When Mark Kilborn was a kid, bullies mocked him because of his weight and picked on him because he was a “nerd” who enjoyed playing video games. Girls pretended to like him, only to embarrass him for the amusement of their friends if he dared respond.
For Magnus Hollmo, a thin and fragile kid who preferred drawing or working on his computer, the abuse was not only verbal, but physical. And there was no escape: The bullies persecuted him during school and then hunted him down after.
Racist bullies tormented Shahid Kamal Ahmad throughout much of his childhood, so much so that it “made me dread every waking and sleeping moment,” he told NBC News in a recent interview. “Life was unbearably dark and hopeless for a long time.”
But that was then, and this is now. Years later, Kilborn, Hollmo and Ahmad are part of Beyond the Final Boss — a project started by video game professionals in an effort to show young victims of bullying that, no matter how miserable life might seem, it does get better. Much better. And they are living proof.
After all, these days Kilborn has a wife and children he adores not to mention a dream job as an audio director for best-selling games like “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3” and “Borderlands." Hollmo is an art director at Electronic Arts who has worked on “The Sims” and says that, "Every day I am surrounded by things that I only dreamt about as a young boy."
As for Ahmad, he's not only a senior business development manager at Sony Computer Entertainment, helping to shepherd games onto the company’s machines, he started the Beyond the Final Boss project along with respected indie game developers Mike Bithell and Byron Atkinson-Jones.
After a conversation on Twitter revealed that they all shared something in common — a young life marred by bullying — the trio created a website and Facebook page where game professionals could tell their stories about being bullied ... and about going on to live happy, successful lives.
Like the It Gets Better project, which reaches out to bullied LGBT youth, Beyond the Final Boss' goal is to give kids hope, Ahmad says. To that end, they named the project after the final, toughest enemy that players encounter in a video game and gave it the motto: "We were bullied, but then we won. You can win too."
"When you're being bullied, practically your whole existence is dark and saturated with pain," Ahmad said. "We want youngsters to know that the path they're on doesn't end at the feet of the final boss — that there is life and fulfillment and light and happiness beyond the final boss."
And he says the response has been stunning. As word has spread, game makers of all kinds and from around the world have begun submitting their stories. (Go here if you have a story to tell).
"In a way, you can say that bullying got me to where I am today,” Hollmo writes on the website. "It made me more introverted and instead of being able to be social, I focused a lot on my art and computer knowledge. I learnt skills that helped me get my first job in the games industry.”
And now, he says, “My life today is so completely different in all ways possible. I get to work with something I love every day, and I even get paid for doing so! I am surrounded by amazing and creative people."
Kilborn believes that game makers are in a unique position to reach the victims of bullying.
“Often people are bullied for being smarter, more creative, or just different from their peers. These traits are what we in the industry often seek in our team mates," he told NBC News. “We're also the creators of a form of escapism often used by victims of bullying, so that might draw more victims to our message. I hope so at least.”
And Kilborn's message to kids who are suffering is this: "I want them to know that outcasts often are victims of bullying, but they're also some of the most successful people in the world. What makes you different, what makes you a target, is often what will make you successful in the world."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedettiand you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.