Olive Marion Gabriel Joseph Wick Perry is a digital native and has used computers since she was old enough to hold a mouse. Currently, she is in the midst of creating Lancer Tactics, a video game that garnered a whopping $195K in crowdfunding on Kickstarter this year. I met up with Olive at the Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Portland, where she showered me with tidbits about plants and animals—a knowledge base she developed in high school while volunteering as a student leader for Outdoor School. Carried along by Olive’s infectious optimism, our conversation took many different turns: we discussed her current career as a programmer and her past work as a neurobiologist, as well as her inspiring insights into gender euphoria that drive her process of trans-becoming.
“I’ve gotten more attention with this campaign than I have with the rest of my career,” Olive said of her recent Kickstarter success. The source material of her video game already had a dedicated following, which translated into backers for the project. Lancer Tactics will be an adaptation of Lancer, a tabletop role-playing game (aka. TTPRG, similar to Dungeons and Dragons) originally created by Miguel Lopez and Tom Bloom. Lancer’s third-party license is unprecedented in that it allows for complete translation of the game’s mechanics into the digital realm, equating to free use of intellectual property for Olive and her team. “If it wasn’t Lancer, then we would have had trouble breaking ten percent of what we made,” she noted of fundraising efforts. Her original Kickstarter goal was only $20K.
Gender Deconstruction: An ArtsWatch Series
Olive described the narrative of Lancer Tactics—which is being crafted by an all-trans writing team—in one fell swoop as a “sci-fi giant-robots-fighting-each-other kind of game.” Its themes are comparable to Star Trek in that it presents an optimistic vision of humanity’s future. She explained the premise:
“Humanity has collapsed in its’ climate catastrophe or something and then rebuilt itself and reached the stars. And they have learned from their history. They’ve said, ‘okay, this isn’t going to happen again. We’re going to make sure that everybody’s rights and needs are met and respected.’ But it also takes the view that utopia isn’t like a place you reach. It’s a process, and it can be true in some places but not others.”
Olive pointed out the queer aspects and readings of Lancer/Lancer Tactics in relation to other forms of popular entertainment. The premise of the game centers on humans who inhabit personalized robot suits a la the Mecha genre of science fiction. “There’s something about being able to have a big shell that you’ve constructed for yourself that’s a source of power and a symbol of agency that you can live in and inhabit that’s attractive to trans kids,” said Olive. She likened the appeal of the robot suits to the appeal of the American Superhero and Japanese Magical Girl—quotidian humans who can power up for fantastical fights. The ability to control the presentation of this kind of avatar has everything to do with self-actualization for genderqueer players.
Additional queer aspects include a heightened focus on accessibility and minimization of lethal gameplay. “In Dungeon the Dragons, the way that you win is by killing or disabling everybody else on the field until they can’t fight back,” observed Olive. On the other hand, in Lancer/Lancer Tactics, it is technically possible to play without killing anything. In Olive’s words, you would have to try hard to be a total pacifist, but, ultimately, “the focus of a fight is on specific objectives other than killing.”
The overarching ethics of Lancer/Lancer Tactics’s gameplay places a premium on agency for the player, allowing them to decide for themselves what feels most right. This might look like being able to choose the size of font that is most accessible; it might involve prioritizing the safety of civilians rather than attacking enemies within the game; or it might look like choosing the presentation of one’s robot-avatar. By offering an array of options, players have space to choose how they want to express their identity, allowing expressions of queerness to enter in.
Olive describes her personal gender journey as an upbeat one, a breath of fresh air in the wake of contemporary transphobic harm. She came out in 2019 after a revelatory experience at the XOXO Festival for independent artists who live and work online. While at the conference, she had several meaningful experiences that culminated in her purchasing a Medusa illustration. That night she was in her room looking at this artwork when a question occurred to her. “If I could press a button to look like that,” she asked herself bravely, “would I?”
All at once, her truth became undeniably clear, “ABSOLUTELY.”
“I knew what the implications of that meant,” she recalled “It was just like, ‘Oh shit, I’m trans!’”
Olive proceeded to spend the next month building a short video game called Aesthetic, the crystallization of her self-discovery. For this, she paired a personal narrative of her trans realization with images of illustrations from Magic the Gathering, a popular trading card game. The majority of these cards portrayed femme characters, and some contained quotes, such as the card “Finale of Eternity,” which reads, “When you rule by fear, your greatest weakness is one who is no longer afraid.”
