Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Are You Weird? Not on the Internet! #NeverWeird

Nothing weird or dorky to see here.
Ever feel like you don't quite belong? That something you do, or something you're interested in sets you apart from other people, but not necessarily in a positive way? I've certainly felt that way. I geek out about something or make some dorky joke and just get blank stares, or people suddenly find something intensely interesting somewhere else. Before sci-fi and fantasy were considered acceptable fare by the general public, I was into dragons and magic. I liked Star Trek. Hours ticked by while I played games on my computer. And role-playing games? When, where, and what type of character is needed? Don't play? I'll show you the ropes. Online role-playing games? Woot! I spent a number of years playing a MUD (multi-user dungeon, basically a text-based online game) originally named "F-----" (sorry, gotta avoid infringing on a trademark owned by some ocean-adjacent spellcasters). Eventually, I moved on to be a builder, creating large portions of the world. When the trademark owners decided they wanted to get in on this whole online gaming thing, giving an ultimatum to the owner of the MUD to buy a license or shut down, I spent a hectic several days converting the entire world to remove any trademarked words and change descriptions. I spent hours every day playing, building, and running quests. After a few years, the game took a hiatus. Although I helped start it up again, I realized that it took over too much of my life and that I had to give it up. I scaled way back, ultimately quitting the game.

But no matter how geeky my interests, I still held back a little bit so I could "fit in" (sorta) with "regular" people (not to mention my fear of getting sucked into something that would eat up all of my free [and not-so-free] time). And because of that, I wasn't quite geeky enough for the geeks. The really hard core gamers? I might as well have had three heads when I showed any lack of knowledge about the latest game. I'm weird. And I'm proud of that.

The internet, however, is something of an equalizer. No matter what your interests, no matter how odd your sense of humor, you will find a community online that accepts you and welcomes you for who you are. Online, you never have to worry about being "weird". That's one of the big messages in Felicia Day's new book, You're Never Weird on the Internet (almost).

If you're into geek culture, you probably know who Felicia Day is. If not, I'll give a little background. You might know her from several acting roles, including Vi (one of the potential slayers) in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer; Penny in Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog; Charlie on the show Supernatural; and Holly Marten on Syfy's Eureka. But what she's probably best known for are her web series The Guild and her multimedia production company and YouTube channel Geek & Sundry. An avid gamer, Day has become something of a geek icon.

Never Weird is Day's memoir. She writes about her, uh, rather unconventional upbringing. Day was home schooled, but not, she writes, for religious reasons. She was home schooled for hippie reasons, but not "full hippie...[m]ore hippie adjacent". She didn't have a set curriculum and never actually received a high school degree. Instead, she grew up with a variety of lessons, like violin (from the age of 2½), ballet, water color, cross-stitch, martial arts. Basically, whatever was on offer at the local community college. Oh, and math. Her grandfather was a physicist, and there was a big drive to impress him talking about things like the Pythagorean theorem. She also spent a lot of time with computers. Her family was an early adopter of the whole online thing, and Day found a home in games like Ultima and their online forums. She went on to get a full scholarship to university at 16 years old (despite having no GED) and graduated (with a 4.0) with degrees in violin and math.

While an interesting read, the story of what has made Day "weird" isn't the best part of her book. The truly striking parts come toward the end, where she writes about her adult life (so far) and the lessons that came out of her experiences. After college, she moved to Los Angeles to pursue her dream of being an actor. Day shares how video games helped her cope with the harsh realities of L.A. In real life, she appeared in commercials (the prop to the product "star") and in the same "quirky secretary" type of roles over and over. But online, she was a powerful warlock. She had friends. She fit in. She was important. Yet, like any addiction, it consumed her life. She kept putting off her idea of writing a TV pilot. She neglected her friends and family. She let her auditioning slide.

But eventually, a small group of friends helped motivate her to get going on her script. The result was The Guild, which drew heavily on her experiences. It's also what shot her to geeky stardom. Day started appearing at conventions. And toward the last few seasons of The Guild, she started working on her company, Geek & Sundry. That's also the time she sank into depression.

While it may seem counter-intuitive, Day's success was part of the problem. The series was so popular that she didn't feel that she could deliver anything as good, that her efforts would be a failure destined to disappoint her fans. Add on the fact that something that had been such a big part of her life for the past several years was coming to an end, and starting her own company, the stress overwhelmed her. Day speaks candidly about her battle with depression and anxiety (at one point, she mentioned that if she'd been an animal in a former life, she would have been a dik-dik), and about how she didn't really realize she had a problem. She thought she could deal with things on her own. A big problem with depression is that your own brain works against you, driving you further and further down and away from those who could really help you. There is help, as Day discovered. She also learned that she had a thyroid problem that contributed to both her depression and some of her physical health problems she had been experiencing. Hopefully her book can help others struggling with depression realize there is help out there, as well as raise awareness about thyroid and mental health issues.

But depression and how to deal with it aren't the only lessons in Never Weird. Day also writes about the negative side of the internet. One of the things that I've experienced in writing about vaccines is the vitriol and personal attacks from those who disagree with me. I've had it relatively easy, only getting unimaginative insults, but friends of mine have been harassed at work, doxed, and otherwise personally targeted in attempts to silence them. The gaming world isn't free of such behavior, either. Some of you may have heard of #GamerGate. Briefly, this is something that started with a guy posting a lot of personal information about his girlfriend, a game designer, after they broke up, in an attempt to destroy her reputation and cause her as much pain as possible. From there, #GamerGate expanded into a misogynistic, anti-feminist cultural movement, where doxing and rape and death threats aimed at critics of #GamerGate became something of a norm.

For a long time, Felicia Day remained silent about #GamerGate because she had seen what happened to those who spoke out, particularly women. And having had issues with stalkers in the past, Day feared what would happen if she said anything. She eventually did speak out, however, in a post titled "Crossing the Street". The goal of the post was to highlight how #GamerGate and the fear that group generated was driving a wedge between gamers. It was meant to try to bring gamers back together as a community of people who all loved games. Day posted it right before she had to leave for filming. Within a few hours, she got a phone call from her friend, Wil Wheaton. An actual phone call, rather than a text or email, was unusual. He told her she needed to shut down commenting on the post right away. Instead of drawing support, the comments were filled with #GamerGate supporters posting Day's home address. She also became the target of a barrage of insulting and sexist comments on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, pretty much anywhere there is an online presence.

Speaking out online takes courage. It can be very hard to do what you know is right, to fight back against the wrongs being done, especially when doing so will very likely draw personal attacks and underhanded, unethical tactics like doxing. It's one reason that I write pseudonymously, to allow me to speak out while protecting those who are close to me. Day knew what could happen to her if she said anything even remotely critical about #GamerGate, yet she still spoke out. As she writes in Never Weird:
"So if my speaking up made one person feel like they belong or prevented one person from stifling their own voice, then it was absolutely worth it.

Because if you can't be your own weird self on the internet, where can you be? And what would be the point?"
I thoroughly enjoyed reading You're Never Weird on the Internet (almost). Even if you don't know much about Felicia Day, the book is a must-read, especially if you are young. Teens have a lot of stuff going on as they try to define themselves and "fit in". Maybe this book can help them be comfortable just being their own weird selves, knowing that there is always a community that will accept and support them. Day's personality shines through, making for a fun and entertaining read with some very powerful lessons. If possible, try to get the book from a small, local bookseller. But if you can't find it locally, maybe Felicia can help you find it online. And you can keep up by following the hashtag #NeverWeird on Twitter.

Oh, and Felicia, if you read this, I'd love to share a game or game story with you someday. Contact info's over there on the right.

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