At some point, Carlos Maza has probably helped you understand something. He’s the creative force behind a series of brilliant explainer videos for Vox. He has an incredible gift for dissecting a complicated issue and serving it up with sense and the right amount of humor. But before he was one of the only voices of reason on the internet, Carlos was a nervous, shunned nerd who turned to video games for hope in a hostile world.
Carlos was my guest this week on The Sewers of Paris, a podcast where I interview gay men about the entertainment that changed their lives. For him, it was games like Suikoden 2 and Final Fantasy Tactics and Chrono Trigger. These were games where logic, rationality and science were as powerful as any weapons. They were a relief for a young boy who felt out-of-place in the Florida machismo in which he was being raised.
The games also endowed Carlos with a strong sense of right and wrong. He learned his moral code, “the point of a human is to be a guardian of others,” from heroes who devoted their lives to protecting the vulnerable. “You should devote yourself to the defense and protection of those around you at all times.”
And so, as a kid, it’s probably no surprise that he drifted away from his religious education and towards anarchist, feminist literature. He was enthusiastic about smart women wherever he could find them — though options were few, so he wound up feeling a strong identification with characters like Velma from Scooby Doo.
He was also a deeply logical child. “When my dad told me Santa isn’t real, I was like, yeah neither is God,” he said.
Around adolescence, Carlos gained a deeper understanding of the injustice in how queer people like him were treated. Teachers at his school would use abusive anti-gay language. He feared rejection from everyone in his life. This, again, was a time when video games were a safe haven, particularly games that involved the assembling of a team.
“You don’t run the risk of terror from people that you trust in a video game,” he said. Out in the real world, “literally, a parent could turn on me.” But in the world of Baldur’s Gate, he could trust his allies.
In the games, he recognized, “the world wants you here… even if it’s a very limited digital world.”
So when did he find something comparable in real life? It started with debate club, where he met other young folks — many of them queer — who were smart, canny and interested in finding and advocating for the truth. In debate, Carlos found, he could work with people he trusted to advance a proposition or a stance, just as he did with a moral position in games.
Debate didn’t solve all of his problems instantly — “it’s fucking tough to be reasonable,” he remembered thinking. There was still a lot of closeting and internalized shame to overcome. But it was through that world that Carlos began to really look at himself, to find the aspects that he could be proud of, and appreciate the smart queer way of life that would come to define his online persona.