Shirley Curry has clocked thousands of hours of gameplay since the 1990s. She's been a gamer longer than many of today's top competitors have been alive. Still, when people rave about her charming walk-throughs of the blockbuster role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, she feels their praise is out of place.
"When people say things like, 'You're a legend!' it embarrasses me," Curry, 84, said. "I try to just be honest and be me. I sit here in my apartment and dream up stories. That's all I do."
She starts every day at her home in southwestern Ohio perched in front of the computer with her camera on, ready to guide her "grandkids" — the term she uses to refer to her more than 900,000 YouTube subscribers — on another journey through the 2011 video game.
There's a dungeon to conquer or a town to explore or a new codex of spells to master. She reads aloud all the in-game books, basks in the cozy ambience of the roadside inns, and carefully outfits her inventory with swords, axes and daggers. At the end of each video, she sends her viewers off with the same salutation: "Bye-bye grandkids."
She first got into gaming when her son taught her how to play the 1996 strategy classic Civilization II. "I'd play so much, day and night," she said. "I'd just go out and conquer continent after continent and I loved it."
When she was raising her four children, Curry held several different jobs: She was a secretary, worked in a candy factory and at Kmart. She retired in 1991, at age 55.
Two decades later, she began a fourth act. She joined YouTube in 2011 to watch some of her favorite gaming channels and uploaded her first Skyrim video in 2015. That clip, in which she does battle with a giant spider, hit 2.1 million views. "Petition for Grandma Shirley to be classified as a national treasure," one of the top comments reads.
Now, Curry is a fixture in the global gamer-influencer world. Alongside her hundreds of thousands of YouTube subscribers, she has 75,000 followers on Twitter and 7,000 on Instagram. Bethesda, the studio behind the Elder Scrolls franchise, has promised to include her as a character in the forthcoming sequel to Skyrim.
"Everyone at the studio knows who she is. I wanted to do it right. That meant not only capturing her likeness, but also her skin detail and facial expressions," said Rick Vicens, a senior artist at Bethesda. "When we spoke about the process and what it would take, Shirley was completely on board."
In an influencer ecosystem that tends to favor the young, Curry found that there was room for at least one grandmother. Consequently, she has had to contend with some of the responsibilities of internet fame, like responding to admiring fans and jockeying reply guys.
Curry said she makes decent money from her YouTube channel, enough at least that she can afford to travel on the gamer convention circuit (currently sidelined), where she has met some of her die-hard fans.
The term "burnout" is used frequently among YouTubers to describe the exhaustion creators experience in trying to meet their rigorous upload schedules and appease their fans. Curry said she feels some of that pressure.
"Sometimes I get so tired, I feel like I'm going to quit this. But I can't, I just can't."
After all, like so many other online creators, Curry has established a close link to her viewers, with whom she has staked a small corner of the internet.