10 DAYS OF VINTAGE: Day 10
One week ago, I had a chance to talk to Felicia Day, an American actress who has gained considerable renown for embracing her geeky side.
In 2007, Day created a pioneering web TV show called The Guild that focused on a group of disparate characters in a World of Warcraft-like MMO who are nonetheless bound together by their devotion to the game — and to each other as teammates.
After launching The Guild, Day went on to co-star in Joss Whedon's Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, an award-winning musical miniseries crafted especially for the web. She has also acted in shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Supernatural, and Eureka.
Just this year, Day released a memoir called You're Never Weird on the Internet (Almost), that I read from cover-to-cover in a few days and enjoyed immensely. In it, she talked about growing up in the American South, her gaming habits, embracing her geeky nature, and creating The Guild.
With that book in mind, I thought it would be fun to ask her some questions about her early computing and gaming habits. Along the way, we touch on the philosophy of genius and celebrity, and whether it's safe to do an interview while you're driving a car.
I hope you enjoy it.
This interview took place on November 4, 2015 over the telephone.
Benj Edwards: How are you today?
Felicia Day: Great, thanks. [road noises in the background]
BE: Are you driving somewhere?
FD: I am. I'm going to pull over. It's totally fine. I do many, many business calls while driving. Don't worry about it.
BE: I don't want to be responsible for a car accident.
FD: Oh, no..
BE: One time I was talking to Nolan Bushnell while he was driving up to his house in the hills. I heard this screeching noise, and he suddenly cut off. I was thinking, "Oh my God. Where did he go?"
FD: Oh God.
BE: I sat and waited a few minutes, worried that something terrible had happened. But he finally called back and said, "Oh, sorry. I just went through a valley." The screeching I heard was just interference.
FD: Well, I will hopefully be OK. I absolve you of any responsibility for that.
BE: Where are you from originally? Were you born in Alabama?
FD: I was born in Huntsville, Alabama. I lived a lot of places in the south because my dad was in the military, so we moved around a lot for his training early on in my life.
BE: Do you consider yourself to be southern even though your family may not have fit in that well?
FD: I consider myself a southerner. I didn't leave the south until I was 20. Even though I've been in California longer than I've been other places, it still hasn't been as long as I lived in the south, so I guess still, technically, I'm a southerner.
BE: I was fascinated to read in your recent book about your grandpa who had a PhD in nuclear physics…and he liked Hee-Haw. My grandfather was a nuclear physicist too, and he witnessed some atomic bomb tests in the 1950s.
I was wondering if your grandpa ever worked on any nuclear weapon programs — or anything similar that you could talk about without getting killed.
FD: He worked on the Reagan-era Star Wars program — whatever that was called. He also was on the team that helped invent the laser. He was involved in a lot of nuclear technology, within the military and outside with contractors. That was definitely a specialty of his.
BE: In your book, you talked about homeschool and how it made you thirst for human interaction over the Internet. If you hadn't been homeschooled, do you think it would have changed the course of your life radically?
FD: I would be in a different place, probably. I don't know if I would be in the entertainment business, but yeah, I think I would be a much different person, and that's fine too. I'm just happy to take this path that made me a little bit different than most people, but that's something I'm proud of.
BE: You got a violin scholarship at age 16 to University of Texas at Austin, for example.
FD: Yes, I did. I went on a full scholarship to UT for my violin performance, so I started very early because I was homeschooled. I just wanted to get out of the house, basically.
BE: Then you were valedictorian of your class there, weren't you?
FD: I was. I gave a speech on "Finding the Art in Your Science."
BE: I've always pondered the nature of in-born skills and genius. With a resume like yours, you seem like the right person to ask. Since our propensity for skills are mostly genetic, do we have the right to be proud of our talents when they're given to us genetically? How do you feel about that?
FD: Everything that I've gotten in life, I think, I've achieved mostly through hard work. There have been some things that I was drawn to more and that made me work harder on them, and I think that's why I excelled in those areas.
I don't necessarily think genetics drives everything. I think passion, interest, concentration, and determination take us the farthest in life, and nothing is so easy that it is effortless.
I think sometimes people are discouraged — that if things aren't easy and don't come easily to them, they act like they shouldn't pursue it. I think that sells them short, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
BE: I got the sense from the book that there's a strong tradition of higher education in your family from your father and your grandfather's side. Was there a tension between that tendency toward education and intellectual pursuits and your desire to be an entertainer?
FD: I definitely knew that education was something that was a given in my family, so I think that was an advantage. Being smart, learning things, and excelling through education was just part of my life. I don't know if that necessarily rubbed off on my entertainment pursuits, but certainly, being able to work hard and having that work pay off with success at the end is something that's driven me throughout the steps of my career.
Computer and Game History
BE: Let's go way back. What was the first computer you ever used?
