28 Dates Later by Willard Foxton: Part Twenty-Six, The Video Gamer and the Zombies

In which Willard goes on a date that involves hiding in a barn from some zombies.

So, after 25 Dates, I was starting to get exhausted. That's part of why the blog has been moving forward with all the alacrity you'd normally expect from a Mississippi sheriff's department investigating the murder of a young black man.

The other reason was that the end was looming, and I was still single. While at this point I'd met at least two women I'd thought about ending the blog for, it hadn't panned out. I was starting to dread writing some kind of nonsense about "every woman being date number 28" or something equally trite to round this damn thing off happily. No, the "every woman is date number 28" thing would never work. I mean some of you are married or lesbians or part of the whole QUILTBAG or whatever.

Anyway, feeling exhausted and burned out by the relentless grind of the dating (well over 50 dates at this point) and the blog, I decided to take a bit of a break, take stock and indulge in some of my hobbies - you know, the ones that don't involve receiving sex injuries while searching for Ms Right. I luxuriated in a couple of weekends without dates, where I could just slob around in my dressing gown, playing computer games, watching box-sets of TV I've missed, and at no point having to make small talk while drinking an overpriced gin and tonic. No, I was at home, so I could make myself a cheap gin and tonic, while kicking myself about forgetting to buy ice.

I always feel a bit guilty about drinking at home alone, and I especially feel guilty about playing co-operative computer games drunk. I've written before about how playing particular games is a bit like being in a bad relationship, and we all know how fast that can go downhill when you add booze. In between playing games, I was still logging on to dating sites, trying to find a particular kind of lady.

I was determined to get at least one date off of a site that catered to people who like playing computer games. It's always been a bit of a dream of mine to date a woman who I can play games with. I've got a couple of friends who met and married through playing World of Warcraft together (you know who you are, Alice and Phil). Once you've been to a wedding in Stormwind Cathedral, I suppose it leaves a mark. 

Stormwind Cathedral. Nice venue, but the catering charges are extortionate.

They have a lovely daughter called Caelia now, and I suspect if she ever has to ask her parents how they met, "raiding the Troll city of Zul Gurub to slay the Snake headed blood god Hakkar" is a pretty amusing, if non-standard answer.

As I've got closer to the end of the blog, I've realised that I may never get a date off sites I'd quite like to do, like arranged marriage website Shaadi.com (although a successful date on that could complicate the blog as I've already done Ashley Madison), circus performer and clown dating site, Boo Hiccup (no sexy trapeze artist for Willard, it seems)  or that one where your Jewish mum creates your dating profile and talks to other Jewish mums about how great you are. I'd even suborned a New York Jewish comedian friend to pose as my mother, but alas, no takers.

You'd think finding a gamer girl would be easy, given that something like 48 per cent of the gaming market is ladies these days, but actually, not that easy at all. I suspect it's because while tons of women play and enjoy games, very few self-identify as the kind of person who wants to go on a gaming dating site. I suspect it's because most people imagine a gaming dating site will be not unlike this Tim and Eric bit:

Ahem. I could probably find a lovely woman who could tell a Space Marine from a Colonial Marine on something like Ok Cupid or My Single Friend, but the point was to get 28 dates from 28 dating sites, so I persevered.

There's quite a variety of gaming dating sites out there, and in my brief dating hiatus, I've tried most of them. It's not the most promising of fields. In digging around, I managed to find, Date A Gamer - a website which prompted Harry Langston of Vice to say of it:

Gamers – no matter how integrated into mainstream culture gaming is becoming – are still thought of as lonely, weird, socially awkward individuals who struggle with the opposite sex. Not all gamers fit within those stereotypes, just like not all footballers are racists who sleep with their teammates' wives, but, as with that particular example, there are always some who snuggle up comfortably within the cliche. 

Date a Gamer seemed dead, at least in London;  the adult hookup version, ShagAGamer.com seemed to have quite a lot of escorts, not a lot of real women looking for dates.

Another, GamerDater, had one of the ugliest websites I've ever seen, and I struggled to find a date from it, or even get a response to a message. I choose to believe that's because it's a mostly console dating site, and I'm much more of a PC gamer. Ahem. Yep, that's the story I'm sticking to.  Quite a few others - including Warcraft specific site World of Datecraft, and bizarre "pay girls to play games with you" site Gamecrush seem to have gone bankrupt.

The best one I found was LFG dating - LFG being gaming slang for "Looking for Group". It's a small American site, but at least it seems to have real people on it. It's pretty basic, although slightly tweaked for a gaming audiences. For example, amongst your preferences for going out, there are boxes to check for "LAN parties" (where a bunch of people get together in a house and link their PCs together, a very 1990s phenomenon) and  "LARPing it" (dressing up like a goblin and being hit with big rubber swords).

