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Name: Stephanie (Steph)
Birthday: Oct. 16, 1989

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"[i]Freedom
- noun

1. The state of being free or at liberty rather than in confinement or under physical restraint[/i]"

Reality can be a frightening, horrible place. In-between the brief blissful moments lies dark, tortuous truths that no one truly wants to face. At some point in our lives, we all feel the torment of living. Perhaps it comes in the form of loneliness, or maybe it is the weight of bills and debts on our minds that keeps us awake, or maybe it comes in the form of the heart wrenching decisions we are forced to make. Whatever pain we might endure in life, we all need some way to release the frustration that comes with it. We all need a moment where organization can exist in the chaotic life we live. For many of us, the key to our realistic chains is handed to us by video games. The fantasy worlds and fictional characters we are privileged to experience and play as give us opportunities to ease our stressed minds by replacing troublesome thoughts with peaceful distractions.

Naturally, I could turn this blog into a discussion about how video games are good stress relievers; or discuss the dangers of game addicting; or talk about other's stories about how games somehow in some way improved their lives. Though that would not be my story regarding my gaming freedoms. So, instead, I will share with you the games throughout my life that have helped me through hardships. There are many I could name, but I will only focus on the ones that stand out or hard the largest impact on me. So here are a few games that opened my realism cell door and allowed me to venture out into a world where I could feel invincible even when I was emotionally the most vulnerable throughout my life. Chronologically.


Monster Rancher 1 & 2
1997 - 8 years old
1999 - 9/10 years old

My uncle was the one responsible for my love of gaming. When growing up, he use to babysit me while my parents went out and like any early-20 year old, he spent his free time playing video games. I was exposed to them young. He is the one who was responsible for helping me develop a love for some of my favorite series, among them was the Monster Rancher games on the original PlayStation. During my grade and middle school years, I use to be babysat by my aunt who ran an in-home daycare. Most of the kids she watched were a few years younger than me, minus the one girl who lived across the street. With lack of other children to play with, my uncle would let me go downstairs to where he had his gaming set up at. He trusted me enough to let me have access to pretty much anything I wanted to play. After all, we had been gaming together since before I could talk.

This digital cavern became my safe haven at the end of the day. I had very low self esteem growing up. I always felt that I was never good enough by other people's standards. I was not pretty enough, not smart enough, not likable enough, etc... and we all know how cruel kids can be. I had been made fun of a lot in grade school for many reasons. Boys did not want to be friends with me because I had toxic cooties. (Scientists have proven that 8.8% of males under the age of eleven die from cootie infections every year!) Girls did not want to be friends with me because I liked "boy" toys. I was a laughingstock for others entertainment, but when I played Monster Rancher, I was an admired bad ass.

The games were simple enough that I could read and understand what I needed to do, but yet advanced enough that when I look back at them I question how well I did when I was eight. The combat system was easy enough. All I had to do was match the monster's location on the field to the specific attack I wanted to us. It is the fact that I figured out how the stat system and how to properly raise my monster. I guess with a little bit of guidance, I began to understand and match the stat logs, and figured I needed the numbers to be higher.

Besides training your monster for battle, you actual need to take care of them giving me a sense of responsibility. Their performance is partly based on their relationship with you as a breeder. As the weeks go by, they can become stressed if training and battles are too intense and depressed if you are too strict, but also lazy if you are too lenient. I found myself in a mortal dilemma as I was asked to pick punishment or praise for my monster's actions. I remember one time I was too tough resulting in my monster running away from the farm. It not only delayed my progress through the FIMBA and IMA (the two organizations that host the battles and monitor monster breeding), but it also put my ranch at a finance decline since my only source of income was prize money.

However, I did learn a life lesson from playing the first Monster Rancher. At the time, I did not know that monster's had a life span. One of my first monsters began to age. She grew tired quicker, her stats bonuses grew smaller, and she soon began to lose battles more often. I thought perhaps I was pushing her too much when the game cut to a scene showing my ranch at night. A shooting star shot across the sky as the ghost of my monster stepped out from the barn and floated towards the moon. The next morning my ranch's assistant told me that she had died the night before. I was confused... I must have had been to hard with training. So I reloaded my old save and this time, I had her rest and never had her do any of the training session but she still died. That is when I realized that death was something that was unavoidable. There were no "reloads" and no way to prevent it from happening. There at the age of eight I learned that death was permanent.

