Ready to see your faith in humanity get restored? Here’s a true story about a sweet little girl and how she transformed a gaming community thanks to the power of love.
Set the Wayback Machine to 1993.
Strap in–we’re setting the Wayback Machine to 1993.
Once upon a time in Houston, a huge entertainment complex called the Exhilarama opened up at a large mall. I’m going to guess this was around 1993 because it was right before I moved to Japan. Biff and I got second jobs right when it opened to earn money for the trip. It was far and away one of the weirdest places a Pentecostal lass could possibly work, but I loved it. It had “family” stuff like a human Habitrail and ball cage, sure, and tons of video games like Street Fighter, but I didn’t care about those. My favorite venues were the Virtual Reality games, which were like a super-clunky early version of the Oculus Rift, and the Laser Tag arena, though it was really small and cluttered compared to the “real” one elsewhere in town.
I usually worked at either the VR games or the Laser Tag venue; if you hung around Houston around then, you probably saw me there and would likely remember me as I wore a black calf-length skirt and black tights to work as a religious thing. That first link I gave, though, was about what we’re going to talk about today: Mech games (a “mech” is a giant robot with a human driver/pilot; it typically walks on two legs–the thing Ripley uses at the end of the that Alien movie is a good example). The “adult section” that young writer in the first link wondered about were, in fact, just mega-complicated video games devoted to player-vs-player (PvP) mechwarrior arena fights.
My First Look at Mechwarrior Games.
The mech games had their own staff who were specially trained and, we’d heard, flown in from somewhere else; they tended to keep to themselves, and were never forced to run any other venue. Kids weren’t allowed into that area because they tended to be too small for the pods, and also (it was thought, and I don’t know how accurate this statement is) unwilling to learn and apply all the stuff needed to know how to operate the mechs themselves.
Here’s how you played the game. First, you had to be a certain size to play, because you had to sit in these huge cockpits (which were, at the time, quite the radical invention in and of themselves, though you see them in arcades all the time now). The cockpits were all really home-made looking–these homebrew wood and particleboard structures with tons of buttons, dials, and levers in them. They weren’t even painted; I liked how they smelled of natural wood. They had a TV set mounted at slightly above eye level and another mounted where you’d expect it, just below eye level–as far as I remember anyway.
You picked what mech you wanted to play out of a dozen or two different types (all with their own benefits and issues, of course), the staff running the game “loaded” that mech into your assigned pod, and you’d watch a video about how to play while that was happening. Then you got into your pod and fired up your mech. You ran around a natural-looking arena as detailed on the TV screens and tried to kill everybody else before you either got killed or your mech shut down due to your staggering and galactic-level incompetence at playing this game.
This whole thing cost like $8 to play for what amounted to a five-minute exercise in futility and frustration, so I never paid to play it, but it was hugely popular. Sometimes after hours the staff would get a wild hair up their butts and we’d play for hours after the park shut down, just like sometimes I’d run a Laser Tag game for my friends after hours, or we’d play the VR games. An indoor amusement park is quite a lot of fun after all the guests have gone home.
People Still Love These Games.
I shouldn’t be surprised that mechs touch a chord for a certain type of video gamer. Even in tabletop there is a Macross-style mech game called BattleTech; I had a boyfriend some time ago who had every gamebook possible for it, though my opinion was that if I wanted to become an engineer, I’d go to school for it and get a job in it but I’d go to Hell first before I learned that much just to play a game.
(Then, of course, I got into MUDs and proved myself wrong for the next 15 years.)
When a new game called MechWarrior Online (MWO) got popular about six months ago, it was, as you might expect, the usual cesspit of nerd rage and entitlement. The forums were downright depressing to behold, but nothing I’d never seen before really, just magnified. These are people who have actually spent considerable time educating themselves in the very complicated controls and concepts involved in a video game.
So whatever bad things you think about video-game nerds now, multiply it by ten when dealing with the bulk of MWO’s players.
A Wild Little Girl Appears!
Then, out of the middle of that, a little girl emerged as MWO’s unlikely mascot.
Her name was Sarah. She was about six years old, and she loved MWO.
Indeed, she had a favorite mech, a lithe and light beast called the Jenner. She played both alone and with her daddy. She cheered him on and starred in a variety of videos featuring her playing and saying her catchphrases like “Get ’em good!”
Now, the MWO community knew that she had brain cancer, sure, but in the words of one of my RL friends who plays the game, “We never thought she’d really die, not like die die.”
Then the unthinkable happened. She died.
A Legacy of Love.
It’s always heartbreaking to know a child has died like that. Such a tragic loss of a young life puts paid to every omni-benevolence argument there is. But she was the mascot of the game, and a lot of people took it especially hard when reality collided with their gameworld.
The company that does MWO decided to make a Jenner customized to Sarah in honor of her life and exuberance for their game. It was called “Sarah’s Mech”. Basically it was just a Jenner with a cute paint job. It cost $10USD, could not be resold later, gave only the smallest of boosts over what a regular Jenner did, and a gamer could only own one of them. At the time they released it, some people on their forums openly wondered if anybody would even buy one.
Well, people did.
Man, did they ever did.
Pulling Goodness From Tragedy.
This mech, thanks to a community of entitled asshole King Nerds, has so far raised over $100,000USD for cancer research. No, really. One of the most wretched hives of scum and villainy I’ve ever seen in the online gaming world has done this amazing and wonderful thing. That RL friend I mentioned above bought one as well, but said he could only read a few pages of the the forum thread about Sarah’s Mech before he just had to stop because he was about to lose his shit. Some of the forum’s worst offenders are in that thread, by the way–some of the whiniest, worst complainers in that game’s community. And they dropped all of that hostility and entitlement and nerd rage and bought a mech because they wanted to show their support and grief over the death of a little girl who loved her some mech-gaming.
They’ve still got a few days left on their campaign, so if you play MWO and want to get one of Sarah’s Mechs, you still have time.
Stories like these make me realize anew that humanity’s got a lot of good in it, and even the worst of us can be great sometimes.
I’m glad Sarah lived on this good green earth while she could, and I’m glad that somehow some good is being wrestled out of her passing.
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(Cas tidied up this post a bit on February 14, 2019.)