Thousands of people stand patiently outside a movie theatre in Vancouver, Canada. It’s below zero, and a thick crust of white snow covers everything in the vicinity. There’s a light buzz in the crowd, as many of those in line excitedly rub their covered hands together, standing huddled with friends while sipping coffee or cocoa. Others sit in a small circles on the ground, playing networked games on their DS or PSP’s.
Any normal person walking past a crowd like this might expect the line of predominantly 20-somethings to be lining up for the opening of latest Hollywood blockbuster. But this crowd is different – a second look finds many of them with dog tags around their neck, shirts with slogans like “own3d” and “teh_pwner”. Most of the conversations are gaming related – everything from Starcraft to Halo 3.
No, these people aren’t waiting in the cold to watch “I am Legend”, they’re waiting to see the latest episode in a gaming related “mockumentary” about a pro-gamer named Jeremy. They’re at the “world premier” of Pure Pwnage, Season 2.
In any sub-culture, sufficiently developed, icons will form. References will be created. Heroes will form. Pure Pwnage (if you believe the story) was originally developed as a film school project by its creator, Geoff Lapaire who plays Kyle, along with his friend, Jarett Cale who plays Jeremy. In May, 2004, the first episode was released online to a quite significant 800 downloads. It’s estimated that today, after 18 episodes that the global worldwide audience is 3 million.
The story is loosely based around the life of Jeremy, a self described pro-gamer who lives in Vancouver, Canada. Each episode highlights a particular series of events in a limited story arc – people see Jeremy’s life through the camera lens of his “brother” Kyle. In each episode, people are introduced to Jeremy’s way of life, (as a young unemployed, undersexed, socially inept male) his friends, his hangouts, and most importantly, his ambitions.
The success of Pure Pwnage is unlike any other of its kind. Internet film is not a new art form by any means, but never before has a purely amateur web-serial captured the imagination of so many. But why, and how?
Gamers are aging. The average age of a gamer, as documented by industry researchers GfK is a whopping 33 in Australia. Other studies internationally provide similar statistics. People see part of themselves in Jeremy, whether it’s the part they suppress in public and only reveal to their gaming friends or the geek pride they show openly, which is generally more common in today’s mainstream gaming society.
And with that, PP has perfectly gauged the vein of the community. Jeremy at the beginning may seem a bit strange, almost like a characature, but as the series evolves so does he. Obvious “gamer stereotypes” such as girlfriends and basically meeting women in general are explored in a interesting way. He moves out, finds a job, finds a partner, but at the same time keeping true to his passion – gaming. There’s everything in Pure Pwnage – revenge, jealousy, sadness, and a simple message to the outside world – “We’re here, and we’re just like you”.
But not all modern gamer-made video is fighting the stereotypes in the exact same way. “The Guild” is another web-serial that explores another element of gaming lifestyle but adds a slight bit of eccentricity and a little bit of exaggeration for good measure.
In “The Guild”, Codex, played by writer and professional actor Felicity Day, a group of MMORPG addicts are forced to transfer their long standing online relationships into the real world after a series of events finds them dragged together and pushed out of their game world. Each episode is about 3-7 minutes long and usually ends on some sort of cliffhanger. Unlike PP, The Guild has a professional crew, most likely due to Day’s connections.
The Guild, like Pure Pwnage, doesn’t take itself seriously. A lot of the humour and jokes would find a lot of confused faces outside of the gaming community, but at the same time, the same message is clear. Day herself originally conceived the series after her own 2 year experiences with an MMORPG, and wanted to show people that not all gamers were 50yr old men living in their parents basements.
But its not like the members of “The Guild” are without their issues. “Zaboo” is a extremely unstable stalker, obsessed with Codex and convinced their online flirting equated to offline love. “Clara” has never truly adjusted to marriage and kids in suburbia, spending all of her time invested in the game. “Bladezz” is your standard 18yr old megalomaniac and “Tink” is a beautiful but self-obsessed teenager, relentless in her quest for “loot”. And “Vork” well, heh, you just need to see him to believe him.
While “The Guild” relies much more heavily on gaming culture for it’s humour, its unlikely anyone wouldn’t have met someone who has a little bit of a guildie in them. The fact that all of the actors are passionate gamers themselves pushes the belief and allows people to connect with the characters. It’s a little bit grating sometimes to hear some of the actors use “leet” speak in fluent conversation but the serial is filmed so phenomenally well that you’d almost think it was part of the natural language.
But the sad reality behind the laughter is that the majority of these productions take a heavy toll on the teams behind them. Lapaire has written on his website’s blog stating that even after a very successful few years, not a single television or cable show has shown interest in broadcasting PP or any simular project. The series is almost completely self-funded, with revenue from TV shirts and other merchandise propping up the limited budget. PP saves on bandwidth costs for distribution by using BitTorrent and global mirrors to distribute their video, but the amount of time and money needed for each episode prevents regular release.
Day ran out of funding almost immediately after filming 3 episodes. After making a plea to the surprisingly already large fanbase, she was able to raise the money from the the community within a very short timeframe. As a result, the team signed an exclusivity deal with Microsoft regarding distribution for the second season to remove issues with funding. Video was exclusively shown on Xbox Live, MSN video and the Zune marketplace for no fee. With the extra funding, the team was able to regularily release the serial on a regular basis.
It’s unknown, but doubtful, if any of the actors are paid for their work, but its obvious in the way that the productions are produced that they don’t do it for the money, but for the passion and dedication they show to their communties. Gamers have always been willing to lend a hand in the name of their culture – whether it’s helping children in the name of it (Penny Arcade’s Child’s Play charity) or writing, filming, drawing or generally creating to contribute to it.
Gamers can laugh at themselves. They know they are geeks, but they are proud of it. And in whatever form they use to express it, we gain yet another insight into the mind of the gamer. We are not all fat nerds living in our parents basements, but part of wider society. We are doctors, lawyers, consultants, garderners, scientists. We are a significant part of the world and a little more then a tiny sub-culture. But being a gamer doesn’t define us, it is simply a part of who we are.
Film has always been a boundary that breaks the mould of stereotype, and I look forward to what it will show us about ourselves in the future.
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