I once secretly courted two lovers at the same time.
Donning a light pink pea coat, I would meet the charming, stylish blonde in the coffee shop. We’d chat about snowball fights or the local dojo, and then I would excuse myself. I’d switch into a letterman jacket and hustle next door to the dance club where my rebellious, leather-clad companion would be waiting. We’d dance together; sometimes one of us would play DJ. It was an absolute dream, rushing back and forth, keeping the secret alive, constantly feeling wanted.
Everything came crashing down the day the two of them showed up at my igloo at the same time. Both penguins dumped me then and there, right in front of my puffles. They threatened to report me to the “Club Penguin” administrators. No matter where I went, they would follow and tell all the other nine-year-olds that Mumble435857 was an adulterous bastard.
I soon left “Club Penguin” behind. Without it, I desperately needed a new social and creative outlet. I decided to make a “Neopets” account, but first I had to safeguard my personal information against any potential Internet evildoers. As a precaution, I needed to construct a fake identity for my “Neopets” profile.
Forgotten_swiftness was a legendary tycoon in Neopia. She had exotic pets like a rainbow shoyru and a faerie acara. When you went to her user lookup she had a custom-coded HTML layout, and “Stairway to Heaven” would automatically play when you visited her item shop. She was third-ranked in her community guild and was in possession of one of the website’s rarest, most expensive treasures: a petpet laboratory map.
When I first created forgotten_swiftness, I did so under the real-life identity of Staraleena, a 26-year-old from Costa Rica. I faked my age in order to get into a designated adult-only guild (a private Neopian club in which members could socialize), and made friends with all of the other elementary school children also pretending to be adults.
I liked imitating a grown-up. Middle school would be starting soon, and pretending to be somebody I wasn’t would be a critical skill if I was going to survive cutthroat preteen culture. For me, this grown-up facade was really just pre-gaming for 6th grade. In some ways, impersonating an adult was a necessary part of learning to be a kid.
Nevertheless, I quickly got bored with the charade of adulthood. I needed a break, but our guild had a strict activity policy with a posting minimum. I needed to craft a special circumstance, some kind of excuse. I sent a neomail to the president informing her that I (Staraleena) was pregnant with twins and would need a month off for my upcoming labor (I wasn’t sure how long a typical labor lasted, but I assumed 30 days was probably close.) I was granted my maternity leave from “Neopets” and then decided I didn’t want to ever go back to Staraleena. It was time to start anew.
I developed a new character to play around on “Neopets” with. Now I was Nala Dian, she was fourteen and lived in Italy. I joined a roleplaying guild and rose through their leadership ranks. My true ascension to grand “Neopets” overlord began, and I really fell in love with the idea of being Nala Dian.
In 2009, Nala expanded her online presence beyond “Neopets.” She made her own website that was just an endless stream of gifs with animals doing “funny, cute things.” My dad found the videos of horses on top of each other and, after a long bout of laughter, convinced me to take the website down. He had refused to explain why. Years later, I’d recall these gifs and realize that those animals had been up to something far more interesting than weird hugs.
The creation of a persona started off as a privacy measure but evolved into so much more. Building an identity online was a safe, innocent way to figure out who I was by experimenting with different parts of my personality. Nala could be fun, adventurous and confident even if her grand architect was shy, nerdy and naive.
Pretending was the first step to becoming.
Children’s online games are the gateway drug to social media. I eventually figured out how privacy settings worked, so I no longer needed to use Nala Dian as my fake identity by the time I created a Facebook.
For the first time, the person I wanted to be and the person I really was no longer had to pretend like they didn’t know each other. I took everything I had learned playing different versions of myself and stopped being so shy; I started to open up about my passions and interests, the way Nala, Staraleena, and Mumble435857 would.
The day we stop imagining that we’re somebody else is the day we start to appreciate who we really are.
Shannon O’Hara writes the Thursday arts & entertainment column on growing up through entertainment. Contact her at [email protected].