AOL & RPG: The Confession

(( Be honest. Do these OOC brackets look familiar to you? ))

][ Or maybe these, if you had a sort of stylish flair, like me? ][

Do the words sparring, flaxen-colored hair and clan roster ring any bells? No? Then you were never in an online roleplaying community. Good for you. For the rest of you reading who know what I’m talking about, this is for you. This is my coming out post.

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A sparring match (or an AOL dice rolling game).

Somewhere today, between trying on borrowed wench costumes to wear to the Renaissance Fair this weekend in celebration of my sister-in-law’s birthday, and listening to a podcast about “glow kids”, as coined by Nicholas Kardaras, to describe those of us who have been held in the grips of screen addiction at young ages, my inner child was brought out of all her shame. My secret, forgotten love affair with Interview With A Vampire was also re-ignited. But that’s beside the point. The shame reveal is the meaty stuff (slight pun intended).

In the mid to late nineties, AOL had the convenient marketing habit of ritually sending out CD-ROMs of installation software in the mail so that you, too, could get online. I had been given a computer in my playroom at the ripe age of nine, and already knew how to set up an account for free, giving me wide access to the entire internet. As an outsider in real life forums like school and neighborhood cliques, what appealed to me were the chatrooms that I stumbled upon. The A/S/L chatrooms with their mindless chatter never appealed to me. I traded a few pictures with some weird people, but this wasn’t intriguing or fun. But then I found my niche: a bunch of wordy, artistic introverts who also had an interest in the dark sides of fantasy. I still haven’t quite explored why this interest stuck with me… it’s most definitely worth giving some thought to. But we’ll save the psychoanalysis for another post.

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Something like how I would’ve pictured one of my characters. It’s okay, you can laugh.

I really don’t remember anything about roleplaying culture as a whole. I don’t remember stumbling into wizards and dragons world and deciding that wasn’t for me. I assume that nine-year-old me found the first chatroom, read the scripts, caught on and stayed for awhile until she mustered up the courage to join in. And the people of the chatroom were more than happy to accept me as one of them (albeit they had no idea of my real age). Our particular dark fantasy involved vampires. Who knew they’d be so popular over ten years later!

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, these are writing games. Basically you would write out the descriptions and actions of your character and the people around you would respond in similar fashion. The writing within the group that I chose was actually pretty amazing. You had to have a high level of descriptive vocabulary, type fast, and stay sharp or you were easily picked on. The setting was mostly of a medieval to renaissance time, and a common entrance would look something like this:

:: Lacey VePiras crept in the silence of the night, pausing behind shadow-crested tree trunks as her nimble, naked feet touched the cold earth. Ivory skin glowing in the moonlight, her raven-colored hair cascaded down upon her shoulders in flawless ringlet fashion, framing her piercing green eyes. They flickered brightly as she spotted the inn, aglow with candlelit and camaraderie. Wrapping her cloak closer to her bodice, she moved quickly until she reached the door, pushing against the great weight of the oak until she found her way inside. ::

The better your entrance, the better the game. The reactions were priceless, exciting, and completely unscripted. You never knew what would happen but it felt as thrilling, I would assume, as the actual life experience.

I ended up joining the VePiras clan, my would-be group of friends for the next two years. I might be exaggerating, as time seems to stretch out longer when you’re so young. It might have only been a handful of months. But those friendships were the least judgmental, freeing, fun and exhilarating relationships I had ever had. Even the drama seemed more real and enticing than any of the ridiculous squabbles of my every day.

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Example of said drama. Wow.

If you haven’t figured it out already, this pastime was fraught with problems that now, as a parent, I am appalled about. Immorality, perversion, occultism and escapism, plus the whole “dark arts” thing. And remember, I said NINE YEARS OLD. I was exposed to many words, relationships and paradigms no child should ever witness let alone adopt as acceptable.

And before you start judging my parents, you must know that all of this was happening unbeknownst to my family.

