I started playing City of Heroes in December of 2005. I was 6 months from getting out of the military. Frankly, I hated the Air Force at that point. I needed an escape. Penn State was waiting for me with their #1 ranked Geography program.
By my choice I worked over 2 years without a vacation. I felt like things would fall apart without me. I’d worried myself into blood in my stool1. I wanted as much paid time off to buffer getting back into the world as I could get. My mentality was toxic. At the time I chose to remember the negative because so much had piled up. And I needed to create and name a character for myself.
MMO Characters 101
For those that don’t know, when playing an MMO you create an identity and name for yourself. When switching games the name can follow you, especially if your group of friends follows. It’s how most people will know you for the rest of the time in that game. In this superhero based game it was also possible to write a back story for your character. Some didn’t, I did.
For my first consciously creative work in years, this was my story. I haven’t modified it from the day I wrote it.
Only barely surviving an ambushed convoy operation in Iraq, Al Wilkins chose a life encased in steel rather than the life of a quadruple amputee. He had what was left of his body bonded to experimental metallic alloy that could redirect light in the form of energy. Disillusioned by the purely political assassination missions he was sent on by his government, he took the troop multiplier suit codenamed L.A.S.E.R. (Light Attack Suppression Exoskeleton for Recon) and destroyed all documentation on the design. After much soul searching he decided to take up the mantle of a Super Hero as repayment for his past actions.
There’s some fairly dark stuff in there. When I joined the military I thought I was going to make it a career of 20 or 30 years. I saw myself getting a degree and becoming an officer. Then reality hit about how a military system works. What bothered me the most was not being a meritocracy. It seemed like a standard work practice to passive aggressively2 bash the previous person and re-invented the wheel to do the job after switching locations.
Story Elements from Iron Man and Spawn
From Iron Man’s origin I lifted the ambush and permanent injury. At this point I’d fought the military system through some medical issues3 and felt broken and falling apart. I couldn’t run without pain in my knees and back. The doctors advised me to not run. The separation evaluating doctor suggested I bike instead of walk. It was an overly dramatic comparison, but it felt right.
From Spawn I lifted the betrayal aspects. I looked back at my performance appraisals, and I worked hard. I’d got frustrated with the system, but I always did more than what was asked. I was on a rollercoaster for months of deploying or not deploying. Depending on the day I was on the plane or not going. At the end of the day I wish I’d gone, but I didn’t.
My release from the military was coaching football at Surrattsville High School. That fall I worked roughly 15 hours a day during the week making it impossible to get to practice. I’d run into the kids around the D.C. area, and they’d wonder where I’d gone. If you’ve ever worked with kids and disappointed them, it’s not fun. I tried to stay connected by helping on game day by recording the coach’s tape from the press box.
My supervisor flat-out lied to me. I was told if I tested and got promoted it wouldn’t count because I was separating. He was protecting the system and made sure someone staying in got the stripe4. I understand why he did it, but it was just another thing he did that wasn’t truthful. Back then I implicitly trusted people. In the big scheme of things it doesn’t matter. I’m still me and don’t need a standardized test promotion to prove what kind of potential I have.
Then, in December of 2005 my commander told me I needed to volunteer so they could put me in for awards. I reacted poorly at this point and… well… didn’t volunteer. As nice of a gesture as it was I didn’t want it. I could have gotten in a lot of trouble. At this point I didn’t want a thing from the military except to finish my term of enlistment. So, the character broke himself out.
It was nearly time to do my own thing. I’d take the positives5 and negatives from my time in the military and do better for myself. Outside of the military structure. I was following what my character was doing.
Taking Positives Away
Just like the character I built on the things I had going for me.
They were some major building blocks. I’d paid off all of my debt. I owed my Grandmother a couple hundred. I owed my Aunt a few thousand. I paid back a five-year old debt to a college friend of over a grand. I paid off my old student loans. A horrible car loan got paid in full instead of defaulting. An uninsured accident debt6 was paid in full.
Because of my diligence in medical documentation I eventually got a 30% disability rating. With that I qualified for the VA program for Vocational Rehabilitation, which paid 100% of tuition and some housing at the time. I had to work through the bureaucracy of the system for most of the summer to get it. That covered my undergraduate degree at Penn State. And I still have my Post 9-11 G.I. Bill to cover part of my graduate degree.
At Penn State I took advantage of the exposure to new ideas. There are some incredible teachers at that institution who welcome questions and different perspectives. It was painful personal growth, but I re-evaluated my belief system. Starting from scratch with this was a bit painful. Figuring that didn’t take long, but accepting and integrating into the new me took a while.
The Name Seven Years Later
In retrospect the name itself really doesn’t have much to do with everything that went into the character. It’s followed me around and morphed as I’ve changed as a human being. When I named myself I was angry. On the game forums I trolled a bit. I’m not proud of that fact, but I accept it. Picking on people who make a fake reality the center of their own universe wasn’t a banner moment for me. It does follow my belief that people shouldn’t fill a central pillar of their life with any part of the internet. Because the more I got away from the real world, the further I went down a dark path7 of isolation and distrust.
Both the self-chosen name Laser and my given name ended up going to the same place.
I just mapped out Laser’s path before I caught up.