Most nights after her parents have gone to bed, Sam, a 16-year-old from Toronto, makes herself a cup of coffee, reclines in her gaming chair and prepares to play Fortnite until the wee morning hours. During that time, Sam, a pseudonym, isn’t playing with her friends, or even a team in a conventional battle campaign. Instead, she plays a series of hour-long sessions with men she refers to as her “clients.” So while they battle other players, build forts and hunt for weapons, she listens to their problems — ranging from nervousness over asking out a girl to sadness about a traumatic childhood. At the end of each hour, she makes at least $20. Some nights, she earns well over $100.
“I’ve always loved video games,” Sam says during a break between clients. “I grew up with two brothers, so I always played shoot-‘em-up games, racing games, games that most boys like.” A few years ago, she discovered Fortnite, the hugely popular online role-playing game, in which players from around the world are put on an island and have to fight for survival. To date, Fortnite has more than 250 million active users and is considered the most popular online game of all time. Playing Fortnite can also provide a lucrative revenue stream that is, a new generation of professional gamers earn millions playing in competitions and via sponsorship deals.
While Sam isn’t a competitive gamer, she still makes around $500 a month as a “gamer girl” — someone who, for a fee, won’t just play video games with people, but also will talk to them about anything they want. Though Sam wouldn’t disclose the exact number of clients she has, she tells me that she’s played with more than 20 people since she started a few months ago. “The basic package is 30 minutes,” Sam tells me. “The people who sign up for that are usually just looking for new people to play.” In some cases, she adds, these men “think they’re better than they actually are, but I can make $10 from them so I usually let them think they’re the reason we’ve got a high ranking.”
Her regular clients, however, sign up for higher-tier packages. “My standard package ($20) gives you an hour of play time and conversation. For the highest tier ($40+) — most of my clients sign up for that — it’s two hours of play time and conversation.”
I found Sam through Fiverr, which has become among the biggest sites for freelancers and those working in the “gig economy” (from coders and tutors to translators and voice actors) to advertise their services. But Fiverr also has provided the opportunity to make money from more unconventional services, including guys who will write your wedding speeches or say anything you want in the voice of Stephen A Smith.
On Fiverr, there a number of gamer girls like Sam who make money charging young men for playtime. Lizhale73, one of the site’s highest-rated gamer girls, charges $60 a month to play games like Fortnite, Overwatch and Red Dead Redemption with her. “I heard the guys I was playing with freaking out that I was a girl playing Fortnite and that I was actually getting more kills than them!” she writes in her Fiverr description. “One guy told me, ‘You should go on Fiverr. There’s a lot of people who would pay to have a girl that’s super good like you play daily with them.” Other gamer girls, such as eberstorm, a 20-year-old American living in Japan, promise, “I’m also a pretty good listener, so if you want to get something off your chest, come to me! I’ll try and help relieve that stress!” Both have five-star ratings, which include a heavy dose of superlatives (e.g., “super interesting,” “fun to talk to” and “great at communicating”).
Sam has been charging for gaming sessions since January and remembers feeling immediately overwhelmed by the number of requests she received. “One thing you notice as a female gamer is that you’re treated differently,” she explains. “When you’re playing on big servers and people find out you’re a girl, there are men who treat you weirdly, like you shouldn’t be there. There were other guys who I enjoyed playing with, but they’d spend the time either talking about themselves and their lives or they’d ask dirty and perverted questions — even if they know you’re underage.”
Further, because most gamer girls are young, “it’s not usual to be taken seriously at the beginning,” Sam says. “There are guys who message you who you know are fucking around, like they’re trying to use you to show off to their friends.” Similarly, she and other gamer girls have had guys pay for a premium session, only for them to be introduced to their client’s friends as a “girlfriend” or even “a newbie who they’re trying to teach.” Worse yet, Sam adds, “I have friends who have been harassed by former clients on Fiverr and on their social media pages if they refuse to play with them. There isn’t much you can do about it either. It’s hard to prove that you’re being harassed by these guys, but sometimes they’ll message you four to five times a day.”
Sadly, Sam’s experience is typical of female gamers — even though women make up nearly half of all Fortnite players, relatively little has been done to curb harassment of them or provide additional safety features, both within the game and on popular streaming services like Twitch and Discord. In fact, in 2017, The Guardian reported that women were increasingly choosing to play in incognito mode (i.e., basically by themselves) in order to avoid deliberate targeting.
Still, among the perks of being a gamer girl is a more pleasant gaming environment (the drawbacks she notes above notwithstanding). Part of that, she suggests, is because gamer girls have guidelines that clients agree to follow. “When I get asked by a guy to play,” she says, “I always send them a list of rules. They have to agree not to ask anything sexual or make sexual comments toward me; they aren’t allowed to use racist or homophobic language; and they aren’t allowed to use transphobic terms. I also make sure to have a conversation with them on Skype before we agree to play. I do a lot of research on someone before they become a client.”
Most of the time, the guys abide by the rules. And while she’s had to terminate a couple of gaming sessions after men acted inappropriately, she says that many of her clients are just as disillusioned with the shithead tendencies of mainstream gaming communities as she is. “Most of the guys [I play with] are really sweet!” she explains. “A lot of them are really shy, haven’t really spoken to girls before and just need a confidence boost. When I play with them — because they already know who I am and that I’m friendly — they’re comfortable with me and can feel relaxed. There’s respect on both sides.”
This dynamic, she says, allows her clients to be emotionally vulnerable with her. “I just talk to them, and after a while, they tell me things I don’t expect about their lives, their families and their relationships,” she says. “Honestly, sometimes I have to stop them from telling me too much about their relationship issues. My biggest fear is that I’ll end up accidentally causing one of them to break up with their girlfriends.”
Not to mention, she adds, “Sometimes the problems they have are too difficult for me. One of my clients was telling me about how he was thinking about committing suicide. I spoke to him enough to convince him not to, but it was scary.”
When I ask Sam why she thinks so many of her clients open up to her about their personal problems, she points to the ability of most gaming platforms to connect you directly to another human being. More largely, there’s a burgeoning movement to include video games into mental health treatments, with services like gamertherapist offering counseling sessions specifically tailored to gamers and numerous other therapists arguing that video games should be incorporated into traditional forms of therapy as well. “It’s hard for guys to talk about difficult things in real-life situations,” says Sam. “It’s also hard for them to talk about it with other guys while they play games. So they see me as someone who will listen to them and play with them, and I think that makes them feel comfortable [expressing] themselves.”
Probably not surprisingly, the guys who pay Sam and other gamer girls to play Fortnite with them weren’t as open with me. Some denied they’d ever done it, despite the fact that I’d gotten their emails from the gamer girls they’d hired. Others claimed they only did so once, either out of curiosity or because they wanted to use them as “Fortnite girlfriends,” a term some male gamers use to refer to women they regularly play with to help them get a higher ranking. “Some of the guys who want to play with me won’t tell me their real names, even when I say it’s a [mandatory] condition,” Sam says. “I guess they still feel embarrassed.”
One 19-year-old in Madrid did respond long enough to tell me (anonymously, of course), “When you play with other guys or in servers with mostly guys, it’s just bullshit talk. You don’t learn anything. When I play with [gamer girls], I play a good game, and I have a good conversation, which is rare on gaming platforms.”
Sam is certainly ready for her next conversation. It’s with a new client, a 20-year-old college student from Texas who paid for a premium session. Having carried out a few days of research, Sam is planning to ask him some questions about his German Shepherd and the band he used to play in. “I’m looking forward to it,” she says. “He seems like a sweet guy.” Better yet, she adds, “It means I can buy some things on my Amazon Wish List next month.”