This is so cool. I’m not sure how many of you are aware of PixelVixen707 — she was a video game blogger named Rachael Webster who was smart, opinionated and quickly rose to a good amount of visibility back in 2008. She was also a complete fabrication. It was a huge mystery and a great story — a while back, the website Critical Distance wrote this exceptionally well-compiled breakdown of the situation tracking the course of her rise and eventual retirement.
What no one knew until now was her real identity. Who was the voice behind the blog posts and tweets, the reviews and the emails? As it turns out, Pixel Vixen was played by none other than current Kill Screen Editor-in-Chief Chris Dahlen.
In a terrific new retrospective essay titled “My Purple-Haired Made-Up Best Friend, and Why She Had to Die”, Dahlen lays out the story of Rachael Webster, better known as PixelVixen 707. He starts by detailing the freelance writing gig that led to her creation — a job he took for a book titled Personal Effects. The book was a year away from release, and the publisher wanted to hire a freelancer to do some transmedia promotion by blogging as one of the book’s side characters, a “late-20s tattooed hipster/gamer chick” named Rachael Webster.
The writer would essentially log into WordPress and be her-writing Rachael’s posts, replying to the comments, and signing her name to everything. Rachael was cast as a hardcore gamer, so the team decided she would write reviews as a way to reach out to the gaming community-and having a hot Suicide Girl-style diva behind the joystick didn’t hurt. The name of her blog, God save us all, was PixelVixen707.
So Jessica asked me, did I know any freelancers who might be up for this?
When I tell you I took the job, you should know that I was not an obvious fit. I am not a woman in my 20s, and I don’t live on the Lower East Side with my art therapist boyfriend and my tattoos. I’m a middle-aged guy in New Hampshire. I don’t run around the city solving mysteries; I sit around the house editing copy. Rachael has long purple hair; I … still have hair. Rachael stands out, whereas if you saw me in a crowd, you would probably look right past me.
So Rachael and me? Not a natural fit. I’m probably not the ghostwriter she would have chosen. On the other hand, I am a freelancer, and the hardest word for a freelancer to say is “no.” So I volunteered myself for the gig.
From there, Dahlen combined the voices of three of his favourite female writers (Alice Taylor, Leigh Alexander and Peggy Noonan) and began to blog. After a while, PixelVixen started getting more and more attention, and as Dahlen wrote her, he found that she was becoming a real person. Soon she began to gain a perhaps unexpected degree of internet visibility.
It wasn’t clear to anyone reading the blog that Rachael wasn’t a real person, so people would write to her, read her criticism and post links to her work. She became something of a rising star in the world of video game blogging. The people behind the novel’s ad campaign had designed the character to be subtly revealed from the get-go — there was even a small reveal in the signature of her emails (“email/website provided by the people who created me”), but it was too low-key and people didn’t notice.
For my part, I first heard about PixelVixen right around the time that people were figuring out that she wasn’t actually a real person. This column by Simon Carless at GameSetWatch about the whole situation was basically my introduction to her, and her writing. I went back and read Rachael’s work, and was surprised by her insight and thoughtfulness, and the high quality of her writing and criticism. (Of course in retrospect, this makes sense — Dahlen is one of my favourite game critics, and he was emulating several of my other favorites!)
After everyone found out she wasn’t real, Dahlen was faced with coming to terms with his own creation, as well as the people who felt angry that she had been a mere marketing stunt. But of course, she had become much more than a “mere” stunt, and so Dahlen’s other challenge was coming to terms with a creation that had become quite a bit more meaningful to him than a simple freelancing job.
He realised, for example, that Rachael was able to do many things that he wasn’t. “Her writing had swagger-something I’ve never pulled off,” he writes. “She wanted to be a successful writer, and she talked about it and reached out to achieve it, and every time she got a clickthrough or a comment or a coveted pat on the head from an N’Gai Croal or a Clive Thompson, she would breathe out a “Yesssssss,” and high-five her keyboard and do a little dance around her living room.”
There’s much more to the story than that, and it’s all great stuff. I recommend taking the time to read it. As we continue to forge identities in online spaces, the lines between personal identity and internet identity are overlapping and blurring in ways that we’ve yet to fully explore. And so it’s possible to let entirely imaginary people in our lives, even to become them for a time — and as they become real to other people, they become even realer to us.
“I didn’t want to be Rachael,” writes Dahlen. “But I wanted her to live her life as well as she could, and as for me, who cared? She deserved it. She would enjoy it.”
My Purple-Haired Made-Up Best Friend, and Why She Had to Die [Kill Screen Daily]