Dara O’Briain’s Go 8 Bit’s Ellie Gibson talks mental health & Nigel Farage and Street Fighter?
Hi Ellie, first of all I would like to say thank you for taking part in this interview, for someone that has been a fan of your work during Eurogamer and now Go 8 Bit (for which me and the family are big fans of), it means a great deal to me that I’m having this interview opportunity.
If you don’t mind, I’d love to ask what got you into gaming as a child? What were your favourite systems and what games got you hooked?
First game I ever remember playing was Jet Set Willy, which I think was on Commodore or Spectrum, one of the really old machines. And I remember playing it round my friend’s house, and I had never seen anything like it! I must have been about five or something. And I just remember thinking ‘What’s this? This is brilliant, it’s like telly but you can DO things in it!’ You could be in the telly, which at five, was literally mind blowing. As I got a bit older, my friend Rosalyn had an Amiga, so I used to go round there and we would play Thundercats and Buggy Boy, and New Zealand Story were our favourites. And then eventually after many, many years of whining basically, my brother and I convinced our parents help us out.
My dad bought me a second hand Amstrad CPC 464, and because we lived in South East London we had to drive right over to Shepherd’s Bush to get it. Which felt like the other end of the world, it was miles away. So that was very exciting, it came with this crate of tapes, about half of which didn’t work, but that was good. We had a Megadrive for a bit, and then my brother sold it for a Super Nintendo which I was furious about, as I was a Sonic girl. And then I got over it when I realised Mario games were actually quite good. And then of course when I was a student, it was Playstation, and then yeah, here we are, basically.
For me, being an autistic child in the 80’s, which at the time I didn’t know I had autism as I was diagnosed much later on in life, I was a target for bullies because I guess I came across as different. While I wasn’t aware of it at the time, video games were a huge part of my coping mechanism and a means of escape. Were there moments in your childhood where you can recall video games being more than just a hobby and why?
Yes, I was also bullied at school, quite badly as most comedians were. And video games were definitely a safe place for me: somewhere I could go, and just muck about and have fun, and not have to think about what was going on at school because my brain was absorbed in what was going on there. So I can definitely relate to that sort of thing. It’s tough, I think everyone has stuff in their childhood don’t they and stuff they have to deal with, and you kind of do what gets you through. I think of all the things you could do video games are pretty good, really. As long as they are age appropriate, then they’re good fun and harmless, and they can be really therapeutic.
Naturally, video games must have clicked with you in a big way as you went on to become a very successful journalist and spent a good ten years at Eurogamer. With a career in writing, comedy and TV presenting, I’d consider you to be a great role model for anyone that wants to be a success in this industry. But when did you decide that you wanted to write about video games, what inspired you to do so and as a woman, did you face any extra challenges in getting to where you are?
I grew up reading games magazines, I used to read Amstrad Action, it was my favourite. I remember reading it and thinking: ‘Wow, that would be an amazing job.’ But I also thought being an air hostess or being astronaut would be an amazing jobs, it wasn’t like a real thing that I could do. So I grew up playing games, and then I did an English degree at University, because I just didn’t know what else to do really. And obviously I spent most of that time playing video games, when I should have been reading Dickens. I came out of University, still didn’t really know what I wanted to do. Then I saw this advert in this paper for a copywriter at Playstation, and I went for it and I got it amazingly, and journalism kind of came after that. So I was just really lucky! I think definitely playing a lot of video games helped, also having read a lot (I used to read a lot), and I think a lot of people think for Video Games Journalism, all you have to do is be good at games and know about games. You do still have to be able to write, and that comes from reading.
Certainly being a woman, I think in some ways it’s been an advantage because it was a novelty – when I started out, there really weren’t that many women doing it. It’s changed now. So in some ways it helped me stand out a bit. Eurogamer was a fantastic company to work for, I was the only woman there for a long time, but I never felt out of it. I was always included and made to feel respected. So that was a really good start. Of course I have also experienced sexism, and it’s always the kind of little things, that you don’t really notice at the time, but you look back on later and go ‘oh yeah.’ So definitely sexism is a problem, and I don’t know a woman in Games who hasn’t experienced it, which is a shame. But then you just kind of keep ploughing on, keep doing your job as best you can, and just get on with it and do your best to sort it out.
If you faced extra challenges in climbing to the top, how did you take them head-on and how much did your passion for gaming influence your dedication and drive to succeed?
I think being passionate about something you are trying to succeed in definitely helps. I think if you really don’t like or care about something, you’re never really going to be successful in it cause you don’t really want to be. So that definitely helps. I think sometimes you just have to put your head down don’t you, and do the work and do it the best you can and hope that it will all pay off. And I think that’s it really isn’t it.