FD: I had a Compaq. I don't know exactly which one it was, but it was as big as a table, so it had a very, very small screen with green text on it and there was a DOS prompt and a very rudimentary interface that was so sophisticated at the time. It had a 5.25-inch floppy disk, and it was very, very, very heavy.
BE: That was probably one of the first Compaq machines ever. They were famous for being the first mainstream IBM PC clones.
FD: It was my grandfather's, and he handed it down to us when he upgraded his own.
BE: Did you play games on your Compaq machine?
FD: Yes. We played Infocom adventures — all those text adventures, like Zork.
BE: In your book, you mentioned liking Ultima. What computer did you play that on?
FD: When I was about ten, or maybe even a little bit younger, we got an Amiga. They were sold at the Post Exchange on the Keesler Air Force Base where my dad was stationed [in Mississippi — ed.]. That's when we started playing more graphical games like Marble Madness, the Ultima games, Faery Tale Adventure, and Carmen Sandiego. That's where my love of gaming was definitely born.
BE: Amiga! That is wonderful. Was it the Amiga 500 that had the keyboard built into the unit? Or did it have a separate keyboard?
FD: It had a separate keyboard.
BE: Which Ultima game did you play the most?
FD: I think I played Ultima V the most. That's the one that got me hooked, and then my favorite was Ultima VII, and VI. VI and VII have much better graphics. There was a huge leap in graphics in those. I was stunned at how awesome video games could look at the time.
BE: Ultima VI was my favorite. When that came out, we got it for the IBM PC, and it blew my mind.
FD: Yeah. I know. It looked amazing. There was just no comparing. You could pick up everything and steal it and kill people. The sense of open world playing was very awesome.
BE: Did you ever graduate to Ultima Online?
FD: Oh yeah. I played Ultima Online when it very, very, very first started. It was a much different game than the regular games, the older games. It was almost economy based, and…
BE: It was really hard, too, in the beginning.
FD: Yes, It was really difficult in the beginning. I was still a kid, and I didn't have as much determination back then, so I didn't stick with it as long as I wish I could have.
BE: In the early days, you had to grind away to get a little bit better at your skills, and then somebody would come along who was so masterfully maxed out, and they'd just kill you.
FD: Yep. Exactly. You would die the minute you went out into the field.
BE: I went to a dungeon one time, and it was terrifying. Somebody ran by me and yelled, "The player killers are coming!" My heart dropped into my stomach. A few moments later, some powerful player-mages killed me and took the sword that I spent a week trying to get. After that, I don't know if I played much anymore.
FD: It was a little too ruthless and hardcore for the time, I think.
BE: When you were a kid, did your parents try to keep you away from any particular games?
FD: My mother wouldn't let us play D&D because she though it would lead us to kill people, and we couldn't read Stephen King because it was too scary, but those are the only things that she restricted. Other than that, we did whatever we wanted.
BE: Did you have any game consoles as a kid?
FD: We had an Atari 2600 that we played Tank and a couple of other games on, but that was the extent of it. We never upgraded to a Nintendo or a PlayStation. That was always something that we wanted, but our mother just wouldn't do it.
BE: So you were never a current-gen console gamer at that time?
FD: No. When I went to my friends' houses, I was really envious, but for some reason, my mother had this thought that computer games were educational but the console games were not.
BE: Did you ever get into computer programming?
FD: I was interested in hacking. I got the hacker magazine — was it 2600?
BE: Yep, that's it.
FD: I collected it. We would make friends over the dial up and local BBSes, and I would have this fantasy about being a hacker, but there weren't really tools for learning how to code around my house. It wasn't something my mom enabled us to get into before college age, and I got really distracted at that point.
My brother is actually a computer programmer himself, so he grew up to embrace all that a little bit more than I did.
BE: I ran a BBS from '92 to '98, and it's neat that you called BBSes too, because it was such a small subculture at the time.
FD: Yes, it was. The storytelling BBSes were really fun, and we would meet up with people at the arcade, which was awesome.
The Birth of a New Era
BE: During one point in your career when you were doing mostly TV commercial auditions, you had an awakening about being true to yourself and pursuing your passions without hiding them. Can you talk a little bit about how that came about?
FD: I was an actor for years, and I was making a very good living, but I wasn't getting as far as I wanted in the areas that I wanted, especially because people didn't really know what to do with me. I was a weird girl. I wasn't standardly gorgeous, but I wasn't very character looking either, and I acted very smart, so there wasn't really a place to put me.
I got frustrated — especially with doing a lot of commercial acting, which is very good for bill paying, but not very satisfying because you're treated like more of a prop than a person. You're not really acting.
Out of that, I started getting really depressed and playing a lot of World of Warcraft and burying myself in that world as an alternative to my own world.
That addiction that lasted about two years, and I slowly got out of it because my friends told me, "Hey, you need to stop playing so much," and I started writing. I ended up writing The Guild, which is my web show that I created in 2007, because I wanted to write about gamers and the way I knew them all my life. I didn't see them being represented in the way that I knew was the truth about gamers at the time.
