Mortal Kombat, a fighting video game franchise known for its ultra violence and overuse of the letter “K,” was the most valuable tether I had to reality at the lowest point of my teenage years. Not because of the digitized ninjas or Fatalities (at least not just because of them). It was the fan community of the first website I ever registered to that pulled me out of the worst online abuse I’ve ever experienced.
It was 2005 and I was a chubby, awkward sophomore. It was the first year we had the option of picking elective classes and, thinking I might have an aptitude for development, I signed up for the computer science class which would ultimately become my homeroom. The teacher of this class should have retired a decade earlier and was ironically known as G-dog. G-dog only knew how to use Visual Basic 2.0 (a programming environment from 1991) and some technology that didn’t run well on Windows 95. For tests and midterms we would use either a Scantron or punch cards, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that he be so far removed from stuff like the internet or cyberbullying.
Nobody in that room was engaged with the actual study material. Most of the class would speed through their remedial programming assignments in five minutes and spend the rest of the time scrolling the internet or playing flash motorcycle games on miniclip.com.
Among my classmates were a lot of older kids (I took the course a year earlier than I should have) along with some acquaintances, one of whom a former best friend of mine since I was about six years old. I wasn’t exactly as close to him as we were in elementary or middle school. It just seemed like he drifted from me. I wasn’t sure exactly why until probably the worst day of my teenage life.
One morning I got to our homeroom and I noticed that everyone in the class was scrolling through the exact same website. Just walls of text on a plain white background. A basic HTML site with a few drawings and photoshopped images. It wasn’t until I logged into my computer and was sent a link from my desk neighbour that it hit me. It was a website specifically about me and my father, who happened to be a teacher at the same high school.
My dad wasn’t the teacher everyone loved. He wasn’t the teacher with the nicknames who you’d ask to sign your yearbook. He was, and still is, a man of high expectation. If you were to have an outburst during his class he would call you out. If you came to class smelling like cannabis he’d kick you out. If you didn’t follow up on your assignments he’d leave ten minute long voicemails for your parents about how behind you were. Having the scary teacher as a father didn’t do wonders for my social or dating life in high school but this website was the worst kind of attention it attracted.
The principal’s office was actually notified about the website before I was made aware. I was still reading through what I can only describe as a manifesto of hate when I got notice to come down to the office. When I got there I was already in tears and the receptionists were trying to print off a copy of the site before the people who created it were tipped off and took it down. It was over 32 pages, single spaced. I still remember the sight of that printed stack of papers.
I honestly don’t remember everything on that website but a few things still haunt me. They ridiculed my father and his intelligence. My weight and my appearance. Suggested that there was something wrong with my entire family. Then there was the drawing of me, tied naked to a tree, with people pointing and laughing as they walked by. The website went to great pains to describe me as a “gay pedophile” and a danger to my fellow students and children. And that accusation had the most lasting consequences for me because (a) there weren’t out gay people at my high school at the time, and (b) I was (and am) bisexual.
It wasn’t something I fully understood at the time, but as someone attracted to both men and women it was really hard being looked at like a sexual degenerate by all the teenagers around me. I went to my locker after a math class one day to find “f*ggot” written in permanent marker. One guy even spat on my face while he walked past. It put me on the defensive in a way that made me deeply unhappy. I began to assume the worst of everyone around me and became increasingly isolated and angry.
I spiralled into a depression before the police got involved. I wasn’t eating or talking to anyone. I can remember how concerned my parents were, and as a parent today it really hurts my heart. I originally thought about just changing schools and hiding from the world but my father had none of it. I remember him saying, “You can’t let this happen to anyone else. If you have the courage to push for a bit of justice we will be behind you.”
So, I pressed charges. I met with the local police, who had a fully archived version of the site along with the print-outs from the principal’s office. I had to give a statement with a breakdown of how I found out about the site, how I knew the two people who created it, and how it impacted me and my family. They told me that they isolated the IP address to my former friend’s home address and that the two people involved admitted to its creation. In the end, I stayed at my high school until graduation and the two people involved were essentially barred from using the internet or computers for a specific period of time. Life went on.
Each morning I’d walk into class and I’d be stared at by everyone. The teacher was still too removed to notice, but I settled into a routine of completing my assignments and spending the rest of my class time at mortalkombatonline.com. The website is still active today and since 2004 it has been the go to website to read MK interviews and learn new details about the video games and movies.
I didn’t have any friends in real life. It felt like people wouldn’t even give me the pleasantry of a wave. So, I made friends online. It had started with me scouring the internet every day for details on a sequel to Mortal Kombat: Annihilation (I was an apologist at the time but I now can admit it’s a pretty bad film). The forums at MKO were the first place I felt like I needed to have my own online presence. Every class I’d sift through a number of threads and repeatedly update the colour scheme of my profile. Eventually, I’d engage with a few other forum-goers enough that we began to trade private messages.
I didn’t talk to them about my real life problems. I didn’t really want to acknowledge those at all. We would just talk about fandom things like when the purple ninja Rain would someday come back to the Mortal Kombat roster (he would) or whether the CGI in the 90s films would age well (it wouldn’t). Still, these faceless people felt like social connections at a time that I was starved.
I couldn’t access the internet whenever I wanted at home, as we still had dial-up internet at the time, so I began to look forward to homeroom if only to check messages and comment on some new threads in the MKO forum. I’d still be stared at. There would still be a bunch of rumours of me being gay, probably not helped by my decision to fundraise for a local AIDS charity after watching Philadelphia one time. One classmate even threw a bottle of piss at me. But that was high school life, and with those friends I made through the MKO forums I started to realize that I could be something other than what those school kids thought of me.
It’s been a while since I logged into MKO. My priorities in life have changed and I don’t have the discretionary time to complain about fandom on the internet. I still love Mortal Kombat, and I’ve held onto some of those same connections. We now talk on Twitter about our favourite characters in the newer MK games along with the creator, Ed Boon’s, social media antics. It was only after reconnecting with one of them a few weeks ago that I realized how pivotal this franchise and that MKO community was in stopping me from sinking some really scary depths of depression.
As for my former friend, he’s apologized a number of times since getting caught. Often with the caveat that it was really the other guy (a former student of my father’s) who was responsible for the bulk of the content. I honestly don’t think he’s learned from the experience but I’m now at a place where I can forgive him for being a dumb teenager. I know who I am now and what other people think doesn’t scare the way it once did. I’m still not glad such a horrific event happened to me, but I’m glad it forced me to grow and that Mortal Kombat was there for me when I needed it most.