Having found a site that was at least alive, I commenced looking for my gaming lady. There was one problem - LFG doesn't have many Brits. Still, think back to the story of Phil and Alice, when they "met", he was in Aberdeen, and she was in Southampton. For this date, maybe it didn't matter where the lady was, at least in the first instance. Also, I'm a sucker for an American accent. So, a bit more looking, and I eventually struck up a conversation with a lovely Yankee lady.

I explained the whole blog thing, she was charmed, and thought it sounded like fun to go on a literally online date, where we'd play a game together, chat online, and see where that took us.

For the date, she decided the most fun would be for us to spend an evening being chased around Chernarus, a zombie filled Eastern European shithole, the setting of rather good indie computer game Day Z. Or, as she'd have it, Day-Zee. The basic concept of this game is you rock up in a zombie filled wasteland with nothing but the shirt on your back and a gun that's so worthless it might as well be a kazoo, and then just do whatever you want, until you get eaten by Zombies or murdered by another player who wants to steal your boots. It's terribly, terribly realistic - you can freeze to death if you don't find a coat, break your bones, all that sort of thing.

Or "whatever we wanted" would be to go on a date as survivors of the Zombie Apocalypse. Romantic, eh? So, we logged on at 8pm one Saturday evening, and started chatting while we tried to navigate our way to each other. I'll be totally honest, while I'd played DayZ before, she was much better than I was. By the time I actually got to the Orthodox Church we'd picked as a meeting point, I'd almost died about three times. I felt this was the online gaming date equivalent of turning up late with a huge egg stain on your tie. Still, we'd been chatting the whole time, and getting to know one another.

She was a single mum in Chicago, running a little cafe she'd bought with the cash she'd saved up in the military. We talked about a bunch of current affairs stuff - she was fascinated to meet a real-live journalist (Well, "meet", anyway). We talked about the USA, the Middle East, geopolitics and so on. She proclaimed it to be "pretty refreshing" to find someone she could talk to about politics without getting them getting bored.

We decided to push out into the world, try to find some decent guns and canned food. One of the nice things about DayZed (definitely, definitely Zed) is it's very persistent, so we knew we could log in at the same time and play together again. It *was* great fun, walking around an abandoned town at night, scavenging for firearms, trying to avoid zombies, all while getting to know one another. it did feel vaguely like we were the protagonists of a zombie movie - exactly the kind of fun fantasy experience gaming is meant to deliver.

We talked about her military career, her ex-husband, what it's like to be a woman in a male dominated environment. She told me a few chilling stories of the kind of sexist abuse she gets as a female gamer - the kind of thing you can find here at Fat, Ugly or Slutty, a website that exposes the sort of everyday abuse women get for beating people in computer games. Maybe it's not so surprising that the "date a gamer" websites are so dead.

Indeed, as we started to investigate an abandoned farm, we came across one of the internet's archetypal douchebags, the thirteen year old boy in a high place with a sniper rifle. Fortunately, he was a bloody terrible shot, but the problem with the loud noises of a rifle is it brought an army of zombies down on us. Taking shelter in a barn, we realised if we went out outside, sooner or later he'd get us. Equally, if we stayed on the ground, we'd get eaten. She was a much better shot than I was - so, proper gent that I am, I gave her the last of our bullets for our Lee-Enfield rifle, and decided that I'd run out across the open ground, luring all the zombies over to our teenage tormentor. Hopefully, he'd see me coming, pop his head out, and she could waste him.

"She said "Ok, decent plan, how will you deal with all the zombies then?" I said, "Well, I'll cross that bridge when I come to it". I knew I was going to die. She knew I was going to die. But we did it anyway. I ran out, and against my own expectations, managed to get into the building with the sniper - while still pursued by a flesh eating moshpit. I dashed up the stairs, and had the satisfaction of surprising our sniper chum by getting behind him with a double-barrelled farmer's shotgun. I, of course, missed completely, despite being at point blank range and he chased me up on to the roof, where my date wasted him with a single shot to the head. It was a genuinely brilliant moment - we hooted and whooped and laughed.

I picked up his massive tricked out sniper rifle from his cooling corpse, which turned out to have precisely zero bullets in it - which sort of explained why he hadn't killed me. Shit. This left me trapped in a building full of zombies, with no way out. Except jumping off the roof. Pumped up with thinking I was an action hero, I did exactly that, and broke both my legs. By this point, we were both crying with laughter at my spectacular ineptitude. She came over to me, and got the sniper rifle from me as I bled out, so at least I didn't die for nothing.

It was a great date - probably one of the best I've done, if I'm honest. The lady confirmed if it had been a real date, "I'd have kissed you at the end of the evening for sure. Even if you can't shoot for shit".

Anyway, only two left to do! Hoping to get the penultimate piece and the last ever date up next week...

A still from DayZ.

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.