I was left largely to my own devices, and for much of my childhood that worked. I spent a lot of alone time riding on my bike, going horseback riding lessons, playing with Barbies in my upstairs playroom, jumping on my trampoline, reading and creating fantastical scenarios in our formal dining room in which I was prince, princess, villain and servant all rolled into one. I enjoyed weeks at summer camp and loved being outside. However, my family was rapidly devolving into crisis by the time I was eight or nine. My dad had moved away to find work in Texas. My sister, who is nine years my senior, was headed off to college. My mother was an executive for a big corporation and traveled a lot. Eventually it came out that my dad was cheating on my mom (ironically with a woman he met online), and I was privy to every awful detail of the affair. My parents then proceeded with a divorce, one awkward trip to Texas was made, and in 2001 I saw my dad for the last time until my wedding day. I had no extended family, no friends, and a handful of babysitters who never stayed more than a year. I just kind of rolled with the punches, completely unaware of just how much internal damage was being done.

Amidst all of this, I broke my arm in a trampoline accident. Unable to keep up with horseback riding, my mother sold my beloved thoroughbred horse Eli, who I competed and won ribbons with at horse shows. I had outgrown Barbies, so my playroom was outfitted with an orange iMac, a Nintendo 64 and a GIANT big screen TV. I eventually moved my mattress into my playroom and stayed up all hours of the night watching Howard Stern and Wild On E! Then I was introduced to AOL, and the limitless screen name accounts I could create, and it was game on. Pandora’s Box had been opened.

 

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The fateful night my mom learned of my obsessive little secret, horrified doesn’t even begin to describe her reaction. It was in the early hours of the morning. I don’t know what prompted her to get up and check on me, but there she found me entranced in front of the glow of my computer, clickety-clacking away. She silently stood over my shoulder and read every word. By this time I had gotten myself into some very, very inappropriate interactions and the worst “game” I was acting out was unfolding in front of her eyes.

By the next morning the internet was cancelled. My entire world, the only friends I had ever known, completely gone. I had been cut off.

It’s hard to describe here in writing how I reacted without seeming exaggeratory. Having also, later in my teenage years, been through addiction rehabilitation for drugs, it is no misreport to say that little eleven-year-old me went through a very physical, mental and emotional withdrawal process. I vividly remember being curled up in a ball on my playroom floor, my body aching and twitching as I sobbed. The worst part about this is that no one knew how much this meant to me. And I had no one to try to explain that to anyway.

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Apparently I’m not the only one who felt crestfallen at the dissolution of the AOL roleplaying community.

In sixth grade, now nearing 12 years old, I tried to take the game into real life. I had a few friends at my public middle school who were freaks like me, into fantasy with little supervision. I mean, I was the girl in class who, during free time, would read the dictionary… and I was pretty proud about that. I created a clan roster for us — we had warriors, spies, healers… I don’t quite remember what else, but in hindsight it really meant nothing. It was all a make-believe game, but with truly dangerous undertones. I named the group Vitae Holocaust which, to me, had a literal translation of life-blood massacre. Remember, in my online gaming community we were vampires, so blood and death were major themes. The group was quickly renamed Vitae Hatred due to the unintentional antisemitic rhetoric. We were eleven-year-old misguided weirdos, not racist bigots.

This wasn’t all bad. I made real-life friends and we wrote our own language (“changa, meh sup” meant “charmed, I’m sure”). But those friends then introduced me to other real-life oddities like the ouija board, and Rocky Horror Picture Show. By the end of sixth grade I was completely into the culture of both Metallica and the Warped Tour. By seventh grade I was engaged in terrible self-destructive habits. By the end of eighth grade I was completely submersed in the local hardcore and metal music scenes, engaging in debauchery. And by the end of freshman year I had a stacked-high record of psychiatric stints including two therapeutic boarding schools and a bootcamp-wilderness program.  Talk about gateway to landslide.

