Maybe you've heard of Shirley Curry, aka the Skyrim Grandma, who became a YouTube celebrity in her 80s thanks to videos where she explores Bethesda's open-world RPG and its many user-made mods. A combination of wit and a welcoming tone (her first video began, "Hi, this is Gramma Shirley and I'm playin' Skyrim! I thought I'd like to take you along with me if you'd like to go,") have won her thousands of devoted followers.
But Shirley isn't the only "grandma gamer" on YouTube. She's one-quarter of a group who call themselves the Grand Dames, four older women who play a variety of videogames and meet virtually once a month to record a livestream tea party for their collaborative channel. They have their own merch, including branded teacups, and a following who see their age not as a novelty but a feature. They bring a huge amount of life experience to their videos, and aren't afraid to speak their minds.
"The Grand Dames started last year at PAX Online, the very first online PAX, and the title of our PAX panel was Tea With Grandma Gamers: Grandmas Talk Shit About Games," explains Dame Jessa, the organizer and informal boss of the Grand Dames, as I talk to all four over Discord. "Although maybe it didn't say 'shit', it had a bunch of cartoon curse icons."
The Grand Dames defy expectations of both older women and videogame dorks. They aren't sitting in front of a fire working on their needlepoint, and they aren't boasting about killstreaks. Though there are topics they disagree on—monetization in The Sims 4 brings up a lot of passionate feelings later in the interview—they all agree their approach to games isn't typical of most 'gamers'.
"We definitely identify as grandma gamers," says Jessa, "but I've never really thought about myself as quite a gamer. And that's because there's a very narrow definition for a lot of people what that is, and also the idea of who that gamer tends to be: young, white, male. Then there's the negative stereotypes: living in his mom's basement, unwashed—and I've been to PAX West, so I know the unwashed part. Merrie, back me up."
"Truth!" shouts Dame Merrie, the cowboy hat-wearing Texan Borderlands expert of the group.
"Truth," Jessa laughs. "I hadn't smelled some smells like that since I'd been to Paris, there were some heady smells there. But anyway, seriously though, I'm learning that I love identifying as a gamer now. However, I still see myself primarily as a storyteller who uses games as the tool to tell the story, rather than being a gamer who plays games to win them, beat them, that kind of thing."
Each has their own channel and their own specialty. For Dame Jessa it's story-heavy RPGs and The Sims 2 in well-constructed custom neighbourhoods, for Dame Merrie it's co-op games like Borderlands, for Dame Shirley it's pretty much just Skyrim, and for Dame Britta (the only non-American in the group, joining our video chat from her home in New Zealand), it's JRPG series like Atelier, Ys, and Shin Megami Tensei. Each came to videogames via a different path.
The Borderlands Babes
Merrie has been playing games longer than any of the others, and longer than many of her viewers have been alive. "I got in about 1977, '78," she says. "My first game was Pong. We literally had the Atari console at home and sat there all weekend with the little paddles, 'doot doot doot!' And then from there into all the other games, the Pac-Man, Galaga, all those things that followed. But of course, raising a family, you don't play as much. It wasn't until I was older that I sort of realized, 'Hey, I think I'm actually a gamer.' I've been doing it a long time."
Different as they seem, modern multiplayer games can still provide that same "sitting around the Atari" experience, and it's cooperative games like Left 4 Dead that Merrie gravitated to. From there, she got into Borderlands and has broadcast her playthroughs with a group called the Borderlands Babes.
Like every Borderlands player I've ever met, when I mention that Borderlands 2 is my favorite she brings up the fan-beloved Tiny Tina DLC. "When I finished it and the credits are rolling—and if you played it, you know what happened—I was just sobbing," she says. "I was crying. It brought out that much emotion in me, and I felt every bit of her pain. It was like, 'Oh my god, I can't believe y'all did that to me.' When a game can bring that out, and you're just crying! I think I did scream and cry as bad as Tina, but I guess I get very emotionally invested in the storyline."
She'd been drawn in by the art style and the opportunity to play with friends, but kept coming back for the characters and dialogue—though paying attention to that when her friends were talking over the top was sometimes a challenge. "I had to turn on the closed captioning," she says.
The JRPG genius
Dame Britta, who wanted to be a pianist but ended up director of an electronics company, calls herself "the newest gamer here". She got into videogames with JRPGs like the Atelier games in 2013, and has witnessed that series grow from a niche concern in the west into hits.
