I joined an online gaming community on New Year’s Eve, 2007. I had wanted to be a part of a community after having a hard time transitioning to life in middle school. I was twelve years old, obese and very much alone. All of my friends had gone on to a different school in Maplewood, leaving me and a few of the stragglers who lived in the other town to go to South Orange Middle School. I remember one day the gym teacher saying that the school was once called the Pink Palace because of its state-of-the-art design and interior courtyard, but years of disrepair had transformed its coral-colored masonry into a Pink Prison. That description perhaps encapsulates my experiences there during sixth grade, that awkward threshold time between childhood and adolescence which one expects to last a year or two, but actually persists until you one day have the clarity to realize that growing up never ends, is a slow process, is everlasting.
I wanted to find friends who liked the same things that I did, which happened to be Pokémon, of all things. I don’t even remember liking Pokémon that much before joining the forum, but after spending years in that community, I learned just about everything there was to know about the rather expansive video game franchise. Yet, I was attracted to the friends I had made through our mutual interest in Pokémon the most. They were perhaps the closest people I had in middle school, and I told them everything, despite never having met them, despite knowing that they too left behind their computers to join their real-life friends every once in a while. I would find myself yearning to contact them, counting the minutes and the laps at football practice before I could come home and sit down at my computer and talk to them on AIM for hours on end about all sorts of things, telling them secrets which I didn’t feel comfortable sharing with others in person, in the real world, with whom I had relationships which were more tangible and more fleeting than with these well-known strangers, people with whom I could have a casual encounter at a shopping mall and never realize that they carry with them the most intimate fact of my private life.
This was my introduction to the internet world, a sense of community between like-minded people looking for friendship and comradery. I can remember my mother’s concern at my frequent usage of the computer, at my laughs directed towards or in response to no one in the room. “Who are you talking to?” she’d ask, and I’d say my friends, only for the confusion on her face to persist, if not thicken into a scowl. I used the internet to find people who were like me, or at least, felt like me, and this was before I was aware of the social media landscapes which now dominate every facet of life. These forums, oekakis and websites served as the foundations for my understanding of how communities function, or are supposed to function. They existed within their own separate realm, were governed by their own separate laws of reality, but still cultivated part of my young developing character and persist as archives of my presence on the internet to this day.