If you were to meet me in real life, you’d no doubt see my bespectacled face and have a hard time picturing it any other way. With the exception of sleeping and bathing, I’m never without my glasses. When people ask me about my vision, I make crudely hyperbolic statements like “I’m totally blind without them.”
For Steve Saylor, there’s no hyperbole about it.
Legally blind from birth, Steve lives with a condition called nystagmus. “[It’s an] involuntary movement of my eyes,” Steve tells me. “My eyes can’t focus. There is no way to fix it.”
If you have any preconceived notions of what it means to be blind, Steve is the person to shatter them. By day, Steve is a graphic designer and videographer for a major Toronto radio station. By night, Steve not only plays video games, but under the name Blind Gamer Steve has been posting Let’s Play videos to YouTube since early 2015. In short, Steve Saylor is doing more with his life blind than most of us are doing with 20/20 vision.
Don’t feel too bad, though. You’re much better at playing video games than Steve Saylor. ;)
It’s mid-February, 2016. I’m spending the weekend at Podcamp in Toronto, a podcasting “un-conference” that’s as much about personal passion as it is professional production. Steve has attended Podcamp in years past, but isn’t able to make it to any of the workshops or seminars this year because of a conflict with his day job.
And by day job, I mean he had to produce a YouTube video featuring Alex Lifeson from Rush.
As I sit here waiting for Steve, I can’t help but think of what an appropriate location Podcamp is for our interview today. When I first met Steve in 2007, he was on the ground floor of the burgeoning podcast empire known as This Week in Geek (TWiG). Created alongside Mike “The Birdman” Dodd during their time at Niagara College, the show covered all sorts of geek news and chatter, from movies and comic books to toys and video games.
It didn’t dawn on me until recently that Steve rarely had anything to do with the video game talk at TWiG.
“I’ve just always been a casual gamer until about a year ago,” Steve tells me. “It was always on the periphery, something I loved. I love video games. I love the story of video games. [But] I would be very selective about the games I play.”
As we talk, a few things about Steve’s gaming tastes become increasingly clear. For example, he’d rather enjoy the on-rails adventure of Minecraft Story Mode than jump into the open sandbox of traditional Minecraft, while readily admitting that Blind Gamer’s viewers would prefer to see the latter. After all, when there’s room to experiment, there’s room to fail — and the hilarity that results is a big part of why Steve’s audience tunes in.
“I’m blind and I think its just hilarious how bad I am at video games, [so I thought] I should probably do a YouTube series on that.”
“The first time I ever played a video game was as a kid. I remember going to a video store, and they had a Nintendo Entertainment System to buy. My mom was with us and bought it — supposedly as a father’s day gift. She always does this, buys these toys she thinks he [my dad] would like, and he plays with them once and then never touches them again. This was one of those. She probably knew full well my brother and I were going to play with it more than he did.”
Steve and his brother delighted in Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt, and his mention of bringing home The Three Stooges game along with their NES flooded me with my own fond childhood memories of pie-throwing hijinks. But the novelty began to wear off quickly for Steve. There were some games that would grab his attention over the years (he describes Mario Kart as “100%” his game), but looking back, Steve defines his interest in video games as casual from a very early point.
“I never really played a lot of it,” he told me. “I just kind of dabbled here and there.
“I was mostly watching my brother play. He was better at it than I was, so [even though] I wanted to play … if I wanted to get the story I would just watch my brother.”
That the struggles Steve had with video games as a child (and still has as an adult) stem from his limited vision should come as little surprise — but it’s only recently that he’s started to think about the nuts and bolts behind this. “I didn’t clue in that hand eye coordination was an issue for me for a long time.”
Even though his brother may have been better at saving the Princess in Super Mario, there was an upside to Steve’s lack of interest in playing games as a kid: he can experience the classics with fresh eyes (no pun intended) in front of his Blind Gamer audience. Watching Steve fumble through the Glass Joe battle in Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out is as hilarious as it shout-inducing — at least if you’re a fan. (SIDENOTE: his commentary is 100% correct: Doc Louis looks exactly like Carl Winslow.)
“I love that I can go back and play some of the retro games because I had never played them before. I think that’s part of the charm. Knowing that if I do ‘Blind Gamer plays Legend of Zelda,’ everyone [else] knows what’s going to happen, but… I’ve never played it before. I feel like, even watching it from the audience, you see it with fresh eyes again.”
This point resonates with me more than I’d expected. As a parent, I’ve had the experience that Steve is talking about; not from watching Blind Gamer, but from watching my own kids discover, play, and fall in love with the very same games I grew up on. It’s this same feeling of empathized discovery that Steve creates within his audience — the chance to share something you love with someone for the first time.
The path that took Steve from a childhood spent watching his brother play video games to becoming one of YouTube’s most interesting gaming personalities is a long and winding one — but despite his self-declared casual interest in the hobby, a lucky break in a video game seemed to provide the first real step in his journey.
