Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Forever Weird on the Internet

I got to meet Felicia Day! It was really fun!

I think I first saw Felicia in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, but  I didn't really know who she was until I started watching The Guild a couple of years later. I don't personally play World of Warcraft, but a lot of my friends from a previous company did, and introduced me to the series through the amazing music video one-offs she did for it. Once I started watching the web series proper, I was completely hooked: I'm deep into fantasy, and gaming, and awkward relationships, all of which The Guild totally nailed.

I've avidly followed her career since then. In particular, I've greatly enjoyed her Geek & Sundry YouTube channel, which has a really fresh and positive attitude towards video games and other elements of nerd culture. Her personal video journal series The Flog has introduced me to lots of great things I wouldn't have otherwise known about, and Co-Optitude (a series where she and her brother play through the console games they weren't allowed to play as a child) is always fun.

Recently, she has shared some funny promotional videos for her new book, You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost). The book just came out, and I was lucky enough to attend an interview and book-signing with her at the Jewish Community Center here in San Francisco.

The event itself was fantastic. It was moderated by Jane McGonigal, who I hadn’t heard of before but sounds very interesting - she recently finished writing SUPERBETTER, a book about the neuroscience behind gaming. That shared background with Felicia made her a perfect interviewer.

The whole program is available online if you'd like to see it!

The overall event was very funny - Felicia is a quick thinker, with perfect reactions to a bunch of small unplanned things that occurred throughout the evening - but also very inspiring. She talked very frankly about her successes, the steps she took to achieve them, and the unexpected hardships that resulted. She spoke encouragingly to other people who want to become creators, sharing both specific and general advice in completing your projects and bringing them to the world.

Two things from the talk especially stuck out to me. One was Felicia’s optimistic view of fan culture and the way it can bring us together as human beings. As she pointed out, a lot of the topics that are most important to us as individuals are also things that divide us from others. If I start talking about religion, or my political views, I’ll immediately alienate a good number of people. Similarly, people who come from different economic and cultural backgrounds will find it harder to relate to one another, since we don’t share the same experiences and reference points. Nerd culture, though, instantly transcends and cuts through all of those differences. If you’re obsessed with a particular show/game/book/movie, and find another person who shares that same obsession, then it doesn’t matter what race they are, what gender, what school they did or didn’t attend. You feel an instant sense of connection with them, and suddenly have a way to relate and enjoy one another’s company.

I don’t think I’ve ever heard such an eloquent defense of nerd culture before, and it really resonated with me. Like a lot of people, I’m more or less ashamed of the things I love. I always feel kind of guilty when I talk about entertainment that I enjoy; it feels like I should instead be talking about the DEEP things, the things that REALLY MATTER, and not nattering on about some made-up stories. I think Felicia makes a great point, though. There IS value in the connections this shared culture enables. It’s a means of bridging the gaps between people, and can open the way to increasing empathy and understanding. That’s a very good thing!

The other thing that particularly resonated with me was her inspiring rhetoric about creativity. How important it is to work hard and bring new things into the world. How we shouldn't worry about the people who will scoff or devalue the work we do - there's an infinite supply of criticism available on the Internet! - and should instead pay attention to the people who receive joy from our works. Even if only a handful of people enjoy the thing we do, we're still making the world an incrementally better place by making new things that they can love. And creation is not only a gift from the maker to the consumer, but it's also a privilege, a way to commune and communicate, to share our thoughts and ideas.

That's something I immediately took to heart. As I sat there in the auditorium listening to her, I immediately thought of my own Shadowrun campaigns, which have been a major aspect of my personal creativity over the last two years. By many external barometers, they have been quite successful: well over twenty thousand people have played my games, they've been highly-rated, and I continue to receive many kind compliments from people who have enjoyed them enough to take the time to write me about them. And yet, I feel weirdly ashamed about them. I think that might partly be because very few people I know personally really understand the franchise and the lore; any time they come up in conversation, I try to change the subject as quickly as possible, afraid of... I don't know what, exactly. Boring people, or revealing an unsightly passion, or revealing that I cared too much about something and thus opening myself up to hurt if other people dislike it.

After hearing Felicia talk and reading her book, though, I became determined to take more pride in my work. Plenty of people don't care about Shadowrun, but that's okay! I shouldn't obsess about that. I should pay attention to the thousands of people who have engaged with my storytelling, and even more than that, I should listen to the hundreds of people who have reached out to share their own joy. I don't know exactly what I'll do with this newfound outlook, but I'm hoping to carry it forward with me into future creative endeavors, focusing on the people I'm reaching and not the ones I'm not.

There was a fantastic Q&A as well. I really liked the format - people submitted their questions on index cards, both before and during the event, then organizers screened them and the interviewer picked a few to ask. I would ordinarily transcribe what I remember of the best questions and answers, but since the entire program is available online, I’ll take a runner this time.

I stuck around for the book-signing afterwards. As usual, I spent some time thinking of a single thing to say before meeting her. I vacillated between asking “Are you looking forward to Shadowrun: Hong Kong” (which had come out that morning) or thanking her for introducing me to Fallen London via the Flog. I settled on the latter. She got really excited when I brought it up, asking if I’d played Sunless Sea yet, and telling me that an upcoming Flog would be covering the latest game. As a veteran con-goer, Felicia is a master at dealing with slightly awkward nerds, and it was probably the best interaction I’ve had with any of the authors or celebrities I’ve met.

