IDENTITY CRISIS! – Chapter 2 – Domestic Goddess / Digital God

With the dishes washed, the living room vacuumed, and the kids out of the house at their friends’ places, the day’s mental check list of boring obstructions to Susan’s real job had been completed. To maximise her work time, she had carefully kept the time spent on her other chores at an efficient minimum. Sure it meant that the dishes had an odd chemical scent from in industrial cleaning fluid they were dropped into; the urn containing Grandma Golding’s ashes were now 45% vacuum bag dust; and the evening meal for The Husband when he gets home is Billy’s home economics project reheated; but sacrifices must be made in the name of true art and entertainment.
Susan’s rig was a permanent fixture of the dining room – in fact, most of the space was dedicated to her equipment – reams of wires, microphones, and waist-tall oblongs of gently humming metal and plastic. It was her Workspace – and where the magic happened.
It was about 10 years ago when Susan had discovered the Internet (only 34 years old! Such halcyon days), already in the middle of the v-log and social networking age. Her lot in life has already been cast as a housewife – partially through social pressures, partly though family pressures, and she liked to think it was at least partially of her own volition – but the ability to transcend her (partially predetermined) role and meet and reach out to new people was like a door to something not too unlike freedom.
With a stretch and a cracking of knuckles, Susan powered the computer on. LEDs flashed and fans began to whir as the computer warmed up and began its boot up sequence. The process of familiar sounds and vibrations was like a religious ritual of a technological persuasion, and Susan relished it daily. She had already set up all the items she’d need today – the top of the range mic, the voice-altering filter, her custom-built arcade stick, and a huge bowl of caffeine-coated candy. The company that produced them had made a sponsorship contract with her last year, and the little things were a total godsend. With them, she could keep the show going at any time of the day, weren’t noisy and crunchy like potato chips, and were small enough to not ruin her diction as she talked. She considered sending an e-mail to the company’s R&D department about them also containing vitamin supplements.
Typing her password, the computer screen showed her desktop. While not visible to her viewers, Susan believed in keeping her workspace tidy and attractive. All the desktop icons were her own custom designs, and the wallpaper changed regularly with images supplied by her fans. Some of them were just so dedicated and generous. A feed of important activity ticked away on the right-hand side of the screen, a mystifying combination of website updates, posts on a scattering of social networking websites, and news reports on the technology and entertainment industry; all colour coded and converted into a shorthand that only she could read.
Today was Thursday, and that meant it was Thursday Night Fights. Keeping her events themed and regularly scheduled ensured that viewers knew when and where to tune in – and its effectiveness was more than evident. Her username these days carried so much clout, you were considered a bit of a luddite if you were an Internet denizen and didn’t know where to find her.
And what was Susan’s username? EmptyWest. It didn’t have any real significance – she came up with it while messing around on a name generator – but it had that level of aloof mystique that a lot of Internet folks like in a username, it was easy to remember, and most of all it was gender-neutral. In her initial forays into online communities, Suzan quickly found that most of them were male-dominated, and not especially nice to those who differed from them too heavily – in ethnicity, gender, or otherwise. Sure, there were safe spaces and more balanced communities dotted around, but what she found was that with the presence of her gender removed from the equation, she was suddenly taken a lot more seriously – and her opinions were actually being taken to heart.
And so, over time, the persona of EmptyWest was created. It just started with a simple blog concerning her grievances with day-to-day life, Seinfeld-style. It was popular, but there were plenty of dissenting commenters. The mundanity of everyday living was not enough for these guys – even if it was satirical. What’s more, a post about her stance on raising young kids came dangerously close to letting the cat out of the bag on her gender, and it took some serious damage control and commissioning a few photoshops before the trolls and haters accepted the idea of EmptyWest once being a house husband, but losing the kids in a custody battle. They really liked that story for some reason.
