For a growing boy, there are more dangerous things on the Internet than spyware-addled porn sites. One of them is white dude-bro culture — you know, the kind rife with men who threaten to murder women for wanting representation in video games and compare themselves to the KKK. For years, I tiptoed too close to this dark side of the Web.
My Internet life began innocently. My father had two main Web-surfing rules: No downloading (I still don’t think he actually knows what that means) and no talking to strangers. Also, seven people lived in my house. We shared one computer. Seven people sharing one bathroom would’ve been preferable to that. So I played games. I looked up cheat codes. I researched whether the guns in the "GoldenEye N64" game were real. Kid stuff.
I received my own computer in eighth grade — a best friend with 512 MB of RAM and an Intel Celeron processor. We couldn’t afford to hook it up to the Internet until about six months later. This was in the days before cheap, powerful Wi-Fi. An electrician had to snake an Ethernet cable from the basement to the top floor. I waited forever. In the interim, I played video games. "Warcraft III" was fine without Internet, thanks to its above-average story mode. But have you ever played "Diablo II" in single-player? It’s barren and sad. During those lonely times, I fantasized about what I’d do with my own Internet-connected PC.
“Dude, you’re getting a Dell!” the Dell ad-slogan said at the time.
“Yes, dude, I’m getting a Dell,” I thought. “I’m also getting as much pornography as humanly possible once this thing has Internet access.”
Finally, the Internet came, and browsing without a leash along with it. With my own computer free from parental policing and sisterly snooping, I could download whatever I wanted, and talk to whoever I wanted. I downloaded a healthy amount of porn for a teenager, which is maybe about 400,000x above the normal amount for any other age group. (Not surprisingly, viruses and spyware killed this computer within a year).
Then I booted up "Starcraft." I joined an online match.
“I have a 12-inch cock in my mouth,” the man messaged me. “And it’s mine.”
I logged out. I joined another "Starcraft" game. This one possessed a special, vaguely pornographic quality. "Starcraft" aficionados might remember “Pleasure Kerrigan” — a map featuring structures in the shape of a naked woman from the game’s story. The map tasked the player with pleasing her sexually.
“lol pussy is target,” an anonymous voluptuary said.
Perhaps some older readers will chide my 8th-grade self for not going outside or hanging out at the mall or doing whatever it is teenage kids were supposed to do in 2002-2003. But such is to miss the joy of gaming, playing a game until 2:30 in the morning in part because it's enjoyable, in part because you forget just who you are. You escape from the misery of your ordinary life and fade into the soft glow of a computer monitor.
I wasn’t popular — and that’s putting it mildly. If given a choice between hanging out with me and doing fractions, the other kids would’ve chosen the fractions. In 7th grade I suffered through psychologically crippling bullying; I regularly fantasized about killing myself. It stopped in 8th grade when I pushed one of the bullies against a vending machine and smashed his head in, Gregor Clegane-Oberyn Martell style, but it still didn’t make me popular. I was awkward, shy, nerdy, overweight, had terrible teeth since my family couldn’t afford to get me braces until high school, and couldn’t relate to most of the other kids since we had such dissimilar interests. And let’s not even mention what girls thought of me.
“You look like that doctor from ER… except he’s hot,” a girl told me once. I’ve received death threats over the Internet and been called horrible things both online and in person. Yet few insults hurt worse.
And my parents? They had four other children to look after. The family business was about to die (thankfully, it didn’t). Since I possessed no precocious aptitude for athletics, art, or another money-making endeavor, they understandably lost interest in how I spent my spare time.
So I gravitated to the Internet like a flower seeks the sun. My digital follies provided comfort; the Internet is a haven for the emotionally dysfunctional. Unfortunately, I landed in a community not known for its tolerance.
I'd been gaming for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is playing "Sonic the Hedgehog 2" on a demo Sega Genesis at Costco. Before I could read well, I made my sister dictate the "Mortal Kombat I" and "Mortal Kombat II" manuals to me. My affinity toward video games only strengthened as I got older. Thus, when forced to seek out a refuge, that's where I went.
In 2003, I became a poster on the "World of Warcraft" (WoW) forums. The game hadn't launched yet, but Blizzard (the developer and publisher) set up a forum for news, speculation and discussion. I spent most of my time reading the OT (off topic; discussion not related to the game) subforum.
