This may be a bit of an unpopular idea, but please, hear me out:
Larp isn’t therapy.
One of the things I’ve loved seeing as larp has grown and developed over the years is the notion that this art form can produce real, profoundly emotional moments for players. While some games are specifically designed to elicit such responses, particularly in the Nordic and American freeform traditions, I’ve still seen plenty of these moments develop for players in more traditional parlor or boffer larps too. Sometimes they even happen to players who normally scoff at the idea of having such a cathartic moment as a consequence of donning elf ears and venturing into the forest for the weekend or putting in fangs and haunting a hotel ballroom for a night. There is really no question that larp can induce moments of great emotional release or trigger surprising personal revelations. And just to be clear, that’s not a bad thing at all!
But catharsis isn’t therapy, and it’s dangerous to mistake one for the other.
The example I like to go with is the Dr. Phil show. Wait, trust me, I’m getting there. On the show, it’s not unusual for people to hear some pat wisdom and “tough love” from that bargain basement Professor X, and respond by dramatically breaking down and tearfully acknowledging their mistakes and promising to do better about some dire personal failing. And while I know the show has been accused of staging such moments, I’ll give them the benefit of doubt and say that most of the folks who do so are genuine. After all, it’s a high pressure, highly emotional situation – they’re on television, they’re usually confronted by several loved ones, they’re getting sound bite wisdom from a world famous personality. Everyone around them is urging them to do better, to be better, and to do so now where the whole world can see it. In those circumstances, even a stoic individual would have trouble not giving in to the emotions of the moment, and most of us aren’t nearly so reserved with our feelings (or resistant to group pressure). Dr. Phil provides a moment of catharsis, a quick fix of self-esteem and the sense of being “better” for those involved.
The trouble, as any responsible mental health professional will tell you, is that rush doesn’t last. People feel clarity and warmth and direction – for a moment. If it’s not followed up on soon, however, and in a serious way, it fades and the individual is often worse off than they were before, because now they’re back where they started and they’re also beating themselves up with guilt about failing to change when they had such a golden chance. Except it wasn’t gold, it was straight up pyrite. Personal change – real, lasting change – takes time and effort and support. And if you’re dealing with actual mental disorders or psychological conditions, you really need the guidance of trained experts and possibly medication to make sure you’re actually getting better and not simply masking your problem or using bad coping mechanisms.
This is what makes larp as therapy a dangerous idea.
Games almost by definition are exactly that kind of short term rush. You have an amazing roleplaying moment, and it releases all kinds of emotions, maybe even nudges you into looking at yourself or the world in a different way. Games are intense, packing a lot of story and substance into a short period of time. Which is great for entertainment, but it’s not what you need if you have a problem that requires real, long term therapy to treat. At best you’re likely to ride a bit of a rollercoaster, up high around game time and then slipping back between sessions before rising high as the next game approaches. At worst, well, you’re learning bad coping mechanisms to say the least. Yes, a game can be “therapeutic” in the sense that it’s stress relief if you’ve had a rough week and need to blow off some steam, but that’s not the sort of therapy we’re talking about here.
I know what you’re probably thinking. If you’ve been a larper for even a little while, you’ve heard the success stories about people who overcame chronic shyness through larp, or who used in-character events as a springboard to solve problems or confront emotional issues they were facing in real life. You might even be one such success story, for that matter, and if so I’m glad things worked out for you! I’ve known such cases in the past myself, and while I’d argue that most of them were not situations where larp replaced the need for treatment of a serious disorder, there’s no question being part of a community and getting together for regular activities with others is good for anyone, just like eating well and exercising is a good idea all around. The support of a larp community and the friends it contains is a powerful thing that can do a lot of good for a person, and is absolutely to be cherished.
But here’s the thing: support is not therapy, just like catharsis is not therapy. Both can help a person who’s going through changes, sure, but they’re not the same and should not be viewed as replacements for such. Actual therapy is often a long, difficult, and sometimes downright emotionally dangerous process. And if that’s the kind of thing you’re using larp to do, instead of being professionally treated, then do everyone around you a favor. Stop larping, and see a therapist. If the therapist believes that larping can help you, hey, that’s great, but it should never substitute for real treatment for a serious condition.
I know that sounds harsh, and I don’t want to sound unsympathetic. Accidents happen, for one thing – a player with a phobia might not know it’s going to come up in game if it hasn’t in the past, for example, and that’s nobody’s fault if it gets triggered during play. I also know therapy can be expensive, though many clinics and practitioners operate on a sliding scale if you can show hardship, and I’d argue that attending a regular larp often isn’t much cheaper when you factor in event costs, costuming, props, gas, food, etc. But at the same time, look at it for from the other side. The staff and players of your local game are not mental health professionals – and if they are, it’s safe to say that you’re not their patient and they’re still not “on duty” when they’re playing – and putting your well-being in their hands is a disservice to everyone. You’re not likely to get the help you need, and they’re not prepared to cope with the complications if things go wrong.