At least until I learned that I could freeze a monster in the lab, making them immortal as they forever stayed cased in ice.


Animal Crossing
GameCube
2002 - 13/14 years old

During this time, I was going through the dreaded "change". (Aka puberty for those who did not take health class.) Hormones were rushing through me as I began to physically mature. On top of that, life likes to be ironically cruel by also forcing more emotional stress on us during this part in our lives. Not only was I confused by new feelings from it, but I was also making the jump from a small, private middle school to a large, public high school. I, probably like some of you, was never the out-going type.

I was the shy, withdrawn girl who sat in the back of the class to avoid being seen. The one who quietly and quickly gathered my things before dashing out into the hall the moment the bell rang. Freshmen year really sucked because I found it almost impossible to befriend anyone due to my sheltered background. It also did not help that I lived in a neighborhood with very few- to almost none - kids within my age. That and my best friend had moved away a month before school started. (I never saw him again.) And my dog, who was my only true non-judgmental friend, had to put down shortly afterward.

Needless to say, that first year was among the loneliest of my life. I had very low self esteem and we all know how cruel kids can be. I spent most of my time cooped up in my room somewhat fearing companionship because I did not want to be hurt again from losing someone I let near to me. I use to write stories and played video games to pass time and help cope with the seclusion; I had always been a child with an active imagination, so I was naturally drawn to the open-endediness that Animal Crossing advertised itself with. The bright environment it had and joyful music always calmed me, and I found enough things to do that distracted my mind from my real life troubles.

To me, the little town with animals in it soon became a gateway to a new world. A world where I was more than just "that girl". Everyone knew my name. Everyone was happy to see me. Everyone liked me. It was like being popular without the unnecessary teen drama because the animals never caused an trouble. They all lived their own separate, simple lives that I played a huge role in. Even though the in-game friendship never went past just casual conversation or errands, and lacked the complex relationship building mechanics we see into today's game, I still felt a connection to the animals I befriend in my town. There were some I liked and some I did not. Just like in real life, I favored the ones I liked the most by talking with them the most and offering to do most of their chores. I use to send them shirts or gifts for no reason just to receive a letter the next day in order to feel some sort of spark of happiness from thinking someone would go out of their way to talk to me. In a way, it replaced the loneliness I felt during my normal day. While the animals could never replace a true friend, they were a good enough substitute to satisfy my longing for some form of companionship.

I cannot begin to count the hours wasted just doing stupid things in the game. For example, I set up a pet shop in my house's basement. I would catch fish or bugs, then set up rows of tables to display them on. I even had a cash register. It honestly did not matter in the game since, at the time, there was no online features. So I had no one else to "sell" my pets to, but occasionally the animals would ask for a certain fish or bug. I would check if I had it in my back stock to avoid having to go out and specifically catch the fish or insect. I also use to rearrange my house in a way to give myself individual rooms. The main floor would have a living room, a kitchen, and even a bathroom with a screen blocking the toilet so no one could see you using it. The top floor was turned into a bedroom and office. Again, this made no difference to the game, but I liked the feeling of viewing it like a real house. I liked shaping the town into a world that catered to my emotional needs, making it a bit of a secret hideaway when the loneliness did kick in.


World of WarCraft
PC
Mid 2007 to early 2011 - 18 to 21

World of WarCraft had been out for quite some time before I joined the Alliance. I use to play a lot of WarCraft II when I was younger; so I was easily drawn to WoW due to my love of the WarCraft universe. I had picked up vanilla WoW and Burning Crusade in a bundle shortly after starting my Senior year of high school. During this time, I was on the edge. I was not stressed about graduating since I had not failed any classes. I knew for a fact that I had more than enough credits for my high school, but I was stressed over trying to keep up my GPA since I had been on the Honor Roll on top of the fearful fact that my life was changing dramatically. I was breaking away from the scheduled lifestyle that I was use to and facing adulthood. I was now fully responsible for my actions and I needed to focus on how I was going to handle my life. I was receiving pressure from my family to rush into college. While I know I wanted to progress through my academic career, I was still unsure of what career I wanted.

