Barbara Dunkelman has a guardian. He’s a muscular guy in a uniform t-shirt that signals his volunteer status at the RTX gaming expo, hosted by Rooster Teeth. Actually, all the event’s crowd-wrangling volunteers are "guardians,” a sort of fantasy-world honorific, but in Dunkleman’s case the title matches its purpose. Arriving in the media lounge, she waves him off, "I'm fine for awhile."
Dunkelman can't really walk around the Austin Convention Center, not without attracting a throng of fans and calls of, "Please, just one more autograph," and then one more and then one more. While she'd really love to meet every single person, she has a convention with 30,000 attendees to run. No time to bask in adulation.
Dunkelman has 210,000 Twitter followers and a podcast that averages 4 million downloads per month. She’s the voice of Yang, a busty, blonde, cartoon super girl co-starring on the anime web series RWBY. Yang’s action figure is due on Rooster Teeth’s merchandise shelves any day now, and RWBY’s first season averaged more than a million views per episode, and counting. On WiffleGif, I found nine pages of gifs hash-tagged Barbara Dunkelman. A Reddit search brings up a bunch of doctored NSFW images (Dunkelman's head, somebody else's body), and one doesn't have to search too far to pull up a plentitude of Dunkelman-themed slash fiction. "Barbara's out alone, at night, on the way to her grandmother's…" one begins. All this begs the questions: Who is Barbara Dunkelman? And what’s a Rooster Tooth?
Back in 2004, Barbara Dunkelman was a 14-year-old eighth grader in Ottawa who was into Mario and Zelda. Hanging out in her family’s basement computer room, she listened in as her older brother and his friends watched a funky little web series called Red vs. Blue.
Red vs. Blue debuted in 2003. Using voiceover and gameplay footage from jillion-dollar, first-person-shooter Halo, its mini episodes tell of warring soldiers in Blood Gulch canyon. It’s more about jokey-riffing than violence. In the first episode, two super-armored grunts wonder why they are here and if there’s a god and why exactly they need to takeover a stupid canyon. People loved it. Creators Burnie Burns and Matt Hullum weren’t expecting fame or money, but in early 2004 the second-season premiered at the Lincoln Center in New York. Fans from all over the world showed up. That’s when they knew they were on to something.
For a long time, Red vs. Blue had more brand recognition than parent company Rooster Teeth. That’s starting to change thanks to diversified successes like super-girl show RWBY and game-footage-plus-comedic-commentary show Achievement Hunter.
Today, video gameplay paired with narration is the sleeping giant of online entertainment. Live-streaming site Twitch is devoted to it. As of earlier this year, Twitch is the country’s fourth-largest source of Internet traffic during peak hours, behind only Netflix, Google, and Apple, and slightly ahead of Hulu and Facebook.
Red vs. Blue got started before machinima had mainstream recognition, before there was even a YouTube. In fact, when YouTube arrived, Rooster Teeth’s founders kindly asked it to remove their videos when people posted them there, they saw it as a competitor (times change).
Early entry into web entertainment helped Rooster Teeth cement a large and loyal fan base comprised largely of teenage boys. Eleven years on, they’ve grown into a singular force in web entertainment, with dozens of shows, 75 employees, and a brand new 17,000-square-foot studio. A testament to the strength of their fan base, the company launched an Indiegogo campaign to fund Lazer Team, a full-length, live-action feature, and they cleared their funding goal of $650,000 in 11 hours. This month, Indiegogo announced it was the most successful fundraising project ever for the site. Lazer Team raised more than $2.4 million and is due out in spring 2015.
But back in 2004, Burns, Hullum, and a few other guys worked out of a one-bedroom apartment in Buda, Texas. Two thousand miles away, a Canadian teenager was falling in love with their show and the community that sprouted up around it. Dunkelman made an online home for herself on the Rooster Teeth website. Once she started posting there, it was the draw of the community that made her interest in Rooster Teeth’s shows grow. She wanted to be in on the inside jokes and conversation on the site.
In high school, from the time she got home until she went to bed, Dunkelman was hanging online at Rooster Teeth. “That was my social life,” she said of her teen years.
You don’t get to pick your high school class, but you can pick the friends you make online. For a girl who was into video games and comedy, the Rooster Teeth community offered respite from the rigidity of gender binaries propagated by high school social life.