With one click I entered a new world.
Discussions about whether .999~ equals one. Forum cliques battling it out. YTMNDs. Intense flame wars over political issues. ASCII art. Lazerz going PEW PEW. But what had the biggest impact on that sad little 8th-grader were the “famous” posters. Most of them were moderators or Blizzard employees. Blizzard outfitted their staff members with resplendent blue text and GIF avatars. It's been 12 years and I can still remember some of their names: GFraizer, Caydiem, Fangtooth, Eyonix, Ordinn, and more. But some famous posters were just regular forum members elevated to Internet forum godhood through their own merits.
I wanted to be just like them. If I couldn’t be popular and loved in the real world, I’d do it over the Internet. So I posted. And I posted. And I posted. Nobody found my threads insightful. Nobody found my advice useful. Perhaps I couldn’t be a “famous” poster after all. Then I noticed the trolls. They, too, achieved fame. Yes, it was a more ephemeral fame since trolls — no matter how witty — eventually got banned. But the most brilliant stars burn out the quickest, no?
I trolled that forum. I posted threads sure to provoke hundreds of scathing responses. Perhaps my favorite was one examining whether America needed the “fascism” that liberal types accused George W. Bush of to triumph over its enemies at home and abroad (keep in mind, this was during the initial phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom). One poster asked me about the identities of the “enemies at home.” I said liberals. The thread went on for dozens of pages.
I spent years reading and posting on the WoW forums and several other gaming forums. I loved the notoriety of being a successful troll. Did the popular kids in school feel like that? I also worshiped the power trolling made me feel. I clattered the keys for a moment or two. An hour later, hundreds of replies. On the Internet, it didn't matter I was a loser in real life. I could play-act a bizarre kind of adulthood save for the moments where a smarter poster asked “What are you 14 or something?”
I felt like a god the first time I got another post banned by provoking him to break the rules – a pathetic, metal-mouthed, pimply-faced, oily-skinned god but a god none the less.
“I did it,” I thought to myself in a dark room filled with empty Taco Bell cups. “I did it. YES. YESSS.” My manic grin spread from one end of the solar system to the other. “I did it. YESSSS. Yess. HAH HAH HAH!” System of a Down may or may not have been playing in the background.
The megalomania was the least disturbing side effect.
These questionable communities served as agents of political socialization. From here I “learned” women generally weren’t gamers — and if they were, it was almost definitely just to get a guy’s attention, as well as many other dubious beliefs the sordid spectrum of the gaming community holds. My conservative upbringing didn’t help. I grew up watching Fox News and without any exposure to what progressive types would consider essential knowledge for children. My cultural upbringing consisted of Disney on Ice and pro wrestling. Without a “liberal” counterweight, I believed what I saw on these forums instead of questioning it.
“White men are under attack? Ahh, I knew it was true!”
The moderators on all these forums smote me with the ban-hammer after one troll post too many. I should’ve just quit my forum habit at this point. I didn’t. Forums were to me back then what Twitter is to news-obsessed people now. Their alarm clock rings. They hit the snooze button. But they don’t sleep during the eight-minute reprieve. Instead they open Twitter and scroll, scroll, scroll. When I woke up back then, I checked the forums. I checked the forums when I had my morning Pop Tarts with iced tea. I checked the forums as soon as I got home. I checked the forums before I went to bed.
And once I got banned I needed new forums. I found a forum for a niche strategy game developer whose products cater to gaming’s intelligentsia. I became a successful troll there. But I was older now — a college man.
My age changed, but my circumstances didn't. The Great Recession threatened my economic security. And, as in high school and middle school, I wasn't terribly popular. I had no braces now, but I didn't posses social skills. I had two good friends IRL, but they couldn't be around all the time and had problems of their own. I also worked a demeaning job at Macy's and then after that a stressful job in the medical field. Furthermore, I couldn't partake in mixed martial arts training – my favorite hobby – anymore due to two nasty permanent injuries.
Again, I sought solace on the Mountain Dew-drinking side of the Internet.
But this time I needed more sophisticated places other than video game forums, especially since I harbored a burgeoning interest in politics.
