Mad Travis: Furry Road
High school is fucking weird. This is certainly not a unique sentiment to the hallowed pages of Internet Girlfriend. High school, however, is way more bizarre if you find yourself stuck on a military base. Constantly moving and relocating (even within the same city) means finding oneself having to embrace new friends and relationships on a rotating basis. If I had possessed some degree of athletic or musical talent this may not have been a huge deal. If I had come from a cool military base like the ones at Stuttgart or Okinawa I could have leaned hard on that, however, I came from Fort Carson and realized that the difference between Colorado and Georgia was distinct and took all of middle school to unwind those complexities. As such, high school was my chance to redefine myself and become edgy with a clear commitment to sticking it to the establishment, even if doing so was still deeply beholden to capitalism. After all, I was listening to both Thursday and 3 Libras, how could I not be cooler than my friends who were still singing the praises of Linkin Park and Puddle of Mudd.
While I walked about the mall and popped into Hot Topic, both aware of its commodified irony and still wanting desperately to have my own fishnet sleeves and neon green/black bondage pants, I realized that being edgy goth was maybe outside of my limitations. Hiding the fact that I was wearing black t-shirts and zip away pants that were bought from some combination of the nearest Walmart and the Post Exchange (PX), I thought myself to be hip to being anti-establishment. In all actuality, I was just another frustrated teen whose social angst was directed at the straw man that is the popular kids. This animosity was easy enough to direct at others because I went to a school in Augusta, GA that managed to have in its attendees both the richest trust fund, Masters golf watching kids of the town and students who continue to face degrees of abject poverty that were well beyond those experienced by the child of an active duty military member. I say this to say that I could find myself justified in being frustrated at the well-off rich kids, but was fully aware that I was not in any way warranted to call myself poor, in fact, I had comprehensive health care, which is something I now realize was a great resource, if way too late. It is not an overstatement to say that I was in an odd time in my life and given this I sought out other people living in the same transitory, faux rebellious existence that i was.
This took a lot of different iterations. My later years of high school involved me being committed to the emo, tight sweater scene while inexplicably trying to pretend to be a football player. In my earlier high school years I was playing Dungeons and Dragons and wearing any skull-based jewelry I could find while asserting myself to be a devout Catholic. I existed in a space of oxymoronic nonsense that I kinda wish I could tap back into, but also sooooooo deeply loathe. Making sense of my identity was as bit of a mess. The internet, of course, did not help. Between mundane AIM chats and scouring the limited offerings of Newgrounds I was always fond of a new means to dump hours into sitting in front of the computer. As a bit of context, I spent countless hours playing Diablo 2 and Baldur’s Gate liking the idea that I was sharing in a fantasy game world with other nerds, but also not taking any effort in connecting with the people playing the games. I wanted something a bit more communal in nature and without the constant grinding and fighting needed to be engaged in MMORPGs. In stepped a friend, we can call him John for sake of anonymity. John was definitely more odd than I am and would have been what one would call a geek by any definition of the word. He liked RPGs, he had absolutely bizarre tastes in music (Gaellic folks songs if I remember correctly), and was a military kid like me. We had different interests for sure, but our baseline similarities were far more similar than they were divergent. When he recommended something, I would at least give it a spin before dismissing it completely. So when John came to me with a rad new MMORPG (more accurately a MMOSG) called Furcadia, I could not wait to give it a spin. He told me, and I remember this with some specifics, that it was basically the same thing as Diablo 2, but with animals. Intrigued I went home, jumped on our dial-up, paused whatever I may have been pulling off of Kazaa and went head first into the world that was Furcadia.
At first glance it really was a bit like Diablo 2, tons of medieval architecture and Old English signage. However, the immediate realization was that I was not merely encouraged to play within the world of Furcadia as an anthropomorphic animal, but was limited to doing so. According to a contemporary Google search I could have played the game as any of the following: Rodent (self explanatory); Equine (horse); Feline (cat); Canine (dog); Musteline (weasel?); Lapine (bunny); Squirrel; Bovine (cow); Ursine (bear OR panda); Bugge (insect); and allegedly a Hyooman (human or elf). In my introduction to the game, I do not recall anything below the first four characters, but I was also playing the game in like 2002 or 2003, seven years into its existence, but well before its peak. Nonetheless, the limits of the character choices were not a deal breaker and I picked an all red Feline named Sivart [my name backwards like a real badass] and joined in. Having never played Second Life at this point in my life, I was a bit unsure of what to do once I entered Furcadia since it was NOT like Diablo 2 in the sense that I couldn’t repeatedly kill goblins and other beasts and call it a day. In Furcadia, I had to interact with other ‘people.’
Anybody familiar with MMOSG’s would have known that the world of Furcadia operated with rules, many of which you learn within the game. It is Anthropology 101, you become part of a community by learning its codes and customs of said community and then gain acceptance by appropriately reflecting them to insiders. Should you be an academic nerd like me and want to read a full on ethnographic study of this, I would encourage you to check out Tom Boellstorff’s Coming of Age in Second Life. Suffice it to say, there were a ton of customs that I should have known before going into playing Furcadia, none of which John prepared me for because, after all, this was just like Diablo 2 remember. I cannot distinctly remember how one navigated the space of Furcadia, but as a teenager trying to act hip in an online space, I decided to go to a piano bar within the game1. Anyway, I walk (via my avatar) into this piano bar and proceed to stand at the bar and wait to place an order. What exists below is a recreation of what my memory tells me probably went down in the dialogue box:
Bartender: *purring* What can I get for you, Sivart?
