As a child, James Stephanie Sterling often found themselves picking apart what made games good or bad, what entertained and what left them cold. Silent Hill 2 would prove their favorite game. They adored its evocatively bleak atmosphere, and years later, that mirrors how they feel about the video game industry. While on some level they love it, it’s also a relentlessly grim hellscape of cynical exploitation and empty platitudes. This caustic relationship is the key tension at the heart of Sterling’s long-running show, The Jimquisition.
The Jimquisition, the YouTube series first hosted at Destructioid and later The Escapist, is Sterling’s weekly bully pulpit where, clad in their trademark outlandish threads, they rain down scorn on game business scourges like predatory microtransactions, abusive work culture, and all manner of unethical business practices, emphatically reading “Poobisoft” and “Bethetic Games Studios” for filth in between non sequiturs about their affinity for Boglins.
Games journalism wasn’t the career path Sterling envisioned for themselves. It might not come as a surprise to habitual Jimquisition watchers, but a younger Sterling thought they’d become a standup comedian. While they didn’t have the zeal and passion to pursue the profession full time, their comedy discipline, alongside their love of analyzing video games, served as the foundation for The Jimquisition. Before the pandemic made working from home the norm, Sterling was working on the show full time from their laptop in a makeshift bedroom office and recording studio.
As a fresh-faced newcomer, they found themselves becoming giddy at the idea of having press access to review copies of games, as well as people in the industry commending them on their work. But the honeymoon didn’t last.
“Over time, as I started talking about the wider industry, I became so incredibly and bitterly disillusioned,” Sterling said.
The Jimquisition’s early success at Destructoid allowed them more freedom to fly off the handle while working at The Escapist, and they enjoyed more leeway than most gaming journalists to air out their grievances with the gaming industry. But that time came to an end.
One morning, Sterling woke to see that their Assassin’s Creed Unity review hadn’t been published. An email from The Escapist’s then editor-in-chief informed them they wouldn’t be running the review because of its critique of the game’s microtransaction practices.
“It was explained to me that [Defy Media] didn’t want to focus so much on the business side of games and felt that it had no place in games criticism with regards to talking about [Assassin’s Creed’s] monetization,” Sterling said. “They didn’t want to negatively impact potential sponsorship opportunities.”
As Sterling tells it, The Escapist’s vice president told them that sponsorship opportunities with game publishers were the direction gaming media was headed. The blossoming media personality decided to jump ship before letting the changing corporate tides pushed them out first, and went independent in 2014.
“I had already been mentally preparing the idea of crowdfunding my work and going independent, so once I found out that my review wasn’t going to be published, I immediately leapt off that trapeze onto the next safety net,” they said.
Despite The Escapist claiming ownership of Sterling’s work on The Jimquisition, their parting went smoothly in part, Sterling suggests, because Defy didn’t want the incendiary presenter “flying off the handle at them.” The Escapist granted Sterling full rights to the show upon their departure.
Although having full creative control of The Jimquisition felt liberating, it was also a terrifying financial venture for Sterling. They were a self-described “fidgety, nervous” wreck the weekend leading up to their independent debut, fearing that their audience would not care to migrate with them, much less financially support them through Patreon. But their fear turned to relief thanks to the “ridiculously strong” financial support they received from fans. Sterling’s first independent video performed just as well as any Escapist-era Jimquisition.
“That really galvanized me and made me realize that what I was doing meant a lot,” they said. “Maybe not to everyone [or] the wider video game community, but it meant a lot to some people and that’s what was important. That’s what keeps me going now.”
While remnants of The Escapist’s Jimquisition echoed throughout the new production, one artifact that didn’t age gracefully was the show’s military aesthetic. If you found early Jimquisition videos where Sterling wore black aviators and gesticulated from a lectern while wearing a fascistic red-and-black military jacket to be edgy and off-putting, the Sterling of today would agree with you.
Back then, unfortunately, they didn’t fully consider the potential implications of their Norsefire– and Helghast-inspired presentation style. But as time wore on in a world post-GamerGate, the alt-right rising to prominence in the U.S., and the election of president Donald Trump, Sterling became increasingly uncomfortable with being associated with the fascistic aesthetic of The Jimquisition, and decided to make a change.
After some soul searching and a conversation with their art director Justin McDaniel, Sterling finally replaced the sharp black-and-red Jimquisition logo with the show’s current softer pink-and-purple, rounded look. They also ditched their black bowler hat and dark aviators for a steampunk hat, split leather corset and goggles. Although audiences, especially on YouTube, tend to be averse to change, Jimquisition viewers welcomed Sterling’s more carnival barker-esque look.
