Editor’s note: We hope you enjoyed Robert Myer’s recent piece, “The Great American Cultural Eclipse,” and the many themes made available through its hyperlinks. Here, in a similar format, is our first post of 2018. Happy New Year!
– Maria D. Vesperi, Executive Coordinating Editor, Anthropology Now Projects
Lots of children become enthralled with a favorite cartoon character. There’s nothing unusual about American kids growing up watching Cars 2 or Frozen until every line of dialogue is burned permanently into the minds of their parents.
Two-year-old James Hofer isn’t into any ordinary cartoon character. He’s into Spike Vegeta.
“Every time Spike Vegeta is on screen—and he has a really unique voice—and every time he comes on screen James would, like, freeze and stare. Be like: ‘Woah. Spike,” said Tim Hofer. Tim is the two-year-old’s father. “And yesterday we came down the escalator and he was there.”
Kia Hofer, James’ mother, jumped in to describe their first moments at the Summer Games Done Quick (SGDQ) conference held in Minneapolis Marriott City Center lobby in Minneapolis, Minnesota this past August. “He was like the first thing we saw. And that was a positivity moment.”
Kia said Tims was excited to meet such a young fan: “He was like, ‘Whoa, babies!’”
Spike Vegeta, born Asa Tims, is a videogame speedrunner and commentator with a globe of curly hair. He has dedicated much of his life to beating videogames as quickly as possible, and made a name for himself by narrating the increasingly intricate, esoteric techniques required to set world-record times. His mile-a-minute, booming, gregarious conversations make it easy to see what thousands of viewers on the videogame streaming website Twitch.tv like about him, the Hofer family included.
Speedrunning unites a community that has gone supernova in size over the last decade. What began with small pockets of players sharing personal bests has grown to become an international, multi-million-dollar phenomenon. Speedrunning is almost always an online experience: players stream live video of their efforts from home and fans watch in real time or view highlights later on YouTube. But in-person gatherings do happen. The biggest of them all takes place twice a year, when the speedrunning community meets in the flesh for the marathon event called Games Done Quick. It’s a full week of showcasing some of the best gamers ever to lay hands on a controller, back-to-back, 24 hours a day. More than 1,600 people attended the August 2017 marathon, and viewers online numbered in the millions.
The next marathon begins January 7th, 2018, and promises to draw a similarly massive crowd online and in-person at the Hilton Washington Dulles event center in Herndon, Virginia. Speedruns can be viewed live online for the duration of the week, and even if you’ve never so much as beaten a game of Minesweeper there are a few reasons it might be worth watching.
Games Done Quick has been called “a modern day Olympics.” As Pokemon speedrunner Steven “Keizaron” Eisner put it, “This is our Superbowl.” The event is also a charity fundraiser—in 2017, Summer Games Done Quick donations added up to nearly $1.8 million for Doctors Without Borders. Awesome Games Done Quick 2018 is likely to raise even more to benefit the Prevent Cancer Foundation. Most important, perhaps, Games Done Quick is a battle over the values that define this subculture, a tug of war for gamer culture’s soul.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Kia and Tim Hofer recognize good and bad in the fandom culture surrounding their children. All things considered, they believe the value of bringing their family to Games Done Quick lies in involving their kids in a fun, growing community that’s centered on a charitable cause.
“It’s always fun to see games you played as a kid,” Tim said. “But if there’s a good runner and a good commentator and it’s entertaining, it almost doesn’t matter what game they’re playing. It’s just fun to be a part of it, it’s fun to be a part of the crowd. And I guess we’re kind of hoping those same feelings of nostalgia and stuff—that’s why we brought our kids here, maybe they’d feel the same way.”
“Generally there’s a positivity around this event. You hear a lot of negativity around videogames—they’re lazy, or it’s dark, and yes, that happens,” Kia said. “But something that brings people together for a good cause. I like being a part of that.”
She adds one caveat with a grimace, “I mean, yeah. There is Twitch chat.”
Twitch chat is a real-time feed of anonymous comments that run alongside streaming video of the marathon. There, posts are made far too fast by too many authors for untrained eyes to extract any cogent meaning. The chat is chockablock with memes, images, copy-and-pasted jokes or absurd text. With some regularity, users are removed or temporarily censored for posting banned language, images or hate speech, often spurring cries of protest and blasts of ‘spamming’ mockery from those who remain active in the chat.
At one point during SGDQ 2017, the event’s Twitch feed had to be shutdown completely after users flooded the feed with transphobic memes, images and speech in response to the presence of trans women on-camera. This happened during the performance of a speedrunner with the handle Orcastraw, and also in response to Alexis Eve, a speedrunner and trans commentator who served as one of the fundraiser’s on-camera hosts.
Eve, who streams speedruns and posts actively on Twitter as ProtoMagicalGirl, wasn’t surprised to see transphobic aggression flare up. “The negative is kind of an important aspect of discussion about speedrunning as a gaming community. It’s there, you can’t ignore it,” she said. She links the experience she had at SGDQ17 to other acts of aggression and exclusion carried out by videogame fans.