A friend turned me onto libertarianism after the immediate start of the Great Recession. He showed me this awful video. He told me about Peter Schiff, the principles of Austrian economics, the impending economic collapse, and Ron Paul — the only man in politics with enough temerity to take back our constitutional freedoms. We were at a train station one Saturday morning.
“You know the economic collapse could come at any time,” he warned. “Look at the stock market. Look at the price of gold and silver. What will you do when hyperinflation finally kills our pathetic fiat currency? Do you have any precious metals? What about a gun for when our society inevitably collapses and we have riots over food and water?” Of course, I didn’t question why he was here telling me all this on our way to a fancy day in New York city instead of doomsday prepping at home.
In the pre-Internet days, I would've shrugged his words off. But with libertarian dogma a Google search away, I didn't stand a chance.
The Libertarian “I’ve figured it all out” worldview is appealing to young, white males, perhaps because it absolves them of all wrongdoing. Or maybe it's the allure of esoteric, “red pill” knowledge. Either way, I practically sold my soul to it. I obsessed over gun forums. One poster uploaded a picture of his girlfriend shooting a Beretta Cx4 Storm. We all fawned over her. Another guy talked about his government-collapse survival kit. He kept silver coins, foodstuffs and a loaded gun on his person at all times just in case the economy collapsed while he was out getting gas or grocery shopping. I almost bought a “Liberty Training Rifle” and joined the Appleseed Project. Hell, I almost joined the NRA!
So bad did my obsession with Libertarian thinking become that my friend and I plotted a currency scheme. We’d buy a crucible and melt down pre-1982 pennies for their copper content. Thankfully, this endeavor never reached the “let’s window shop crucibles on Amazon and hoard old pennies we find” phase.
The Internet enabled me to become a parody of the college-aged white male. I worshiped Ron Paul, worried endlessly about alternative currencies and religiously watched Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson YouTube videos. Even worse, I adopted the pernicious cultural opinions of white dude-bros. Despite what women said, they had it easier than men. “I have a penis, blame me for everything. I have tits, give me free stuff,” as the meme goes. All I needed to become the ultimate cishet, white dude-bro was a fedora on my head and Cheeto dust on my fingertips.
My libertarian ethos merged with my niche gaming forum persona at this point. On my gaming forum troll account, I posted increasingly paranoid and erratic threads about guns, bitcoins, silver and the impending economic collapse. They banned me. Fortunately, I achieved enough notoriety for a “famous” poster to invite me to a different forum — a digital Valhalla where all the people banned from that gaming forum got to live and troll once more. This happened a few weeks before my banishment.
I logged into this forum. “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic” fan art, everywhere, posted by the most hardcore bronies.
I insulted them for being “pony-fuckers.” That effort failed to rile them up. I posted an “I watch for the plot” image macro — a meme implying men watch the show solely to fantasize about fucking cartoon ponies. The forum moderator – a devout priest of the MLP fandom – insisted I watch the show. Like a guy in your MFA, he said I didn’t posses the intellect to understand the show's emotional significance and societal critiques. “Why don’t you actually try watching the show before you criticize it?”
So I did. And it wasn’t that great…
“My Little Pony” is not “Adventure Time.” The latter is a show with intense mythology and heart-wrenching character development written for all ages and adored by all ages. “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic,” however, is a show written for young girls that older men appropriated and fetishized.
My descent to Equestria was a wake-up call. These were the kinds of places I was hanging out in. This was the kind of person I was becoming. I needed to get out.
Libertarianism and I parted ways around that time, too. The United States didn't turn into Mad Max. Peter Schiff didn’t make all his clients rich. If libertarians could be wrong about that, what else could they be wrong about? It turns out, a lot.
When I graduated college, it felt like emerging from a hazy dream. How could I have believed all that? What was the point of the last decade or so of my Internet activity?
Maybe I was sad, emotionally vulnerable, and willing to believe society caused and propagated my problems – that everything else was fucked up and not me. I found meaning on the Internet along with the faintest embers of confidence.
“My troll threads have more replies than a thread by the lead developer,” I remember thinking. “Maybe I'm good at writing? Maybe I'm good at something?”