You Can Go Home, and This Time Be the Hero

Cruelty about my sexuality, my background, my appearance, my sound, my choices, my everything followed me around the world, from my job in London to jobs in Johannesburg, Cape Town, Hong Kong, New York, Chicago, and Atlanta. I grew strong, but I certainly never felt like a hero. I didn’t feel like I was winning. Like many gamers, many who have it far worse, I escaped my bullies in video game worlds.

But by turning the real world into levels, worlds, and playgrounds, game developers give players like me a chance to return to locations where we were the underdogs and give us the agency to finally win.

There’s more to these new spins on real places than simply mimicking the real world. It’s not just a digital Madam Tussaud’s, and there’s more to it than simply reminiscence. I spoke with Gavin Goulden, an art director at Insomniac Games, who worked on Spider-Man and Spider-Man: Miles Morales. He said that one of their goals when creating their version of Manhattan was for it to feel familiar and relatable to those who live in the city, those who have visited, or even those who have seen it from afar. One thing that really struck me was how Goulden described his team’s goals for creating their version of Harlem, where Miles lives in the game.

“We had also wanted to enforce a sense of home in our Harlem neighborhood, where Miles Morales now lives,” Goulden said. “This included spotlighting the rich culture in the area to ensure that it felt relatable and was a welcoming place to explore as a new hero.”

This care and relatability, the comfort of finding a “home” in a gaming world, is what gives players the wings to fly in these new versions of our own worlds. I love the idea of the developers creating a sense of home for us to feel comfortable in as we, as Miles, test out what it means to be a new hero.

When I played Pilotwings 64 back in the late ’90s, I would use my jetpack to fly to the small corner of the US where I grew up, right at the edge of Lake Erie, and I’d look down at the pixelated, camo-colored blob representing my hometown of Meadville, Pennsylvania. (To be honest, it was a pretty accurate representation.) And I remember being so boggled and so thankful that the game studio, Paradigm Simulation, had decided to include my little corner of the world in their game. I felt seen and included. I felt free, in a way, now that I was able to soar above a place that was holding me down.

Of course, it was easy to imagine my version of Meadville there because console technology wasn’t advanced enough for the developers to even try. But now, there are games that can recreate our cities right down to the apartment. No matter where you live, you can find it in a game. For example, in Microsoft’s Flight Simulator, you can land anywhere in the world courtesy of Bing Maps and a fancy algorithm that makes everything 3D.