Pixel Vixen 707, Part 1

PixelVixen707When PixelVixen707 was first getting started and sending out friendly e-mails to various bloggers, in the one I received she asked me why I used a pseudonym. The inspiration mostly came from one of my favorite periods of American literature where authors using fake names played an important part in magazines and newspapers. Petroleum B. Nasby wrote a weekly column mocking the Confederacy in the voice of a pseudo-intellectual Yankee and was read by everyone from the President to soldiers on the march. Mark Twain, which is the warning phrase a riverboat navigator shouts when the boat is at neutral depth, became famous for his hilarious travel books and satires. In Europe, the pseudonym was often a way for women to get more sales while men used them to post scandalous jokes. George Eliot, who wrote the long (but worth it) masterpiece Middlemarch, is no more real a person than Mark Twain. Nor is George Orwell, Artemus Ward, or countless other fake names that have been used to produce great writing.

Often these fake names were such wild and vulgar characters that they slowly began to have little to do with their authors. Samuel Clemens had an incredibly tragic life before his alter-ego became famous. By the end of his days, many people claimed he would alternate between the two identities, revealing Clemens to steadily fewer people. If you want to read some of the most incredibly withering comments ever conceived, just read some of Orwell’s articles attacking pacifist politics during World War II. He was not someone you picked a fight with lightly. Yet in person, he was sickly. When it comes to fake identities and writing, their biggest function has always been to find a way for big ideas to come from big places. Mark Twain had a witty remark to every question, could drink you under the table, and smoked cigars constantly. Samuel Clemens could only pretend to be such a wild person.

At the core of PixelVixen’s character was the idea of being the ultimate punk rock gamer girl. The author of Personal Effects, J.C. Hutchins, which was the book the website connects with, says in an interview that one of the biggest inspirations was the website Suicide Girls. If you’ve never visited the website, a variety of tattooed and pierced models that fall far outside mainstream definitions of beauty post nude photo shoots. Hutchins explains,

“The women at SuicideGirls aren’t just…gorgeous, they’re brilliant. They’re geeky, they’re empowered, they take shit from no one. As I poked around and explored the site, I was like, “This is exactly the kind of person that my hero, Zach Taylor, would be with.” It absolutely informed the creation of Rachael.”

The tattoos, the music references, all of these things became a part of Webster’s character.

The very first post on the blog shows this original angle for Rachael by being about Rock Band. She muses on the merits of plunking away at a plastic instrument, her punk rock days, and praises the game for finally giving her a chance to play a decent female character. She writes, “Rock Band isn’t a rock instrument simulator: it’s a rock experience simulator. It creates a democratic fantasy: unheard of in RL: where every race, creed and sex can share the stage.” Such musings were both a reflection of the role Rachael was intended to be, the ultimate gamer girl, and the difficulties of how to present such a concept. In a medium dominated by male empowerment fantasies that constantly objectifies and hypersexualizes women, how does one create a strong character who is never bothered by such things? In a later post she wonders, “Do women who write about games have to write about sex?” The post, along with her subsequent pieces, sticks with the promise of only mentioning it if it’s relevant.

As a reviewer, she was good. You got a pretty thorough run-down of where the game was bad and where it was good. Rachael could always do this with apt analogies and a few good jokes. Her piece on GTA IV points out the limits of the simulation (there aren’t enough people or pigeons in the city) and the satire is the usual stereotypes Rockstar uses. Sharply critical of the Wii Fit, she ends up comparing it to young adult fiction and how uninspiring the game is in contrast. In video games about teens and young adults, anything is possible. They have their whole lives ahead of them. She writes, “The Wii Fit knows we’re over the hump: and so it never tries to change us. It just pats us on the head as if to say, “I know you’ve already given your best. I expected nothing more.” The post on Far Cry 2 was one of the first to praise the game’s attempt to reflect the player’s immortality through the game design. The Joseph Conrad quotes don’t really help the game’s point, but the malaria mechanic which constantly reminds you of how sick your avatar is certainly does.

And then the day the truth came out. PixelVixen707 was an ARG designed to promote a book. The timeline of Personal Effects takes place during the week she posted the fatal essay, so it adheres to the plot of the book. Links and places mentioned in the blog go nowhere or don’t exist. It details her having a crazed encounter with a serial killer, so people naturally did some snooping and figured out the truth. My reaction to the revelation was the exact same as Mitch Krpata’s. Whenever someone starts a blog post with “I love my boyfriend” I try to do them the favor of skipping it. But as Krpata notes about the whole ARG, “That’s pretty awesome. Can’t imagine the planning and dedication it takes to execute a stunt of this magnitude.” As a huge fan of Andy Kaufman’s comedy work, I couldn’t help but admire a well played stunt that didn’t really have any negative consequences on anyone.

And for all the hubbub, PixelVixen kept on writing. The nature of being a girl gamer would come up again in a post on Rock Band 2. She points out the strangeness of winning a female merch chick, essentially a groupie who wants to make out with you. Since they were both female, Rachael pondered whether this was adhering to rock culture or gamer culture. A Harmonix writer in the comments chimes in that they were indeed tapping into fan culture and how the merch chick is in love with the band, not you in particular. She addresses the issue of guys coming onto her because of gaming through a mock shmup session. When one friend starts getting a bit close, PixelVixen offers a personal explanation for why such things must always be deflected. As old as it is true, she gives a great take on the friendship talk. Rachael explains, “The way this works is, some people you meet, and you share a story together. You’re in it for the long haul. And other people? You give each other a few minutes of laughs. You meet and ricochet off each other and move on.” For the fantasy of the ultimate gamer girl, it’s no surprise such a thing had to be said over and over.

