Flying the Nerd Flag High

Felicia Day, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost): A Memoir (New York: Touchstone, 2015)

weird1I used to play World of Warcraft (WoW). It feels funny to admit this in public. I started in 2005 after spending the previous four years heavily engaged in Ghost Recon/Ravenshield online play. As such, I viewed WoW as numbering among the childish things. A friend of mine who was, at the time, a nationally ranked Tribes player summed up his disinclination towards WoW by saying, “I already have a job.” But since my best friend had devoted a lot of time to it, and since we were now living on opposite coasts, I took it up predominantly to have some gab time with him. I was never all that great. I just didn’t have the patience for grinding and I just could never master PvP. But I hung in because of the people.

They were a lot nicer than the folks I’d met playing Ravenshield. True, I’d met some cool folks there, but the vast majority of people that I came in contact with in the online FPS community fell on a gamut running from hard right to monster raving lunatic fringe. I didn’t quit when I was subjected to a two hour discussion in coms about where Saddam had hidden his WMDs. I didn’t quit after one of my clan mates hassled me for an hour about liberals (which I’m not) being wishy-washy (which I’m also not). I did quit after I logged on to coms one day to hear one of my clan mates (one that I’d always sort of thought was a right guy) talking about how if he became president there would be one day a year when every American could kill one homosexual. I never logged on again.

The people who played WoW were, mostly nicer, and with a few exceptions my interactions were pleasant. Which is not to say that there was not some weirdness in that community as well. After I’d been playing for a while I decided to experiment with playing a female avatar to see if people treated me any differently. They quite often did. One fool chased me across three zones trying to get me to date him. Yes, that was a thing that happened. Finally I was like, “Look, in the first place, if this was an open PvP server you’d be in the graveyard and I’d be running around with your stuff. In the second place, I’m a dude.” The second thing took a remarkably long time to sink in. Other experiences ranged from slightly nauseating “Yes, Milady” faux chivalry to comments about the quality of my (completely fictitious) boobs. Women of WoW (and of the gaming world generally) I salute you for your willingness to put up with that crap. Men of the gaming world, please grow the fuck up.

In any case, relatively soon the game got boring for me. You can’t build anything that endures in WoW, and it’s really weird to kill a monster with some spectacular effect only to have his friends five feet away go on with their lives as if their colleague has somehow not just been burned to cinders. I got to the point that I would fall asleep while raiding. Want to make yourself really unpopular? Cause a 40-man raid to wipe because you’ve nodded off at your keyboard (“Ahhh Magadh, I see your DPS stream has dropped off dramatically…”). Still, I soldiered on until 2009 or so before I finally worked up the energy to shift to another platform.

In the waning days of my WoW career I tumbled onto Felicia Day’s pioneering web series The Guild. It was funny, mostly in a way that only people immersed in the WoW culture would get. But it wasn’t dismissive of the subculture as, for instance, the South Park episode “Make Love, Not Warcraft” pretty clearly was. At the time, neither I nor practically anybody else recognized how important these little windows into the world off MMORPGs would turn out to be.

Felicia Day’s recently published memoir, You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), makes clear exactly how important The Guild was, although one has to interpolate a bit due to Day’s graciously self-effacing writing style. Along the way, readers learn a lot about Day’s path from a (sort of) hippie home-schooled kid, through double majoring in music and math at UT-Austin, to her current status as one of the most fascinating characters in the modern media landscape.

There is so much interesting stuff in her book it’s difficult to get to it all, but the most interesting story line is that of how she turned her obsessive interest in WoW (and in online gaming more generally) into a media enterprise that sidestepped the established channels of production and distribution and, in doing so, opened up a new path or, more properly, new paths that challenged the media entities’ standard operation procedures. One of the most enduring features of Day’s personality is her love of performing. As a child she sought out amateur theater groups wherever her family touched down. As an adult she showed a remarkable facility for finding creative outlets that didn’t require her to cave in to the expectations of the media establishment. Her ability to do so is the hallmark of her career to date.

There is a lot to respect about Felicia Day. She has a wry sense of humor that illuminates the weird and the beautiful without ridiculing. She is seemingly endlessly creative but, as her story makes clear, also subject to the full range of doubts and personal insecurities. There is a very inspiring quality to this. Even in those areas where she is a virtuoso, Day always also has an element of insecurity. The reader comes away (or at least this one did) with the feeling that pursuing creative outlets it worthwhile simply out of love, and that too is a worthwhile message.

Certainly the saddest part of the book is toward the end when Day describes her experiences with #gamergate. I very much regret that I wasn’t actively posting here when that was going on, if only because I missed the opportunity to support the victims and say appropriately nasty things about the bunch of numpties behind it. Day made the mistake of believing that what was going on was, at its root, some sort of misunderstanding among civilized people. The wave of abuse that she received in return from the gutless halfwits who associate themselves with #gamergate, sadly, came as a real shock. And while she was not subjected to quite the level of aggro received by Anita Sarkeesian, Zoë Quinn, and others, she did get a large volume of exactly the sort of invective that illustrates exactly how timely critical analysis of gender issues in gaming currently is. And she got doxed. Which is bullshit.

Day’s book is light-hearted and enjoyable to read. It’s also important. In general terms it’s important because it gives succor to those people (whose numbers must be legion) who have the creative itch but don’t feel like they have the courage or wherewithal to realize their dreams. But it’s also particularly important because of the role modelling that Day does for girls and women who are generally underrepresented and almost universally undervalued in media related industries. Day has a wealth of the sort of anecdotes about what happens to women in the world of media (i.e. the general unwillingness to take them seriously, the insistence of viewing them as pleasant furniture or potential sex objects, etc.) that make thinking people want to vomit. But hers is a sort of simple unwillingness to play by bogus rules. Maybe that’s not a path open to everyone. But it’s an aspiration that is (or should be) available to anyone.

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