want this particular life, telling me that I would soon even if I didn’t now – and I got sick of people assuming that I was content to be male, and that I would want to behave and be perceived as such. The kind of person I wanted to be seemed no more visible in Alter Ego than s/he was anywhere else.
In Alter Ego, I could never be gay, bisexual, queer or transgender. Its set up meant these things would have to be presented as choices, which would have been deeply problematic, and making a character turn out to any of these things would doubtless have angered certain players, and possibly required an explanation. However, there were passing references to gender variance and sexual diversity. In one Adolescent scene, I could accept a manicure from a young woman: my friends would mock me, but I scored with her, so the (mild) gender play was placed strictly within a straight setting. In another, a usually happy-go-lucky friend called, sounding upset, and told me that he was ‘homosexual’. I opted to be ‘Accepting’ and referred him to a specialist – the best set of choices, the narrator said. Soon after, a classmate told me that he was bisexual, and Alter Ego had prepared me to be ‘Accepting’ despite not yet feeling comfortable with my own identity.
Still, the game provided more positive information about sexual diversity than I got at school. In Section 28-era Britain, all we had was a 1970s video about two boys who “go camping”, before our Religious Education teacher told us that their orientations were “probably just a phase”. That came a few weeks before our final exams, by which time Morrissey, Oscar Wilde and others had shown me queer alternatives to the futures suggested by our Personal and Social Education classes. There, we were shown a PC program called Kudos, a career test that aimed to show us which jobs would suit our personalities. This gave us a series of simple Yes or No questions – whether or not I wanted to work with children, travel, or look after the elderly, for example. After repeatedly being told that ‘There are no suitable careers for you’, I decided to see which other outcomes were possible; once it concluded, to my amusement, that I should become a TV presenter. Alter Ego was similar, but more evolved: I could join the Peace Corps, sell a recipe or write a book, but these were incidents rather than vocations, and it put careers, comprised as jobs, at the core of adult life.
I had no career plans at all, and found the very concept absurd – all I knew was that I wanted to write. But deep down, I thought that the adult world would reward my interest in ideas and people, as Alter Ego usually did, and that my depression would lift as I got older, as my Happiness and Calmness scores tended to rise throughout the game. Certainly, I thought, the future would be far removed from the Mundanesville of secondary school, and that somehow I’d escape the monotony of jobs, but I did not realise that my lack of interest in financial matters, and my disdain for the principle of accumulating wealth, would not prove as practically or psychologically inconsequential in real life as it did in Alter Ego.
Nor did I fully appreciate how choices made in my teens would affect my opportunities later on, despite Alter Ego relying on this premise to keep me hooked. By the time I realised that I wanted to be an architect, it was too late – partly because I didn’t take Art as a GCSE ‘Option’ and because I dossed around in my Communications and Graphics classes, but also because my parents had no interest in it, and their newspaper of choice, the Daily Mail, railed against anything built after 1387, so I did not encounter the avant-garde visions of Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Antonio Sant’Elia and others until I was a second-year undergraduate, and could not qualify to take a degree in Architecture.
In 2009, aged 27, I finally decided to begin the process of gender reassignment. At the same time, I found Alter Ego online, and became addicted again – not least because now, the first choice you made was whether to be born male or female. Would I have been happier, or better adjusted, if my body and mind had been aligned from the start? Here was a chance, however limited, to live out the girlhood I felt I’d been denied.
As it turned out, the Female version was not all that different. Many vignettes were only superficially different: for example, in Male Adolescence, you would be embarrassed when buying condoms from the local chemist, especially as an attractive girl from school worked there; here, you had to get ‘feminine products’ from the cutest guy in the year. Some differences bothered me more than others: in the Male version, you could form a band with friends; here, this became the chance to meet my favourite DJ. Why couldn’t I join a group like The Slits?
That said, feminism did occasionally feature in the Female version. As a student, I was confronted by a sexist Professor who told me that ‘the new generation of young women is going after material possessions more than any other before it’. I decided to contest this, but was told that he ‘outmaneuvers you with logic’ but respects me more and gives me an A grade for the course. In Young Adulthood, there was an encounter with ‘Mary Lou Stoker’, who called herself a ‘staunch feminist’, but ‘The truth is that she is not a feminist in the true sense of the word; she simply despises and resents men, misapplying the feminist philosophy to suit her needs.’ That episode ended with my closest friend and me agreeing not to take Mary Lou seriously, but mostly, Alter Ego invited you to make instinctively feminist choices rather than engage with its ideas – indeed, active politics played little part in either version.