Her review style began to adapt and evolve as well. Not content with just talking about content and design, she began to broaden the topic into talking about games outside their context. She rags on Little Big Planet for its strange British Imperialism as you play a little Sack Boy looting items from various countries and taking them home with you. Rather than just analyze Crayon Physics Deluxe, she contrasts her solutions to puzzles with her boyfriend’s creative ideas. Whereas she would just draw a line and win, Zach always drew an elaborate solution and ended up getting more out of the game. One of her best reviews was for the FPS flop Fracture, which she got obsessed with playing for a weekend out of the hope that it would redeem itself. She writes,

“I spent that time looking for something – a glimpse of the passion that made them launch this project, a sign of the excitement they must have felt at the idea of making the ground quake or the fires rage or just making the sniper rifle reload feel just right. Some sign that the artists on the boss design tweaked the jumps and bad-assed the head and grinned when they first watched him stomp the dirt with deadly force. I wanted to find some sign of the love – the love of games, the love that kept people late at night, later than I was up playing it. Maybe some of that’s in there. Buried. But I never found it.”

Even GDC proved to be a challenge Rachael was up for meeting, claiming that she would be there and that people could meet a person who did not exist. A friend would distribute various cards with a code to be deciphered while Rachael herself wrote reports on the conference. Her writing presented a side of the conference I only saw a few other people address. Absent were the longwinded summaries of speeches that everyone was covering and instead a more personal tone was presented. She wrote about the camraderie that people have for one another after meeting up for years and closely reported what the indie developers were saying. Her support for the Heather Chaplin rant was interesting because it talked about how less macho games were important for more than just women. There was an entire audience of men who weren’t interested. She explains, “There’s a spectrum of masculinity and femininity, and endless ways for both boys and girls to respond to it. But in games, aggression is the default, and relationships are usually as clumsy as a third-grade dance.” Although critical of some of Chaplin’s remarks, Rachael is quick to point out that few would argue games could not stand to broaden their horizon.

Every critic, whether it’s in a review or just a rambling blog post, is imposing their vision of what they think video games should be. Rachael’s vision seemed to always ground herself with the argument that a game should be open for anyone to enjoy. In a post about the nature of professional gamers and leagues she opines that they are mostly a step backwards, “Kill your alpha geeks. Kill your Goddesses. The only diff between you and whoever’s the champion of gaming is that they’re a better shot. So get out there and practice.” She extended this even to game auteurs, arguing that a game was ultimately about vision and it separated from creator once it was released. She argued against my concern about the growing resemblance to hipsters that hardcore gamers were developing because elitist cultures don’t work in video games. She points out that Penny Arcade is almost “Christ-like” with their inclusiveness for anyone except the occasional extremist. They are also the most popular video game critics on the scene. With her constantly changing styles, sarcastic gender discussions, and punk rock attitude, Rachael chiefly believed that video games should be enjoyed by everybody.

By April of 2009 the blog was steadily branching out into new territory. A one-time review for the music group The Dirty Projectors was followed by the announcement that she would be blogging bi-weekly for Suicide Girls. The work there is solid, covering everything from Grim Fandango to Planescape: Torment but the arrangement would ultimately not last. The users of the website are there for women they can look at and talk to, while Rachael was only capable of one of those things. A post about why you should write a gaming blog almost reads like a goodbye letter. She writes,

“Why start a game blog? I already stumbled on the answer: writing about games is as much fun as playing them – probably more. In fact, the writing is the game. We swap links and post comments like soccer players scoring assists. The best points score a goal. And everyone’s on the same team – which maybe breaks the analogy, but, no worries. I’m just glad to share bandwidth with some of the best bloggers on the globe.”

The next to last post, detailing the capstone of a New Games Journalism playthrough of Final Fantasy VII, ends with a discussion about Aeris. Criticizing how crassly the game’s overtures to care about Aeris can be, she admits to still feeling responsible for her death despite having the event spoiled. Knowing now that this was possibly intended to be the final post, you can’t help but wonder about the analogy. Rachael was never real and everyone knew that, but it didn’t spoil the dynamic as much as you’d expect.

Various writers have tackled the mystery of the ARG known as PixelVixen707. Matthew Wasteland wrote an excellent essay detailing the history of the website and her creator’s interviews. One of her defenders after the truth came out, Chris Dahlen, points out that everyone writing online is like an ARG. He writes, “We all have to become such characters in order to fit ourselves online: a little smarter, a little funnier, a little brasher or moodier than we are in real life. The fictional properties we love are doing nothing more than meeting us right in the middle.” Speaking as someone who took inspiration from writers who used pseudonyms in the past, I can’t help but agree. L.B. Jeffries, as a character, is a combination of numerous styles and writers that I channel into how I want my work to sound. He’s the dry informative tone of the crotchety Professor from The Paper Chase with the wit of Pauline Kael but tempered with the sincerity of Samuel Johnson. Anyone who has met me in real life can assure you, the real thing is rarely up to such standards. So for me, I don’t really take much offense that Rachael Webster was a little bit too perfect at times. Super smart, loves video games, knows all the indie bands, reads all the cool books, always chill, always ready with a joke, happy to talk to anyone…these are impossible standards for any human being to maintain. But I think most people like the idea, and most try to put on a good show for our readers. On the internet, perhaps we all become the characters of our own ARG.