The Grand Dames of Gaming

How four remarkable women are creating a “feedback loop of joy”, and taking the gaming world by storm

The Grand Dames of Gaming
Haughty, Jessa, Merrie, and Shirley. Images courtesy of The Grand Dames. Composed by James Burns.

SUPERJUMP exists as a place to share the wonders of video games. That is our central reason for being. In fact, all of our articles at one time contained a footer reading “made with love”. This was never a commercial tagline, an attempt to game SEO, or anything of the sort. It was a simple — and perhaps naively straightforward — expression of truth.

Today, as I write this, I am keenly aware of the passage of time, especially its unnerving tendency to increase in velocity as we age. In a couple of years, I’ll be forty. Conventional wisdom might suggest that video games will (or should) fade into memory in order to make way for entirely more serious pursuits. I’m reminded of this quote from Corinthians 13:11:

“I understood as a child, I thought as a child; I felt as a child, I reasoned as a child. But when I became a man, I put away childish things; now that I am become a man, I have done away with childish things.”

Childish things. Trivial things.

My (admittedly narrow) reading of this quote seems comprehensively dismissed by the fact that Super Mario quite literally changed my life, in ways that are as profound and far-reaching as can be imagined.

Every one of you reading this will have your own experience. Indulge me for a moment: close your eyes and think about the happiest times in your life to date. If video games feature in those memories at all, how do they manifest? As much as I remember specific games that I adore for their own sake, I recognise the way that video games often enriched relationships with family and friends, or gave me comfort in times of sadness.

It makes complete sense, then, that communities should emerge all around the world that are entirely based on a mutual love and appreciation for video games. But if you have participated in video games communities to almost any degree — particularly online — then you know how utterly toxic, cynical, and exclusionary they can often be. This is profoundly disappointing, especially considering that so many of us are regularly confronted with the dismissal of video games as a valid hobby for adults. Surely video game communities should be all about the warm embrace of fellow humans who understand the incredible magic of the medium and the powerful impact it can have on our lives.

Become the change you want to see in the world. How that phrase has been cynically dismissed. And yet, it could easily be a line lifted straight from the SUPERJUMP vision and mission. On that note, I want to return where I started: my motivation to create this publication was borne from a desire to create the very space that I needed, but seemed to be missing. I assumed that I wasn’t likely to be the only human on Earth thinking along these lines (and you, dear reader, are living proof that this assumption is valid 😃).

This project — which I sincerely see as a kind of engine, continuously broadcasting wonder, appreciation, insight and comfort — has also motivated me to seek out folks who have set up their own beacons in the dark; people who are actively working to build constructive, inclusive, and loving gaming communities.

It started with a tea party

There’s a lot wrong with YouTube’s recommendations algorithm. But late last year — during the strictest pandemic restrictions here in Melbourne — YouTube clearly knew that I was looking for wholesome, enriching content; the digital equivalent of a warm bowl of chicken soup. And, much to my surprise, it delivered.

The original tea party stream. Courtesy of The Jessa Channel on YouTube.

Age versus gaming

Tea with Grandma Gamers (Old Ladies Talk #$%@ about Games) is quite a title. I don’t know how you could scroll past and not click, frankly. I’m glad I did, too. I had seen numerous PAX panels in the past that were expressly about diversity and inclusion. But there was something truly unique about the idea of self-professed “Grandma Gamers” getting together to chat about video games.

It occurred to me at the time that my surprise about the concept and its apparent novelty signalled a rather large blind spot, both for me and perhaps for the gaming industry at large. There’s been a sizeable push to elevate and support the voices of women in gaming over recent years (I’d argue we’re still vanishingly far from building a truly safe and accepting industry for women in general). But I think it’s fair to say that most of the conversations in gaming revolve around younger folks — especially those in their 20s and early 30s. There’s always been a focus on youth in gaming (initially because games were explicitly sold to teenage boys). Today, esports players — who are some of the biggest influencers of gaming culture — are generally under the age of 25.

And yet, around 15% of gamers in the United States in 2020 were over the age of 55. Given the many millions of gamers in the United States alone, it seems worryingly obvious that a massive number of folks are simply being left out of the conversation.

From tea party to YouTube powerhouse

Tea with Grandma Gamers was special for two major reasons, in my view. First, I think it was doing something genuinely new. Coverage of “older gamers” — especially women — is often cast in a mildly pejorative or condescending light.

“Check out this grandma gamer from Japan — she’s 80 years old and loves playing Metal Gear! Isn’t that weird?!

The idea is that mature women gamers are novelty or curiosity. The entire point is to marvel at a perceived oddity because we all know that this isn’t what real gamers look like, right?

