Gem: Lessons From My Road to Webgame Fame

Lindsay Levine
11 min readAug 1, 2017

Tonight, it’s a crisp 70 degrees in July on the corner of Perry and Hudson. The air is still and silent; only a faint summer breeze could complete the broody, candlelit scene unfolding on our fifth floor fire escape.

The clock reads half past three. It’s been a few hours now since my girlfriend retired to bed and left the living room to me for my insomniac antics. She has no idea that I’m still out here hovering half-awake above Perry’s lonely streetlights.

Dark, quiet Manhattan always feels like a movie to me. Maybe because TV taught me how to feel, and I like pretending to have the city to myself while most of it sleeps. It’s really the perfect night to stay up and watch the moon spin around these West Village buildings.

It’s not that late for me. I think I’ve spent more three-thirties awake than asleep — at least for the last five years. Recently, I’ve been going to bed a little earlier. Things in my life have been… good. I’m happy, I’m coasting. And compared to this time last year, I’m euphoric. But I’ve hit a pause in my regularly scheduled programming.

If sanity is king, mine is in check, and I’m calculating the moves left until checkmate.

Suddenly, convincingly, I’m not sure what I’m doing with my life, who I am, and who I want to be — if anyone but an aging shell whose sustenance is self-delusion.

I guess these are things that trouble everyone from time to time. It’s normal. I’ve been there, and I’m definitely not surprised that I’m here again, if only for a moment. So why tonight? Yesterday I was fine — coasting, remember? And now, I’m decorating this doc with my sporadic, sleepless stream of consciousness.

In my original piece on Medium, I mentioned a webgame that saved my life. For the first time, I feel comfortable writing openly about the game and even about my identity in the game. I’ll refer to the game as TP.

My career in TP began long before I moved to NY, before I thought about being an engineer, before I had any inkling of doing or being anything at all. It was back in 2014, when the days passed like weeks and I lost track of life, anchored at sea in that tired-young-adult-crisis-stricken boat where you wait for answers that never come.

I began as a casual player. I hopped in public games throughout the day, and eventually, I started seeing some familiar faces. These players became friends; we’d group together from dawn to dusk. My competitive spirit finally found a new outlet!!!! I decided I’d try to win the “weekly flair”, a special badge you receive when you top the leaderboard for a week. So for seven days straight, I played all day and night and only stopped to eat. I dreamt in TP. Bad sign.

You either die a casual player, or live long enough to see yourself become an addict. TP has a pretty dedicated cult community that lives both in Reddit and Mumble (teamspeak software). After not too long, pubs became stale, and a few players convinced me to give Mumble a shot. Gem was born.

As I mentioned in my first piece, I made TP my life. I joined the lowest ranked competitive league and worked my way up to majors. I scrimmed and pugged (played scrimmages in the league, pick up games on Mumble) to my heart’s content. In April 2015, I won season 7 of the major league on a really strong team.

Winning a major league season is probably the second highest achievement in the community, following closely behind the community’s hall of fame. When I won, I had just graduated from Fullstack Academy and was about to land my dream job. So if TP was only supposed to hold me off until I, like, got a life or whatever, that… isn’t what happened. Winning season 7 wasn’t enough for me. I craved unanimous respect, the kind only a handful of players before me had earned.

Even though I garnered recognition in the league as a top defender, I also developed a reputation as a rager. I deserved it; I wanted to win way too much, I wanted respect way too much, and I was vicious to players who let me down. It was clear to anyone who bothered to look just how much self-worth I had staked in Gem.

Wholeheartedly, I loathed that part of me. I hated that I couldn’t find a way to both care as much as I did and to forgive my teammates’ mistakes. After particularly ragey games, I’d ask my captain for help. I told him I didn’t know what to do — I cared too much. My emotional investment kept getting in my way. I wanted to change, and I was always apologetic, but I never changed, and apologies were not enough. Before long, I started reminding myself of my father. I made my bed, and I struggled to sleep in it.

In seasons 8 and 9, I made the semis and maintained my reputations as a top defender and as a toxic teammate. On Reddit, I fought all kinds of battles, ruthlessly and recreationally. On Mumble, I used and abused moderator and admin powers. I slandered my name in reckless, desperate attempts to defend it.

Season 10 was the beginning of the end, the first nail in Gem’s coffin. I was suspended by the league for manipulating my draft stock. [What does that mean? At the start of every season, the league holds an auction draft where captains enter with a fixed number of fictional coins to spend on their roster for the upcoming season. During the draft, I dm’d a captain asking that he not bid on me so I could get on a team with my former season 7 teammate.] That was wrong, and also a crime many other players were guilty of committing without punishment. I felt disheartened and targeted, and I ended up quitting the season. My team paid the price, and the list of Gem’s sins only grew longer.

I stopped wearing my season 7 ring around my neck.

It wasn’t all bad, though. Long before season 11, I earned the coveted community contributor flair from the creator of the game — awarded to players who, well, contribute a great deal to the community (I wrote software for and around the game, created content, ran tournaments, etc). In public games and around Mumble/Reddit, my legend preceded me. Players would say hi, thank me for my contributions, and/or criticize me for my vitriolic and volatile behavior.