On a small level, I’ve dealt with trolls who seem to pounce on any difference of opinion when writing about video games. From afar, I see how they appear in greater numbers when writing for big gaming sites such as Eurogamer, unfortunately, especially towards females. What crap does an inspiring woman have to deal with, that perhaps a man does not and how did you deal with them and what would you say to those being targeted by those kind of trolls?
You definitely get more stick for being a woman and I know that. It’s not just me who has noticed that, I’ve had readers, male readers, point out to other readers in comment sections that I’m getting an unfair amount of stick and it does seem disproportionate. It’s annoying and it can be really hurtful. And I don’t think it’s good enough to say you should just ignore it because sometimes you can’t, it’s your whole career and it’s your whole life, and sometimes it’s the likes of your family being attacked. And that’s incredibly difficult.
I’ve grown a thicker skin as I’ve got older, and again you have to try and look at these things objectively and go ‘well, is that true?’ or ‘is that what I believe about myself? Is that the people that I do love and respect, is that what they really think of me?’ And of course, we all know what the answer is. With that in mind, you just kind of have to move forward and try not to let them drag you down. But it is incredibly hard, and I wouldn’t belittle it.
As an adult now in my mid (well, edging towards) late 30’s, writing is not only something that I love to do, but so too is playing video games. For me, I can’t get that level of immersion and escapism anywhere else. We often see clueless MP’s and some tabloids trying to run down the effect of video games to the mind, but very rarely do we ever hear about the positive impact that it has on a large scale. Gaming has had such an impact in my life, in so many ways and I find it to be a great aid and distraction, as well as providing so much enjoyment. So with that said, what kind of impact has gaming had on your mental well being and how has it helped you cope with some of life’s struggles?
Gaming has definitely been there for me when I’ve had difficult times, both as a child and an adult. And I just kind of wanted to escape from the real world for a bit in a safe way. I think it’s quite good even just for relaxation – if you’ve been working all day and your mind’s been racing, sometimes to be absorbed in another activity that is ultimately pointless, can be quite relaxing and quite therapeutic. I think, as with anything, it’s about moderation, it’s not about escaping from the world permanently, but perhaps giving yourself a mental break from reality can sometimes be useful.
Too much of everything can often be a bad thing and of course that still includes video games. But to kind of elaborate on the previous question (if not answered already that is), what is your message to anyone that might have negative thoughts towards gaming and mental health?
Educate yourself and try and maybe have a look at the range of games that is out there these days. There really is something out there for everyone, and there’s some really good quality stuff, again that’s not about destruction but is about creation, and creativity and imagination. I think just keep an open mind, maybe video games aren’t for you, and that’s fine. Golf isn’t for me, and I’m alright with that. I don’t particularly like golf, it’s none of my business. It’s not what I do in my spare time and I don’t think golf is inherently harmful. I think if you play golf for eighteen hours a day, that’s probably bad, generally speaking, it’s not bad in itself. But yeah just keep an open mind and leave the kids alone.
Recently there have been some fantastic games that explore various avenues of mental illness, while I’ve not had the chance to play as many as I would have liked, I did get to finish Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, which particularly highlights the protagonists struggle with psychosis. Other than being visually stunning, having very competent gameplay and a fantastic actress leading the charge with Melina Juergens, its story was very powerful and emotional. It’s easily one of my favourite games of not only 2017, but in recent times. Have you had a chance to play it, what do you make of the story it tries to tell and how do you believe games such as this one can have an impact on the gaming community and attitudes towards mental health?
I have not played that particular game but based on that description, it sounds brilliant and I want to give it a go, very much. I think it’s great that games are taking on subject matter like this – it’s kind of more evident that they’re not just necessarily about entertainment or shooty shooty blam blam. They can be about important subjects and they can make us think and perhaps even change our opinions. So yeah I absolutely support developers who want to explore the issue of mental health through games, and I think it makes for some really original entertainment experiences.
Going into your role as the gaming expert in Go 8 Bit, you’re kind of like the modern day version of the Games Master from the awesome Games Master TV show from back in the day. How did that job come about and how much fun do you have working on the show with such a great group of people?
I went to see Go 8 Bit when it was just a stage show and I was just a journalist, and I think I’d just started doing stand up comedy. But yeah I just went to see it as a punter basically, and I just thought it was brilliant. I thought it was hilariously funny, I thought Sam and Steve were great and I just thought there hadn’t been a great show about video games on telly since Games Master really. Then of course they got their TV deal and they needed a games expert, and I had done a bit of work for them at EGX. So I got an audition and luckily I got the role, so yeah, it’s been brilliant.