Once Olive finished her game, she shared it widely with the folks in her life. “I sent that to my parents. I sent that to my work. I sent that to everybody,” Olive said, smiling. Disseminating the game assuaged the arduous struggle to “find the words” for coming out in person. She told me that Aesthetic remains the most beautiful thing she has ever made, and she has made many things.
In discussing her coming-out journey, Olive articulated a relationship between gender dysphoria and euphoria that I had yet to encounter.
Typically, gender dysphoria is referred to as a conscious dissatisfaction with one’s gender assigned at birth, a feeling that this assignment was wrong; while gender euphoria is an experience of feeling in alignment with one’s gender presentation and the way this is actualized in the world. In looking back on her young life, Olive recognized many indications of subconscious dysphoria. But she was never overwrought on a conscious level with desires comparable to the most popular conceptions of this experience, such as wanting to wear a dress. “Those questions never really came to mind,” she recalled.
After Olive became aware of her transness, she initially thought of herself as more “euphoria-seeking” than dysphoric. However, she eventually realized that both dysphoria and euphoria-seeking behavior exist on “two sides of the same coin,” so to speak.
She clarified, “It’s dysphoria, even if you didn’t realize it was the weight you were carrying at the time.” Instead of accepting the bearability of her gender assignment at birth, she found the courage to ask: “If you could be anything, what would you want to be? And what would you choose?”
In her view, this is the more important question. “There’s that subtle distinction that leads to dramatically different results.”
As we talked, I began to recognize that Olive has a unique skill for building containers wherein magic can unfold and invisible phenomena can be made visible, another facet of her queered approach to game development. Olive grew up in Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge and started coding very young after picking up a computer programming book for teens at Goodwill. Using this happenstance resource, she learned the obscure programming language Blitz BASIC, and began working on projects that helped visualize concepts. “I was making short video games in middle school about the Huguenots and French Revolution times,” Olive recalled of her early coding days.
After finishing her undergraduate study in Biology at Reed College, Olive became a neurobiology researcher there. During this period of her career, she realized that her area of study would benefit from algorithmic programs that could test hypothetical scenarios. “All the neuroscience simulation software was made in the 90s, or it looked like it was, and very hard to use,” she prefaced.
At the time she was researching small motor circuits—networks of neurons that control repetitive motion in animals. “A lot of this stuff is too small to really see with your eyes. And the way that it’s taught is through equations or static diagrams,” Olive elucidated, adding, “You have to keep it on your head.”
In order to circumvent spending years in the lab trying out different hypotheses, she began developing a program that could help illustrate various scenarios of small motor circuit activity.
This work evolved into her grant-funded endeavor Crescent Loom, a user-friendly interface for postulating the behavior of ocean creatures with simple neural networks.
“It’s being used now in universities across the U.S.,” Olive said. “’I’m very proud of it.”
Though she has since transitioned to working as a programmer, Olive still proudly refers to herself as a biologist and “science communicator.”
Making it All Work
I pensively brought up the subject of work with Olive, knowing that “day jobs” and ancillary income streams can often feel compromising to creative life and whittle away at morale. But Olive responded with earnest willingness, saying, “I love talking about ways for people to support themselves and the financial realities of that.”
These realities include the dark side of the tech industry, such as the violence of crunch mode—working well over full-time hours regularly in order to meet deadlines. “There’s this thought that tech workers don’t need unions because they’re paid a lot. But it could be better. If you could have any life that you wanted, what would you choose?” she said, gesturing to the theme of our chat.
“I’m fortunate in that I have a part-time tech job where I work for a nonprofit that puts out birth control and abortion access and information,” said Olive. At this job, she works with a team of twelve people that she gels, not to mention on a socially progressive endeavor that feels inherently aligned with her values.
“We’ve set up the company such that it’s designed to support everybody’s lives that they want to live. And so that means that they’re super flexible on being like: ‘I’m gonna work two weeks on this day job and then one week on my own personal game projects’.” Olive has found that it is much easier to both do work and things that bring joy when she’s not worried about making rent. Given her flexible part-time job, she has the capacity to build a life that, though not without stressors and challenges, allows for a fuller expression of herself.
Throughout our dialogue, Olive offered tidbits of introspection and metaphors, positing compelling scenarios while leaving space for insight to emerge. She likened realizing her transness to discovering that she would spend the rest of her life on a beautiful mountain—a place to experiment and explore without worrying too much about where she will end up. “How we look is like a political choice, and it’s a result of both how we feel inside and also the realities in which we find ourselves and circumstances,” Olive contemplated.
With this in mind, she orients towards a euphoric utopia still in progress—one that does not dismiss socioeconomic realities and political struggle but, instead, leverages the options at hand to foster fulfillment and invite possibility.