Season 11, the end of the end. After the season 11 draft, I ended up in a Mumble channel with the creator of the game (LS), the head moderator of the game, and the CRC (Commissioners and Rules Committee) of the major league, following the suspensions of several competitive players. We gathered there to discuss harassment from a certain group of players towards a certain individual (and past instances of abuse, toxicity and harassment). The outcome: three players were temp-banned from all communities surrounding the game, and the punishment for ban evasion was user deletion. It was, by all accounts, a shitshow. As LS predicted, trolls will be trolls, and madness ensued; the night of the initial ban announcements, I recorded a massive channel of players for two hours. The recording — packed full of inhumane remarks and slurs — showed the victim entering the channel and telling us that he struggled to sleep the night he was targeted. One player mocked him and laughed at him; I banned that player on the spot. While I’ve said some inexcusable things myself in game, I couldn’t stomach the lack of compassion for this victim of repeated, unapologetic harassment. I wanted so badly to wipe these players from the face of the game, a community that took me in at my emptiest and loneliest, and I held onto my rapport with LS as my last card to play. More punishments came from my recording, but with Gem’s history, it was a really bad look. I couldn’t be the hero TP needed at the time; no one could have. It’s impossible to “fix” a self-reinforcing subset when they’re a core part of what keeps the league and community alive. I got enough shit for the recording and for my opposition to that group that I felt the need to disappear from the TP world entirely.

It was heartbreaking. In the first weeks of the aftermath, I watched from afar as the league tried to recover from the events, and I actually felt pretty grateful that I got out when I did. I spent my time in healthier, more productive ways, and I eventually didn’t miss it much at all.

Two seasons and a year later, the community seems to be getting along more. I avoid Reddit and the community at large, but one of my best friends still plays, so I decided to sign up alongside a handful of returning vets, with full freedom to drop out at any time before the draft. I thought I just wanted to compete.

It’s the night of the draft. Seven hours ago, the season 13 auction draft began, and I watched as captains filled their rosters with old friends and foes. Out of 48 available spots, Gem was never nominated. What? I’m a former champion, and I would’ve gone for pennies on the dollar. Was I away for too long? Do people think I’m washed? No, that can’t be. Another vet, a two-time champion winning at both positions, hadn’t played since season 9 but went for a pretty penny. So what is it then? Am I just a flight risk? Do captains still think I’m too toxic? Well, this league is all about friendships — none of my closest friends are captaining, and every captain has loyalties to other players before me. Makes sense. And yet, I feel devastated. Why was I not enough?

I could’ve deleted my signup. I could have made the choice myself not to play, instead of the captains making it for me. I thought my stint away after season 11 meant that TP had fulfilled its purpose, and I was free to carry on without it peacefully. But I came back for a reason, as many TP-ers have before me. And now that I’ve bothered to look again, I see how much self-worth I still have staked in Gem — how much Lindsay’s identity relies on the fame and fortune of an online character.

Part of the game’s appeal is that, at its size, it’s actually feasible to become one of the best players worldwide. Here are some comments from a 9-month-old Reddit thread ranking the top 10 NA players of all time per position (offense/defense).

I let myself believe I was one of the best in the game. Some others did too, I suppose. And even though I still believe I’m one of the greats, tonight’s draft showed me that I need my peers to reinforce that belief, to inflate my ego. Without that validation, I feel close to worthless.

Before TP, I had nothing, was nothing — only a body and a mind in limbo. I was no longer an athlete, no longer a student, no longer employed. In facets of my life outside of TP, I am average, at best. I feel average, at best. (And whether or not that’s okay is a whole nother discussion.) I knew TP filled the void I created when I quit soccer years ago, but was my status as Gem the foundation on which I began to rebuild my self-worth? Because I feel everything else crumbling beneath it.

This post-draft gloom bespeaks a need to feel superior in one way or more. Tonight, in this blessing of a 1BR, Gem has made me take a serious look at my motives: how much am I driven by a need for attention, for applause, to impress my peers, my girlfriend, my parents? My alter-ego has taken the reigns.

This thread on Twitter struck me recently:

Some competitive TP players have been absolutely savage towards each other — all for a ring, for approval in a tiny fraction of the world wide web. The competitive TP community provides us with a home, a place to compete, a sense of belonging— that’s why we stay. But can we find richer meaning and fulfillment in ventures that don’t ultimately benefit us or bring us praise and visibility? Can I? And why don’t we go out seeking these experiences?

I guess I was trained as a kid to search for meaning and fulfillment in honors and accolades. There’s an intrinsic, human need to feel love and admiration in everyone, but maybe my peers in TP and competitive TP hand out love and admiration for the wrong things, spew hate and virulence for the wrong reasons. Instead of commending each other for insane stats and ridiculing each other for losing, players should legit just admire each other for trying and compliment any redeeming qualities or aspects of their performances they can find.

This microscopic terrain on the vast landscape of the web is no different than the world itself; its most vulnerable people seek out the worst in each other. I hope TP players can only continue to lift each other up, the way I’ve seen since I returned, and I hope I can figure out how to lift myself up without their help.

Gem is Lindsay’s best performance piece, my true saving grace. I can put on that mask when I need to feel superior, to pretend I’m special. She is a fighter, and she has heart, but she’s a bad habit for my personal growth. I don’t want to cultivate and feed my own delusions just to feel good about myself in superficial, egocentric ways, and Gem has mainly been food for that hunger. As my webgame fame nears its end, I’m discovering what the wickedly insightful Natalie Portman learned long ago:

I think it’s a great honor to win an Oscar, but I think if you aim to be rewarded in your life you’ll get nowhere. I think that the biggest reward is the work itself and what you get out of it and the connections you make with other people.

I’m still not sure how to live without the art of pretense, without the pursuit of praise, without the need to be anything other than who I am. To be honest, it looks like a pretty steep climb down to reality, but after tonight, I think I’m finally starting to see the world outside of Gem’s ivory tower.

--

--