Firstly: This is required reading material.
I went to PAX East this past Saturday. I go for really only one reason, and that’s the annual Warhammer 40K Tournament, which is a lot of fun, fairly laid back, and I’ve never had an unpleasant game while there. There is, however, something inherent in gaming conventions that makes me uneasy. It’s the same thing, honestly, that makes me uneasy at sporting playoffs and rock concerts and any other event in which the combined
masses of fandom converge to worship. It’s not just the crowds (though I’m not crazy about crowds), but the presence of groupthink. I would feel the same way at PAX as I would feel at a celebrity wedding or the coronation of a new king: here is a massive group of people hopelessly enthusiastic about a thing that is (1) not of their making and (2) in existence for the purpose of purporting the illusion that it is, in fact, of their making. Everybody talks about how ‘their’ team made the playoffs, but unless you live in Green Bay, that team is in no way, shape, or form yours. There is a whole subset of people who define their worth and orient their personal emotional health upon the presence, absence, and/or disposition of entities that they, themselves, have no influence over. It weirds me out.
There is something different at a gaming convention like PAX, though, that isn’t quite as obvious at sporting events or rock concerts (though it is clearly and undoubtedly present). The naked materialism of it is on a scale that even stadium owners might envy. Well, no, maybe ‘materialism’ isn’t the right word (you’re paying $6.00 for a hotdog at either venue and lauding your collection of themed clothing in the same exact way). I think instead what I’m going for here the way in which consumptive choice interacts with evaluations of personal self-worth, as described by the blog post above.
I’m reminded of a quote from Simon Pegg:
Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.
Now, when I first heard this quote, I cheered its sentiment as a defense of geekdom. The more I thought about it, though, the less enthused I became. There are a couple things here that trouble me. Firstly, ‘not being afraid to demonstrate that affection’ is misleading. I am certainly not afraid to demonstrate my affection for, say, Warhammer or role-playing-games or science fiction. That, however, is not license in itself to harp and gush over them to a unreceptive audience or to behave like a child. More importantly, though, is the way in which geekdom often chooses to express this enthusiasm and, indeed, how society dictates our enthusiasm should be expressed in general. A geek wears costumes, has themed T-shirts, owns themed bedsheets or salt shakers, and professes their vehement allegiance to Dr. Who or The Walking Dead and will not accept their favorite franchise’s faults. This shouldn’t be necessary or even recommended for a ‘true fan’; it is, as Pegg himself says, childish. The ‘supposed adulthood’ Pegg alludes to is not really a negative thing. It’s the awareness that your enthusiasm is not necessarily mirrored by everyone else and, furthermore, that such enthusiasm is not correctly represented by spending money on frivolities that in no way reflect the aspects of your particular franchise that make it a worthwhile thing in which to indulge. If you’ve got a pokeball salt-and-pepper shaker on your table, how am I expected to react to that? Even supposing I am a fan of Pokemon, what the hell does a salt-shaker have to do with Pokemon? What is the message here?
The second thing I take some issue with is the idea of geekdom (as described by Pegg) as being ‘extremely liberating’. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, maybe I’m a bad geek or nerd or what have you, but I don’t really see ‘liberation’ at PAX. I see, instead, collective self-assurement. The throngs of costumed gamers at PAX assuage the collective anxiety gamers often feel in non-gamer society. They are self-identifying themselves as an entity outside of the ‘mainstream’ (whatever that is) by associating themselves with gaming franchises and, often, specific characters inside that franchise. They are, in essence, defining themselves by what they consume and gaining confirmation that their consumptive choice is positive by the presence of so many other like-minded individuals. This is the opposite of liberation – this is conformity. Now, I’m not saying that geeks and gamers shouldn’t be proud of what they do for fun, but I am saying that the decision to express this pride in such tight confines and in such prescribed ways is suspect. I am forced to ask of the sundry Batmen and Marios striding about the BCEC: Are you holding Mario up, or is Mario holding you up?
Okay, okay – I’m being unfair, and probably a bit hypocritical. There were lots and lots of people at PAX who got dressed up just for fun and that didn’t treat the weekend as some kind of ‘safe zone’ for consumptive choices they make that they feel aren’t welcome elsewhere. Indeed, there are probably a lot of folks who didn’t go to PAX to salivate over what they intend to spend their money on next and, instead, went to have fun and play games with new people, just as I did myself. However, to make the claim that so-called geek ‘culture’ isn’t predicated on the idea that consumption defines our personalities would be an error. It is, and far too many of us buy into it. A lot of geeks are having their strings pulled by other people (many of whom aren’t geeks at all), and that bothers me. When I go to PAX, I have fun and I enjoy the costumes, but I also get the same feeling I get when I’m walking to Fenway Park amid a sea of Ortiz jerseys: Are we actually our own selves, and is that a good or a bad thing? Why can’t we have the courage to be our own person and present ourselves as such, no jersey or t-shirt or funny hat required?
