It is dusk. In front of you lies a steep path winding up towards a fortress in the clouds. The city is Solitude, capital of Skyrim, the setting for the popular fantasy roleplaying game The Elder Scrolls. It's a sort of parallel universe, but the strangest part is that your Skyrim guide also happens to be a 79-year-old grandmother.
If you're familiar with the labyrinthine subculture of online gaming then you might know who I'm talking about. For a woman who has lived through a world war, the invention of Pong, and the advent of the internet, Shirley Curry has managed to come out on top in a world unimaginably different to the one she grew up in. Known online as Gamer Grandma, she has won the hearts of 115,000 YouTube subscribers—double the population of the quaint Virginian town she calls home.
Shirley's love for gaming was sparked in the mid-90s when her son installed her first computer, along with a copy of seminal strategy game Civilization II. She obsessively worked her way through the entire franchise until Skyrim brought her addiction to a whole new level and introduced her to the world of YouTube gaming. Thanks to the charmingly named "Jacobthebro" who shared it on Reddit, Shirley's first gameplay video went viral in less than 24 hours. She woke up the next morning to an inbox flooded with 11,000 emails. "I just sat there and cried," she tells me over a crackly Skype connection. "I didn't know what to do with all of it."
As more and more YouTubers become household names, Shirley's story of stumbling into overnight fame by pursuing a niche hobby is rare. But fame has not come tax-free. Most of her waking hours are now spent recording gameplay, fielding emails, responding to comments, and keeping up to date with other YouTubers' content. It is an endless cycle, one that allows little time to indulge in her love of quilting or sci-fi novels, leaving her feeling "trapped" and "consumed."
Ironically enough, Shirley's YouTube fame has actually restricted the gaming she can enjoy to less than 30 minutes a day. "I wish I had time to play for hours like I used to, just for myself. Having to keep it to so many minutes [because longer videos attract less views]… is hard," she says wistfully. But being an eternal optimist who sees the silver lining in every iCloud, she seems largely unperturbed by just how much YouTube has altered her daily life.
Where most YouTube comment sections are characterized by their ability to reach new lows in petty slander, Shirley's videos are flooded with warm comments such as "Please adopt me… I'll bake you cookies." But even she is not without her haters. She alludes to trolls she's had to ban, many of whom accuse her of being a pre-pubescent prankster masquerading as a grandma.
As it stands, Shirley is the only older gamer on YouTube public about her identity, although she insists many more are lurking behind an avatar. "Older YouTubers should use their own pictures and put their age in their profile," she argues. "Then everybody would know there are lots of older people and it wouldn't be such a big deal." In her opinion, a refusal to hide and pretend older gamers don't exist is essential to fixing the online culture.
Discourse around the lack of older voices online doesn't have to stop when we log off either. Change can and should begin IRL. Shirley makes the case that kids these days could take the initiative to bridge the generational gap by inviting older family members to game with them, even if it requires Estragon-esque patience. And does she follow her own advice? "No," she cackles. "But my grandkids think I'm cool."
Behind the celebrity facade, she is just another "noob" slaying pixelated dragons in her pajamas, and for Shirley this is enough. She is yet to cash a single check from her YouTube career, having only monetized her channel in early January. Instead, she seems content to simply keep on playing.
Shirley's diehard love for gaming left me ready to challenge my own grandmother to a round of Tekken, but beyond this what struck me most about our conversation was the idea that within the span of a few decades, older gamers won't be an invisible minority. They will be the norm.
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