There was a sense, though, of the social difficulties for women in a male-dominated world – in school, relationships and work – but the biggest differences were physical ones, with the two often converging around sex. In one game, I lost my virginity at a party, opting to ‘Give Him What He Wants’, before being told that I ‘feel like crying afterwards’. I couldn’t tell if this was because of my status sheet, or if this choice, and the power relations that its phrasing implied, would always draw this conclusion.
Before that, near the end of Childhood, I had to negotiate learning to masturbate, buying my first bra and having my first period. ‘For a time, you may feel a curious mixture of sadness and joy at being grown-up,’ the narrator told me. ‘Some people say that this is the beginning of “womanhood” and that is scary, too. Getting used to all of the changes in your body makes this time of life difficult. It's like walking into a house that you've known for years and finding all of the comfortable furniture has been replaced by new pieces.’
Later, I became pregnant unexpectedly and had an abortion. My partner was supportive, but I had to deal with anti-choice campaigners at the clinic, and got no help from my family, with the game informing me that ‘Many women undergo severe depression after an abortion’ and that ‘You are one of the unlucky ones. You can't stop thinking about what your son or daughter might have been like. Eventually, however, life goes on.’ Planned pregnancies, however, were difficult: in several games, I tried repeatedly for a baby without success, and was particularly aggrieved to discover that I could only have children if I was married.
The Female version, it seemed, had the same strengths as the Male one, and similar weaknesses – it was just as witty, sensitive and intelligent, and equally heteronormative. The queer and feminist challenges to the ideas that upheld male dominance of various areas of society were still being formulated in the mid-1980s, and made little impact on Alter Ego : the female youth it showed me was no more desirable than the male one, really, and the future that it offered – one of balancing a family with a career – was no more appealing. Could I “have it all”? Did I want any of it?
When Alter Ego went online, the game’s hosts put up a Wish List of features that 21st century players wanted added to it. They said that they got more requests to include homosexuality than anything else, acknowledging the problem of choice, as well as some new episodes that would be needed – such as encounters with your parents, coming out, and dealing with prejudiced employers.
These would form an interesting starting point for a newer, queerer Alter Ego. Perhaps in late Childhood, the game might offer the chance to cross-dress, and a situation where a same-sex friend gets intimate with you, before asking you how you feel, and what action to take next. If you then played as lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender, or polyamorous, many of the existing episodes (from going to the Junior Prom to health problems in Old Age) would become complicated by your gender and/or sexuality, and there would be a range of new ones specifically related to them.
Sexually diverse scenarios would include coming out to family, friends and colleagues, deciding how to disclose, and who to. Misfortunes in Alter Ego tended to follow successive poor choices, but life is often arbitrarily cruel, and the game might explore the consequences of being outed. Hopefully, such a vignette might teach people just how nasty an action this is in a still homophobic society. You might have to think differently about your sexual health, and how you check it, or get involved in different types of activism, either campaigning for LGBT access to social institutions or setting up autonomous queer communities.
A range of experiences might follow your discovery of gender-variant people in the media or your area, or the first time that you cross-dress. As well as coming out, and finding the right language to your gender with those around you, the game could address the resulting difficulties in social navigation, asking whether you want to ‘pass’ in your acquired gender, how you might handle transphobic abuse or violence, or how you might cope with hostility within radical circles that you had hoped might accommodate you.
Maybe there would be a Transition icon that you could click at any time, with episodes about the Gender Identity Clinic, and how you present yourself to the psychiatrists who decide whether or not to refer you for hormones or surgery, whether or not you want them, and how you cope with their effects. Do you want to ensure that you can have children before hormones or sex reassignment surgery leave you sterile? Do you want any other operations to change your body? How do you deal with intrusive questions, or being treated differently at home, school or work due to your gender? A new version of Alter Ego could invite players, whatever their gender or sexuality, to consider such problems, and might generate a far better level of self-understanding or empathy.
Of course, the existing versions are of their time, as everyone involved with them knows. Besides, I was no more capable of imagining my future than was the game. These days, to my quiet astonishment, I travel the country, delivering talks about my transgender youth, how I came to understand and accept myself, how I saw gender identity presented in the media, and how and why I came to write about this issue. Afterwards, the beautiful people in the crowds, a decade younger than me or more, ask that if I could live my life over again, would I prefer to be born female, and I’ m never sure which option I’d choose.