Colleen Lachowicz is a long-time health care worker who works with teens and young adults. She is a wife and a step-mom. And she likes to knit.
But this week, the 48-year-old Lachowicz — who is running as a Democrat for the State Senate in Maine — abruptly found herself at the center of a Republican smear campaign because of one of her hobbies. No ... not knitting.
Lachowicz is a gamer. More specifically, the Republican party of Maine discovered that Lachowicz enjoys playing the online role-playing game "World of Warcraft." And, on Thursday, the party launched a campaign to out what they are calling her "disturbing alter-ego" and her "bizarre double life."
The Republican Party not only launched a website, they sent out post cards to voters in her district and even issued a press release — all of which showed off the level-85 orc named Santiaga that Lachowicz plays in the game and also highlighted online comments she had made about the game (some of which contain curse words!). (For more on that, read our previous story here.)
News of the "WoW" witch hunt has since made international headlines and kicked up a storm of outrage in the gaming world. I had a chance to interview Lachowicz after she had spent a day out knocking on doors, campaigning in her district not to mention fielding a flurry of calls and emails about the anti-gaming crusade. And she seemed nothing short of stunned by the turn of events.
"This whole thing is just so weird," she said sounding flustered. "It's just so weird that it's an issue."
Lachowicz said that she has played games her entire life and has never tried to hide the fact that she's a gamer. She says she got started gaming way back in the good old days with an Atari home console and loved going to arcades.
"Do you remember 'Marble Madness'? I loved that game," she says. More recently she has enjoyed playing the hit "Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" on her PlayStation 3. And she points out that even her elderly mother (nearly 70 years old) enjoys playing games.
"She doesn’t play any massively multiplayer online games but she can kick some butt in 'Super Mario Bros.'," Lachowicz says.
Lachowicz got started playing "World of Warcraft" four years ago when the "Wrath of the Lich King" expansion arrived. "I liked hanging out with friends and working on a goal together," she says of what drew her to the game.
She thinks those who don't play the game don't realize that the stereotypes about its players aren't true. (Think: basement-dwelling teenagers without a life.)
"When I played, I played with people who are college professors and lawyers. I played with adults," she says. "The average age, I think, is mid-30s for people who play online MMOs."
The 'G' word
Indeed, with hundreds of millions of people around the world playing not only online games like "World of Warcraft" but Facebook games and mobile games, it's stunning to see that the term "gamer," in some circles, remains a dirty word.
"By 2012, it's far easier to identify those Americans who are not game-playing consumers than those who are," says Hal Halpin, president of the Entertainment Consumers Association. (The ECA is a non-profit organization dedicated to gamer advocacy.)
"Who among us has never seen nor heard of 'Angry Birds,' 'Plants vs Zombies' or 'FarmVille' much less classics like 'Pac Man,' 'Asteroids' or 'Space Invaders'? This is akin to demonizing politicians who admitted to listening to, and being fans of rock-and-roll 50 years ago."
Additionally, while the Republican party claims that that Lachowicz spends "hundreds of hours playing in her online world," Lachowicz says "WoW" was never a central part of her life. And that is a common misperception — that if you enjoy playing video or computer games, you must have an addiction to it.
Though Lachowicz concedes that some people do have a problem with playing "WoW" too much, she says that has never been the case for her. In fact, she hasn't logged into the game for about a month. And before that, she hadn't had a chance to play since January.
Why? "I've been busy running for office," she says. And that's not the only hobby that has suffered because of her political ambition. "I also don’t do much knitting anymore either."
As for the comments Lachowicz has made about playing "World of Warcraft" — comments in which she has, for example, professed her love of stabbing things and, yes, used derogatory terms for Tea Party members — "Many of those comments go back to 2005 or 2004 and they are taken out of context," Lachowicz says, pointing out that anyone who has ever played a game like "WoW" knows that enjoying fighting is all part of the game.
But she adds, "I would say I’m sorry if some people are offended. I certainly I said those comments before I knew I was going to run for office."
Welcome to the modern digital age — the age when anything you type online can and will be used against you.
"I work primarily with young people — teenagers and young adults — and I think, 'What kind of message is this for us to send to them?" she says. "That every little tweet you might have done or Facebook posting or comment on an article, that this is going to come back to haunt you? Are we really going to go back years and years to try and drag people through the mud rather than talk about the issues?"
The people respond
As stunning as the entire experience has been for Lachowicz, it could, in fact, work in her favor. Gamers around the world have been coming to her defense in online forums and on her candidacy Facebook page, cheering her on and pledging her support with comments like this:
"Good to see you standing up for your beliefs and hobbies, the country needs more people like you to lead it, we need people who are willing to share their hobbies and show they are normal people just like everyone else. Thumbs up to you."
"As a one time WOW player, retired NYC Police Det. and a person way older than you :) I applaud you," writes William Crespo on her Facebook page. "It only shows your ability to interact with many, many people. I have met many people my age and older who still play WOW. My brother still plays and at one time it was my brother, my nephew, my grandson and myself all playing together... It's a great hobby."
Even Republican gamers are coming to her defense. For instance, a woman named Kari Zielke sent the above photo to Lachowicz's campaign and to the Republican Party of Maine. "We may have different political views but I wont stand by while my fellow Horde are treated this way," she wrote on Lachowicz's Facebook page.
Meanwhile many of Lachowicz's new supporters have pointed out that knowing she was gamer would make them more likely ... not less ... to vote for her.
"That website won you every single vote from people under 30 and every single gamer vote for those over 30," writes Greg Hussein Kinney on Lachowicz's Facebook page.
I asked Lachowicz what she thought of the idea that people might just vote for her because she's a gamer.
"What I would say is that I knock on doors a lot and I talk to potential voters and I try to make a connection with them and be a real person," she said. "And maybe this is just the kind of thing that says I'm a real person. I do things just like everyone else does — like millions of other people."
Indeed, Halpin believes the days in which the term "gamer" means something negative are very much numbered.
"There still is a stigma, but the negative connotations are far less than they were even five years ago," he says. "With the assimilation of social and casual gamers and the proliferation of gaming types and styles, I think the clock is ticking."
For now, Lachowicz says she is staying busy going door-to-door and preparing for the coming election. She's been so busy, she hasn't even had a chance to try the new "World of Warcraft" expansion, "Mists of Pandaria."
In fact, when I ask her what she thinks about this panda-themed expansion — which has been somewhat controversial in the "WoW" world — she responds with the answer of a true politician: "I have no comment on the pandas at this time."
Winda Benedetti writes about video games for NBC News. You can follow her tweets about games and other things on Twitter here @WindaBenedetti, and you can follow her on Google+. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the IN-GAME FACEBOOK PAGE to discuss the day's gaming news and reviews.