“Gaming is what got me into radio. I was getting into PC games a bit — loved Star Trek games, Star Trek Elite Force. Then I watched The Matrix — by far my favourite movie of all time. The Matrix MMO came online. I applied and got into the beta test [and] was playing and having fun. Then I noticed in the general chat room they were talking about Radio Free Zion.
“[It was] a radio station designed for The Matrix Online. It was run by players. They had clubs throughout town on different servers and they’d announce where they were, and you’d go and the DJ would be playing music and streaming it online.
“They announced they were looking for new DJs and on a whim I applied and auditioned. My first show on the air was streaming for 3000 people. [It was] the first time I broadcasted anything ever. That was how I got hooked.”
Steve spent the next year or two as DJ Snowball, a popular radio personality in the world of The Matrix Online. “There are some people today who will remember me as DJ Snowball from that game,” he tells me. He recounts incredible stories, like the time Awakened Radio (the later rebranding of Radio Free Zion) covered an in-game event with War of the Worlds-style live reporting. Or how he eventually saw his role grow to a larger online radio community, working in other MMO’s like City of Heroes.
That all ended when he decided to make a serious attempt at a radio career, first as a student at Niagara College, and then later, Humber. (Steve now teaches part-time at the latter).
Today Steve is living his dreams of being in the radio business (even if he’s not on the mic) — but the sweet Siren’s call of video game broadcasting eventually beckoned him back: this time not in radio, but video — and with his own project.
Like most YouTubers, Steve’s audience didn’t show up immediately. Blind Gamer is sitting at 1,800 subscribers at the time of this writing. It’s a far cry from the millions that top YouTube gaming personalities like PewDiePie and Markiplier get, but it’s an excellent start for a series that’s only been around for a year — and Steve attributes a lot of this growth to word of mouth.
Back in September, Greek YouTuber Leon Pep posted a video letting his nearly 45,000 followers know about Steve, calling him an “unknown talent.” After that, Blind Gamer’s numbers began to shoot up.
“One thing I was told by YouTube is the first thousand is the hardest you’ll ever get, and then after that it’s easy,” Steve tells me, stifling a chuckle. “But the 1000 was easy! It was complete luck!”
Along with a growing audience (and attempts to grow it further) come growing problems. While Steve is blind, how other people understand blindness and its varying forms can prove problematic — especially if someone thinks that Steve is taking advantage of “real” blind people.
“I put my trailer out and bought Instagram ads and got about 40 subscribers. One of the comments there was that I wasn’t blind [because] I had taken photos and had seen movies. ‘Why would you capitalize on being blind if there are people who have more blindness than you?’ My immediate reaction was disbelief.”
Rather than responding with anger (which, admittedly, he considered), Steve took this as an opportunity to educate. He released the video “Are You REALLY Blind?” to address the question head on, explaining how he sees the world, as well as how he’s overcome the roadblocks that his blindness creates.
As you’ll likely notice (if you watch the video above), Steve is entirely comfortable in his own skin, and doesn’t mind talking about his nystagmus. During our conversation, I’ve found that the only thing he doesn’t like is when people seem intent to walk on eggshells around the topic.
“I didn’t have and lose my vision. I’ve always been blind. You don’t miss what you don’t have. My blindness is my normal. If I can explain it, that allows us a better connection,” he tells me.
So I ask everything I can think of.
“Is the nystagmus the result of being an albino?”
“Do you have any other vision problems?”
“Usually part of an albinism is some kind of blindness like sensitivity to sun, which I also have.”
“Has your vision gotten worse over the years, or remained the same since birth?”
“It’s been the same since I was three. My parents had been told I would be fully blind by six, but my prescription has stayed the same.”
Steve is comfortable talking about his blindness because it’s a part of who he is. As I learn more about his condition, I find myself feeling sillier and sillier for asking. Yes, he’s the Blind Gamer — but he’s also Steve: a nice guy with limitless ambition who seems to accomplish anything he sets his mind to.
Being blind is a part of Steve, but it doesn’t define him.
The YouTube gaming generation is something that I find utterly fascinating, but I largely feel like an outsider. Let’s Play videos are the sort of thing that make me feel old. I don’t totally understand their appeal, but I feel like if I were just a few years younger…
I tell Steve this, and he sympathizes. For him, it’s Snapchat.
I close out the interview by asking Steve the same question I find myself asking every YouTube creator and viewer. As a Let’s Play personality that’s growing in popularity, I figure he’s as good a person to ask as any.
“Why do people want to watch other people play video games?”
“I think it goes back to what I went through in my childhood; watching my brother playing video games. Being able to watch is sort of second nature. There’s a nostalgia factor to Let’s Play. Sometimes it’s just more fun to watch someone else play than to play [the game] yourself.”