by: Colette Bennett
A purple-haired girl named Nei was one of my first friends. She was beautiful, with pointed, elfen ears and shy eyes. She didn’t talk back, but she didn’t need to. When I played Phantasy Star II, she was the one I felt closest to. She’d gone through a tough past, and she was quiet, but I could tell she was the kind of person I wanted to know in real life. I even used to imagine what her laugh would sound like, throaty but sonorous, like the sound of a weighty, thick bell.
I was eleven years old when I met Nei. It was around the same time that I started to suffer from anxiety. My mother was rarely home and drank often. At school, I didn’t relate to other kids well. Hyperventilation became a normal state, and I always fought for breath. I secretly carried a plastic figurine of Ariel from The Little Mermaid in the pocket of my plaid uniform jumper. I remember standing on the blacktop and watching other kids laugh and play together, tracing over the shape of Ariel’s tail in my pocket with my thumb and forefinger over and over.
Even before I discovered a world to which I was granted passage to by holding a controller, I didn’t quite fit with people. I said strange things. Girls laughed and pointed. I was called cruel names: “Cootie,” because girls thought I looked dirty. They all had long hair, but mine was short, with awkward, poorly cut bangs. They thought I was ugly, that I looked like a boy, and they never hesitated to tell me so.
I’d go home from these long days at school, press the rectangular power button on my Nintendo, and blissfully forget it all, as if it never existed. One night, my mom’s boyfriend stayed up late with me, determined to help me finish Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. “It’s your shadow!” I yelled at the end, passing the controller to him and passionately cheering him on through the fight. My little fingers sought to help, grabbing the controller back when his thumbs were too tired. In the end, we triumphed, jumping up and down and flailing our limbs in abject happiness.
I went to my grandmother’s house once and tried to explain to her in detail about Nei and how she was related to Neifirst, and how it felt when she died. As I tried to describe her, I started to cry, drawing my head to my knees and shaking forcefully as I choked out the words. Through a blurry gloss, she looked back at me, bewildered, afraid. I was heartbroken about the loss of a woman I had never met. I missed her.
When I started writing about games 20 years later, I had one clear aim in mind. I had things to say, and I wanted to express my thoughts and share them, but moreso, I wanted to know that the things I was saying might get to other kids who had been like me. In the world, I always nodded quietly when people spoke to me, eager to agree, hoping to be accepted, if just for a moment.. In my games, I never had to do such a thing. I was absorbed freely into every group, secrets were whispered into my warm ear. I kept them carefully, close to my heart, on a dangling chain. I was honored to know these people, journey with them, love them, and mourn them when I had to separate from them.
By walking over and over again with digital companions, I learned how to befriend others. The world of games was a refuge, but it also presented a training ground. Eventually, human beings in the real world wanted to talk about games, and I was able to listen. Experiences were shared, even fumbling, painful ones. Sometimes, we even bonded because we had been afraid, lonely, small. And in sharing that, we became big.