The sloth behind the scenes of 2019's biggest Twitch stream
The charity stream run by leftist video game YouTuber Hbomberguy (aka Harris Brewis), which he ran on behalf of the UK-based trans charity Mermaids, has earned a place in gaming history with over $350,000 raised during an exponentially escalating 55 hour bonanza that saw game industry stars, YouTubers, politicians, artists, and activists all join in promoting the stream or chatting on it.
What began as a bid to play Donkey Kong 64 to raise £3,000 turned into something legendary--and it wasn’t down to one man’s efforts alone.
Much attention has focused on Brewis, but I thought it would be appropriate to give this column over to one of the many trans women who worked behind the scenes to organize what quickly turned into a monumental operation. The gaming streamer and cyber sloth Casey Explosion joins us for a chat about how she helped make one of the best stories in gaming news come to life.
Katherine Cross: So, how did you get involved in HBomberguy's stream and what did you actually do while it was running?
Casey Explosion: I got involved when HBomb asked me to come on the stream and chat to keep him alert, or chat with others while he was gone to sleep so that there wasn't just dead silence on stream. Everything beyond that was completely unintended and unplanned.
I got the call (we were still chatting via Discord call, rather than a dedicated server) on Saturday morning, and when I came onboard I suggested getting Jim Sterling on for a little, which he very kindly agreed to! At some point we gravitated from a discord call to a server, which Pio (@PioBrando on Twitter) set up.
It was later that evening that things really began to take off, I had been speaking to the folks at Mermaids (the charity we were raising money for) and trying to get their CEO Susie Green on to talk, so I was talking them through using Discord for the first time to get her on.
I had also reached out to Grant Kirkhope, the composer of Donkey Kong 64's soundtrack and voice of Donkey Kong himself, and someone very kindly put us in touch. For me, that was the point where the stream itself started to take shape, I had invited Chelsea Manning on, and it just became something bigger than any of us could've imagined.
KC: What happened after that?
CE: I became the main point of contact for people asking to appear on the stream, so while I was reaching out to people I wanted to have as guests, like John Romero, others were reaching out to me requesting to appear. By Sunday, I was getting positively inundated with DM requests. People were messaging me mainly through Twitter, but I also got messages through Discord, Twitch, Steam, and Facebook from folks.
Most folks who appeared went through me, and it was bizarre all of a sudden having people like Owen Jones, Adam Conover, The Chapo guys, and so many more, all sliding into my DMs.
At one point on Sunday I described myself as "herding cats" trying to get folks on to speak and others to make room, so we had to go from an open channel to a locked one that we had to moderate getting people in and out of to speak with HBomb, so as not to have too much chatter all at once.
I have to give gigantic thanks to Dan Olson, Shaun, Shannon Strucci, Pio and others who also did great work behind the scenes. Dan took over as the main point of contact for the remainder of the stream once I had to go to bed. I got extremely burned out eventually, but I was happy that the last guest I managed to get on was trans game developer Rebecca Heineman.
KC: You've talked at length about how major news organizations, if they deigned to notice you at all, labeled you an "activist" -- but that's an inapt description of what you actually do and where your skills lie. Talk a bit more about that, and what it means to be an "aspiring gaming personality" in 2019.
CE: The reason I spoke about not wanting to be labeled an "activist" was not really about myself, but rather trying to draw attention to what I see as a more systemic issue on how media tends to frame trans people who speak up about their issues at all. It's not really about me, and to be honest I don't think I would have a problem with the label if it were just me it's applied to, but it's not.
The same publications that labeled me an activist also gave the same label to Chelsea Manning, and it just irked me. Not whistleblower Chelsea Manning or anything, just activist. And that's weird to me, that the only trans people mentioned get stuck with "activist" while everyone else mentioned in the coverage gets to be known for something else. That doesn't even take into account how the term has become a dog whistle for transphobic bigots as of late, where you'll often hear them say "I don't hate trans people, just trans activists" so that's something that definitely adds to my reluctance to accept the label.
As for being an "aspiring gaming personality"? It's about the space I want to create within gaming. When we think of the typical YouTube or Twitch personality, what can often come to mind is abrasive, loud and angry. With my streaming, I wanted to have a channel that is almost the exact opposite, where people can expect a more chill and relaxed commentary, where LGBT folks are explicitly welcome, and nobody has to worry about any "heated gamer moments" or "gamer words" if you know what I mean?
