Break the Game: Alum Jane M. Wagner鈥檚 Debut Film Explores Human Connection in the World of Online Gaming

a figure stands on a mountain

贵谤辞尘听Break the Game, Narcissa Wright stands on top of a mountain in a shot that resembles the opening of听The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

Pushpin

Movie Screenings & Discussion

Documentary filmmaker Jane M. Wagner 鈥10 will visit 桃瘾社区 to discuss听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.听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 鈥10 remembers playing N64 games with her friends in Tomlinson Hall, each trying to get the fastest time in听Diddy Kong Racing.听

Years later, while stuck on a boss in听Diddy Kong Racing, Wagner took to YouTube and discovered speedrunning 鈥 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听Legend of Zelda听community who had amassed thousands of subscribers on YouTube and Twitch.听

In a 2014 YouTube video that garnered over a million views, Wright completed听The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time听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.听

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鈥檇 be attempting another world record speedrun following the release of听The Legend of Zelda:听Breath of the Wild in 2017.

pixel art of a warrior holding up a sword

A pixel art still by artist Patrick Ackerman showing Narcissa Wright holding up a sword

鈥淚t instantly hit me that I was watching the future of media and online relationships,鈥 Wagner said. 鈥淎s I watched her streams, bigger questions started to emerge about finding validation, connection and love in this kind of online community.鈥

After learning about Wright鈥檚 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.听

A True Partnership

From the beginning, Wagner wanted to ground听Break the Game听in Wright鈥檚 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.听

鈥淎s a documentary filmmaker, it鈥檚 your duty to care for your participants and support their mental health throughout the process,鈥 she said. 鈥淚 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.鈥

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鈥檚 chat. Over time, the two appear on each other鈥檚 streams and eventually forge a real-life relationship.听

It became clear that, despite the transphobia and hate that often permeates the gaming space, Wright鈥檚 corner of the internet continued to bring people together. While making听Break the Game,听Wagner connected with other members of Wright鈥檚 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.听

鈥淎fter Narcissa came out, her stream became a place of community for other queer gamers at a time when that wasn鈥檛 as common,鈥 Wagner said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 been so rewarding to watch people find meaning in her streams for all kinds of different reasons.鈥

Break the Game听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.听

two young people in a piece of pixel art with a sunset and a castle in the background

A pixel art still by artist Patrick Ackerman showing Narcissa Wright and Alex Easty (aka D-Gurl)

鈥淣arcissa鈥檚 is just one story from this world,鈥 Wagner said. 鈥淭he panels have helped broaden the conversation to become more intersectional and include the voices of other marginalized creators.鈥

After a screening at 桃瘾社区 on Feb. 8, Wagner will answer questions and talk to students about her journey to becoming a filmmaker. On Friday, Feb. 9,听Break the Game听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.

鈥淢aking this film has given me more confidence in my own voice,鈥 Wagner said. 鈥淚鈥檝e 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.鈥