“The culture of Gamergate, harassment, doxxing, is some combination/intersection of fragile masculinity and desperate clinging onto the status quo in combination with the refusal to acknowledge privilege as a thing that exists.”
But Eve said speedrunning has been an important way to build community and find support among people with similar interests, despite problems like the harassment at SGDQ 2017. Besides running and commenting on others’ runs, Eve co-founded an annual speedrunning marathon called Power Up With Pride!, raising money for LGBTQ causes. She continues to livestream online, will return to commentating during AGDQ 2018 and plans to be a part of GDQ into the unforeseeable future.
“As Powerful As It Is Dangerous”
“It’s a really weird, self-contradicting thing. All these things are happening at the same time, with the volume turned up to 11. There’s simultaneously such good and such really awful things happening,” said Alex Van Camp, a digital designer and programmer who helps run the marathon’s massive technical backend. “It’s such a big question and topic, and it’s very much at the center of discourse of the games community as a whole.
“Why is gaming culture and online culture the way it is? And why does it have these manifestations? What can be done to counteract those? How to you effectively keep these communities positive and not self-destructive? These are big questions that people still have not figured out the answer to,” Van Camp explained. “We are responsible for that. There’s this really growing field of data science coming out about: how to you wrangle a real-time chat room of a quarter million people… It is as powerful as it is dangerous. It will hurt people. I’m a straight white dude with a beard and a deep voice; I’m not a target for harassment. But the people around me sure are.”
According to Games Done Quick’s Director of Operations Matt Merkle, the organization’s focus is on maintaining safety and inclusiveness on-site during the event. Merkle said that when selecting speedrunners and commentators, the organization simply looks for content that will appeal to the broadest possible audience worldwide and does not make diversity among on-camera personalities a priority.
“I wouldn’t say we actively reach out for that sort of thing,” Merkle said. “To speak to inclusiveness in general, I think how we run the event is why we see such a good response from those communities. It’s the fact that they feel safe, they feel welcomed, they feel appreciated in general. We don’t have to make exceptions for them.”
Diverse advocates for the value of speedrunning were in no short supply at SGDQ 2017. Kareem Azzazi is one example of a fan who doesn’t fit into the stereotypical portrayals of what ‘gamers’ look like. Despite limited mobility as a result of muscular dystrophy, he attended SGDQ 2017 along with his caregiver, Wael Latifand. Besides watching, he streams himself, playing the popular online game Hearthstone. He’s particularly fond of speedrunning races, pitting two players against each other side-by-side, often completing the games with astonishingly thin margins—think less than a second.
He found GDQ more welcoming than another videogame-based gathering he has attended. “It’s the atmosphere. Actually getting a chance to talk to streamers that I watch, or talk to people.”
“A comic convention, basically, it’s all about making money,” Azzazi said. “This is about community.. Every game has its own community, like a family.”
“They have a space for everybody,” Latifand added.
Trista Michels is another GDQ fan who doesn’t match the standard gamer stereotype. She was one of the very few attendees passionate enough to watch the role-playing game Final Fantasy VII played to completion. It was the longest single block of gameplay at SGDQ 2017, stretching from 1:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.
“This is the first game that I really became attached to. I think the first time I played it, I was 14 or 15 years old,” Michels said. Like Azzazi, she said that the speed running marathon was a better environment than other conferences she had attended in the past. “I go to a lot of anime conventions and things, and there’s of course anime and videogames and people have common interests there. …this is just so much different. I love this so much more.
“Growing up, it wasn’t cool to play videogames. And seeing how many people still play them, it’s just really nice to know that even if that’s the way it was before, nobody cares about that anymore and it’s not that way now,” she said. “It makes you proud to be part of a community like this.”
The marathon serves as a place for reunions among friends who live at opposite ends of the country but are united by their love of a particular game, series or console. Take Steven Rodzinski, Taylor Stone and Brandon Alt, who identified themselves as friends of seven or eight years despite never meeting face-to-face before that day. Though they live in Ohio, Utah and Manitoba, Canada respectively, they’ve maintained everyday contact online as mutual fans of a Starcraft commentator.
Alt said, “The world is changing, and increasingly globalizing in a big bad way, and this is just one of the many ways that comes out of the woodwork. It’s kind of a signifier of that.”
“I think we all just love the nostalgia aspect of it,” Rodzinski said. “There’s always the memories of—for me personally, playing with my brother. But now he lives so far away, that’s not something we get to do anymore. So I get to see these games and say, ‘Oh, I remember!’”
Even a trip to Games Done Quick that goes less than smoothly can be a world-expanding experience. Nicholas Bennett was a first-time attendee at SGDQ 2017, performing a speedrun of the game Mirrors Edge. Despite completing the game as planned, his stage presence and performance were mocked by anonymous viewers online. Shortly after his run was complete, a video “roasting” his performance became one of the most-watched clips from the marathon posted on YouTube. The morning after, he still said taking the risk to play at the marathon was one of the best experiences of his life.
