'Gaians,' Bowling, DJ Helsing, Oh My! Online Community Hosts 'Real Life' Gathering

See a slideshow of the costumes and games.

Raccoon and bunny tails. Pirate and samurai hats. Pizza and bowling. Teenagers and snooping parents. Anime and Manga. Virtual versus the real world. And DJ Helsing behind the microphone on behalf of Gaia Online. That's what Saturday at Lucky Strike in Downtown Houston was about.

Maybe you've heard of Facebook -- photos, status updates, poking, etc. Well, Gaia Online is sort of its geeky, Anime, virtual reality cousin. Users spend countless hours customizing their avatar (a virtual representation), playing various interactive games, and messaging in forums, all in the hopes of accumulating digital gold. The appeal didn't make much sense to Hair Balls ... until we logged on and created an avatar of our own. But that's beside the point.

Saturday night was, as DJ Helsing put it, "Gaians coming and meeting in real life."

Everyone wore name tags, most of which had user IDs. According to DJ Helsing (aka Chris Castagnetto), the event mananger for Gaia Online, the aim of the real life events was to put a face to the user names in the hopes that some in attendance will create real connections. You know, real friendships. Seems like an outdated concept at times.

Gaia Online, which has over eight million users across the globe, hosted the "meet-up," with Castagnetto, 24, serving as MC. Before the bowling began, after welcoming the group of 200-plus Gaians -- some of whom drove as much as eight hours to attend -- he unveiled some sneak peaks into developments on the website. It was almost like a mini MacWorld, with the attendees hanging on each slide, ready to cheer every new element: from new weapons for avatars to possess to an "OMG Hat" to the expansion of "Buccaneer Boardwalk."

We swear, this all makes sense once you use the website.

​This was No. 14 of 20 meet-ups Gaia Online will host across the country this year, but the only time the event comes to Houston. Each gathering brings anywhere from 150 to 450 Gaians to a single location.

Midway through the evening, those who opted to dress up for the occasions were able to display their creativity in a runway-type setting. One by one they came to the front of the crowd, introducing the inspiration for the outfit and waiting on audience applause for approval. The clear favorite was the Caption Hook-like costume, worn by Melissa Logan. She was dressed as Pirate Ingrid England from Axis Power Hetalia. (No explanation. Apologies.) For her win, she was awarded a small card, granting her online character a "Wing Anklet." Logan was clearly disappointed: "The other items were amazing," Logan said afterward. "I just have bad luck." The OMG Hat was among the other items.

Hair Balls wondered how parents felt about the gathering, if they were worried about their kids coming to a location and meeting people they had, in most cases, only known on the Internet. We found one parent hiding behind a column, trying to catch a glimpse of her 16-year-old daughter, who was with her new boyfriend. "We were a little worried at first, but when we got here and saw some of the other kids, we were fine," said Tammi Sturm, who drove in from Sugar Land.

Before the evening came to a close, many of the kids sought out Castagnetto for a photo. He smiled, posed in different positions and we believe we saw one or two autograph requests fulfilled.

We too wish to one day be a big-damn-deal online.

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