Break the Game: Alum Jane M. Wagner’s Debut Film Explores Human Connection in the World of Online Gaming
Movie Screenings & Discussion
Documentary filmmaker Jane M. Wagner ’10 will visit Davidson College to discuss Break the Game, which made its debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. A free, public showing of the movie, followed by a discussion with Wagner, will take place at 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 8, in the Tyler-Tallman Hall. Break the Game will be shown at The Independent Picture House in Charlotte at 6:45 p.m., Friday, Feb. 9.
Documentary filmmaker and casual gamer Jane M. Wagner ’10 remembers playing N64 games with her friends in Tomlinson Hall, each trying to get the fastest time in Diddy Kong Racing.
Years later, while stuck on a boss in Diddy Kong Racing, Wagner took to YouTube and discovered speedrunning — an entire online community dedicated to completing games as quickly as possible. While tumbling down that rabbit hole, she came across Narcissa Wright, a legendary speedrunner in the Legend of Zelda community who had amassed thousands of subscribers on YouTube and Twitch.
In a 2014 YouTube video that garnered over a million views, Wright completed The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time in just 18 minutes and 10 seconds, setting a world record and securing a large following in the speedrunning community. A year later, she came out to her audience as a transgender woman and came face-to-face with the worst sides of internet gaming culture.
During her transition, Wright faced waves of harassment, doxxing, vitriolic comments and real-life threats. After losing thousands of subscribers and having her Twitch account shut down multiple times, it looked like she may leave the internet altogether. However, despite the hate and scrutiny aimed at her, Wright announced that she’d be attempting another world record speedrun following the release of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017.
“It instantly hit me that I was watching the future of media and online relationships,” Wagner said. “As I watched her streams, bigger questions started to emerge about finding validation, connection and love in this kind of online community.”
After learning about Wright’s plan to make a speedrunning comeback, Wagner direct messaged her on Twitter and flew out to Portland, Oregon, to discuss making a documentary. Wright accepted, and in the following months, the two became close friends and storytelling partners.
A True Partnership
From the beginning, Wagner wanted to ground Break the Game in Wright’s livestream footage, allowing the audience to watch the story unfold in real-time as a subscriber would. She combed through over 3,000 hours of Twitch content, filmed Wright outside of the stream, and worked with her to create the animated sequences that appear throughout the film.
“As a documentary filmmaker, it’s your duty to care for your participants and support their mental health throughout the process,” she said. “I wanted Narcissa to have agency in telling her story. By using her livestreams for a large portion of the film, she maintains a certain level of authorship and control.”
At the heart of the film is the budding romance between Wright and fellow streamer Alex Easty, aka D-Gurl, whose name first appeared as an anonymous commentator in Wright’s chat. Over time, the two appear on each other’s streams and eventually forge a real-life relationship.
It became clear that, despite the transphobia and hate that often permeates the gaming space, Wright’s corner of the internet continued to bring people together. While making Break the Game, Wagner connected with other members of Wright’s audience, including newlyweds who met on the stream and a 17-year-old content creator who had recently come out as a trans woman herself.
“After Narcissa came out, her stream became a place of community for other queer gamers at a time when that wasn’t as common,” Wagner said. “It’s been so rewarding to watch people find meaning in her streams for all kinds of different reasons.”
Break the Game premiered at Tribeca Film Festival last June, followed by a screening at Outfest, an LGBTQ-oriented film festival in Los Angeles. These screenings were accompanied by panels featuring other gamers, content creators and mental health professionals discussing greater themes of identity and belonging online.
“Narcissa’s is just one story from this world,” Wagner said. “The panels have helped broaden the conversation to become more intersectional and include the voices of other marginalized creators.”
After a screening at Davidson College on Feb. 8, Wagner will answer questions and talk to students about her journey to becoming a filmmaker. On Friday, Feb. 9, Break the Game will play at The Independent Picture House in Charlotte, followed by a special Q&A session.
These days, Wright has stepped away from the spotlight to focus on her mental wellbeing, figure out her next steps and spend time playing video games with her friends. As for Wagner, she hopes to keep exploring niche corners of the internet and getting to know the people who inhabit them.
“Making this film has given me more confidence in my own voice,” Wagner said. “I’ve gained trust in myself as an artist and learned more about what interests me. I want to continue exploring human stories set against the backdrop of technology.”