(Since then, I've found out that she actually has her own NPC in Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which makes me wish I'd brought up that instead... but hey, that will give us something else to talk about if we ever meet again!)

I was planning to make a separate post when I finished reading You’re Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), but I finished it by the time I finished this post, so… here it is!

First, a tiny little "wow" moment I had was reading Felicia's obsession with the Ultima series. I think we're about the same age, and Ultima was also an incredibly formative game for me. Felicia wrote poetry about it; I drew maps and wrote short fiction. In the book, Felicia talks about how she met other Ultima fans online and the funny/weird interactions they ended up having in the real world; I was lucky enough to have some real-world friends with a similar love of the series, and I strongly related to her reminiscing of shared enthusiasm for the wonderful gameplay and lore of those games.

The book as a whole is a really fantastic memoir. Felicia has a wonderful voice, which you know if you’ve watched The Flog or her various public appearances. She’s very frank and self-deprecating, but also has a wonderful spirit and keen sense of humor. She eschews false modesty, but also places things in their proper context.

For example, during college she was very proud of her 4.0 GPA (while pursuing a double major in mathematics and music performance). She still seems a little proud of it today, but is also very clear that it made absolutely zero difference in the rest of her life after graduation. One of her professors suggested that getting a B might be the best thing to happen to her, which she reacted VERY strongly against, while acknowledging from the present that he may have been right.

Her personal upbringing was fascinating, and she draws a pretty clear line from it to her adult success. She was homeschooled, and grew up with NO friends at all. That was a deprivation in many ways, but the advantage was that, without any peers, she never had anyone to tell her “No” about any of her obsessions. There weren’t any boys around to tell her that girls couldn’t play video games; there weren’t any girls around to tell her that math was hard and dumb; there weren’t any teachers around to keep her from watching Lost in Space every morning. So, by the time she went to college and did start encountering peer pressure to conform, she was secure enough in her likes and dislikes to hold on to the things she loved. If she’d faced those pressures earlier in life, she might have lost those passions, and ended up with a much more mundane career.

Of course, there are also downsides to that lack of socialization. Throughout the book, Felicia is extremely honest (although also funny) about her struggles with anxiety, panic attacks, and imposter syndrome. Ever since childhood she’s had a deeply-ingrained need to succeed, which pushes her to always try harder and never feel like she’s accomplished her goals. Even in situations when the people around her are praising her accomplishments, she obsessively focuses on the imperfections of her creations. That drive has contributed to her career, but has also made her miserable.

One of the major points Felicia makes, and observes that almost nobody else does, is that success does not make things better. As she points out, that sounds like a dishonest thing to say - “If you achieved your dreams, you would hate yourself!” - but she’s hoping to help warn future people who may follow in her path. It’s easy to think to yourself, “Oh, if only I could accomplish this goal, I would be happy!” Then you accomplish that thing, and you don’t magically become happy, and the fact you don’t become happy after working so hard and making so many sacrifices makes things even worse.

The book is extremely frank about her struggles. When she seemed to be at the peak of her career - The Guild extremely popular, she had launched a multimillion-dollar company, and was featuring in a popular television series - she was suffering from depression, had massive health problems, and obsessively thought of suicide.  She’s also very candid about what she did to pull herself out of that hole, including the things she tried along the way that didn’t work.

The last couple of chapters are about her interactions with the misogynistic GamerGate mob, a topic that’s horrified me ever since it began. Much of this is in the public record already, but she shares some additional information in the book that underlies how terrifying the situation was. That whole story is so sad on so many levels. You feel bad for what’s happened to Felicia, and how terror tactics are being used to silence women in the field, but in the context of this book what’s especially tragic is how it seems to strike at the very heart of her optimism about the Internet and nerd culture. Virtually all of her experiences up to that point, from her Prodigy dial-up days onward, saw the Internet as a way of connecting with other people, of discovering like-minded individuals unfettered by the constraints of geography or lifestyle. It’s an engine of creation, of germination, capable of cultivating and birthing wonderful new things that could never be born in the traditional physical world.

The sad take-away from these last chapters, though, is that the Internet can be turned to evil purposes as well as good. It can destroy things, destroy people, crush ideas before they have a chance to grow. Felicia’s solitary nerd childhood allowed her passions to flourish away from the harsh judgment of peer pressure. If she grew up today, though, and shared her early works online, an army of millions of trolls would stand at the ready to crush her dreams into the ground. The Internet is a wonderful tool for bringing together communities of people who share a love about something, but it’s also a deadly tool for organizing hate mobs who feed on each other’s self-righteous anger.

Felicia herself remains mostly optimistic about the Internet. During the Q&A, when an aspiring YouTube vlogger asked her for advice on growing her channel, one thing Felicia emphasized was building a core community who enjoys you and supports your work, rather than chasing a larger number of people who will be fickle admirers. These days, Felicia feels most connected to smaller communities, like her GoodReads book club and her Twitch subscribers. There are many trolls out there, but also lots of wonderful people, and she tries to stay focused on the good.

So, yeah! This was a fantastic book, in all honesty much better than I was expecting. I had hoped for a funny read and maybe a bit of gossip. It delivers, but it’s also a very engaging personal story and has some very valuable insights on navigating the digital world we live in, how to accomplish our goals, and how to stay happy and sane while doing so.

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