Riding Dinosaurs with Boys
Words By Tatiana Schlote-Bonne, Art By Kieu Vo
When I made my avatar in Ark: Survival Evolved, I gave myself large breasts, full hips, and generous muscle mass, blessing myself with the physique of a voluptuous Olympic weightlifter. My hair was black and my eyes purple. My boyfriend, Monty, created an orange-haired goblin man. We awoke on the beach wearing rags. Dodo birds and Parasaurolophus grazed on shrubs near the edge of the forest. We gathered stone, thatch, and wood, crafted spears, then stabbed a Dodo to sate our flashing hunger meters. The meat—unseasoned and cooked on a fire in the sand—must’ve been as flavorful as a charred shoe sole, but it made us full, and we leveled up.
I tamed a Dodo, my first companion. The taming process involved punching it until it was unconscious, then feeding it berries until it was full enough to be my friend. I named her Froppy, after a character from mine and Monty’s favorite anime, My Hero Academia. She waddled by our sides as we walked the shore, gathering thatch for a home, admiring the soaring Pteranodons, the orange sunset saturating my computer screen. I looked at the map, a vast island with an array of biomes: forest, desert, tundra. I’d read online that every type of prehistoric creature inhabited the land. I filled my waterskin, excited to begin exploring—I loved a good adventure story, and in Ark, there’s no written plot. It’s a sandbox game, an open world where you create your own narrative.
“Froppy Has Died,” appeared on my screen. It was dark, and I couldn’t tell where our house, or even the beach, was located. I crafted a torch, which only gave me a few feet of in-game light. My screen was flashing red. Something, or someone, was killing me.
“Help me. I’m dying,” I said to Monty, sitting at his desk across from me.
“I’m coming,” he said, running toward my character, but he was too late. I’d been shot in the back and fell face down in the sand, the torch flickering in my unresponsive hand. Monty arrived in time to be killed too. We watched as another player looted our inventories, taking our crafting supplies and rare flowers. He hacked our bodies with a metal hatchet, harvesting the meat from our bones.
We respawned and went through it again—gathering supplies, building a house, taming dinosaurs—only to end up eaten by a wild raptor. It was frustrating, but the game gave me and Monty—whom I’d been with for three years—something to do together besides lying on the couch watching anime, which had been the extent of our romance for the last year. I was about to suggest that we try one more time, but he stood up and took off his headset. “I hate this game,” he said, shutting off his computer. “I’m done.”
I looked at my phone. It was 3 a.m. Four hours had passed since we started. I wondered if I should quit too and join Monty on the couch. It was early morning in the game. The sky was lavender, and golden rays shone through the clouds. It looked like a real sunrise I’d seen on a beach in San Diego, except wyverns were soaring over the ocean, mounted by the highest-level players.
My life was good. I had a job as a group fitness instructor. I had friends. I was twenty-three and fit and healthy. But Ark gave me the ability to leave my apartment and become an enhanced version of myself: someone who was more athletic and unrestricted by physical limits of the real world. I dove into the ocean and swam along the reef with Ichthyosaurs and Manta rays. And Ark gave me the ability to forget about my day at work, where my class did a bike sprint contest and I placed in the middle when, as the trainer, I should’ve won.
Over the next few days, I played by myself for a couple hours each night until I finally had enough resources to build a better house in the woods. I hunted with my newly-tamed dinosaur, a raptor named Gran Torino. A herd of Gallimimus sprinted by and I trapped one with a bola, then killed and skinned it for hide. Ark appealed to my inner-nerd because, other than a few fantasy creatures (griffins, phoenix, wyverns), the island was inhabited by real prehistoric animals. Their scientific names appeared when you got close enough. I could win a dinosaur-identifying contest thanks to my time spent in Ark.
Another player swooped down on his Argentavis, a giant bird. He jumped off and walked toward me. He was tall and lean, with muscular shoulders and a chiseled jawline. He was level 80 and wearing metal armor. I was level 30 and had just upgraded from rags to beaver hide. I jumped on Gran Torino and turned to flee.
“Cool raptor name,” he typed. “I love My Hero Academia.”
“Thanks!” I typed, hoping I could become friends with this guy and he could help me out.
“Is this all you have?” He walked around my small wooden shack.
“Ha, no point in raiding you.” He climbed back on his Argentavis.
“Wait,” I typed. “Let me join you.” It felt needy and pathetic, but I’d never accomplish anything if I kept playing alone. I needed someone to share a base with. I needed protection.
He took a minute to respond, probably considering whether I would be an assistance or a burden.
“Sure,” he typed.
I smiled at my computer screen.
“But I live far. You’ll have to leave Gran Torino behind.”
I took the saddle from my raptor, then shot it and harvested the meat from its body.
