The Digital Playground of a Generation


December 12, 2022 / Bridget Beecham


For a generation raised on the Internet, the most accessible playground in the world is the MMORPG of the early 2000s. But with the digital depth of a previously unexplored landscape comes the guarantee of a childhood unlike anything we’ve seen before.



“You be the mom, and I’ll be the dad.”

“No, wait, I’ll be the mom, and you be the dad.”

Words exchanged, but not by mouth. Pudgy hands fly across the keyboard.

Pause.

Wait.

A text bubble appears, and you sit with bated breath as someone from across the world confirms that they would actually like to be the dog instead. It does not matter that on the screen, you are both penguins, or monsters, or whatever bizarre, colorful creature the site has chosen to populate its bounds, because this is your space, your comeuppance — your personal, virtual playground.

***

The basement lights are warm as you make quick work of the stairs, descending them in sets of two. From above, you can hear your mother distantly complaining about your heavy footsteps; her voice is pitched with disapproval. The television buzzes with the distant whine of the first-ever season of Rugrats, grating voices gracing the screen.

Still, you continue to pound your way down the stairs, a garish can of Surge clutched tight between your fingers, beads of condensation dripping down its thin aluminum walls. The year is 1991, and you are about to engage in some of the most exciting gameplay on the market to date: Neverwinter Nights.

The objective is fairly simple. With a design heavily reliant on the format of Dungeons & Dragons, the game before you on your brick of a Macintosh doesn’t stray far from the reality you already know.

And yet — and yet, as your avatar sways loosely, gaze unblinkingly meeting yours, it feels like more. Like an escape: a dream previously forged through spoken words and shared imagination now physically visible on your heavily pixelated screen. And you are happy to indulge, to don the armor of a paladin and ignore the jeering judgements of your mother. This is digital history, the first Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game, blinking to life on your computer.


=


Michael Acton-Smith says to be a child is to nurture, to care, and to cradle. In 2008, he creates Moshi Monsters. He talks about Tamagotchi. He talks about Furbys. He talks about pet rocks. They are the same, he says.

We are a desensitized generation, people say. And yet as we sit in the dark, told over and over that the only real things are those we can hold in our hands, we still want nothing more than to care. To feed and to clothe and to spark joy in a creature that is nothing more than a collection of pixels.

The year is 2008, and the soda of today is your mother’s Pepsi Natural. It’s less artificial flavoring, she says. It’s disgusting, you say. You drink it anyways.

Your brother plays Halo 3, mercilessly gunning down his opponents, and your mother laments his cold, nonchalant nature. But he cries when he cannot scrounge together the rox to feed his Moshi monster. He calls her his friend and plasters his walls with hand drawn pictures of her likeness. It is your secret.

***

You’re edgy; you’re cool; you’re not like other girls; you drink bacon soda and Sharpie mustaches onto your pointer finger because it's just so quirky.

In 2011, the Internet is the most accessible playground in the world. But this indiscriminate open door policy has a price: admission is free and your front row seat is right next to a man in his early 40s, hidden behind the unblinking face of one of the many Pixie Hollow fairies.

But you are 10, and his presence is unknown as he crowds binary walls of the home you have made for yourself. You are 10, and as far as you’re concerned, the only thing of any real weight is that beautiful four-letter word plastered beside the prompt to create an account. Free.

Free to join, but not to play, not really, with children becoming fractured reflections of their parents through the lens of the screen, classist ideals passing from hand to hand with the golden badge of membership. Still, this is what’s available: what you’ve got to work with. So you play anyway.

This is what we deserve. This is what we deserve.

Stranded atop this dying planet, left to fend for ourselves. Safety is a luxury few can afford.

Time is running out. Beauty is running out.

But my mother told me we all deserve beautiful things. My mother told me to open my eyes, to find them in the world around me.

So I found them.

Here, there is color. Here, there is light. Our house is on fire, and the only exit is the digital, so I take it. I jump from the second-story window, even if it hurts, because to jump is to breathe. Deeply. Fully.

Concrete is not so common in digital landscaping, so instead, we pick our ways through deserts and arctic tundras alike, navigating with arrow keys rather than our feet, the brain and the body disconnected and yet experiencing life with a vibrancy previously unknown. Color is so much sweeter from behind the screen of a computer as the fluorescent lights in the dingy school library brighten and dull, casting the walls with different shades of beige.





It is 2022, and there is something to be said for messages left on digital cork boards and moments shared on streets unknown to the physical earth beneath your feet.

The bleak monotony of my dorm could never compare to the garish interior decoration of my Club Penguin igloo. I sip Monster now. I bought it myself, and it tastes sweet. Ultra Sunrise.

It seems to me we are a generation of reflection, always looking back, always searching for something long gone. My domain continues to reside in the digital, never one for feeling the ground beneath my feet.

Real playgrounds are for the kids who grow up to tout their ethically superior granola childhoods to a TikTok following of thousands, kids whose bare feet were left unmarred as they glided down identical suburban streets, satisfied with their picture-perfect labyrinth of a neighborhood. All well-coiffed grass, tape-measured to perfection. Where the only concrete covers smooth asphalt roads, and the greenery is not limited to cracks in the sidewalk and the haphazard plants littering the steps of the old woman down the street (whose house stinks of butterscotch and resting home).

But for a moment I am 10, and any and all the free time I am afforded is spent using the family computer to play Moshi Monsters. I scoop ice cream; I save the day; I am unbothered and engaged in a manner of play previously thought impossible, but for me, it is second nature: second nature to log on and amuse myself with friends from halfway across the globe, second nature to do so in a sprawling world of ones and zeros with no price to act as gatekeeper.

An extension of the world I know already. I was raised for the Internet, and it was made with me in mind.

My space, my comeuppance — my personal, virtual playground. ■




By: Bridget Beecham

Photographer: Mateo Ontiveros

Models: Genesis Pieri & Nikki Shah

Stylists: Emily Martinez & Vi Cao

HMUAs: Emma Brey & Jessi Delfino



View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 19 here.




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