Sivart: Uh, I don’t know do you all have Mountain Dew Code Red?
Bartender: *cocks head and nods* Hmmm
Bartender: *reaches into back of bar cabinet and grabs can of Code Red from back and brushes of dust with paw*
Sivart: Cool, here’s some money?
Bartender: *takes ‘some money’ and growls*
Travis of today realizes the many mistakes made in this encounter. I didn’t distinguish acts from voice thoughts. I showed my age by ordering a drink that is literally only enjoyed by pre-teen boys, and perhaps most crucially I did not perform in an animal way. No purring, no howling and certainly no cat-like nuzzling. Diablo 2 this was not, but my ability to reconcile that was hardly present. So I log off of Furcadia confused as to what I was supposed to do, but not entirely indifferent to the game. It is the weekend so I spend more time online the next day, the same piano bar, the same disgruntled employee. However, there were a ton more people hanging around with names like Tenderwolf, Eryck Direheart and what would likely fly as a Sigur Ros song. If I had had the foresight to add an umlaut to Sivart it would have been quite in line with everything else.
Yet, as I tried to strike up my failed conversations with others in the space I was met with *snarls*, *growls*, and at least three different grey/black Canine’s who were *silently brooding*. Eventually, I message John on AIM and see if he is planning on getting onto Furcadia and he responds to explain that he is already in a different part of the world. He says he will come join me shortly and shows up with his Canine avatar and another feminine-presenting Feline avatar. I am introduced to his friend before they proceed to describe to the public space their cuddling, nuzzling and purring session. Between clearly being an anthropomorphized third wheel and simply not being welcome in the space, I logged off Furcadia and went back to playing Diablo 2, or probably more accurately went to the mall and played DDR.
Monday rolls around and I am on the bus back home from school John is sitting next to me and ask about what I thought about Furcadia. I tell him that it is ok, but is definitely nothing like Diablo 2 and I found myself kind of bored by just walking around and talking. John clearly taken aback by this explains to me that I have to create friendships with the other players and then we can create spaces where we agree to create fantasy rpg type worlds within the world. It was he assured me “a lot like Dungeons and Dragons.” In a moment of indifference, I suggested if I wanted to play Dungeons and Dragons I was not going to go online to do so.
My next statement stands as one of those defining moments in your lifetime, where you learn something about humanity that you would rather not have known and one that takes years and years to truly appreciate. I said to John that I thought what he and his friend were doing in the piano bar (their simulated cuddling) was interesting. I should have picked literally any other word, because John took interesting to mean that I was into it, which prompted John to excitedly pull a folder out of his backpack and discreetly open it up. Inside was a picture of a pencil drawing of a woman’s naked body, but where a human woman’s face, arms and head should have been were instead those features of a scaled lizard. I was looking at a naked lizard woman and did not know how to react. I was baffled by it, but tried not to show too startled of a reaction as I look back of at John who is wryly smiling. He then tells me all about a sub-section of “a site called DeviantArt” that lets you get pictures like this.
Inexplicably, I had to find out more about this picture and why John had it, so whenever my family was collectively away from the house, I hopped onto the site and tracked down the drawing, it was decidedly less jarring to me now, but I still felt perverse looking at it. I think I knew deep down inside that the drawing elicited excitement in John and he was looking to share in that excitement with somebody else. My suspicions were confirmed when I went to the comment of the pictures and I found John (identified by him using the same username as he did in Furcadia) begging the illustrator to make more drawings like this. I realized, though I didn’t have the words for it at the time, that John found the idea of anthropomorphic women appealing and that the world of Furcadia was a place for him and others to facilitate that desire. I had unknowingly spent a handful of days *prowling* one of the internet’s most iconic furry communities, without knowing it. I immediately quit playing Furcadia and for better or worse, John and his family moved within the following week. I until very recently excised this memory from my mind. Perhaps it is the continued expansion of furrydom into mainstream culture, or the invariable furry interpretation that will come of the recently released The Shape of Water, but in hindsight I realize that I was navigating the world of furrydom, without either knowing what a furry was or how pervasive furry culture was to orbiting media, communities, and activities I engaged in during these years. I was not a teenage furry, but I realize only now that I could have easily been one. If I had watched Wolf’s Rain instead of Trigun or put any degree of thought into the background image that accompanied Club Spice’s “Cutie Chaser” on my Playstation DDR game it could have easily been me.
I offer this story with a direct and clear statement that I have no intention of delegitimizing the complexities of human sexuality, but understanding that we learn about the right/wrong ways to do sexuality in myriad moments. I never truly thought what I saw was wrong, but I knew it was different than what I was ‘used to.’ Yet, John felt like he could confide in me this desire and not be read as being perverse for doing so. I wish now that I had been more cognizant and caring to that, as he too was an alienated kid living on a military base. While coming out as a furry is likely a starkly different experience than coming out as queer, both require one to accept that the majority of society will read them as ‘non-normative’ without any justification as to why this is so. John was certainly welcome to have his proclivities and the folks in Furcadia were too. If anything, the larger issue was the intimacy portrayed in such spaces involving teenagers and adults. Playing Furcadia, albeit only for a moment, was a defining moment in my realization that many parts of the internet served as places of escape and the communities create walls and rituals that become normal to them, because the frustrations of living IRL are far more intense than a brash teenager trying to order a Code Red from an anthropomorphized cat.