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Chile Granny Finds Solace, Celebrity in Online Gaming

AFP-Jiji
Maria Elena Arevalo plays Free Fire, a popular online video game, at her home in Llay-Llay, Chile, on Dec. 19.

LLAY-LLAY, Chile (AFP-Jiji) — Few players of the online video game Free Fire would know that one of their most ferocious opponents — a lithe, gun-wielding warrior in a short kimono and fang mask — is in reality an 81-year-old grandmother from rural Chile.

From her professional gaming chair at home in a small village, the soft-spoken Maria Elena Arevalo becomes a merciless hunter, mowing down rivals in a game in which tens of millions of players shoot it out to survive on an imaginary remote island.

Wearing an apron over a frilly skirt, Arevalo bears little resemblance to her online alter-ego “Mami Nena” — the nickname she got from her only grandson, Hector Carrasco, 20.

It was Carrasco who introduced Arevalo to the digital world of gaming that has given her a new lease on life after falling into deep loneliness following the death of her husband of 56 years in 2020.

“I didn’t even know what a mouse was,” she told AFP at her home in the town of Llay-Llay in central Chile.

“Afterwards, I got excited. We started to play whenever he [Carrasco] could. I felt better because I didn’t think so much about my late husband anymore.”

At first “I didn’t want to hurt anyone,” she added, but with time, she developed a taste for virtual blood.

Today, Arevalo plays at the “Heroic” level — just one short of the highest “Grandmaster” level that only 300 players compete in.

She has four million followers on TikTok and 650,000 on YouTube, where she shares tips with fellow players.

Last year, she visited Mexico City on an all-expenses-paid trip as a Free Fire ambassador for the game’s anniversary celebrations — her first-ever journey abroad.

“All the kids asked me for autographs … It was beautiful. The day I die, I’ll take that with me,” she reminisced.

Earlier this month, Arevalo was named one of Chile’s 100 most important elderly people by the El Mercurio newspaper and the Catholic University for helping break down age stereotypes.

Carrasco is in awe of his famous grandmother.

“It’s totally cool, and I don’t know, I feel like she’s like my best friend and all that,” he said.

‘I’ll keep going’

Three years after starting her Free Fire journey, Arevalo said she no longer feels lonely.

In a nod to her dead husband, a bird named “Benito” in his honor accompanies “Mami Nena” on her campaigns of conquest.

Almost half of people over 80 in Chile admit that they feel lonely, according to a recent study, a major mental health risk.

Ever more older people are finding solace in gaming: A Ukrainian team known as “Young Guard” are prolific Counter Strike competitors, while 93-year-old Japanese Hamako Mori — also known by her alias Gamer Grandma — is thought to be the oldest gamer in the world.

For Arevalo, the online campaigns are becoming harder due to worsening scleroderma, a disease that causes a hardening and tightening of the skin.

But she is not planning on slowing down.

“I love doing this. I’ll keep going as far as I can,” she insisted.