"There was a lot of preconceptions around them as being kind of girly games," she says, "because the protagonists were pretty young girls in nice frocks doing alchemy, and people said, 'Bah, that's not a real game!'" That changed with the success of Atelier Ryza and Atelier Ryza 2, the 21st and 22nd in the series, and viewers started asking Britta about them. "People say, where have these games come from? Why have I never heard of them before? So I get a lot of people coming to me asking me a lot of questions about Atelier." In the end she made a video about how to get into Atelier that runs for almost 20 minutes.
Britta also lists the Disgaea series among her favorites—infamously long and mathy tactics RPGs that, like Atelier, have been known to put people off. "They're not for everybody, that's for sure," she says, "but they're incredibly inventive and creative, and have a lot of very zany wacky humor in them that really appeals to me. You've really got to knuckle down to play them and to get through them. A lot of people are surprised when they start them up because a lot of JRPGs look cute, like they've got these cute, drawn characters and that Japanese style—they love the cute, kawaii thing. Like with Nintendo games, you think, 'Oh, that looks cute. That's probably for little children.' You start playing it, and it's just hard as nails."
The benevolent mastermind
Jessa, like Merrie, played Atari in the early 1980s, but got into games more fully closer to the end of the decade when she was at college and found MUDs—the Multi-User Dungeons that were the text-based ancestors of today's MMOs. "That was back when there was a computer room and you had to sign up for an hour of time," she recalls. "Nobody had laptops. No, none of that existed."
It took several more years before she had a home PC of her own to play games on. "My first computer game on my own computer was a game written by Raymond E. Feist, who is a fantasy author," she says. "It was called Betrayal at Krondor. And that was in 1993." That led to more RPGs, and eventually video series like the one where she roleplays an elven druid in a modded version of Pathfinder: Kingmaker. "I've always been drawn to story-based games," she says, "games in which I could go into a different world. I basically say that I'm a gamer until somebody creates a holodeck."
Her ideal game for making stories is The Sims 2, which she's been playing since 2004. "I was single at the time and I just remember that I played the Sims 2, when it first came out, every night," she says. "Pretty much every single night unless I had some other plans—which I really didn't—for a year maybe? And I had this whole long, wonderful mystery story. There was a murder mystery, I kind of did Agatha Christie in The Sims 2 complete with a dead body and everything. It was great."
Part of the appeal of The Sims is that it gives you enough control to create that kind of story, to put Sims in situations of your own devising and then stare down through the rooftops from above like some kind of god as consequences play out. "And you get to find out whether you'd be a benevolent god or an evil mastermind god really fast," says Jessa.
I ask Jessa why she sticks to The Sims 2 (which remains the favorite of many modders), and hasn't moved on to the latest in the series, The Sims 4. "It is the worst frickin' money-grabbing piece of crap game!" she says with vehemence. "I hate it."
Jessa then apologizes to Merrie, the Sims 4 liker of the group, who is also the Grand Dame with a weakness for DLC and cosmetics. Britta on the other hand doesn't care for them. "If it's cosmetic I have no interest in it whatsoever," she says. "My fashion sense is very low." Having seen her rock an outstanding pink hat I'd disagree.
The Skyrim recidivist
Though most of the conversation has been thoroughly polite, with everyone taking turns and Jessa playing organizer, patiently waiting until last, the group gets a little more raucous having this back-and-forth about DLC. It's obvious why viewers of their monthly tea parties enjoy this, the 'Grandmas Talk Shit About Games'.
When Shirley chips in to say, "The only thing I would pay for is a better, improved Skyrim," Britta exclaims, "You've got a very straightforward life, Shirley! Skyrim rules your life and that's it." In her defense, Shirley says, "I can't find anything else I like!"
Shirley's story is well-documented, including by us. Though you'll occasionally see her play Ark, or a horror game while wearing a skull mask for a Halloween Shirley after midnight special, the open-endedness of Skyrim keeps her coming back. "I don't rush through the game just seeking quest after quest till I get to the end of the main quest," she says. "There's so much more to the game. When people get on my comments and say, 'How many times have you beat Skyrim?' I absolutely hate that phrase."
The popularity of Shirley's videos brought her to the attention of Bethesda, who plan to base a character on her in The Elder Scrolls 6. There's also a Shirley mod for Skyrim that adds her as a follower who tells stories based on adventures she's had in her videos, and which she recorded the dialogue for. She even recorded combat grunts, though Shirley says they were only a small part of the whole and actually quite easy.