There have only really been a mere handful of successful video game related TV shows over the years and by all accounts, Go 8 Bit looks to be joining that exclusive elite group. I can see some influences with the likes of Shooting Stars, but how do you think Go 8 Bit compares to other comedy game shows and how big can you see the show getting in years to come and how would you like to see if remembered when it’s done and dusted?
In an ideal world we’d get more series, I mean it is my job! But I’d obviously like it to get bigger and bigger and go on and on and on. But honestly even if it ended tomorrow, I’m really proud of the work that everybody has done on it. I think it’s got the spirit of Games Master, sort of not taking games too seriously, but also I think it’s very much its own show as well, it’s got its own little jokes and tweaks. I’m really proud to have been a involved with it and hope it goes on and on.
It’s always great to see what guests appear on the show, whether they are good or bad at video games, as it looks like everyone is having such a blast. Are there any celebrities/personalities that are yet to appear on the show, that you would love to see join the couch? (Likely or unlikely guests).
Obviously Oprah, I think she would be amazing. And I’m a big fan of Rylan – I would like to see him get carried away with a video game, I think that would be fun. I would like to see perhaps some politicians get involved actually and settle their differences – like Nigel Farage and a Remainer, and you know, all this talk about whether we should have another referendum. Let’s just settle it with a game of Street Fighter, let’s do that and whoever wins the three rounds, leave or remain, do it like that. Basically I think Nigel Farage would be shit at Street Fighter. Maybe he’s not though; maybe I’m being completely unfair. In which case, I don’t care because he’s Nigel Farage.
Have there been any moments where Sam and Steve have had some serious gaming rage or for that matter, have any of your guests ever been close to rage quitting on the stage?
I know Jason Manford was a bit peeved at FIFA – he was unhappy with the controls. FIFA was his pick, it’s supposed to be his game. And as he said himself, he’s got a lot of Uncles and brothers who will never let him forget how rubbish he was at FIFA on the TV show. I think one of the tabloids ran a headline about it, and the story was like basically ‘Man gets angry about losing computer football game.’ I’m not really a FIFA fan, but apparently it’s a big thing.
I have to say as well, that I love the challenges at the end of the show, whether they work or don’t work, the silliness of them are a joy to watch (especially when things get messy and confusing). But who comes up with those ideas, is it something you work together collectively as a group?
So Steve and Sam obviously came up with the original idea for the whole show, which was all their concept. And then, there have been a couple of producers called Rohan and Darren, who come up with a lot of the other ideas. So Darren would work on the big set pieces at the end, they’re usually his ideas. I would come up with a name; he and I would sit together and work out a name for the game, which is why they’re usually very stupid. And all the other stuff, it sort of depends on what games we can get permission to play. There are some writers, like a guy called Dan Whitehead, who writes a load of the little scripts I do at the start of each game. So it’s definitely a team effort.
To conclude, between Go 8 Bit, your writing, podcasts, comedy stand-ups and being a mom, if you find time to kick-back and relax with some gaming, what’s your current go-to system, game and what’s your favourite game of all-time?
At the moment, I’m playing quite a lot of Nintendo Switch, because obviously it’s got its own little screen. So my kids can play FIFA on the big screen, or watch telly or whatever, and I can just disappear into Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild, which I’m currently playing at the moment. And I’m playing in little snap bursts, I think its one hundred hours long or something, so I may never get to the end of it before I die, but I’m loving it.
My games of the year for 2017, were between Resident Evil 7, Hellblade and Horizon Zero Dawn, what was your best game of last year and what video games are you looking forward to in 2018?
Oh crikey, the best game of last year probably was Zelda to be honest, that came out last year I think didn’t it. I’m quite late to the party, so that would be my game of the year. I’m very much looking forward to The Last of Us 2, I think that’s out this year, that looks very exciting – probably that.
Finally, for anyone struggling with any form of mental illness, what message do you have for them?
I’m not an expert on the subject, and I wouldn’t claim to be. But when I’ve had difficult times, reaching out to someone I trust has really helped, and I think the important thing is to understand that you don’t have to go through mental health issues on your own.
I think that concludes this interview and I really appreciate you taking the time to answer some questions. If you’ve not checked out this series yet, and you love both comedy and video games (which I’m sure you do, as you probably wouldn’t be reading this otherwise), then you’ll love Dara O’ Briain’s Go 8 Bit and it’s after-show; Go 8 Bit DLC hosted by Ellie Gibson. Series 3 started yesterday on February 12th, with weekly episodes dropping every Monday at 10pm on Channel Dave (don’t forget to series-link).