If your jaw hasn’t completely dropped off your face yet, or if your disgust with me has neared its maximum capacity, there is a reason I am confessing all of this. Okay, maybe part of it is pure catharsis. This is my blog after all. I guess, until today, I just thought I was all alone with my dark, shameful secret; or that maybe no one would believe me if I ever told them; or that even if they believed me they could never grasp the gravity of what the RPG games and community meant to me… they wouldn’t understand that there was good speckled amongst all the bad. Those online friends developed my creativity, taught me how to write, how to type, and embrace my imagination. Just like when you’re immersed in a good fiction book, you can learn a lot by reading harrowing fight scenes, or timeless, tragic love stories from a renowned author. Stephenie Meyer and E. L. James are talentless compared to the people I was writing alongside.

But today, when a friend posted this podcast in our local Catholic women’s forum, suddenly I felt a little less lonely and a little less embarrassed. I haven’t read “Glow Kids” yet, but as my husband and I still have yet to let our one-year-old even interact with any screen, it sounds right up my alley. Because of my past I am all too familiar with the pitfalls of technology, and I refuse to let my children be victims to the immoral garbage that many people now accept as “just the way it is”. My parents had the excuse of ignorance. They truly didn’t know what a threat the internet posed when they set that orange iMac in my playroom. But my generation, now parents themselves, should know better and remain vigilant against the evils of this modern age. It is not a time to shrug our shoulders and say “Welp, you know, he’s of that age” when our 11-year-olds stumble across pornography by typing some harmless phrase into Google.

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What appealed to me was the explanation behind why I was drawn to that screen, that imaginary world, and those people. There was not only a social science explanation — the obvious route of escapism, want for control, acceptance, etc. — but a neuroscientific explanation in the the glow of those screens have a dopaminergic effect, meaning they release the chemicals in our brain that make us feel good. Kardaras makes the argument that some children (and adults) are more susceptible to this specific addiction than others, especially those who, like me, have difficult realities to face in their homes and would do anything to pretend it didn’t exist. Except now instead of acknowledging the danger that these screens present, parents readily give their children these devices as if they not only do no harm, but actually relay some kind of benefit.

It’s not just online script roleplaying that he’s talking about, by the way. We’re talking about most video games or interactive entertainment. World of Warcraft. Sims. FarmVille. Candy Crush.

While some families still find it perfectly acceptable that everyone gathered around the dinner table is interacting with their own personal, portable screens instead of discussing the day’s events, or that husbands and wives are glued to their screens in bed instead of building up intimacy, some of us see the implications of the implications. Technology like this will not bring us closer together. It is a wedge. I personally believe it is tantamount to parents giving their children drugs, while drugging themselves… but, hey, farmers felt that way initially about books.

And then there’s this book, on the other side, to remind us that there can be a silver lining. My high school English teacher gave us this to read back in 2006. He, too, however was an avid nerd (I say that with the highest degree of respect — this was and is still one of the more beloved, impactful teachers I have had) and probably was looking for something to validate his own world view. Aren’t we all?

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Anyway, all of this to say, yes I know parts of this tale are horrific. And I’m still working out the kinks — lucky you, you get the rawest part of my thinking process in this blog, hearing breaking news straight from the junction of awareness and memory in my brain (common sense and privacy is somewhere up ahead on that road). But, nevertheless, it is a critical part of my life that I can no longer deny. To pretend it didn’t exist, or to deny that fantasy and online communities appeal to me, is to repress a creative, nerdy part of my heart that helps form my unique drumbeat. I also had a Xanga. And a LiveJournal. And a Deviant Art page. Online communities have dappled my life and oftentimes enriched it.

True, maybe this is because I wasn’t participating fully in the beauty that real life lived offers. And I didn’t have enriching real-life relationships that took front and center. However, now that I can see the good in both, tempering whichever passions become too great while avoiding the inherent immoral parts… I am SO, SO excited to partake in the Renaissance Fair this weekend (okay, and watch Interview With A Vampire)! Yes, I have a costume and yes it has a bodice. Judge on, common people! :: Skips off with a flip of her festive, glittery golden feather boa trailing off of her neck. ::

 

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For any of you who have seen The Dressmaker, I feel about as liberated as Hugo Weaving when he hands himself over to the police in his matador outfit. 

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