Tea with Grandma Gamers is consciousness-raising because its hosts are defining themselves. We are seeing them as they are, and not through a third-party’s distorted prism. The result is magical, and a powerful example of how greater diversity enriches us all.

Hearing from gamers whose voices are often not heard is important in and of itself. But if you watch the tea party — something I implore you to do — you’ll also see a genuinely entertaining and insightful panel hosted by four gamers whose chemistry is immediately obvious. Jessa, Britta, Merrie, and Shirley are a dream team. Each of them has a formidable history in her own right, but something truly remarkable happens when they come together.

After watching Tea with Grandma Gamers, I was left wondering if I’d have to wait another year for a second panel. I was hoping — as I’m sure many viewers were — that this panel would morph into an ongoing collaboration. Fortunately, we didn’t have to wonder for too long. Tea with Grandma Gamers evolved into a powerhouse now known as The Grand Dames — a more permanent collaboration that has been taking YouTube by storm.

Earlier this year I sat down with Jessa and Britta to chat about all things Grand Dames. It was a fascinating and wide-ranging conversation that not only gave me insight into their collaboration, but that uncovered a deeper desire to build a new kind of online community. It’s important to note that since our interview earlier in the year, Britta has moved on from The Grand Dames and the legendary Haughty Chicken has joined the team. You can read our recently-published interview with Haughty Chicken right here.

The Grand Dames. Haughty, Jessa, Merrie, and Shirley. Images courtesy of The Grand Dames.

The Dames have arrived

I don’t know about you, but when I come across a magical collaboration — one that seems to just work — I always wonder how it got started. I’m sure that every content creator intends to produce something great, but there’s a definite combination of skill, experience, chemistry, and luck that all seem to converge in just the right way at times.

During our interview, Jessa said something that stopped me in my tracks: “Let’s just be honest; a lot of people lost their older relatives last year. Yesterday, I read that eight thousand people died from coronavirus. How many of those people are older? That’s an immense number.”

I asked if Jessa felt that COVID itself played a role in the early success of The Grand Dames. Her response was immediate and unequivocal: “The Dames wouldn’t exist without COVID.”

Merrie and Shirley at PAX. Image courtesy of The Grand Dames.

Although several of The Dames knew each other prior to Tea with Grandma Gamers (Shirley had done a PAX panel with Merrie a couple of years prior, and they had then invited Jessa to join a panel on older gamers the following year), 2020 provided a unique opportunity to go further. The main reason was that — had a physical event been the only option — it might not have been possible for all the Dames to attend due to the physical stresses of travel. When Jessa looked at the PAX panel applications online, she noticed that only one week remained to submit proposals.

"I went to Shirley and said “Let’s do some kinda old lady panel”. I thought she was going to say no. Shirley’s favourite word is ‘no’ when it comes to interviews or projects, because she’s been asked so many times. But to my surprise, she said “That sounds like a fun idea, let’s do it!” The fact that Shirley and I had a relationship before that led to The Dames."

Dame Jessa

The idea was to create a panel that would focus on conversation around older gamers. Jessa acknowledged that it’s tough to get a panel in PAX, so the idea really had to be compelling. A unique ingredient was required.

"What if we do the older gamers thing, but we make it a tea party! Everybody loves tea parties. You always have this [idea that] you go to grandma’s house for tea. What if we make it a tea party where we actually have lace gloves and tea, but we make the title “Grandma Gamers Talk #$%@ About Games” — that would be funny."

Dame Jessa
Merrie, Shirley, and Jessa at PAX. Image courtesy of The Grand Dames.

At this stage, Jessa had convinced both Shirley and Merrie to join the panel. But three Dames just didn’t quite seem like a quorum. A fourth would round out the panel in just the right way. Jessa turned to Reddit for help: “I need a grandma gamer, and I need her stat,” was the request. Redditors jumped in with a clear recommendation in Food4Dogs (A.K.A. Britta). The timing was just right, as Britta’s channel had just begun to explode (and Jessa was rather impressed by Britta’s now-iconic wide-brimmed pink hat).

“I had to name drop Shirley,” said Jessa with a chuckle (with almost a million YouTube subscribers, Shirley is something of a nuclear option when it comes to name-dropping). In fact, Jessa credits Shirley with being a big driver for The Grand Dames. “Shirley is our most well-known Dame. We wouldn’t have five thousand subscribers without Shirley. We just wouldn’t have that popularity. She brings a behemoth of an audience with her,” said Jessa. She added, “At first, people are there to see Shirley. But they’re kind of getting used to seeing us and our personalities. Over the year I anticipate that it will balance out — people will be there to see all four of us.”

