I consider myself a gamer.
Not in the typical way of being the newest X-Box buyer, discord user or Twitch streamer, but, rather, in a more metaphorical, nostalgic sense.
So, correction: I was a gamer.
It began in third grade. For me, that was a simpler, more convenient time, before sleepless nights filled with chemistry homework, club sports and littered cans of energy drinks. In third grade, after finishing my treacherous multiplication problems and coloring the solar system with Crayola markers, I would hop on my computer, absolutely enthralled by the virtual world. Club Penguin, Movie-Star Planet, Stardoll, Poptropica, Animal Jam and Howrse; you name it — I was there.
Ever since the advent of technology, there has been heated debate surrounding the dangers of screen time for children and young adolescents. Many parents have argued for the regulation and monitoring of their children’s internet whereabouts, participating in campaigns such as the Children’s Screentime Action Network, in order to promote healthy relationships between children and devices.
There is importance in regulating screen time for adolescents. Online games, in particular, have been of recent interest due to their tendency toward violence and warfare, and the propagation of those behaviors in children is still highly contested.
But as much as adults reprimand children for technology usage, I would like to propose a different perspective: The online world can be a healthy type of sanctuary — a refuge for the awkward, lonely child. The online world offers a retreat from social anxieties — an outlet for expression and creative freedom.
Having friends is among many people’s most valued priorities or desires. Moreover, the comfort of having a friend — a person you can talk to, spend time with, motivate and share dreams with — can grant people the confidence to embark in new relationships.
For me, the process of ‘friend-making’ was a tumultuous stage in my evolution from toddlerhood into grade school. In pre-school, I spent my time sharing my snacks — Oreos, sugary gummy bears, sliced red apples — with others in hope that they would befriend me. My parents were eager for me to experience this ‘friendship’, as I was persuaded to go to others’ houses, go on playdates at the local park, and talk to them in the babblish words that only a toddler can express. Early on, the process of friend-making was relatively simple due to the superficiality of young friendships. If I went to their house at least once a week, they must be my friend, right?
Yet, as I continued to evolve throughout my childhood, my friendship-making process developed dimly and the prospects grew slimmer by the year. In the second grade, I made friends with two classmates. We did all the things that ‘friends’ do: going on playdates at each others’ houses, wiping our sticky fingers from the ice cream that we got downtown and telling each other secrets by passing our discreet notes in the second period. However, I began to notice a feeling of isolation, as they began to grow closer and I essentially became the odd one out. They would whisper confidentialities in each others’ ears, glancing to see if I was potentially listening, snickering as I sat in the corner, alone.
This feeling of isolation continued into middle school. One day in class, the teacher told us to pair off to complete a math assignment. Everyone grouped together with their friends and close buds, two by two. And again, I sat alone.
I began to find refuge in the solace of solitude, the peace of my lone presence. The momentary in-person friends I occasionally stumbled upon would never be long-term; I assumed the expectation that their existence would be short lived.
This lack of complete friendship left me feeling lonely and also incomplete, as if there was something wrong with me that made others turn in the other direction. However, after a day by myself, I began to turn to the Internet to make friends who wouldn’t treat me as disposable.
As a child, it is safe to say that I could’ve (and probably should’ve) been more conscious of my footprint on the Internet, such as sharing my full first name and asking for others’ names as well. As an 18-year-old now, I laugh at the conversations my 10-year-old self started with strangers who were likely twice my age on sites such as Stardoll.
My ignorance of revealing personal information could’ve definitely been a cause for harm. Yet, the online world provided a space where I could let go; a place where I could be an alternate or even better version of my non-virtual self. My struggle to find IRL conversations and friendships made me feel isolated, but now there existed a universe with unlimited avatars, characters and personas to satisfy my desire for friendship. The online world granted me what I had desperately longed for.
Club Penguin introduced me to a fantasy world and a true similitude of friendship as I virtually traveled to the snowy escape. Entering my complex four-word username and password, I logged on to the website, experiencing the white winter scenery and fir pine trees around me in pixelated technicolor. My lavender-colored penguin waddled to and fro with their large woolen earmuffs and a candy-cane striped scarf around their neckless neck. Crowds of users gathered around the Club Penguin Townsquare, some dancing, walking, chatting or taking their Puffles on a stroll.
Whether it was making pizzas in the pizza kitchen or swivel dancing in the club, I began to chat with others who were also captivated by this simulation. My confidence grew as I became friends with other users, visiting their huts and sparking up conversations about their whereabouts and how to complete various tasks.
Through MovieStar Planet, I made friends with other ‘celebs’ and even obtained my first boyfriend ‘Travis’, chatting in the regulated chat box about complicated concepts such as our favorite food and our day-to-day happenings. In the browser tab, I experienced what it was like to be a celebrity on MovieStarPlanet, on my rise to fame as an aspiring actress and model. I lived in luxury in my mansion, inviting my online friends over to partake in the release of my new sci-fi movie, ‘Stars in Space’.
As a nature and biology lover, it was inevitable that I would fall in love with the classic virtual simulation game that is Animal Jam. Not only did this game allow me to make friends with those of similar interests, but it also expanded my passion for the living world and provided me with interesting factoids about various animals.
The intricate design and customization of the characters, from the fur patterns to the stripes, amazed me as I sat hours upon hours decorating my animals in bright, colorful designs: polka dots, swirls and stripes. As I chatted with other users, I began to expand my “social” capabilities. And although the conversations were mere pixels on a screen, the connections began to feel even more real than actual reality. The ability to easily jump onto a computer and immerse myself in community, even when the outside world felt desolate, is what I truly wished for — and still sometimes do.
Ultimately, I’ve found that the shared culture in multiplayer online games can be helpful for kids who struggle with social skills and have a limited number of friends. In the many online world games that I partook in, the multiple quests, adventure and storylines required you to befriend and collaborate with other players to obtain rewards and treasures.
As I chatted with random strangers and internet wizards from thousands of miles away, there was comfort in knowing that despite the physical limitations, we shared a similar goal: to retreat from the cruelness of the outside world and find some semblance of serenity in simulation.
The act of pretending to be something or someone you’re not often has an air of excitement and anticipation. Logging in and creating “yourself”’ in an alternate environment presents a source of social freedom that can be found in a few other places.
There were obvious negative effects of my virtual living: I spent late nights on the computer, eyes bugged out and reddened by the blue light infiltrating my sockets, homework wasting away in the depths of my Jansport. Toward the end of middle school, I began to notice this decline in my online living, and I gradually retired my gaming headset and clunky PC. I eventually discovered real-life friendships primarily as I entered my freshman year of high school, as well as the complexities and beauties that come with them.
I have now realized that friendship cannot be defined by simplistic terms, or even be something that you ‘obtain’. In most of my experiences, friendship naturally came to me because those people reciprocated the mutual feelings of acceptance and appreciated me for who I authentically was.
And as I continue to make friends in an unfamiliar and new college atmosphere, I will never forget those first friends, the ones who taught me how to find connection, even from within the depths of my computer screen.
Statement Columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at email@example.com.