Steam is a digital content aggregation system that specializes in video games. On top of that, it harbors a bustling community of people who are tied together by one focal element: their love of gaming. Additionally, Steam allows these people to create Groups, which are like small message boards for people with like interests — not necessarily just video games — and most games have their own dedicated groups for people to meet up and schedule multiplayer fun. You can also just make groups for the fun of it, which is something that people like to do. This is done a lot, actually, by bored Steam users and malfeasant spambots.
Now, in order to join groups, you have to manually join them, one at a time. This involves searching for the group, opening its profile, clicking join, and then retracing your steps back to the search page. On top of that, a Steam user can only be in one thousand groups at a time. I decided, one day, that I’d like to join one thousand groups. My quest began.
Halfway to the one-thousand group limit, I looked up the phrase “my son is missing,” just to see what would come up. There wasn’t too much in the way of comedy, as I had initially hoped, but instead I came across a group with two members: the creator, and what seemed to be a spambot. The group was called “Looking 4 My Son Michael Anthony Hale PLEASE HELP“ and the description was as follows:
My son was taken from me many years ago and I’m a scared and missed my boy a great deal so I am posting a profile every where I can…..
The FATHER’s NAME is Antonio “Tony” Hale
If any one has any information PLEASE contact me [e-mail]
This was bizarre to me, especially after trudging my way through arbitrarily stupid groups for an extended period of time. I clicked on the group creator’s profile, and their “About Me” description was the exact same message posted on the Steam group, but it gave me a name: Victoria.
To this day, Victoria has been offline for 3257 days, meaning that on July 30, 2008, she logged onto Steam for the first time, figured out how to create a group, attempting to find her son, and promptly logged out, leaving a potential feed of information about her boy in the dust for 8 years and 11 months. I looked up the title of the group on Google, just to see if she had truly posted “a profile every where she could”- She hadn’t. There was simply a lonely Steam group in the results, crying for help in solving the case of a son gone ghost.
Was this a clever attempt for a spammer to gain e-mail addresses as messages flooded their inbox, expressing concern for a son that wasn’t real? Was this truly a mother on the brink of desperation using any social media platform she could find in order to find her missing son within a world that didn’t seem to have a clue where he was?
I was intrigued. I’m no private investigator, but I have a tendency to stick my nose where it doesn’t belong when it comes to solving unexplained mysteries. I did two things after finding the group. First, I invited all of my Steam friends to it and I mentioned it on Twitter. Not because I felt like anybody would help find the Hale boy, but because I simply wanted people to know that this group — a bizarre call to investigation built out of a video game community gathering — existed. People flocked to the group.
The second thing I did? I began my impulsive search for the answer to Michael Anthony Hale’s disappearance. My first move was to reverse image search both Michael and Victoria’s photos. Michael’s photo revealed nothing, leading me to believe that it was a unique, actual photo. However, was it really this woman’s missing child? I had no story to go on but her own. What had Victoria been up to during the near-decade since losing her child?I reverse image searched Victoria’s profile photo, next, not expecting much. Despite my anticipations, I got results.
My first lead brought me to an old, decommissioned MySpace for a “Goddess Aleya.” A strange name, to be sure, but everyone had bizarre pseudonyms when MySpace was still a ‘thing’. I clicked through to her photos and was immediately beset upon on all sides by BDSM photos of a grim looking woman. Was this Victoria? I couldn’t be sure, but there — in the first row of photos that Aleya had posted — was the primarily red photograph that started this investigation. I was hesitant to make any sort of connection yet, however. Here was a well-spoken woman with a penchant for latex, and I had been looking for a desperate mother who had trouble with sentence structuring.
But then I looked up “Goddess Aleya.”
My brain started making conspiratorial connections. Her last name was Rankin eight years ago when she had lost her son, but now, in the present, she held the Hale surname again. Had she and Tony reconciled? Was Michael attending high school with both his mother and father happily married and partaking in sex dungeon happenings?
The red photo showed up yet again in her gallery. This was it — I had a solid connection, now. The network I had available to me started with the woman that set this entire mystery off. My brain repeatedly beat a question into itself: “now what?” I checked to make sure her profile was still active, and — tentatively, my mind anxious with the idea of reaching out to a stranger about a sensitive topic — I sent her a message.
Would I get a reply? Would she be willing to close a long-standing mystery by confiding in a stranger, let alone 2,300 others? I feel strange, making the decision to reach out, but I’m a sucker for questions being answered. As of this article’s publication, I’ve seen nothing, but that could all change. Maybe it’ll be another eight years before she helps me close this mystery out.
Meanwhile, the 2,300 followers on the initial group have inundated the message board with various postings, ranging from attempting to solve the mystery of the missing Hale to God knows what else.
Do I feel like I’ve done the right thing by letting most of the Steam community know that there was a legitimate request for help in an otherwise-overlooked Steam group? In a way… yes and no. I’ve swamped the group with foolish people and posts and — as a result — given it traction. Should we all be prodding into someone’s personal life? No, but they asked for help. Is anyone helping? Not particularly. Most made a mockery of her digital distress beacon.
On a personal level, I’m investigating the situation, sure, but I’m not finding her son. I don’t know the full story. I don’t think I really want to, either. I just want to know that a mystery like this — the kind that sprouts up from the ground and is only seen at first by a chosen few, is one that can be solved and laid to rest before every lead rots away.
Is it selfish of me to want to solve this mystery for the sake of my own desire to solve it? Of course it is. But in a way, I’ve let Victoria know that her voice was not lost in the void. People are concerned. They’re interacting with her cry for help, and some of them genuinely want to know what’s happening.
Maybe she doesn’t want a solution to her long-standing problem anymore, though. Maybe eight years was enough for her to finally come to terms with the loss of her child at the hands of a father who vanished as quickly as Michael did. Whatever the case, this is the power of the Internet at work, and — for better or worse — this instance is my fault.