I am about to tell you a very strange tale about a Steam group.
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.
Edi­tor, Cul­ture