“I was never very popular,” Dunkelman said of that time, “I didn’t belong anywhere.”
At her computer, she’d post journal entries to Rooster Teeth, comment on other posts, host chats. Plenty of the dialogue had to do with Rooster Teeth content, but the other half was the unrelated, quotidian chatter and drama that sows communities and friendships. Dunkelman said some of her best friends are people she met through community. She has two friends who met through Rooster Teeth and are now married with a baby.
At 16, she started attending yearly Rooster Teeth fan events in Toronto. “It was the highlight of my summer, highlight of the year really,” she said. At 19, she began helping coordinate them. These events were low-key and planned by the community, no one was making money on them. When the first Rooster Teeth Expo, known as RTX, was held in Austin in 2011, it too was essentially a fan event—not the sizable gaming convention it is today. Dunkelman attended as head of volunteers. “I never in a million years thought I'd work for Rooster Teeth.”
But by the time she finished college in 2011, Rooster Teeth had expanded beyond its apartment-in-Buda beginnings. It had a proper studio in south Austin and 17 employees. “You've been with us a long time, we like you, it only makes sense we find a place for you here,” Barbara recalls Burns telling her.
At that point, it was still a question of what exactly she would do. The responsibilities discussed fell under what the gaming industry has since decided to call a “community manager,” but the term wasn’t prevalent then. “It was almost like we invented the position for me,” Dunkelman said. Rooster Teeth sponsored her H-1B visa and she moved to Texas.
Community managers are typically people who already have a high profile in a specific gaming community when they are hired. (When Dunkelman was hired, she was the most-followed person in the Rooster Teeth community.) Managers bridge communication between product developer and audience. For Dunkelman, this entails answering 500 emails a day from the community, helping solve people’s account problems, and planning year-round for RTX, which gets bigger every year.
In 2012, Dunkelman attended the second RTX, this time as a Rooster Teeth employee. Occasionally someone would stop her on the convention floor for an autograph. Over the next 12 months, her profile grew exponentially with regular appearances on the Rooster Teeth podcast, where Burns and other Rooster Teethers drink beer, joke, and talk about upcoming projects, gaming and whatever else. Dunkelman also began popping up in various web series. When RTX rolled around in 2013, she couldn’t step out on the convention floor without being swarmed. This year was no different. That puts Dunkelman in a tough position, because not only is she an attraction, she’s responsible for running the event.
It may come as a surprise to Dunkelman’s fans that by her estimate, only 25 percent of her job takes place in the public eye. The metrics of celebrity are a strange thing online. Dunkelman talks about the pressure to be funny for a 90-minute podcast that a million people will later listen to, but the bulk of what Rooster Teeth pays her for are marketing and management functions familiar to plenty of 20-somethings who work in communications. There are acclaimed authors and indie bands that would be thrilled to have a fraction of Dunkelman’s platform, but she remains, at least for now, an unknown in mainstream cultural dialogue and traditional media.
That gap between Internet-famous and traditional-famous will likely narrow in years to come. Dunkelman said she’s not interested in the latter. “It would make me afraid for my privacy and safety,” but that may be where she’s headed if Rooster Teeth’s trajectory continues. The company is 11 years old, but within the last two years they’ve gone from 1.7 million YouTube subscribers to 7.5 million.
She said her early immersion in Internet culture prepared her for some of the yuckier things people do with her name and image online. The first Google search bar suggestion for her name is "hot." Subsequent suggestions include: Is Barbara Dunkelman single? Is Barbara Dunkelman dating Gavin Free? Is Barbara Dunkelman a virgin?
Gaming-industry sexism can be so blatant it harkens to less-enlightened times, as if female industry workers have to re-clear the path women forged in older industries decades ago. At conferences, Barbara has had people tell her she’s just a “booth babe,” that she was hired for her looks, and she’s had men at industry events ask whose girlfriend she is, discounting even the possibility she’s attending in a professional capacity.
Barbara doesn’t engage with the misogyny. She’s built her Rooster Teeth profile across multiple shows, animated and live-action, and her natural aptitude for pun-making has blossomed and amplified in response to fan appreciation. On YouTube and you’ll find a 16-minute compilation of Barbara Dunkelman puns put together by one fan. It has 96,471 views, and counting.
Photo provided by Rooster Teeth