BE: You are pretty good friends with Wil Wheaton these days. Did his geek identity writing online in the mid-2000s influence your embrace of the geek identity in public? Were you aware of his writing work online?
FD: No. Actually, I knew him from Star Trek and he was friends with my producer because he performed with her at a sketch company. I asked him in season three of The Guild to be a part of the show, and he came in and helped the show take off in a big way, but I was definitely on that path before I met him, and I continue to be inspired by him in many ways, especially with all the work we do together in the tabletop gaming area.
BE: You spoke in your book a lot about being nervous around celebrities, and I thought that was really funny — especially about meeting Nichelle Nichols and running away after an awkward interaction.
I've always wondered: Why are we so nervous around celebrities, and is it reasonable for us to be so adoring and obsessed with them? To contrast, think about doctors as a class who literally save people's lives, and we don't worship them like celebrities. Do entertainers do important work, or is their impact just superficial?
FD: People like to have leaders. They like to have people represent themselves in high positions. There's something psychological where people feel the need to adore people, but not necessarily for their skill sets.
I mean, you're right. The doctors, the scientists, the economists — the people who really change the way that we live are much more influential as an aggregate, but our society tends to sort of deify celebrity in the performing arts a lot more because they're maybe reflecting the emotion of our being, which is probably a lot more organic to who we are as creatures.
I would love to see us adore writers more or filmmakers more, behind the camera. Especially nowadays, it seems that celebrity is all based on appearance. It doesn't show a lot of people a path to success that is viable or fulfilling in a lot of ways.
BE: That's a good point. I guess people identify with celebrities, like you said, emotionally. They can relate to them and what they do without any special skills or qualifications. To really appreciate what an engineer does, for example, you probably have to know about engineering.
FD: You have to be super educated, so yeah, absolutely. You don't have to be as educated to admire somebody who's an actor because it seems as if they don't have a skill set, that they're just being themselves — which is actually not true at all.
BE: Acting is actually really hard work, isn't it?
FD: It's a lot of practice and a lot of skills that you have to develop over the years. Certainly our obsession with reality TV, I think, tends to make that look even more attainable, and to someone who might not have a lot of education in a lot of areas, that seems attainable to them because reality stars don't necessarily come in with a skill set. They just are themselves.
BE: As a woman doing business in the geeky realm, which is often dominated by men, it seems to me you don't make any attempt to hide your femininity or suppress it. Do you think it's important to stay true to yourself as a woman even if it might invite some negativity from others?
FD: When I first started out doing what I do, there were fewer female voices in the worlds that I love — like gaming and science fiction and fandom in general — and the difference that seven years has made is just astronomical. I'm very proud to be a part of that and representing myself exactly as who I am.
Some of my interests definitely are geeky, and my identity is sometimes identified with the ideas of femininity, but sometimes it isn't. I just represent myself exactly who I am, and I think that's what we all should do. We shouldn't be pigeonholed by other people because of their idea of what femininity is and whether we should embrace it or abandon it in order to fit into their idea of geekdom.
We all have our definitions in life — and our lenses that we look at the world through — and my definition of "geek" as a female, coincidentally, doesn't need to necessarily match up to somebody else's. I think that someone shouldn't disenfranchise somebody else just because their definition of "geek" doesn't necessarily match your own. The fact is that we are all better for having our worldviews opened by other people's perspectives so that we can grow and become something we never would've thought we could be.
The worst of geek culture — that really paints a lot of gamers and geeks with an impression that's negative to other people who don't identify as geek — is when people start to reject others due to their perception of how the other person should be, mostly based on the way they were born and their race and their gender. I think it's just a waste of time. It doesn't help anybody to reject people for those things. I'm proud to just represent who I am, and I happen to be a female and I happen to like geek things, and if someone has a problem with the way I define myself, well, I would encourage them to worry about themselves a little bit more.
BE: I have two daughters, and I worry about them sometimes — with everything that's gone on in the last year — because I think they're going to be kind of geeky. I was going to ask you if you have any advice for young girls, but I think you answered that in your last question.
FD: Just the fact that you're a dad who worries about his daughters' identities being swayed by societal pressures rather than who they are is really important.
The more you can do that and provide a world that makes them feel accepted…in liking the things they like versus feeling pressured to abandon them because the other kids at school don't think that they should like those things — that's really what it is.
It's about not feeling alone in the things you like, and I think that's the best thing you can help girls and boys to do. To help them be who they really want to be outside society marginalizing them.
BE: I feel that people like you are breaking down barriers, and I hope those lessons will be absorbed by the new generation coming up — where they won't be so obsessed with rigidly defining other people's identities…
FD: I hope so. That's why I do what I do.
BE: …so thank you.
FD: Well, thank you, Benj. I really like your website, and thanks for interviewing me. I appreciate it.