Then, Susan discovered online gaming. In one of the rare instances where she felt like venturing outside of the house for something other than an errand, she had run into a neighbour – also following the Divine Path of the Housewife, and found that during the slower days, she unwound by playing games online. Basic, undemanding games (at least, in retrospect), filled with bright colours, flashing lights, and a hearty “Well done!” no matter how terrible you were at it. It helped with the hours of nothing happening that seemed to fill every day, and made for good stress relief when the Internet was getting a little too hateful, or the kids a little too demanding; but it wasn’t a fulfilling experience quite like she needed. And then Susan discovered First Person Shooters.
Naturally, she wasn’t stunning during her first attempt, but she had a lot of free time to improve. Getting into competitive gaming was a major catalyst for getting Susan to where she was now – voice chat was near mandatory in the games she played; but she knew full well that if any of them heard her voice, it would be the blogging fiasco all over again.
A little research came up with the idea of disguising her voice. Upon deciding on that solution, it was mere minutes until she placed an order for a voice modulator, which arrived a few days later. At the time, Susan was still keeping her online habits secret from her spouse and kids (Explaining the divorce and custody story would be really awkward), so it was a bit of a trial to obtain the package, and store it all without anyone knowing. What’s more, it became increasingly apparent that the family computer couldn’t keep up with demand for better graphics processing required for the latest games.
Going back to the next-door neighbour, Christine, who by now was becoming a good friend and regular gaming partner, Susan found that the neighbour’s daughter had a graphics tablet that she wasn’t using, and Susan could borrow it if she liked; consider it as thanks for teaching Christine how to improve her rocket launcher techniques.
Susan had actually been a student teacher in a high school art department way back when, and her artistry skills hadn’t entirely left her in the years without practice. She found an online art community, and was very pleased to see that not only were the popular artists making money by doing commissions; the average level of artistic skill set the bar quite low. It would be easy money.
Cut to a few months later, and Susan had quite the arsenal of equipment. Her own laptop that became pride of place in the living room; the voice modulator (that she still used, even now), and enough set aside for new games controllers or graphics card upgrades when she needed it. The hobby was starting to get too big to keep concealed; so after deleting all traces of her initial failed blog experiment, she brought up what she did in her free time over dinner one evening. Billy thought it was cool, and Jen didn’t know that her mom was such an accomplished artist, but her dear husband Peter was a little harder to convince. Not so much because he didn’t believe in what Susan was doing, but because he wanted to protect her. An understandable misgiving, but it was something that Susan took personally.
In his sentiment she saw a reflection of the ‘dudebros’ she dealt with every day in the Blue Nowhere. She didn’t need protection – she had come this far on her own with minimal help. It’s not like the household ran itself. But online, no one questioned her abilities – her actions spoke for themselves, and if questioned, it wouldn’t be about the legitimacy of her actions. Which got Susan to thinking – wouldn’t just… becoming the EmptyWest be so much better than having to deal with the ire she got in real life for just being herself? It’s not as if she left the house much – so putting in the time to fully developing her internet persona would be a simple task.
After that meal, she cleared the table, shooed everyone out of the dining room, pulled out her laptop, microphone, and her new voice modulator – and began to tinker with it. The software it came with was intuitive – and after trying out the voices of a young boy, a big burly man, and a space alien, she settled on a posh, foreign-sounding one. To add a level of mystery to it, she added a custom filter to give the voice a subtle, buzzing distort that reminded her of one of the villains from the Batman cartoons Billy watched after school.
Back to the present, and Susan was still using that same filter. The fans loved it – coupled with the oh so slightly nihilistic username, a persona of a distant and yet charismatic super villain was created. EmptyWest had a cold tone, and played video games ruthlessly, but somewhere in its soul was a kindness that always said ‘good game’ to defeated foes, that linked to the blogs of other internet citizens on its immaculately produced website, and always thanked people for tuning in at the end of every podcast or video stream.
EmptyWest had so little about its personal life available; rumours began to spread like cybernetic mythology. Most assumed that EmptyWest was a dude, but many assumed it was some kind of sentient machine (“but what kind of machine could draw that well?!”), small groups of people applied some of themselves to the blank slate of EmptyWest’s identity. EmptyWest was female, black, Hindu, asexual, pansexual, and a few even thought it was a legendary dragon from some fantasy novel Susan had never read.