To grow that space, that's it means to me. And when folks in my Twitch chat are saying things like "Casey ASMR when?" I know I've hit the right kind of chill that I wanted to achieve, and I hope I can continue to carve out that niche, be that kind of voice in gaming.
KC: The stream was remarkable for many reasons but, aside from the magnificent sum raised, it was perhaps most notable as a symbol. We're told constantly as transgender people that a silent majority of our fellow citizens despise us. Despite that, this campaign was grassroots and blew up with minimal shepherding on anyone's part. Thousands of people came out for us, including politicians and celebrities. What do you think caused this? Where was the magic?
CE: The magic? To a degree, I think a lot of that has to do with [British comedy writer] Graham Linehan, #thanksgraham! He doesn't realize this, but what he has done is give cis people a villain. For trans people, nothing of what he is saying is new, it's the same transphobic claptrap we've always had to put up with, it's mundane to us.
But for cis people, this was something they haven't seen before. He did something so cartoonishly evil in targeting Mermaids, attempting to get the funding pulled from a children's charity? That's something people can rally around.
Some folks in the games industry have described him as a monster when I told them what the stream is for! On his Twitter account, Graham has been directing a lot of hate at some very public figures who've challenged him, and his followers who've dogpiled their mentions often have bizarre conspiracy theories about what Mermaids even do, often calling them pedophiles and groomers, it's so unhinged and eerily mirrors the "Pizzagate" conspiracy. He's dragged transphobia from an abject concept for many people, straight into the limelight and shown everyone the truly hateful face of transphobia; raw, ugly, and spiteful.
As trans people, we are indeed told that the "silent majority" hate us, and are all too used to public figures we've looked up to turning out to hate us. We've all had disappointments with musicians we used to admire for example, who've turned out to be transphobic, so we're sort of conditioned to expect the worst by this.
This has upended the notion that everyone's silently transphobic! The sheer volume of people who wanted to get on our stream to support the trans community was mindboggling to me, it wasn't something I expected to see. The messages I got from trans people telling me that this stream gave them the courage to come out has been incredible and heartwarming.
KC: The video game community has taken a drubbing in recent years, deservedly at times. But this stream was a watershed, in many ways. A lot of people felt a sense of relief that this sort of thing could happen spontaneously. Here was a charity stream that stood up for the defenseless, rather than yet another YouTuber spouting Nazi talking points.
On top of that, it even redeemed trolling a bit. "Do you know how to beat Beaver Bother?" became one of the top rejoinders to online transphobes. Suddenly the biggest TERFs and right wing bigots found their provocations met by Donkey Kong gifs.
Do you think there's a model in this for how the gaming community can be a site for constructive politics, rather than just a source for one sad/tragic story after another?
CE: Absolutely! It's been empowering, and it's given people hope. It definitely feels like we have a hell of a lot more people on our side than we expected, that we feel a lot less alone in the world. It definitely put paid to the idea that gaming is the sole dominion of the straight, white, and angry.
I've been quoted in The Escapist as saying "It felt like the whole internet came out for trans rights!" and I stick by that. The fact that it was all so spontaneous demonstrates how genuine that audience was, and the positivity of the Twitch chat was incredible. I do hope this is a watershed.
And I most certainly think this shows the way for us to continue, I hope we can keep up the momentum and energy we had and do more, and I hope more people can take their cue from what HBomb has done.
KC: On a happier note, what game do you most enjoy streaming and why? And, perhaps finally, what's next for you?
CE: Oh, definitely Armello! It's just such a chill game to stream, and it's at its absolute best when I have guests on to play with. But it depends, one of my favorite streams recently was when I had the developer of Lucah: Born of a Dream on to discuss the game and their inspirations, because I really enjoyed highlighting an excellent indie title that a lot of people slept on.
As for what's next? I want to continue streaming and having that space for folks who want a more chilled experience, maybe do more with getting developers on as guests to talk about their games, and I'm already thinking of doing my own charity stream at some point in the future, but who knows? We'll have to see. I'm also going to try to continue writing articles on Medium to build up a portfolio and perhaps see if I can't get some freelance work in games media.
I possibly want to work on some YouTube videos if I have the time and energy to do so, as I tried making YouTube content before, but got extremely burned out by it. I've had some ideas that I've wanted to work on for a very long time, such as a comparison between the original Ring and its American remake. Other than that, I don't know. But it feels like I've got an awful lot on my plate now than I ever had.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D. student at the University of Washington who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.