At this point in my life, there was much I had to face. Besides the pressure of adulthood there were issues with abandoning friends, hardships in my past relationship, and stress from work. I found myself being almost completely engulfed by WoW, to the point of it becoming a borderline addiction. At first, WoW was just a time waster. It gave me something to do between shifts or after homework, but it soon became more than that. I soon found it to be a distraction from my life. Instead of mauling over troubles in my head, I choose to focus on a mental check "to do" check list. I would focus on the best approaches to finishing my quest chains efficiently and set level goals. I would think about the professions I needed to improve and how I wanted to go about improving them, even to the point of making a new character that specialized in a profession I needed for another character.

In a way, WoW was my emotional crutch, or my "depressed" game as I now have dubbed it. It was during my continuous urge and addiction to WoW that opened my eyes to the idea that I used games as a way of coping with hardships. While I enjoyed playing WoW, the true reason I played it was because I wanted to focus my mind on something other than the dilemmas that were developing around me. I would shut my brain down causing it to trudge along enough to follow through my WoW plans while the grinding quests helped numb my mind. Looking back on it, using WoW as a virtual way to clog my ears was a childish thing to do, but I was desperate to feel something else other than fear and sadness. Leveling up in WoW gave me a sense of accomplishment when I generally felt like a failure in the real world. The fun I had with my guild mates replaced the hollow feelings I felt when I began to lost friends or got into late night arguments with my ex.

Eventually, I had to take control of my life. Upon which I did. I have now since then settled on a career path and moved across country to begin a new life. I am in the process of attending college while also having a successful enough business career to fully support myself, thus turning WoW back into a time waster over an anti-depressant. At least until Blizzard took away a lot of what made WoW enjoyable.

Now I play Rift.


Ilomilo
Windows Phone 7/XBox360 Live Arcade
2011 - 21 years old

I have written about Ilomilo already. I wrote about it back in January, but if you had read that blog, then you already know why I must include it on this list.

Back on January 12th, on that Wednesday night, would be the last time I would speak to my father. The following Friday, not even two days later, I received an urgent phone call from my mother demanding that call her immediately. I had been at work all morning and was about to go to my first week of classes, thus causing me to ignore the phone calls and question why her text messages were nothing more than "call right now". When I did get a chance to return the call, my grandmother picked up and I could hear weird noises in the background... Noises of machines and a doctor being called over the intercom... She was blunt with me because, frankly, that is just how I am. I hate it when information is withdrawn and never delivered directly but at the same time, I wish she would have soften the blow. My heart stopped as she told me my father had passed away. A generally healthy man below 50 had woken up to the day being normal, only to have suddenly just collapsed to the floor in our living room, dying almost instantly. (Autopsy reports later would reveal the cause to be an uncaught, untreated blood clot.)

That morning and every morning for days... Weeks... to come were among the worst in my life. I had not seen my dad since I moved to Charleston, SC last September. We had parted on somewhat bad terms with frustrations and disappoints lingering even in our distant phone calls. I quickly began to regret the stupidity of my youthful arrogance and grudges on top of the grieve stricken confusion of trying to figure out why such a thing had to happen to my family and to me. Not only did I lost my father before ever properly making up for our disagreements, I also had to set back college due to new financial troubles. I felt like I had failed him in some way since the reason I moved was to attend school and begin my own life.

Depressed, confused, bitter, angry... I hated the goddamn world that day, but I could not just simply sit on the couch in completely silence sulking the minutes away. I had to do something to occupy my mind or I was going to go mad, but I lacked the energy or desire to do anything. I even felt too drained to get off the couch to put a game into my XBox360, which then resulted in me just browsing through Arcade games. Ilomilo strangely stood out as it lured me to download the demo. Its bright, soft colors and bloom effects gave the game a heavenly look that calmed me. The chipper music soothed me. I could begin to feel myself easily relax as I began to play the game in its angelic atmosphere.

Being a puzzle game was a big advantage to it helping to distract my mind. The puzzles started off fairly easily, but grew more complex as the game progressed. Trying to bring Ilo and Milo together became hard, which is expected in a puzzle game, but the thought process that was required kept my mind focused on something other than the feelings that swelled inside. The story of how hard Ilo and Milo had to work to meet up again soon became a comforting concept to me. As I mentioned in my blog back then, I mentally replaced Ilo and Milo with my dad and myself; the opposite ends of the park became metaphors for heaven and earth with the pathways standing for obstacles I would face in life. While I might face those troubles alone, it meant I was not completely alone. My dad is still watching over me and waiting for me.

I must have played for only an hour or so before reality reclaimed me, but the truth was that for that hour, I was "okay".
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