Tea with The Dames

So, what can you expect from a Grand Dames stream? Although Tea with Grandma Gamers laid a clear foundation, The Dames have used every new stream to further expand and build on the concept. Each episode delves into new themes. For example, the April 2021 stream delves into body positivity. I won’t spoil it for you — you really must watch it yourself — but I will say that one story in particular brought me to tears and raised my consciousness at the same time.

Of course, there’s plenty of rich gaming discussion here too. You’ll see a brilliant supercut of Dame Shirley playing as her own NCP in Skyrim. In this same episode, you’ll hear about the Dames’ views on MMOs, real-life connections via online games, positivity in gaming communities, and up and coming games to look out for in 2021.

This is what I love about The Grand Dames. Even the gaming discussion is broad in scope, and touches on multiple aspects of the experience. It reflects the kind of conversations I have with friends around dinner and drinks; it’s about celebrating the joy of video games and the positive culture that can surround them. The real magic here is the way that the The Dames seamlessly combine the gaming chat with life advice, where they each share their unique perspectives and experiences.

Earlier in our interview, Jessa had mentioned the fact that so many folks had lost their grandparents through the pandemic. I am not in this category myself, having lost my last grandparent some years ago now. However, I fondly remember my grandparents and I still miss them every day. My maternal grandmother, especially, was a key figure in my life whose stories I could listen to for hours. She had a fascinating life, and could seemingly offer wisdom on almost any subject. It’s no exaggeration to say that each conversation with her fed my soul in some way — her words still flow through my mind, especially when I need comfort and guidance.

If my grandparents were all still alive, they’d definitely be significantly older than The Dames. But still, I think Jessa is right about the need that so many Grand Dames viewers share. There is something deeply comforting — especially at the moment, during a time of greatly heightened anxiety — about listening to these remarkable ladies share their wisdom.

“How to Cope: Extreme Self-Care”. Courtesy of The Jessa Channel.

Speaking of wisdom, it’s worth remembering that each of The Dames is also an independent content creator. So, if you enjoy The Grand Dames, I also encourage you to check out each individual Dames’ content. Here’s just one example; it’s a video from The Jessa Channel. Everything about this video is relaxing. The sound and vision of the beach, the gentle cadence of Jessa’s voice, and most importantly, the underlying message itself. I won’t spoil the video, but I will just say that extreme self-care is a concept that has remained front of mind ever since I first watched it.

Building functional communities

It felt like I was walking along a path with Jessa and Britta during our conversation. The seed of a good idea had been nurtured by four talented Dames through their powerful chemistry. The blooming flowers that resulted were sustained and protected by careful — and diligent — management of rising audience expectations and the wise application of self-care. Something strong and resilient had emerged, and it is absolutely no surprise to me that audiences wanted to become more than viewers of content. They wanted to participate in the conversation, to build relationships with similar chemistry, and to otherwise join in on the fun.

Our conversation turned to The Grand Dames Discord server. In the context of The Grand Dames, the server is perhaps akin to grandma’s kitchen. It’s a warm and inviting place of safety and comfort. But at the same time, there are clear boundaries. You wouldn’t put your feet on the furniture in grandma’s kitchen, would you? Surely not. As you might imagine, building an online community — especially one that echoes these real-world sentiments — is no easy task. Fortunately, The Grand Dames were uniquely equipped to create exactly this kind of space. And in my view, there are significant lessons here for all online communities.

"There’s a lot of dysfunction in the gaming sphere. There’s some crazy stuff going on [in the gaming sphere] that is only getting worse over time. Death threats — over a game — is just, to me, astounding."

Dame Jessa

The Dames were all keenly aware of the environment surrounding them as they embarked on their project. The ambient level of outright danger in some cases has been shockingly high, especially in recent years. As the principle organiser of the group, Jessa wanted to ensure — right from the beginning — that The Grand Dames would set clear terms for discourse within their community.

"What we were seeing right at the beginning — when we did our PAX panel — was how many people were saying “I didn’t know I needed this.” They weren’t there just to watch some old ladies talk smack about games; they were there to watch four women help them feel connected to something."

Dame Jessa

I think Jessa hit the nail on the head when she discussed the primary importance of relationships (this is how I think about SUPERJUMP too). Jessa also reflected the feelings I had when I saw the original PAX panel. I described the panel as “the digital equivalent of a warm bowl of chicken soup”. There are so many places I can go to get my gaming discussion fix. But there’s something magical about The Grand Dames — something that goes beyond gaming itself — that is truly heartwarming. Each member of the group brings a unique perspective and personality to the table. And while each ingredient is essential, the project itself only comes together with the right recipe.

Jessa humbly describes herself as the “facilitator” of The Grand Dames. But her experience in streaming and community building is critical to the project’s success, especially the talented moderation team she brought with her.