There wasn’t enough room on the Argentavis’ saddle for me, so he scooped me up in the bird’s talons. I was immobilized in its feet—all I could do was swivel my camera around, looking down at the forest, watching the monkeys (Mesopithecus) leap from tree to tree. A T-Rex fought a Brontosaurus, and a pack of Hyaenodons stood near, waiting to feed on the remains of the loser. We flew over a volcano, and I worried that this stranger would just drop me into the lava, leaving me to start all over again. But he held me safely in the bird’s talons until we arrived at his base, a modest two-story stone house in a clearing in the woods. He had a few tamed creatures sitting in a pen: a Baryonyx, a Triceratops, and a griffin. A sign was posted in front of his house: “New base. If you want me to move, just ask. Please don’t take what little I have.” Smart, I thought. Maybe I should’ve tried that.
He called me on Discord, a text and voice-chat app for gaming.
“Hey,” he said. “We need to gather metal.”
His voice was mellow but masculine, a little scratchy, comforting.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll get all the metal I can.”
He gave me a pick—one he crafted himself—and it was higher quality than all the picks I’d made before. I climbed the ladder onto the roof where his Argentavis sat and named it Dark Shadow, a reference to another character from My Hero Academia who looks like a bird. I hoped he would find it funny.
I ran toward the mountain, crouching behind trees to hide from Carnotaurus and eating berries for stamina. We were still on a Discord call but neither of us spoke. I wanted us to talk, but I didn’t know what to say. I knew he was an experienced player and I didn’t want to say something that made me seem like a noob.
“I like the Argy’s name,” he said, laughing.
It was a handsome laugh, not obnoxious or nerdy. I wanted to hear it again.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Shade,” he said.
“Shade?” I repeated, thinking maybe he’d said Shane.
I heard the clink of a soda can on his desk, the crunch of chips in his mouth. I walked back to his base, wondering if his real name was Milton or Herbert, and Shade was just what he called himself.
“Look in the cabinet,” he said.
Inside was a shotgun, a high-level weapon that I couldn’t build yet.
“That’s for you.”
“Thanks,” I said, trying to sound nonchalant even though it was the best gift I’d received in a game.
“I want to move someplace better,” he said.
“I’ll show you. Get on the griffin.”
I was relieved that Monty was working late. I didn’t want him to see me riding a griffin with another guy. I felt fuzzy inside, watching my character sitting up against him as we flew over a Redwood forest and through a valley of mammoths. We were like Harry and Hermione riding Buckbeak.
“How often do you play?” I asked him.
“Few hours a night. All day on my days off.”
“Oh,” I said, hoping I didn’t sound judgmental. I couldn’t imagine spending an entire day playing this game. “Where do you work?”
“A factory,” he said. I waited for him to elaborate, or to ask me where I worked, but he didn’t say anything. He steered the griffin down toward a cliffside waterfall.
“This is it,” he said, climbing up the rocks. “Come check it out.”
I stood beside him and we looked at our new land: rolling hills, weaving streams, mossy logs, a setting inspired by Middle Earth. My character pooped. He laughed and did it too.
“We’ll always have a fresh water supply. There’s plenty of metal, wood, and animals to farm. Some predators, but we’ll build a metal base. We can even have plumbing.”
“Sounds wonderful,” I said, admiring how meticulous he was. I figured that together we would become the strongest players on the server, but that didn’t seem important anymore. I just wanted to keep playing with him, whether we had a metal castle or nothing at all.
“Want to fly us back?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said, sitting up straighter at my desk.
“Let’s pick up some obsidian before we go home.”
I blushed at the word “home.” I wondered what Shade looked like in real life. Some gamers, like Monty, created avatars with humor: wide-necked, stumpy-legged, stringy-armed monstrosities. Some gamers created avatars they wished they could be. But I—and I hoped Shade too—exaggerated my real physical attributes and applied them to my avatar. (I was athletic, but not Olympic-level, and I was a C-cup, not double-D.) I hoped real-life Shade was also lean and tall with a strong jaw and button nose, though I supposed it didn’t really matter—I could imagine him being as attractive as I wanted.
We made it back home, our inventories full of meat and obsidian.
“How do I land?” I asked him, awkwardly hovering the griffin next to the house.
“Press spacebar,” he said, laughing. “Anyway, I’m going to bed.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, feeling disappointed, even though it was 4am and I needed to sleep too. I’d been at my computer for five hours but my needs for hunger, thirst, and rest had all vanished. Monty unlocked the front door and walked into the living room, smelling like sugar and dough from his overnight job at the bakery.
I left my desk and showered, smiling as I conditioned my hair, thinking about the adventures Shade and I might have the next night. Monty walked into the bathroom. He lifted the toilet seat and started peeing. For the first time, I jerked the shower curtain open and said, “Couldn’t you have waited?”
