During my teen years, I spent many joyful evenings and nights immersed in online games. Halo, Call of Duty, Assassins Creed, amongst many others. I loved the worlds which games plunged me into, but more than that, I loved meeting people from all over the world while playing online—games were my passport to uncover distant lands, but I never expected to make a lifelong friend from across the other side of the world.
One evening, my school friend and I were waiting in the lobby of the multiplayer version of Splinter Cell Double Agent. Incessantly chatting away, our little on-screen avatars were lighting up like a firework display every time we muttered or giggled. New characters were swiftly popping up on–screen; the poor souls bombarded by our school-boy cacophony.
But, one of the new arrivals found our incoherent ramblings to be hilarious. After listening in for a while, he introduced himself to us; we were soon playing along in the undercover world with our new American spy friend, Dennis.
I quickly became friends with Dennis. I was enthralled listening to his description of the place he lived and his school. His Californian life was fascinating; it seemed vastly different from my own in the UK.
I started spending more time playing online just to chat with Dennis and get to know him. Eventually, the game became irrelevant to us, and we would barely participate; we'd just talk away—to the annoyance and detriment of our teammates.
As Dennis and I communicated with greater frequency, our bond grew. At some point, we thought it would be entertaining to look on Google Earth and gain a bird's eye view into each other's lives. I typed Dennis' address into the search bar. I was swiftly transported more than 8500 kilometers around the globe to a pristine and manicured landscape juxtaposed against the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Dennis did the same and thought that he had accidentally opened up the Victorian edition of Google Earth as he was greeted with rows of terraced houses stuck in rigid lines like Lego blocks, with chimneys poking from the roofs.
Over the months proceeding this time, Dennis and I would chat almost every day while playing online. I was introduced to his brother, Chris, who was studying at college in Los Angeles, so he wasn't home very often. Due to the time difference between California and the UK, I started staying up overnight just to be able to play online with Dennis. Needless to say, my school teachers weren't impressed when I was falling asleep at my desk during class—but I felt like I'd been allowed to escape my daily life and be expatriated into another world by playing online.
Before long, though, Dennis and I began to play games less frequently and slowly lost contact. Neither of us had ever communicated via any other channel other than the XBOX messaging system. Back in 2006, there was no WhatsApp or equivalent, and we didn't use Facebook. Some years passed, with less and less contact between us as our lives progressed, with the occasional update during the intermittent times we both played online. However, neither of us ever forgot the other, and I held a deep-seated desire to visit California and meet Dennis when I was able to.
Discovering a distant land
It was mid-winter of 2010 when I decided to commence my odyssey, I was 18, and it had been four years since I first met Dennis online. We were no longer in touch, but I was eager to see California, so, on a whim, I booked return flights to Los Angeles.
I spent ten days in Los Angeles, wandering around, gleefully lost, with no itinerary, exploring the home of my imagination. While I was there, the thought of trying to meet Dennis occurred to me. Still, it had been quite a long while since we had contact, and I wondered if he would even be interested in meeting me anymore. What's more, I didn't even have any feasible ways to contact him. We'd never exchanged mobile numbers; I didn't remember his email; I wasn't on Facebook, and I didn't have an Xbox 360 to hand! I decided to forget about it and enjoy the rest of my trip.
Soon after this initial trip to California, I went on a gap year and traveled around Europe. Towards the end of my time in Europe, I heard the Californian siren calling me once again, so I booked a flight to San Diego. Unusually, my first couple of days in San Diego experienced inclement weather, so I hunkered down in the hostel, content to be back on what felt like home ground.
After being in town for a few days, the weather settled into its regular pattern of day-in-day-out sunshine and mild temperatures. On this signal, I spontaneously decided I would do what I should have done on my first visit to the state—I was going to find Dennis.
I set forth from San Diego railway station to venture up the surf line track. Ever since the days of our satellite reconnaissance missions, I had memorized the birds-eye view of Dennis' family home. I also remembered the city in which he lived and thought that I was pretty sure about the name of his street. I didn't, however, remember the house number, and so I was clueless as to what I was going to do when I arrived in the area.
I departed the train in an unfamiliar industrial area. Looking around the station, there wasn't a soul. The place was desolate. I could see a gas station across the street, so I headed over. The attendant inside informed me that he'd never heard of the street I was looking for but that he could call me a taxi if I liked. I took the offer.
The taxi arrived, and I eagerly jumped in. "Where are you heading?" the driver queried. The driver was puzzled that I didn't know the house number but proceeded to pull out of the gas station, and we were on our way. As we started making ground towards the street, landmarks began to seem familiar to me. I recognized the curvature of the roads. When we got closer to the neighborhood and passed some tennis courts, I knew we were in the vicinity of Dennis' house.
The driver let me know that we had reached the street. Rummaging through photographic collections in my head, I recalled that the house was situated on the curve of the road, but I couldn't be sure. I asked the driver to stop the car. I would proceed the remainder of the journey on foot to get a feel for my surroundings. I strolled down the road, scrutinizing the Mediterranean-style properties for signs of Dennis. I'm not sure what I expected.
The street was empty. I was getting closer to the curve of the road, the spot where I hoped I would immediately recognize Dennis' house. As I drew nearer, I spotted a young man approaching his car. He looked like he was just about to get in, but before he could, I greeted him and politely asked if he knew where my friend Dennis lived.
The young man gave me a quizzical, suspicious look. He must have wondered why a young guy had just arrived, without a car and speaking in a strange accent. His facial expression changed quickly after evaluating the situation and realizing that I looked pretty harmless. He replied, "Dennis is my brother." I looked back at him, beaming, and exclaimed, "Chris!? It's Sam!"
Chris remembered who I was and was in disbelief. Although, ever the cool character, he remained collected while I was excitedly babbling about my journey to find Dennis. Chris explained he was just about to head out somewhere in his car and that I had caught him at an unbelievably happenstance moment. He said that Dennis was out with a friend and that nobody else was home. Furthermore, it was the middle of the day. All the neighbors were at work. The chance that I'd have successfully found Dennis if Chris didn't happen to be strolling out to his car at this fortuitous moment was perhaps slim to non-existent.
Chris got on his phone and called Dennis. Dennis, who was out running on the beach with a friend, promptly answered, and incredulous that his childhood online friend could be waiting at his doorstep, let Chris know that he'd be right home. When Dennis arrived home with his friend, we all exuberantly chattered away and were jovial at the extraordinary situation. Dennis and I gave each other a friendly hug for the first time and reminisced about our gaming days. Later, he showed me the sights of his home city, and we toured around San Diego together.
Elated that I'd completed my mission of finding Dennis and sealing our friendship in person, I headed back to the UK. But not long afterward, I went back to stay with Dennis and his family for an entire 10-day stint—all arranged and overt this time!
During this trip, Dennis, Chris, and I bonded. We went snowboarding at Big Bear Mountain, surfing in San Clemente, jet skiing, and go-karting, and I was inducted into the Southern Californian fast-food culture.
It was clear, what started as a chance encounter while playing an online video game had flourished into what would become a lifelong friendship. California would forever hold a place in my heart and feel like a second home.
In the time since our initial real-life reuniting, Dennis, Chris, and I have stayed in touch year after year. I've been back to visit them multiple times—visiting them has often marked important events in our lives and delineated personal transitions. I was even honored to be one of Chris' groomsmen at his wedding.
Dennis and I still keep in touch very regularly, swapping updates of our lives and chatting about anything; funnily enough, never gaming—neither of us plays games anymore, but we are so glad that we did and believe that for all the negative attention online gaming can get, we experienced the best it has to offer—the ability to make real connections and lifelong friendship.