During the school day, the downstairs computer lab was insignificant. It was a room with irritating fluorescent lights and the oppressive silence that comes when a group of seventh graders is forced to use a computer under the watchful eye of a teacher. It was where I went to do nothing more than pretend to type a proper paragraph. After school, the computer lab was a very different place.
Between 3 and 7 p.m., the computer lab was open to students whose parents didn’t allow them to be latchkey kids. Despite finally hitting our teen years, we were meant to stay under adult supervision until we were picked up. Frankly, it was embarrassing, and the title “teen center” only seemed to make things worse. Yes, we were finally teens. No, it did not mean much. The only saving grace was that all the “teen center” adults in charge of watching us were too exhausted or too young to care about what we did. Finally, the computer lab was truly open.
I was the new kid suddenly thrust into white suburbia and fully controlled by what my mom dictated and my own insecurities. Standing out was never an option, but assimilating and falling into the background were. I was always late when it came to trends, and even then, I barely got to participate in them due to my sheltered home life. I simply followed as best as I could. Going to the computer lab became a gateway into everything I was afraid of. Those after-school hours provided a brief moment where I could pretend to forget everything else.
As kids we all learn a set of random rules about what we can and can’t do and what’s considered for Us versus for Them. 90% of those rules are bullshit ways to make us a version of a human those that raised us want to see in the world. But here I was, 13 and afraid to be feminine, afraid to attach myself to anything that would stand out.
The computer lab introduced me to kids with interests I had never considered (anime, K-pop and J-rock, Tripp pants, and screamo). While catching up with Tokio Hotel music videos, I took quizzes to see what kind of scene kid I was — or wanted to be. But more than any of that, I found myself in dress-up games. From the time I left my eighth period class to 6:30 when my mom finally rolled into the school parking lot, I was playing flash dress-up games on Yahoo Korea and Roiworld. They were rarely translated and always over the top, but that’s kind of what I needed to break out of at least one layer of insecurity. I got a Joseon-era princess ready for her day in the courts and was fully immersed in my own bubble for the first time.
Dress-up games allowed me to express a femininity I was afraid of as an insecure child. The sparkles, the ridiculously princess-like fashion, and the stories based on something you’d read in a fantasy weren’t things I allowed myself to partake in outside of those few hours I spent in the after-school teen center computer lab.
I was a shy, chubby child constantly questioning almost every aspect of my forming identity. Femininity didn’t feel accessible. It felt too exclusive to whiteness, to thinness, to everything else I couldn’t attain. Even as kids, fat girls are told our shorts have to hit the knees, that we’re only allowed the dreaded cold-shoulder sleeve and a billowy fabric. Once I realized these “rules” were in place, muted colors made up my wardrobe. Regardless of the clothes I dreamed of, they rarely fit. I was forced into this box and refused to find a way out of it.
I had no real concept of queerness as a child, and I wasn’t allowed the space to explore what gender could mean for me. Dressing up a girl in an incredibly feminine dress, complete with a floral headdress and a sparkly heel, and then refreshing the page to put her in cargo jeans and knock-off Timbs was the epitome of gaming for me. These outfits were all embarrassingly on-the-nose obvious and lacked creativity, and none of the games provided a truly progressive form of expression, but they were my childlike version of gender euphoria. I was creating the person I wanted to be and the people I found myself attracted to.
It took me a long time to realize that these games let me experiment with gender and presentation in a way I didn’t allow myself to until I was well into college. I was a gay child and nothing felt “safe.” The after-school computer lab changed that. For the few of us that chose to spend our time on the school’s out-of-date computers, there was an unspoken understanding that we just wanted to get away for a bit. On the days where I felt a little more femme, dress-up games let me have that moment. When I wanted to look like a baby butch, I could go to the computer lab after school and live out that fantasy.
As most stories about teenage discovery go, I ended up ignoring the realizations I made in that computer lab and went back to simply fitting in. But as I near my 30s and drop the pretenses surrounding how I choose to present to the world, I can’t help but feel like I owe those games a lot of credit.