All day, I thought about Shade. I imagined him, the version I’d created for myself: cute, mid-twenties, lean physique, freckly skin, bowl-cut brunette hair. An image of a portly fifty-year-old man momentarily appeared in my mind, but I shooed it away. I envisioned this cute Shade at the factory, pushing buttons on a machine that made dildos or condoms or crayons, blushing because he was thinking of me: the beautiful girl he’d found in the woods, another fan of My Hero Academia, clever and funny with the names she gave dinosaurs, a new light in his life.
I’d always had the benefit of being both attractive and nerdy—boys easily fell for me, looking down at my long curly hair, my fit physique, and back up to my light brown eyes, all the while talking about Yu-Gi-Oh!, D&D, The Elder Scrolls. Monty and I had met at the gym and played Magic: The Gathering on our first date. I’d wooed him by beating him with my Liliana, the Necromancer deck. But Shade was different because he couldn’t see me in real life. I shuddered, thinking that maybe he had envisioned me as a monstrous nerd girl. But I hoped that when he had heard my voice, he thought it was sultry, and that he was picturing me as a real-life version of my avatar, working at a bar or a hospital or wherever he imagined I worked.
When I got home from the gym, Monty was sitting on the couch, watching TV and clipping his toenails, dropping the slivers onto our coffee table.
“Hey,” he said. “Want to watch Full Metal Alchemist?”
The thought of spending time with Monty, whose appearance I knew and voice I heard every day, seemed unbearably boring. Normally, I thought our relationship was nice, secure. But playing Ark with Shade thrilled me—a feeling I’d forgotten and didn’t know I missed. Monty had made me feel that way when we first met, when we’d go out for sushi and talk about our families—how his had immigrated from Sudan and mine from Japan. Afterward, we’d lie in his bed, staring at each other, kissing each other’s skin and eyelids and earlobes. But I’d moved in three months after our first date, and now we just ordered in, often going days without talking or touching.
“I’m tired,” I said, picking up my laptop.
“Are you still playing that game?”
“Yeah—maybe,” I said, walking to the bedroom, quickly shutting the door behind me.
I logged on, but Shade was still offline. I went outside, walked around the pond, watching pastel-colored Dimorphodons circling in the air. I waited until two of them hovered near me, then shot them with tranquilizer darts. I thought Shade would be impressed, seeing I’d caught two dinosaurs known for their evasive flight pattern. I fed them raw meat, watching their taming meters increase. I heard Monty chopping vegetables in the kitchen. Part of me felt that I was wasting my time, that I should’ve been spending time with Monty, making an effort to enliven our relationship. But I wanted to woo Shade, to see if I could, to feel the pleasure of hearing him say that he couldn’t stop thinking about me. It’d been a long time since I felt desired, and I thought if I could get Shade to like me, it would make me feel good, even powerful.
Shade logged in. “Hey,” he typed. “Can I call you?
My heart fluttered, like we were on our first date at the movies and our hands had just touched.
I answered his call. “We have new pets,” I said, and called the Dimorphodons over.
“Oh, sweet!” he said. He sounded like he was smiling. I waited for him to say something else, hoping he’d say he had looked forward to playing with me all day.
Instead, he said, “We need silica pearls.”
“Oh, okay,” I said, googling where to get those.
I walked down the hill toward the beaver dams, listening to the sound of Shade chopping down trees. I thought of conversation-starters that he would like: What anime character would you be? or What’s your Harry Potter house? or What’s your favorite game in the Fallout series? But I felt like asking those questions might weaken the immersion of the game, that while we were gathering and crafting, we should only talk about our lives in Ark.
“Where did you live before you had this base in the woods?” I asked, shooting arrows at a giant beaver.
“I had a nice setup in the mountains, but it was always freezing. Then I got raided.”
I could hear his mouse rapidly clicking.
“Fuck! I’m dying,” he said.
Monty walked into the room. I tilted my laptop screen closer to me.
“Where are you?” I asked Shade, trying not to sound too concerned. Monty opened the dresser.
“Near the cave.”
I dropped all my rocks so I could run faster, trying to ignore Monty as he changed into his pajamas. Shade was being mauled by a Therizinosaur, a dinosaur that looked like a giant demonic duck with knives for hands, the Freddy Krueger of Ark. I shot it with an arrow to turn its attention toward me. It charged at me and I waited until it was close enough to shoot it with the shotgun, killing it.
Shade limped over to me, his chest bleeding. I gave him some of my Dodo jerky.
“Thank you. Nearly died back there. It got the Pteranodon I wanted,” he said, pronouncing it like “Pet-ra-don,” which made me laugh, but then insecurity crept over me as I realized that I didn’t know how to say it correctly either. We walked back to our base, carrying the Therizinosaur loot.
