I first got a glimpse of how video games were creating a new platform of culture, community, and growth when I met Gillian. She was the first real friend I made that I had never actually met. Here's part of her story and, I think, part of all of our stories.
Gillian used to lead the group. Charging straight into a circle of demons, spear outstretched, golden armor radiating light, her fellow warriors immediately behind her, and a blood-stained earth around them when their job was done. She would stand still for a while, taking stock of the damage around her while her comrades would pilfer through the piles of demons. It was quite the thing to witness. At least, it was from the available perspective of a 16-inch CRT monitor in a darkened bedroom sometime during the fall of 2002.
Gillian used to sit in bed and pretend to read until she heard her parents finally close their door and go to bed. When she felt safe enough that she would be left alone for hours, she would pile her pillows around the tower of her computer and connect to the internet. The dial-up modem was loud and she didn't want to risk waking her family and alerting them to the fact she was online unsupervised.
This sweet-natured redhead would boot up a game called “Diablo II” and connect with a community of friends she'd never met in person. She would shed her identity and assume the persona of “BlueAngel314,” the numbers being a geeky reference to her love for pie. BlueAngel314 was a level 60 Amazon built out for using the spear and summoning a Valkyrie counterpart she lovingly called “Mia,” a film-nerd reference to a favorite character from the movie, “Pulp Fiction.” She was a badass and a good friend to tag along with when clearing out demonic tombs and zombie-infested wastelands. She made dozens of friends and played for hours incognito for a couple years, building up new heroes, challenging more foes, and establishing a solid community of people she could talk to and rely on.
Gillian's parents were afraid of “Diablo II” and online communities. For them, they were places where awful people prowled on the innocent and did unspeakable, illegal dealings. To this day, she's unsure if they would fully understand what the game meant for her during a time of great challenges and change. She wonders if others like her have the opportunity to grow the same way she did. I hope so.
Under the name BlueAngel314, she was free to be whomever she wanted to be and say whatever she wanted to say. In contrast to her real-life living conditions, this meant that she was able to be honest. Honest about herself. Honest about her feelings. Honest about her opinions. In the real world, she felt compelled to surround herself with pillows and keep her thoughts to herself. Her father could be loud sometimes and she didn't want to risk being a target for anger again.
When she was absent from the game for a long period of time, her fellow heroes and clanmates would check in with her over email. It always felt like quite the gesture, she thought, because some of them hardly knew any English and would primarily communicate with emoticons and question marks. It was gradual, but she eventually came to realize that she was living her life online, being the person she wanted to be through a 56k modem and within a community of people whose real names she didn't even know. When they were prowling through a cave filled with monsters, they would make up ice cream flavors or brainstorm the funniest, most worthless superhero they could think of. Sometimes they would talk about their personal struggles, suicide, abuse, drugs, life. Was it all fake because it was in a video game? Was her personality just a guise? Video games were supposed to be like toys, after all. The user guide definitely didn't say anything about deep, personal growth and discovery. This was a hard thing to understand at the time and it scared her.
Eventually Gillian graduated from high school, moved out, moved far away. She hasn't used the screenname “BlueAngel314” for a long time, or even touched “Diablo II.” But she remembers exactly who that person was and what it meant to a sweet-natured redhead, too scared to speak at times among her own family. Too scared to draw attention or voice an opinion. Too scared to do anything but sit in bed and pretend to read. She remembers what it meant to stop trying so hard to be invisible, put on some golden armor, raise her spear, and led the group.
Brett Massé is currently playing “Desert Child” by Oscar Brittain.