Sterling looks back at the person they used to be and cringes, describing their past self as a cruel, pathetic edgelord who routinely used “ironic” bigotry and offensive language under the guise of free speech.
“I no longer feel I’m as instinctively reactive as I used to be,” they said.
After being diagnosed and receiving treatment for bipolar disorder two years ago, Sterling says they learned how to better regulate their emotions. Therapy helped them take a more mature and considered approach while discussing topics that might’ve made them fly off the handle in previous times. While Sterling still feels the very deep-seated cold fury of their youth when covering the games industry, they are nowhere near as angry a person as they used to be, both on screen and in their private life.
“Rather than soften me, I have been able to take a more considered approach in my work,” they said.
Ironically, the supposed “glory years” lapsed Sterling fans look back on fondly were some of the darkest, most miserable, and depressing periods of their life, when they were consistently on the cusp of the nervous breakdown those ex-viewers think Sterling is on the brink of today. Being referred to as a man in those days felt alien to them, and whenever they listen to their earlier work, they’re horrified at the number of times they’d joke about their own death.
“The biggest difference between me now and me in my earlier years is the rage,” Sterling said. “Everything I did back in the day was based in some form of rage, some form of combative attitude. Year on year, I’ve only gotten more mellow, more calm, more centered as a person.”
With their coming out as trans-femme and nonbinary last year, the hate Sterling routinely received over their decade-long career, in the form of uninspired fat jokes, would evolve into lazy transphobic jokes.
“It’s interesting that there are many people who mourn me as if I died when I came out as James Stephanie Sterling,” they said, “when I feel more alive than ever.”
Sterling’s “aha!” moment came from a conversation with their husband, Phoenix, where they admitted to feeling more comfortable wearing feminine clothing while working out.
“They said, ‘I had a feeling that there was something not quite cis about you’ and that hit me like a brick,” Sterling said.
Prior to that, Sterling had been afraid to encroach on anything trans-related because they’d drilled into their head that they were a cis man, even though they didn’t feel like one. They didn’t feel like they were “allowed” to be trans. As an older millennial, they also lacked the necessary language, and didn’t know other non-binary and trans-femme people to serve as inspiration for who they wanted to be.
“After enough soul searching, I was able to allow myself to embrace that aspect of myself,” they said. “It would be my hope that if my early self would see me now, they would realize sooner that they could have had the things they were denying themselves. [I] could have been a better person sooner, and more than anything else, [I] could have had the time that I lost.”
One unlikely outlet Sterling drew upon to help center themselves came inside the ropes of a wrestling ring. While you might know Sterling for laying the smackdown on “the usual suspects” in the gaming industry, they’ve also donned a silver bodysuit and an Electro-inspired mask as the poly antagonist, super heavyweight supervillain, pan-galactic princess of pansexual pandemonium known as Commander Sterling.
“When the spandex is on and the mic is in my hand, I am completely clear-headed. It is one of the rare moments where I feel 100 percent focused and that’s very important for me,” they said. “Plus, there’s nothing like cackling loudly and hearing your shrill shrieking laughter echoing through a hollowed-out Burlington Coat Factory to really vent some steam.”
Their road to becoming a professional wrestler was the result of a throwaway joke Sterling made where they parodied AEW wrestler Cody Rhodes’ defunct WWE gimmick Stardust. They later thought it’d be funny to contact “Dynamite” Jay Andrews from Pro Wrestling Ego to do a couple of skits for their shows. Andrews took a liking to their character and booked them as a manager for one of their wrestlers.
As Sterling put it, “My wrestling career was a joke that went too far.”
After starting out as a heel manager for a wrestler named Ursa Major, Sterling became a full-fledged wrestler taking thumbtack bumps and delivering a mean chokeslam. Drawing from the negative public perception they garnered over the years covering the games industry served as excellent preparation for getting over as a heel with the wrestling audience. In the ring, they blow off some steam by leaning into becoming the very annoyance the gaming industry always perceived them as.
“I’ve been cutting promos on the game industry week in and week out for 10 years. It’s now very natural for me to just grab a microphone and speak from the heart so taking those skills and transporting them into wrestling really didn’t take a lot of work. It was a very natural move for me,” they said.
But it isn’t lost on Sterling that their many combative videos calling out harassment and abuse within the games industry have inversely led to their viewers harassing developers or journalists tied to the content they discuss.
