With her positive demeanor and soft hint of a southern drawl, Shirley Curry seems like an unlikely YouTube star. And yet, the 79-year-old gamer and grandmother from Virginia has amassed a following of over 100,000 subscribers and 2 million views in a little more than 6 months.
While much of Curry’s success could be attributed to the perceived novelty of a woman of her age playing video games at all, let alone well and with enthusiasm, fans of “Grandma Shirley” more often cite her calming tone and positive nature as reasons for watching her videos. “ I’m a very positive, happy and social person,” she says, “that’s just me.”
Active on YouTube since 2011, Curry didn’t start posting her own Let’s Play videos until September of 2015, encouraged by subscribers she’d earned through commenting on videos of her favorite gamers. “My subs kept at me to record my own game, so I finally thought, why not. So I gave it a try last September… and this happened.” She’d considered starting a blog to help create a community of older games, but not knowing where to start with that she turned to making videos instead.
When asked about how her community building effort have gone, Curry says that a lot of people “have commented to me on my videos and told me their ages. We chat some that way. You’d be surprised how many are on YouTube.”
While most of the comments on her videos are positive, there are some that have a hard time accepting that a grandmother can also be a gamer, saying things like “you’re too old to know how to play a game.” Curry makes a point to addressing these sorts of comments politely, but also acknowledges that publishers and developers have a role in shaping the public’s idea of who gamers are, too. “I think games should be shown as being played by older people as well as the younger ones in ads and on box cover backs. We are totally left out of the advertising, which is probably why the kids on YouTube think I don’t belong there.”
The irony in all of this, of course, is the fact that Curry has been gaming since before many of other comments were born. “The first game I ever played which was Civilization 2 in the early to mid 90’s,” on a computer that her son Ed gave her. “I played day and night, hardly slept or ate. I guess because I was fascinated! It got so bad that if one of my sons asked a brother about something in the game, they would say “Ask Mom, she’s played it more than I have, and always wins.””
Curry’s longest running series on her channel is her Skyrim playthrough, a game she says she loves for the art and freedom of movement. “I don’t like games, no matter how great the graphics, in which I would have to fight a lot, learning a lot of battle moves.That usually takes up most of the game. That’s not for me. I don’t like pixel, cartoonish, or ‘drawn looking’ games. I like games that look like movies, with characters that I can be one of, and beautiful scenery which I can just derp around in like I do in Skyrim and Ark.”
Another aspect of Curry’s approach to gaming is a strong emphasis on role playing, “I’m always telling a story in my head when I play a game,” she says, “I read a lot, I like to write stories…” Imagining herself in the game is key to her enjoyment of a game, “the game becomes very real and immersive to me. If I’m not ‘there’ then I lose interest. My game character is ‘me’, when I’m playing.”
As for her recording setup, Curry is more interested in preserving the feeling of immediacy when she is playing, “I use Frap for recording. It doesn’t do anything else. I don’t edit. I want my videos to be just like I’ve always played at home. Natural.” And it seems like this authenticity is really what is driving traffic to her channel.
Despite her recent internet celebrity, Curry has a number of hobbies outside of gaming that keep her active, “I quilt, and belong to a local quilters group and a county quilters group. I also have always loved to read, and am on the Friends of the Library Board here in my town, and belong to a Book Club. I love music, especially older rock like AC/DC and all those from that 70’s era. Now I’m listening also to ‘Two Steps From Hell’, and blues by Acker Bilk. I love to shop and eat out, if you can call that a hobby, and I do!”
In a space where cynicism and negativity seem to rule, Curry’s gentle and encouraging approach to video games is a welcome breath of fresh air, and a trend that YouTube could certainly use more of. Regardless of the age of the player.