I was an advice columnist at age 24.
In retrospect, this sounds absurd. What business does a 24 year old have giving advice to anyone? I mean, unless those people are 15-year-old videogamers.
In 1998, I was living in San Francisco. I was at my third job after graduating college, and all of my jobs had been in some sector of the videogame industry. The videogame industry then was centered around the PlayStation, N64, and PC. Duke Nukem had been replaced by Quake, and Daikatana still sounded like it might be cool. Tekken 3 was huge. When I graduated with my degree in comparative literature, someone close to me had told me I had “no marketable skills” and so in a panic I had taken the first job I could find as a marketing coordinator at an online gaming startup.
A job at a startup doesn’t sound like anything interesting or out of the ordinary, but then, and especially for me, it was. Not because I stayed at work the day of my college graduation out of fear I’d never get a job again, nor because I had a boss who didn’t throw things at my head, though he did occasionally throw them next to it. No, it was out of the ordinary because I got that first job in 1996 when online gaming startups were so rare that this one was, in many ways, ahead of its time. If I’d looked around a little more, if I’d been better at networking with friends I’d made at school who’d moved to San Francisco to further the burgeoning world of Web 1.0, if I’d been older than 21 and convinced that I did in fact have a marketable skill or two, I might not have ended up working in the videogame industry. But somehow I stumbled into it.
The third job was at what was then called the Imagine Games Network but which will be more familiar to you now as IGN.com. At the time it was still part of Imagine Media, a network of affiliated sites, many of which were produced out of house by people for whom it was a hobby until Imagine offered them a spot in the network, where they could earn ad revenue more easily. These were the pre-AdWords days. It wasn’t as easy to set up ads on your own site then, or to attract the bigger advertisers. It was my job to manage these affiliate relationships — or, as I called it, to handle the Nerds Getting Paid. It’s difficult to remember (and to imagine if you weren’t there) what it was like to have someone do something entirely out of love and then suddenly be offered money for it. These days, start-a-Tumblr-to-get-a-book-deal is a standing joke. In 1997 or 1998, the idea of getting money for a videogame website was pretty new, and amazing. In 1997 and 1998, websites were still pretty amazing and new.
While I was defined as part of the videogame industry, I was still part of Web 1.0 most definitely. I remember working and working and writing and writing with our team and feeling — knowing — we were doing things no one had done before because how could they have? I remember sitting in the back of the company meeting while our publisher, Chris Anderson (you may know him in his more current incarnation as the guy who started TED) gave a speech about how we were all parts of a big flying machine standing on the edge of an abyss and how we all had to work together for the flying machine to work. Despite the dramatic metaphors, when I look back, he wasn’t so far off the mark.
I wasn’t a gamer at all, could count the number of games I’d been excited about in my life on one hand — and they included Mystery House on Apple IIe and Stun Runner at the arcade. I’d turn out to be a great Quake player and a fearsome opponent in Puzzle Bobble (also known as Bust-A-Move), but I just wasn’t a gamer. But there I was, spending the majority of my time with gamers. I was getting to know them pretty well.
Well, there was this: I was a girl, and in 1998, girls and videogames (even though they were playing them) was still a fairly uncommon combination. What’s more, in between negotiating contracts with clients, I also started to help with site redesign (the affiliates made up a lot of traffic, so I had to) and to show up in stories my friends wrote about adventures in the office. I even contributed a brief post or two. The readers had noticed me on the masthead and had wondered: Who’s the girl!!!!!!! A girl on a website about videogames? I was a unicorn.
I was angling to join the editorial team, and my first big production was our holiday game guide. I opted to include a letters section, and they came quickly. One day, a reader wrote me a very different letter: it was about a girl.
