Building character

Pressing Restart

The year was 2008. Like always, I ran home after elementary school, making a beeline straight to my parents’ desktop as soon as I opened the door. I opened my browser to Club Penguin, a free online game set in a colorful world of cartoon penguins. It was a land with digital towns, where kids like me would congregate in penguin form, make friends, fish, surf and embark on secret agent quests. As a penguin, I owned pets, made candy pizzas and earned money to buy furniture for my penguin igloo.

While it was childish in retrospect, I was obsessed with Club Penguin. Like clockwork, I played every minigame available so that I could get amass a fortune in coins. I dressed my penguin with the flashiest colors and shirts that I could get without becoming a paid member. I was the epitome of fifth grade cool in my mind, even if no one else really saw it.

There’s a stereotype that people play video games because they don’t have interesting lives. I’d count under that, but, I mean, I was a kid in elementary and middle school. Of course I didn’t have an interesting life. Going through the hormonal war that was puberty, I wanted to be somewhere, and someone, far, far away. I wanted to be badass. I wanted to be out exploring and saving the world. In games, I could do just that.

Young, imaginative minds need to be allowed to explore those roles. These were tales that I would play out in real life, like any other kid. I’d run around my neighborhood, slaying imaginary monsters with my weapons made of tree branches, with my bicycle as my trusty steed.

But seeing fantasy worlds visually there on a screen, with gorgeous music and art in tow, made it even more real to me. It was like exploring uncharted territory. Of course, I knew that those games were not truly unexplored. After all, someone else had created these worlds, and thousands of people had gone to those maps, finished those quests and levelled up higher than me. It was not at all untrodden, but it was new to me. In my mind, I was still the archaeologist chipping away at the buried city. I was the gun-slinging wanderer who gave aid to the weak. I was the prospector looking off at the horizon, wondering what lay ahead.

Like a Spanish conquistador, I claimed territory in all the free online games popular at the time. I was a frequent purveyor of the website Neopets, where I became a ruthless capitalist. While the main goal was taking care of cute pets, I focused my attention on racking up thousands of “neopoints” to buy the rare and sought-after paintbrushes, which would recolor my bland pets with beautiful themed coats, like “cloud” or “faerie.”

Thus, I opened a shop selling mostly food, instead of using the food to feed my pets. As a 10-year-old Neopets businesswoman, I realized that because Neopets wanted to be child-friendly, pets couldn’t technically die. To me, it was useless to keep feeding them if I didn’t receive repercussions. So off I went, selling everything I owned for a monetary profit. It was cruel, but I had a singular, faraway dream. I wanted to make my three pets into the most beautiful pets on the website, and I was willing to starve them to the brink of death for it.

When middle school began, I discovered an online Korean game called MapleStory, which hooked me like no previous games had. In retrospect, it was a simplistic game that got boring fast, but I logged on relentlessly because I was a 12-year-old with a huge imagination allowed to wander.

My MapleStory character, Sodaburst, was my gateway to role-playing in video games. In Maplestory, the character types already had their own backstories, which I took inspiration from but altered liberally. I chose to play Sodaburst, a “Wind Archer,” and this time, my character-building wasn’t limited to her outfit.

Instead of chatting with other players, I crafted lengthy conversations in my head, dreaming up antagonists for Sodaburst to face. I imbued her personality with aspects of my own: a girl out of place who left her roots to explore the unknown. She’s been hurt before but, unlike me, had the tenacity and strength to stand up to her monsters. She was me, but older, determined and with magical archery powers — an idealized self that I both acted as and looked up to.

Perhaps why I love role-playing games to this day is because I can craft my own narrative outside of the typical hero conventions of mainstream fictional stories, where people of my gender and race are predominantly sidelined as supporting characters. I could decide that I am also a hero and what that meant to me. Even as a kid, I could explore that creativity through role-playing and realize what my ideal version of “me” would be.

Mumu Lin writes the Monday column on living life through video games. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @spacelass.