“There have been times [when] my audience have overstepped the marks,” they said. “I think there are some people in the community who are always looking for something they can feel righteous about while harming someone. And I hate that work I’ve done has facilitated some of that excuse.” Sterling claims that while some content creators might shrug and “absolve themselves of responsibility” over how their community members conduct themselves, Sterling’s tried to prevent their community from harassing others.
“You cannot control their individual actions, but at the very least you can condemn them when they cross a line,” they said. “You can do your best to mitigate the harm and communicate to your audience that that harm is not what you want.”
Opinions likely vary whether that is due diligence enough.
Sterling said they make it a point to present their gripes with video games as systemic industry-wide problems rather than zeroing in on specific people to attack. However, it’s impossible for Sterling to not single out bigwigs like Activision CEO Bobby Kotick and Ubisoft founder Yves Guillemot due to their positions of power and how they’ve basically become synonymous with the allegations at their respective companies.
While Sterling doesn’t believe games press outlets have fully managed to “Ship of Theseus” themselves into reaching their full potential as editorial journalists that take the games business to task rather than toe the line in fear of losing corporate favor, they do think aspects of games media have improved since they left the profession to become a full-time pundit.
“Journalism is next to impossible to achieve in games media because everything is so tightly controlled by PR departments, but over the years, we have seen it occur and it’s always been encouraging. However, there’s still a lot that could be improved,” Sterling said.
One of the frustrations Sterling has with the games press is its willingness to give coverage to games from companies like Ubisoft without giving due time to the allegations of abuse affecting the workers behind those very games. The gaming public’s willingness to move on and get excited for new games from companies that have been shown to be abusive is a source of ire for Sterling, who sees this as the demands of worker-led organizations like A Better Ubisoft being swept under the rug.
“It’s hard not to feel disgust when I see so much uncritical news coverage and what is essentially uncritical marketing on behalf of companies like Ubisoft after they have committed so much harm,” they said.
Critics of The Jimquisition have accused it of being “consumer whining” focused around a handful of tired wash-rinse-repeat topics: lambasting microtransactions and loot boxes, lamenting games press for being PR for games, and chastising companies like Ubisoft and Activision for alleged abuse of workers. Sterling readily admits to regularly returning to a handful of topics, and doesn’t plan on stopping until their qualms with the games industry cease to exist.
“I’m not going to stop banging the drum while the drum needs to be banged,” they said.
While they feel emboldened to continue to speak out on predatory monetization practices, and giving voice to frustrated people both within and outside of the gaming industry, Sterling is painfully aware that they are fighting a losing battle.
“I know I’m not gonna change the game industry. I know the game industry views me at most as an annoyance [and] a crackpot if it even thinks about me at all. The best my work can do is to make others feel seen and heard,” they said.
When I asked what a more ideal gaming industry might look like, they said they envision solidarity and organization from every corner of the industry, one where game developers are not only unionized, but gamers and games media are unified in support of them.
“There are so many people that want to act as unpaid attack dogs for corporations and shout down anyone who’s critical of the providers of their favorite entertainment toys,” they said. “I feel like we all need to be pulling in the same direction because the [business] people [publishing] those games are not on our side.”
Sterling used to say that their love for video games is exactly why they hate video games so much. A cornerstone of their ongoing hatred for video games comes from publishers who view the potential for the media as a vehicle for profit rather than an art form. Although Sterling continues to beat the drum against the inclusion of exploitative capitalist practices, people within the gaming community who once shared their outrage at concepts like loot boxes and microtransactions now seem inured to them.
“If you give the game industry an inch, they’ll take the nation, and that’s what we’ve seen,” Sterling said. “Over the years, as other people have dulled their nerves and allowed more and more [exploitative practices] to occur, the game industry has only ever continued to take liberties.”
Sterling sees the commodification of games as a cash cow rather than as an artform as a problem that’s only worsened with the emergence of NFTs. But they fear the current anti-NFT outcry will soon subside, because when these topics lose their shock value, folks at large will no longer find them worth debating.
Although Sterling’s no longer surprised by the abhorrent acts the gaming industry is capable of, the disgust that caused them to start The Jimquisition in the first place still runs just as strong as it did 10 years ago.
“Art is being used, exploited, and seen only as an investment [that] is worthless unless it can be invested in. That is not how the vast majority of us want to view art,” Sterling said.
With Sterling’s claimed dream for the future of the games industry feeling akin to an idealistic, Hands Across America-type of kumbaya moment, they know that the only way to make that dream a reality is to keep speaking out and encouraging the rest of the gaming community to not just voice their own support, but to take action to ensure that any positive changes that come about can be maintained.
“Either that or guillotines,” Sterling said.