Moderation magic

It’s a highly active and attentive team that pays close attention to both the chat participants and the Dames themselves. If one of the Dames mentions a previously-uploaded video, the mods will be searching for it and dropping a link into the chat in the background. It’s a team that Jessa built over the last five years to hone them into a “coordinated, well-oiled machine”. To viewers of the stream — and chat participants themselves — everything looks calm, orderly, and organised. But in the background, there’s a flurry of back-and-forth communication and organising happening in real-time. The skill and professionalism of the moderation team was a major factor in establishing a truly safe environment for the Dames to stream without fear.

Jessa established some key guidelines around how chats should be moderated. Although enforcing behaviour standards is important, Jessa wanted to avoid a heavy-handed moderation approach where the moderators feel separate from the chat participants. Moderators arrive in the chat around half an hour before every stream, where their main role is to greet chat arrivals. Of course, no matter how well-behaved a live chat is, there’s always going to be someone intent on ruining the experience for others. And while there are many options for dealing with this (including temporary suspensions), Jessa is all about keeping it simple and clear:

"People are telling you who they are. If they come in and they type nonsense, or they are attention-seeking, or rude, they are saying “Hey, I’m really sorry, but I’m not yet a fully-functional adult and I can’t behave that way. Can you please excuse me from the table?” And we will happily do so."

Dame Jessa

Jessa also describes good moderation as being “completely silent”. In practice, this means warnings aren’t issued prior to a ban. In fact, much of the moderation that occurs in chat is almost invisible to most observers, including the Dames themselves.

"I’ve always liked the idea of the mod team being all women. I like the fact that women are representing the gaming community. I like the idea of five women who are sweet as pie, and then the minute you mess with them, they will kick your ass out! They don’t play around."

Dame Jessa

When reflecting on the strength of The Grand Dames’ community, Jessa described three key components: the personalities of The Dames themselves, the skill of the moderation team, and the fact (as mentioned earlier) that many people lost older relatives through the last year. For many, The Grand Dames has been a much-needed refuge.

Feedback loop of joy

Earlier in this story, I described SUPERJUMP’s DNA as being akin to an “engine” — continuously broadcasting wonder, appreciation, insight and comfort. So I was delighted when Jessa described a similarly powerful concept: the feedback loop of joy.

"The Dames have a feedback loop [of joy] with each other. And then we take that joy loop and amplify it out to five thousand people (so far)."

Dame Jessa

Fans can optionally join The Grand Dames’ Patreon, which grants them access to a Discord server. Far from being an “exclusive club”, Jessa describes it as a vehicle to support and promote the creative works of the community. Art and crafts made by fans, for examples, are shared on The Grand Dames Twitter account. This creates a recursive cycle where more fans feel encouraged to join the server, which in turn means more creative content is broadcast outward. Jessa described The Grand Dames’ growth as being more like expanding concentric circles rather than an upwards-trending chart.

New Year’s gratitude

As you can see, The Dames’ mission extends beyond gaming itself. Gaming may be a common interest and cornerstone that initially brought everyone together, but as the community expands, The Dames are finding new and unique ways to bring their special brand of joy to the world.

A great example — and one that we discussed in our interview — is Jessa’s concept of “New Year’s gratitude”. This has also become a personal favourite of mine. It’s a simple, yet compelling idea. In The Grand Dames Christmas livestream, Jessa pointed out that many people have negative associations with their New Year’s resolutions. Either the resolutions themselves highlight a perceived flaw (“my resolution is to lose weight, because I’m unhappy with my current weight”) or they become a way for people to set themselves up for failure if they don’t meet their goal.

Christmas 2020 Monthly Tea Party. Courtesy of The Grand Dames.

Instead, Jessa suggests New Year’s gratitude. Looking back over the last year — even a very difficult one like 2020 — and finding things to be grateful for, is a powerful way to not only generate some positive vibes, but it also puts life in perspective more broadly. Jessa takes the idea even further on The Grand Dames Discord server: she keeps the New Year’s gratitude section open throughout January, and then closes it down for the rest of the year. In the following December, Jessa opens it up again, so that members can look back and revisit their words of gratitude from the previous year.

We might only be in June, but I want to express my gratitude for The Grand Dames. The last few months have been very difficult for me, as I’ve been struggling with a tricky health condition requiring a wide range of painful tests to properly diagnose the problem. The Grand Dames has been one true source of comfort that has genuinely helped to get me through some of the more frightening moments. I’m sure there are many fans with their own stories that roughly mirror this experience. And this is one reason why The Grand Dames has found a place in so many people’s hearts.

You can visit The Grand Dames on YouTube, Twitter, and The Grand Dames web site. And if you like the sound of their awesome community, check out The Grand Dames’ Patreon.

Thank you to Jessa and Britta for being so generous with your time, patience, and support.


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