“I’ve never really travelled by myself before,” Bennett said. He plans on returning to Games Done Quick and hopes to run again in the future.
In the practice room of SGDQ 2017, a speedrunner by the name of DoDeChehedron set a new world record for Super Panga World. It’s a modified version of the game for Super Nintendo, full of bizarre, trap-filled levels designed to be nearly impossible. Beating the game at all requires abnormal focus and absolute mastery of the game mechanics; to beat it faster than anyone ever has before realistically demands years of practice. “It’s a pretty cool feeling,” DoDeChehedron said after completing his run.
“Everyone has their own thing that they’re best at. This just happens to be mine and I’m lucky enough to be able to show it.”
He then asked that his full name not be used in any coverage of the event—he doesn’t want the speedrunning community to interfere with life outside of GDQ, and Mario’s 8-bit world.
One might say that nobody got more out of SGDQ 2017 than Jeremy Wells, Grassroots Mobilization and Fundraising Events Manager for Medecins Sans Frontieres, (MSF) known in English as Doctors Without Borders. Wells was on-site throughout the week, offering information on the group’s humanitarian efforts to anyone who was curious. He was stunned by the speedrunning phenomenon.
Before Doctors without Borders was chosen as the beneficiary of SGDQ’s fundraising efforts, “I’d never heard of this thing in my life,” he said. “I’m still shocked by it… it’s a new and empowering thing.”
Marathon organizers began soliciting donations on behalf of Doctors Without Borders in 2013 and immediately became the non-profit’s biggest fundraiser. During the week of SGDQ 2017 alone, the speed-running community donated $1,792,632. In the four years Doctors Without Borders has received Games Done Quick’s support, the event has pulled in a grand total of nearly $5.3 million. But the value to Doctors Without Borders goes further: “Our average donor is 68 years old. In the long term, it’s developing—the more people in different communities who know not just what we’re working on, but the situations we’re working in the world, the more we can help our patients. So we’re really excited to branch out, and to this community, definitely a younger community.”
Asked why speed-running fans donate in such force, Wells said, “We all do things to create a sense of legitimacy for our passions and our beliefs and our actions in the world. So maybe there’s a bit of that in there too.”
Games Done Quick is a way to make good for a group that has not lived in the spotlight. For half a century, video games have been largely sidelined as a low form of entertainment or a childish hobby. Passionate gamers have been used as punch lines, or simply ignored. But building on the shared experience of playing videogames provides a stable foundation for further engagement.
By existing as a digital community first and foremost, both of these efforts are able to act fast, and harness the power of large groups of people. Critics of the GDQ’s leadership have called for greater transparency in how donations are used, but that has not stopped the money from pouring in. For example, when hurricane Harvey flooded Houston, Texas, GDQ organizers assembled an impromptu effort in response in a matter of days. Less than two weeks after the hurricane made landfall, Hurricane Harvey Relief Done Quick had amassed more than $300,000 for the Houston Food Shelf.
Charitable giving is incentivized during GDQ in a number of ways. Prizes are raffled off to those who donate, with larger sums earning a chance to win more expensive items. When certain dollar amounts are reached, new games are added to the lineup, or a special factor may be added into the speedrun—like requiring the player to wear a blindfold and navigate the game by sound alone. Naming rights for in-game characters often go to the highest bidder, and even something as small as the name of a saved game file can draw hundreds if not thousands of dollars.
But one ‘bid war’ always towers over the rest: at the end of a game of Super Metroid, players can either free a cage full of small, cute animals, or shave fractions of a second off their run time by leaving them to die on an exploding planet. Hundreds of thousands of dollars pour in over the week as viewers register their support for saving or killing the animals. It’s perennially one of the most talked-about parts of the marathon and a source of endless banter among players, commentators and attendees.
In the midst of marginalization, videogame fans formed tightly knit subcultures. But the same process that builds strong connections can breed intolerance for those beyond the group’s norms. It has been suggested that online discussions about games served as some of the early platforms for discourse now associated with the ‘alt-right’. Gamergate, a bitter internet-based struggle that broke to the surface in 2014, revealed how powerfully sex and gender could provoke videogame players to organize acts of aggression online and in-person, and the term became a rallying cry for then-fomenting efforts to form alliances related to other social issues.
By fueling philanthropy and defying tired stereotypes, Games Done Quick may slowly reshape normal expectations of what gamers look like and how they act, although the organizational has had inconsistent success in preventing exclusionary or toxic elements of gamer culture from defining the speedrunning community. Like pixelated little Schrodinger’s cats, the Super Metroid animals straddle a position between life and death, waiting for the speedrunning community to make up its mind. The legacy of the organization—whether this group will stand for philanthropy and community or be merely a blip in the dark history of gamer culture—hangs in the balance in much the same way.
Graham Clark is a consultant, journalist and cartoonist based in Los Angeles. He has studied the political history of popular media at New College of Florida and USC Annenberg, with a focus on comic books. He currently holds the #13 fastest recorded time for 100 percent completion of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater on Nintendo 64, which is even less impressive than it sounds.