The family all knew about EmptyWest by now, but Susan had told them very clearly not to talk to anyone about it. For as many ordinary unassuming people out there who are comfortable with being told that EmptyWest was just an… entity that liked to chat and play games, there were just as many who resented the idea that everything about a person wasn’t bare in front of them; especially in the Information Age, when details on anyone was easy enough to find if you knew where to look. EmptyWest was a bigger person than Susan now, and wasn’t about to go away any time soon.
Taking one of the candies from the bowl, Susan started up her video capture software, logged into her streaming website, and sent out a smattering of Tweets and instant messages that she’d being going live in 5 minutes. Almost immediately the number of viewers of her stream reached twenty. Then forty five, then sixty. She was used to these kinds of numbers, and there was always a group of about ten or so who always appeared as viewing; leaving their computers on at all times with her Channel running in the background. It was strange how they were all so eager to get on the channel, when they’d essentially be staring at a black screen until she started recording. The Fighting game to be played today was Uprising: Shounen Hot-Blooded Fighter!, an indie game from Japan (called APURAI-ZE: Moeyo! Abareru STREET over there) that had only seen an international release at the start of the month, but Susan had already been playing since the closed beta – and had the combos and special juggles of Kou Fireblade memorised.
While the game loaded, she checked the comments in the chat. Most of the attendees this evening were regular viewers of the Thursday Night Fights, and were saying hi to each other and asking how their days had been.
XxBaja_BlasterxX: Yo yo yo wassup people
XxBaja_BlasterxX: so hyped to see some uprising footage
Batmanarchist: yeah man I’m actually playing to day wish me luck
XxBaja_BlasterxX: lol man ur gonna get stomped
It was wonderful to see her fans interact like this – though there were so many, it became difficult to keep track of them all. It was time to settle into the EmptyWest persona for the evening.
EmptyWest: I wish you the best of luck, Batmanarchist.
EmptyWest: You’ll be sure to need it.
Skillless Baggins!!: Give him hell, Batman!
The chat log quickly filled with tens of voices clamouring for a solid beatdown, most rooting for EmptyWest, but with some cheering for the underdog. The game loaded, and EmptyWest turned on the video recording. For all the viewers the video window burst to life, showing the energetic and shrill opening cutscene for Uprising: Shounen Hot-Blooded Fighter!. You could tell that the people working on the game didn’t have a particularly large or well-funded development team – the two minute opening looked abysmal, a storm of gigantic eyes and backgrounds of flames that had undoubtedly been taken from a search engine result. These were the kind of people that put all the time and effort into the maths and mechanics of how the game played – anything aesthetic had been done on the absolute cheapest solutions available. But then again, it’s what the fans wanted. All the while, a loud and incomprehensible Japanese pop song was accompanying the terrible artwork. It had about 5 different guitars, a synth that was a fraction of a second out of time, and the vocal talents of someone who sounded 15, and probably deaf.
With one last crash and wail, the opening gave way to the main menu. Now as a good time to turn on the microphone.
Welcome, ladies and gentlemen to another Thursday of pulse-pounding combat! I know all you bloodthirsty fighting enthusiasts have been waiting all week for the purely Japanese spectacle that is Uprising, and you can count on EmptyWest to satisfy all your violent desires. What’s more, any of you can participate, and get a chance to trade blows with the very best! For all of you who aren’t familiar with how to get in on the action, or if you need to get hold of your own copy of Uprising, all the details you need are available at ‘the Empty West Show dot com, forward-slash Thursday’.
And without further ado, let’s get it on!” The chat log went wild with cheers as Multiplayer Online Mode was selected, and an animation of a battle-hardened 12 year old with spiky green hair looked around with binoculars, signifying the game was searching for opponents. It was only about twenty seconds before a long queue of waiting and ready digital warriors began to amass on the screen. EmptyWest would have no shortage of victims to take down a peg.
The first battle started, and things went reasonably smoothly. EmptyWest was well-protected against having any technical errors, short of having the electricity cut out; but situations where the other participants that were notably rowdy and uncooperative could prove to be a headache; and would ultimately drive down the number of viewers. Thankfully, it never seemed to involve a repeat offender – EmptyWest was quick to catch anyone acting out of the ordinary in the chat logs, and anyone she missed, a group of about 10 or so viewers long ago volunteered to be moderators, clearing up messes when she wasn’t around to handle it herself.