I don’t remember who sent me the letter and I don’t remember his question. What I do remember is thinking about how I should respond. I could follow the tone of IGN by mocking him, or about how I could answer him like Dan Savage (except significantly less explicit, given our audience). Then I thought about this boy sitting there after he had done something really brave, which was send a total stranger at a videogame website an email about his feelings. He told me he didn’t have any girls he could ask about this, and I definitely couldn’t imagine this teenager — maybe 14 or 15 — asking his mom for advice on dating. People don’t mind seeing other people get ripped apart in an advice column but they secretly want their letter to be the one that gets taken seriously. If he could take a chance, then so I could I. So I answered him as sincerely and with as much kindness as I could.
The reader response was positive. “You really listened to him,” they said. “You were so nice!” More letters came.
While I had still been the affiliate manager, the editor in chief and I restructured the Imagine Games Network to become more like what IGN is today. We introduced what we called hubs — a main IGN page and separate sections devoted to the types of content we and our affiliates produced, like the different consoles, TV, movies, and sci-fi — comic books, anime, movies, TV, and more. Each of these was branded separately, allowing us to promote IGN content better than we had in the past. We also created a new section called IGN For Men that had all sorts of stuff in it that didn’t fit anywhere else. After proving my muster with the holiday game guide, I joined IGN TV as an assistant editor even though I didn’t actually have a TV of my own (I kept this secret). Meanwhile, I continued with a letters section, but the readers kept asking for advice. Within a few months of writing the letters column, it was clear the demand for advice was only growing, and I became IGN For Men’s newest addition: Ask Leah.
People always laugh when I tell them about being an advice columnist for videogamers because, after all, gamers are dorks and nerds and socially inept and what advice could they possibly need, right? I joke back, “Who needs advice more than them?”
But here’s the truth. My readers taught me as much about listening and taking people’s problems seriously as anything I have ever done. They taught me the value of what kindness and generosity can do, not only for the person receiving it but for you who give. Of what happens when you give people the space to talk about themselves, and of how much guys will start to talk about their feelings if we give them space to do so.
Over the course of two and a half years, I wrote a feature a week (which showed me why Cosmo has repeated so many topics over its many decades run). I wrote the daily Ask Leah. Eventually I realized I was getting so many questions about people’s genitals that I started the recurring column What’s Up With My Penis. I also received more complicated questions about like teen pregnancy, suicide, and family issues, which lead to another recurring column, Tough Love. My mother, a doctor, would ghostwrite anything that was medical or would check anything particularly serious in nature. I wrote, edited, and produced over 1,500 articles and daily columns. I received thousands and thousands of letters, sometimes upwards of 100 a day. Occasionally a kid’s mom would write me, asking me to please answer her son because I was the only one he’d listen to. I went on The Opie and Anthony Show when they were still on broadcast radio — the longest 72 minutes of my life — and refused to walk off the air, despite egregious abuse from them and their listeners. After the clip aired, I was voted second best clip of the week after Jay Mohr and their listeners sent me email — not abusing me, but confessing their own problems, and asking me for help too. I wrote a feature in response to a letter from a 15-year-old girl wondering if she should get breast implants, and at the end of the feature I asked the readers to respond with their opinions, promising I’d publish their letters as a feature the following week. It was a risk, but I trusted them. The response was astounding: In the first day, 30,000 people read the piece and hundreds emailed. Nearly everyone, teenagers all, said no.
Ask Leah went on for two and a half years. By the end of it, I was a little burnt out — after all, there really are only so many problems a teenage boy can have — but I did come to miss it. I still do. Every once in a while, a reader will find me on the internet and tell me how, still, ten years later, Ask Leah made a difference in their lives, how maybe I got the gender of the person he liked wrong (but how could I know he was fifteen and gay), but how I listened and respected them, how I was the only girl they had to talk to, how I helped them get their first date, how I made high school a little less awful. I wish there were more spaces for guys to ask for help and figure out what to do in tough situations.
IGN took the archives down a long time ago, so there’s nothing there to read anymore. Even so, I like to think it’s sort of like Web 1.0 — we built a good foundation. It’s still there.
Illustration by Hallie Bateman for The Bygone Bureau. Language taken from real Ask Leah letters.