"The thing that I kind of disliked," she admits, "and I haven't said anything to the developers because they're so good, but I think she says, 'Hold on there, tiger!' too much. I mean, she says it for various things. Even when she runs into the character. At least Lydia and some of the others would say 'Ow!' Like it was my fault they ran into me. But Grandma [Shirley], she says, 'Hold on there, tiger!' I don't know why."
Time for tea
These loyal mod-makers, YouTube followers, Patreon patrons, and PAX audiences enjoy spending time with the Grand Dames both in games and out of them. But why now in particular? Jessa has a theory: "This last year we had a global pandemic and it took away from people, early, a lot of their grandparents. A lot of people lost their grandparents last year. And when we started the Dames, I wasn't thinking about that at all. I mean, before the Dames even started we did the PAX panel, Britta and I were at the panel and both of us were very surprised how many people said, 'Oh, this reminds me of my grandmother.'"
My apologies if that made you cry like Merrie at the end of a Borderlands DLC, but it's an important aspect of why the grandma gamers matter right now. As Jessa goes on to say, "Even people who didn't lose their grandparents, but can't, literally can't see them because they're unable to accept visitors or we have to stay separate, we want to let them know, like with Merrie and co-op gaming, that there are ways that you can connect with your grandparents."
Filling in for absent grandparents isn't all the Grand Dames are about, however. Jessa has plans for the future. "The short-term goal of the Dames is to continue to spread the joy that we spread in our livestreams," she says. "The long-term goal of the Dames is to be an advocate for the underrepresented in gaming, to the gaming developers particularly. I would love to be asked to go to gaming developers and play their games and say, 'This is what you need to change to make this more accessible for more people.'"
Jessa mentions adjustable text size as an obvious improvement more games could make to improve accessibility for older players, and anyone with limited eyesight. The Dames see accessibility for older players as especially valuable so that more people in nursing homes can play them, "rather than having passive entertainment like television."
Shirley: I'm not a tea drinker.
Jessa: You're fired!
Shirley: I drink coffee.
Merrie: A little shot of whiskey in there too.
Shirley: No! Not anymore.
Jessa: That's actually news to me because we've built this whole thing about, you know, the tea party?
Britta: I think Shirley is pulling our leg here. I think she's fibbing. We've seen her on a livestream, I remember you had a special tea brew, something to do with Skyrim? I remember it.
Shirley: Somebody sent me two little burlap bags and they had tea put in them. One was oolong and one was something else, but they gave 'em names like skooma and mead and stuff like that. I had to have a cup that night because I had to show it off to you guys.
Jessa: Oh, if it's drug-laden she'll drink it.
With luck, the rest of us will benefit from this when we're older too. "We're a variety of ages, but we're paving the way," Merrie says. "All these 30-year-old gamers are someday gonna be 60, 70, 80. And they're going to know that we're already doing it, and you don't have to stop just because you're retired."
Britta mentions that she read an article about "gamer burnout" recently, and was surprised at the idea games could seem overwhelming, or like a chore. "I think we are all old enough here, us ladies, to know that the moment you lose interest in something you've got a problem," she says. "All of us never have a problem pursuing our interests and that's what keeps us going every day. We know there's only so many days in a life. That becomes very clear as you get older and you jolly well make the most of it."
"The only way burnout comes to me, it's because of my age," says Shirley. "I don't get tired of the game, but yeah, after weeks and weeks of playing all the time I get tired, and I just have to take a week or two weeks off and just rest."
"Maybe we know how to take breaks and limit our time," adds Merrie. "We're not doing it for like 12, 15, 20 hours in a row. Because I know younger people, they play nonstop, or they're recording or they're streaming and it's always on. Go, go, go. We can't do that. You know, it's hard to stay up till two in the morning anymore and feel good the next day."
"But I remember well when I did that," adds Shirley, "till three and four and five in the morning!"
"Shirley is the epitome of people's idea of a grandma," says Jessa, "because she has curly white hair and the big blue eyes and the rosy cheeks and all that kind of stuff. But out of the four of us she's the wild one. She's the one that we have to drag back to the hotel, kicking and screaming."
Note: In the weeks between this interview and its publication, Dame Britta retired from livestreaming. World of Warcraft streamer HaughtyChicken is joining as the newest Grand Dame.