Does this make me a bad nerd?
Twenty years ago or so, I was given a copy of the FASA strategy game Succession Wars. It’s basically Axis & Allies, but in the Battletech universe and with a less confusing ruleset. I think. I don’t know for sure because I have never gotten anybody to play it with me. This is not the only game I own that is in this category. I can lump in the FASA games Centurion, Leviathan, and Aerotech. I own a copy of Junta I’ve played twice and a copy of Diplomacy I’ve never actually used (the only games of Diplomacy I play occur via e-mail or online). That list isn’t even counting the RPGs I’ve bought but never actually run (including ones I wrote myself), the multiplayer video games I’ve never actually played with another human being.
I’m not actually complaining, believe it or not. Life is full of more important things than playing games and a great many of them are significantly more fulfilling and enjoyable. It is a point of regret, though, that I never have gotten around to having fun with these things. Other folks have garages full of badminton sets and cross-country skis they never use; I’ve got shelves full of games.
I’m not the only one with such a shelf, either. Many of my friends are significantly more weighed down with tons of boardgames they’ll never actually get around to playing (well, perhaps once), have shelves full of video games they’ll never really play, and have stacks of RPG stuff they’ll never have time to run. Rare is the gamer whose eyes aren’t bigger than his or her free time, particularly now that gamers my age are getting older, have more and more real-world commitments, and many more significant responsibilities to take their time and attention. Gone are the halcyon days of our late teens and early twenties, when we could devote entire 36 hour periods to orgies of nerdery the likes of which would shame Dr. Sheldon Cooper.
Well, what are a group of adult nerds to do about this? Are we to go silently into our middle age and regretfully pack up our Piles of Shame, resigning ourselves to a period our lives where the gaming is infrequent and mediocre? No! We must establish a plan to stake out our game time! We must requisition basements and attics for our use! Others have their ritual trips to the bar and inviolate Sunday sports sessions – why cannot we gamers have our time? So, to that end, my suggestions for how to address this issue:
Be Realistic: You and your friends are adults with families and jobs and responsibilities. You are not going to be able to spend six hours every single Sunday playing boardgames or RPGs and expect everybody to show up all the time. When planning out RPG campaigns or boardgaming sessions, keep this in mind. Those games that take ten hours to play and require massive amounts of time and attention are going to be difficult to schedule.
Be Specific: When you invite your buddies over to game, have a specific game in mind (e.g. “We are going to play Succession Wars”). Don’t just say ‘games’ or you’ll play either the same old stuff as usual or get caught up in everybody having different interests and never actually agreeing on what game to play (and then you wind up playing the same old game everybody can agree on).
Plan In Advance: You can’t really call up your buddies on a Friday night and expect them to be free Saturday afternoon. Plan a week or two in advance or have a fixed schedule that everybody’s aware of (‘the first Friday of every month’ or ‘every other Sunday afternoon’), and that way people are more likely to be able to make it.
Be There: If you say you’re going to go, go. Make it a priority. Yes, it comes in behind work and family, but don’t blow off one social engagement (which is what games are) for another social engagement. Barring rare exceptions, blowing off your gaming buddies to go drinking with your work buddies is pretty insulting on the one hand and takes away from the enjoyment the rest of the gamers will derive from the game on the other. Blowing people off is especially rude in the case of RPGs, where, in most cases, your presence is required to play your character and the lack of your character can derail whole adventures.
Keep Your Mate in the Loop: For those of you who are married or in long-term relationships, make certain you let your girlfriend/boyfriend or whatever know when you are gaming and where and so on. Let them know that this is important to you and your friends (even if they think it’s stupid themselves), and you’d really like to make it. Provided your spouse is a decent person who values your wishes, doing this kind of thing will prevent unfortunate double-bookings that prevent you from Being There. Also make clear that he/she has the ability to override gaming time if something obviously more important comes up (this includes things like illness, sudden familial obligations, etc., etc.). I could go on, but I’ll stop here, as we are starting to delve into me giving people relationship advice, and this blog is not the place.
There are other tricks, too – setting up RPG campaigns with rotating character rosters that don’t require the same people to be there every time, for instance, or playing board games that have short play times, and so on. Those five rules, though, ought to make it so that you can enjoy gaming well off into your golden years where, presumably, your time will free up all over again.
Retirement homes of the 2050s are going to be goddamned gamer paradises, I kid you not.