Shirley Curry has clocked thousands of hours of gameplay since the 1990s. She’s been a gamer longer than many of today’s top competitors have been alive. Still, when people rave about her charming walk-throughs of the blockbuster role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, she feels their praise is out of place.
“When people say things like, ‘You’re a legend!’ it embarrasses me because I’m just a newbie old grandma,” Curry, 84, said. “I try to just be honest and be me. I sit here in my apartment and dream up stories. That’s all I do.”
She starts every day at her home in southwestern Ohio perched in front of the computer with her camera on, ready to guide her “grandkids” — the term she uses to refer to her more than 900,000 YouTube subscribers — on another journey through the 2011 video game.
There’s a dungeon to conquer, or a town to explore, or a new codex of spells to master. She reads aloud all the in-game books, basks in the cozy ambience of the roadside inns and carefully outfits her inventory with swords, axes and daggers. At the end of each video, she sends her viewers off with the same salutation: “Bye-bye, grandkids.”
She first got into gaming when her son taught her how to play the 1996 strategy classic Civilization II. “I’d play so much, day and night,” she said. “I’d just go out and conquer continent after continent, and I loved it.”
When she was raising her four children, Curry held several different jobs: She was a secretary, worked in a candy factory and spent several years as an associate in a Kmart women’s clothing department. She retired in 1991 at age 55.
Two decades later she began a fourth act. She joined YouTube in 2011 to watch some of her favorite gaming channels and uploaded her first Skyrim video in 2015. That clip, in which she does battle with a giant spider, hit 2.1 million views. “Petition for Grandma Shirley to be classified as a national treasure,” one of the top comments reads.
Curry is now a fixture in the global gamer-influencer world. Alongside her hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers, she has 75,000 followers on Twitter and an additional 7,000 on Instagram. Bethesda, the studio behind the Elder Scrolls franchise, has promised to include her as a character in the forthcoming sequel to Skyrim.
“Everyone at the studio knows who she is. I wanted to do it right. That meant not only capturing her likeness, but also her skin detail and facial expressions,” said Rick Vicens, a senior artist at Bethesda. “When we spoke about the process and what it would take, Shirley was completely on board. I’m excited for everyone, and most importantly Shirley, to see the final result.”
In an influencer ecosystem that tends to favor the young, Curry found that there was room for at least one grandmother. Consequently, she has had to contend with some of the responsibilities of internet fame, like responding to admiring fans and jockeying reply guys.
“I tried so hard to respond to all my comments and emails. I felt like they took the time to watch my video and write something that they deserved an answer. But it got to be too much. I was just sitting there all day long responding to people. Then I went through and just hearted everybody, but I had to stop that, too,” Curry said. “So now I just glance down and see my regulars, and I’ll respond to them. All the ‘Hello grandma,’ ‘Good morning grandma,’ I can’t respond to all that.”
Curry said she makes decent money from her YouTube channel, enough at least that she can afford to travel on the gamer convention circuit, where she has met some of her die-hard fans. Those tours have been sidelined during the pandemic, but Curry said that her daily routines haven’t changed much in 2020. (“I get my coffee, I sit down at my computer, turn both my screens on and go through my emails, comments and Twitter,” she said.)
Earlier in her YouTube career, Curry said that she typically had her Skyrim entries ready a week before their upload date, but now she often finishes them the same day they hit her channel.
It’s become difficult to keep up that schedule because of a variety of health issues. She announced that she would be taking a short hiatus from her channel back in May for what she described as rapid fluctuations in her blood pressure. The cause is still unknown.
“It goes up really high. And when it drops really low I just start passing out. They don’t know why it drops so suddenly,” she said. “One doctor wouldn’t let me leave her office, because she said I could have a stroke any minute.”
Curry also said she gets frustrated by certain commenters who try to explain gamer jargon to her. She talked about that issue in a video uploaded May 25.
“I know that I shouldn’t let these things stress me out, but they do,” she said. “I’ve played Skyrim for years. I know about the HUD, I know about the different mechanics and I don’t have to be reminded and told all the time.”
The term “burnout” is used frequently among YouTubers to describe the exhaustion creators experience in trying to meet their rigorous upload schedules and appease their fans. Curry said she feels some of that pressure.
“Sometimes it makes me feel like I’m backed into a corner. My commenters say things to me that make me feel like I can’t let them down or that I can’t leave them,” she said. “Sometimes I get so tired, I feel like I’m going to quit this. But I can’t, I just can’t.”
After all, like so many other online creators, Curry has established a close link to her viewers, with whom she has staked a small corner of the internet. She used to be in a quilting group made up of other people her age. They knew she was a gamer, but she never had an opportunity to discuss the ins and outs of Civilization with anyone before she found YouTube. There simply isn’t a reciprocating community of senior gamers out there to absorb someone like her.
“We talked about quilting and things like that, but we didn’t talk about games because they didn’t know anything about them,” Curry said. “I didn’t have anyone to talk about games with.”