It was never said so overtly, but The EmptyWest Show was a ‘safe space’, an area of the internet where any bigoted language was entirely barred. Due to the competitive nature of video games there was bound to be some trash talk, and that was okay, but any mention of ‘bitch’, ‘fag’, or worse was a one-way ticket to having the offender turfed out and banned. Fortunately, many of the fans embraced this unspoken rule. Even if they didn’t all realise why exactly viewers were made to vanish based on what they said, the idea that they were somehow upsetting EmptyWest was a good enough reason to get those assholes outta there.
Forty five minutes later and the show was still going strong. EmptyWest practising long before the game’s official release had paid off – with the exception of a tense and spectacular draw against Batmanarchist, EmptyWest had defeated all other challenges (even if some of them had come worryingly close). It was time to take a break from playing, so Susan saw fit to relax her EmptyWest persona a little, switched the game to spectator mode, and let the viewers fight amongst themselves as she commentated, freeing her up to also check the chat logs.
It was pretty much what she’d expected, a lot of ‘good game’ being thrown around, some discussion of Uprising’s game mechanics, arguments over who the coolest characters are, a few slightly worrying but inoffensive messages devoutly praising EmptyWest (It obviously couldn’t be their way of hitting on her, but some of those messages got so impassioned she could never be sure) and –
Pacmaninoff: IT’S ALL BULL SHIT
Woah. This was out of the ordinary. Angry people on the Internet are hardly rare, but this one message was without a context and most of all, typed in Caps Lock. Worrying. The chat had stopped after the message, as if everyone was waiting with bated breath to see what would happen next, if a moderator or EmptyWest itself would step in and sort things out. And Susan decided to give them exactly what they wanted.
EmptyWest: And what, may I ask, is ‘bullshit’ exactly?
A heavy pause and then –
Pacmaninoff: YOU ARE
That did it, the chat log went wild with a wave of people coming to EmptyWest’s aid, entirely unprompted.
Batmanarchist: Shut your goddamn mouth you don’t even know who you’re dealing with
XxBaja_BlasterxX: what kinda dick just rolls up into the chat and just starts hatin on a dude that’s fucked up man
BanginT1T5: shut up jehonkey wasnt even nobody taling at you
XxBaja_BlasterxX: who the fuck you tellin to shut up
It was quickly getting out of control. After a full minute of letting the other members yell at him – and each other – Pacmaninoff continued.
At which point Susan banned him from the chat. She felt hot and dizzy – starting to hyperventilate just a little. There had been people who weren’t a fan of her show before, some of them rude, but none of them had ever made it as personal as this troll. EmptyWest was a character everyone liked, someone who was always calm, never rude, and strong – not necessarily physically, but emotionally. It was the way Susan had reached out and touched the world, and now this one anonymous dissenter was calling the whole thing a lie; and worse calling other people fools for treating her with any kindness or compassion. And most troubling of all, ‘she’ was used as a pronoun. Did this person know her? Was it a threat that the truth about EmptyWest would come out?
It shook her so badly that her attention drifted from the Show, the people playing Uprising had finished their matches, and were starting to log off one by one out of boredom. The chat log had a smattering of ‘are you okay?’ and ‘ignore him!’, but some of the viewers must have paid heed to his words, as the number of viewers was steadily dropping. Eventually, Susan realised she had left the recording equipment going, and that her panicked breathing was being broadcast to the Internet. She hastily turned off her microphone and shut down the stream without a word.
The chat stopped updating, and the remnants of Pacmaninoff’s message was still on screen. No More Fantasies. The phrase had a strange weight, and seemed to burn on her tongue as she said it to herself. It seemed foolish to take this nobody up to the challenge, a waste of time to indulge him in whatever hateful belief he had, but the urge to read about just how much of a loon he might be was inexorable.
Susan opened a new browser window and typed in the URL.
No More Fantasies.