I consider myself a player.
Not in the typical way of being the newest X-Box buyer, Discord user, or Twitch streamer, but rather in a more metaphorical and nostalgic sense.
So, correction: I has been a player.
It started in third grade. For me, it was a simpler, more practical time, before sleepless nights filled with chemistry homework, club sports, and cans of energy drinks. In third grade, after finishing my treacherous multiplication problems and coloring in the solar system with Crayola markers, I jumped to my computer, absolutely captivated by the virtual world. Club Penguin, Movie-Star Planet, Stardoll, Poptropica, Animal Jam and Howrse; you name it – I was there.
Since the advent of technology, there has been a heated debate about the dangers of screen time for children and young teens. Many parents have advocated for the regulation and monitoring of their children’s location on the internet, participating in campaigns such as the Children’s Screentime Action Network to promote healthy relationships between children and devices.
It’s important to regulate screen time for teens. Online games, in particular, have attracted recent interest because of their tendency towards violence and warfare, and the spread of these behaviors among children is still highly contested.
But even though adults berate children for using technology, I would like to offer a different perspective: The online world box to be a wholesome kind of sanctuary – a haven for the clumsy, lonely child. The online world offers a retreat from social anxieties – an outlet for expression and creative freedom.
Having friends is one of many people’s top priorities or desires. Plus, the comfort of having a friend — someone you can talk to, spend time with, motivate, and share dreams with — can give people the confidence to commit to new relationships.
For me, the process of “making friends” has been a tumultuous stage in my development from early childhood through elementary school. In preschool, I spent my time sharing my snacks — Oreos, candy gummy bears, sliced red apples — with others in hopes they would befriend me. My parents were eager for me to experience this “friendship” because I was persuaded to go to other people’s homes, go play at the local park and talk to them in talkative words that only a toddler can. Express. At first, the process of making friends was relatively simple due to the superficiality of young friendships. If I went to their house at least once a week, it had to be my friend, right?
Yet, while I continued to evolve throughout my childhood, my friendship-making process was poorly developed and the outlook narrowed year by year. In second grade, I made friends with two classmates. We’ve done everything ‘friends’ do: go on playdates at other people’s homes, wipe our sticky fingers off the ice cream we bought in town, and tell each other secrets while passing our discreet second notes. period. However, I began to notice a sense of isolation, as they began to grow closer and I essentially became the odd one out. They whispered secrets in each other’s ears, glancing to see if I was potentially listening, chuckling as I sat in the corner, alone.
This feeling of isolation continued through college. One day in class, the teacher told us to pair up to do a math homework. Everyone gathered with their friends and relatives, two by two. And again, I sat alone.
I began to find refuge in the solace of solitude, the peace of my very presence. The momentary in-person friends I sometimes ran into would never be long-term; I assumed their existence would be short-lived.
This lack of complete friendship left me feeling alone and also incomplete, like there was something wrong with me that made others turn the other way. However, after a day alone, I started turning to the internet to make friends who wouldn’t treat me as disposable.
As a child, it’s safe to say that I could have (and probably should have) Been more aware of my footprint on the internet, for example by sharing my full first name and also asking for the names of others. At 18 now, I laugh at the conversations my 10-year-old started with strangers who were probably twice my age on sites like Stardoll.
My ignorance to reveal personal information could certainly have been a cause of harm. Yet the online world offered 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 was a universe with unlimited avatars, personas, and characters to satisfy my desire for friendship. The online world granted me what I had desperately desired.
Club Penguin introduced me to a fantasy world and a true sameness of friendship as I traveled to the snowy escape virtually. Entering my complex four-word username and password, I logged into the website, seeing the white winter landscape and fir trees around me in pixelated technicolor. My lavender-colored penguin waddled around with his large woolen earmuffs and a candy cane striped scarf around his neckless neck. Crowds of users gathered around Club Penguin Townsquare, some dancing, walking, chatting or carrying their Puffles around.
From making pizzas in the pizzeria to swing dancing in the club, I started chatting with other people who were also captivated by this simulation. My confidence grew as I made friends with other users, visiting their huts and sparking conversations about their whereabouts and how to complete various tasks.
Thanks to MovieStar Planet, I made friends with other “celebrities” and even got my first boyfriend “Travis”, discussing in the regulated chat box complicated concepts such as our favorite food and our daily events. 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 friends online to join in the release of my new sci-fi movie, “Stars in Space.”
As a lover of nature and biology, 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 like-minded people, but it also expanded my passion for the living world and provided me with interesting facts about various animals.
The intricate character design and customization, from furry patterns to stripes, amazed me as I sat for hours and hours decorating my animals with bright and colorful patterns: polka dots, swirls and stripes. By chatting with other users, I started to develop my “social” skills. And even though the conversations were mere pixels on a screen, the connections started to feel even more real than actual reality. The ability to easily hop on a computer and immerse myself in the community, even when the outside world felt sorry, is what I really wanted – and still do sometimes.
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 global online games I have participated in, the multiple quests, adventures, and scenarios required you to befriend and collaborate with other players for rewards and treasures.
As I chatted with random strangers and internet wizards thousands of miles away, it was comforting to know that despite physical limitations, we shared a similar goal: to withdraw from the cruelty of the outside world and find some semblance of serenity in the simulation.
Pretending to be something or someone you’re not often has an air of excitement and anticipation. Connecting and creating oneself in an alternative environment presents a source of social freedom that can be found in few other places.
There were obvious negative effects of my virtual life: I spent late nights on the computer, wide-eyed and reddened by the blue light seeping into my sockets, homework getting lost in the bottom of my Jansport. Towards the end of college, I began to notice this decline in my online life, and gradually retired my gaming headset and clunky PC. I finally discovered real-life friendships mostly early in my freshman year of high school, and the complexities and beauties that come with them.
I have now realized that friendship cannot be defined in simplistic terms, or even be something you “get”. In most of my experiences, friendship came naturally to me because these people shared 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 early friends, the ones who taught me how to find connection, even from the depths of my computer screen.
Statement columnist Chinwe Onwere can be reached at email@example.com.