Monty ambled over and stood beside me, peering over my shoulder. I was outside feeding Dark Shadow. Shade was inside, crafting ammo. I hoped he wouldn’t come outside. I muted my mic, so Shade wouldn’t hear Monty talking and find out I had a boyfriend. Monty leaned closer to the screen. He had to know I was playing with someone, and I worried he was going to ask who it was, or even ask me to stop. Instead, he said, “Your base looks really cool. Maybe I’ll start playing again.”
“I don’t know,” I said, staring down at my keyboard. “I’m level 50 now, and you only got to level four.” I looked up at him. His eyes were big and dark brown, nearly black, one of his many features I’d always found attractive—and they looked even more beautiful when he was sad. “It’s not that fun anyway.”
Every day that week, I exercised vigorously to earn eight hours of sitting in front of my computer. My friends and I usually went to the casino on Thursdays. I cancelled. Monty slept on the couch, so I could have the bedroom to myself.
“I need my space to work on grad school applications,” I said, gesturing at my laptop and the books I’d taken into the room. He stood in the doorway, arms crossed, before slamming the door. I stared at the Ark menu, my cursor hovering over the play option, thinking about going after Monty. But I told myself that he would get over it, that he didn’t really know I wasn’t working on applications. And anyway, Shade needed me. I was probably his only friend, his only human connection. I hoped that his curiosity about me would lead him to Instagram, where he’d see that the real-life me was beautiful and fit and popular, and then he’d be even more enamored with me.
Shade and I successfully built a new house by the waterfall. It was a two-story metal home, with greater interior space than the stone one. We flew our griffin, Argentavis, and Dimorphodons to the new home, abandoning our other dinosaurs that were too slow to make the trek. We worked on building turrets around our territory. We finally had peace and comfort, which made me worry that we were running out of things to do and soon our interest would diminish. I secretly wished some other players would come and raid us. Then we would need to rebuild.
“Are you happy you let me join you?” I asked him, mixing berries and water to paint our house red.
“Yeah,” he said, yawning. “Probably would’ve quit if I was trying to do all this by myself.”
“Me too,” I said, smitten that I was his reason for playing the game.
“I have a surprise for you,” he said, leading me to a pen around the corner. There were two wyvern eggs sitting on the ground, protected by a fence, warmed by torches.
“One’s for you. Our babies,” he said, laughing. “When they hatch, we’ll have to feed them every three hours in real time for two days. Are you free this weekend?”
“Yes,” I said, beaming. “I can’t wait.” I knew Shade cared for me; he wouldn’t have wanted to raise babies with just anyone. I figured that this weekend while tending the eggs, he’d ask to go on a walk by the waterfall, and he’d stand his avatar close to mine and ask if he could tell me something. I’d say yes and listen to him confess his adoration for me.
I logged in at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, expecting Shade to already be online. He wasn’t. I sat in front of my computer, reading a book, refreshing the game, refreshing Discord every few minutes for an hour. I felt awkward, like I was sitting alone at a restaurant, waiting for my date to show up. As the hours passed and he didn’t login, I figured something must’ve happened in his real life: someone called in sick and he had to go in to the factory; his grandmother died; his apartment burned down. But I was still hurt—if some tragedy had befallen me, I would’ve sent him a message letting him know I couldn’t play.
I checked the online players log Sunday morning. He wasn’t listed. I refreshed it on my phone all day. He never logged on. When I got home from the gym, I signed into Ark, hoping he’d see me online and would join. He didn’t. I sent him a message on Discord.
“Hey, what’s going on? Are we going to hatch those eggs?”
“It’ll take too much time,” he typed.
“Okay, well when are we going to play again?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m done. I’m bored.”
My chest tightened. I reread the message. I chewed my bottom lip, thinking he must have a girlfriend who’d found out about us and was making him quit. Or in just a moment, he would send another message saying that he was joking, that he could never be bored of me, of the life we’d created together within the game. But as the minutes passed and he said nothing, my skin began to prickle from the grim realization that he had never liked me. I gripped my laptop, unsure of what to do with it anymore. I felt nauseous, thinking of the possibility I wasn’t the seductress I’d thought I was, thinking of the seventy hours I’d lost over these last two weeks for a relationship I’d fantasized.
My character stood in the living room of our metal house, which now seemed hollow and inhospitable. I ran outside and flew the griffin to the beach. A new player was on the shore, gathering sticks and building a thatch house. I considered asking him to join me, so I could take him back to my base in the hills, give him a rifle, so he would think I was powerful and generous and beautiful, in-game and in real life, so he would think of me all day and look forward to playing with me every night—but it seemed as exciting as it did sickening. I clicked my mouse, killing him and his dodo. I shut my laptop and walked to the living room.
Monty was lying on the couch. I sat beside him, and he placed his hand on my leg. I rested my head against his chest. He put his arm around mine and I wrapped my leg around his. We laid there for hours, glowing in the light of the TV.