Which brings up another issue that often gets overlooked as well, but it’s really important to remember: Making other people part of your therapy without their consent is wrong. If you’re trying to confront a lifelong phobia of spiders, for instance, and decide to do so by getting involved in the Unholy Spider Kingdom War at your local fantasy boffer larp – especially without telling anyone about your history – that’s being awfully cavalier with the feelings and enjoyment of your fellow players. They’re not responsible for your therapy, to put it bluntly, and so if you have a breakdown and go catatonic – or start swinging like a berserker as that fear shunts into anger and adrenaline – then you’ve made them responsible for your condition without their consent. Even if you tell them in advance, I’d argue that untrained people can’t really consent to being part of handling a scene involving severe phobia or trauma, simply because they’re not informed enough to know what to do to avoid making it worse.
This also means that games deliberately designed to explore potentially dangerous, emotionally triggering territory need to be overseen closely and with great transparency, for the health and safety of all concerned. Briefings, content advisories, “escape hatch” mechanics for overwhelmed players, and detailed debriefings and “aftercare” should all be standard issue and taken seriously for such games. I’m particularly fond of the growing trend of using simple hand signs to signal other players to slow down, stop, or continue with particular types of scenes, as I feel it is a big step in the right direction. But if you’re not willing to put in that kind of work for an intensely cathartic game, then you’re not simply ready to put on that kind of game, and shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near players until you remedy the situation. No, it’s not “edgy” or “shocking” to drop players into such extremely taxing and emotionally loaded territory without warning, it’s immature and irresponsible. Full stop.
In the end, a friend had a very good parallel for this whole situation – larp will not get you in shape, though getting out and getting exercise is still nice, and wanting to wear that beautiful heavy plate armor you’ve been dreaming of or fit into that swanky suit you feel will catch the Prince’s eye can certainly be outstanding motivation to eat better and work out more. But trying to get fit solely through larp just isn’t going to work, and attempting to make it happen ignores important realities of exercise and nutrition that will at best leave you frustrated and at worse actively hurt you. Not only that, but it isn’t the job of the staff or your fellow players to be responsible for your fitness regiment during an event.
Mental health is no different. Yes, larp can be a powerful and wonderful thing – it could generate a breakthrough you take back to therapy, for instance, or even inspire you to recognize a problem and seek help in the first place – but beyond that it’s no substitute for trained professional help. Enjoy your catharsis, by all means, but for your own sake and the sake of others around you, don’t mistake it for therapy.
Have you ever showed up at a baseball game and wondered why no one wanted to toss a football around? Tried to enter your ferret in the Miss Teen USA pageant? Or offered to throw down at a Street Fighter V tournament using your sick Magic: The Gathering deck? Of course not! All of those are ridiculous examples, right?
Except that’s sometimes exactly what happens when people come to larp.
Before I get into it, let me just say that I don’t normally pull the veteran card when it comes to larp. For one thing, logging a long time in a hobby doesn’t automatically make me better at or more insightful with it than someone else. For another, like any art form, larp needs youth and fresh perspectives as much as it needs the proverbial age and guile, so discounting people for having less experience is a fool’s errand. So I’m reluctant to make it a factor as a rule, and yet in this instance I feel that time logged actually has merit. So if you’ll pardon me, here we go.
I’ve been larping for 23 years now, not as long as some of course, but long enough to have seen trends come and go and as well as observe all kinds of play styles, game setups, and group configurations. I’ve done everything from homebrew parlor larps to massive networked boffer larps to Jeep and American freeform games. I’ve been a player and game runner and a rule designer and participated in all kinds of stories across a couple dozen genres. And let me tell you, sooner or later the same person shows up:
A player who attends one game, but tries to make it into another.
I’ve seen this in pretty much every venue and genre you can imagine over the years. There are always players who feel that the game and its setting should bend to what they want to play, rather than trying to create characters that work in the world they’re presented. I addressed some of these when I talked about problem players a while back, but it’s worth mentioning that players who want to bend the game can have very different motivations, which means that understanding them and how to approach them requires knowing exactly what type of player you’re dealing with in the first place.
The Commanding Cosplayer
This is a player who has a really cool cosplay, and is less about larping in the setting offered than finding another place to wear it between conventions. The game setting is near enough to the original cosplay source that they feel confident wearing it there, because “close enough,” right? Often they will make a nominal effort at changing some superficial elements, like having a different name than the character, but otherwise they don’t want to change more than they absolutely must, since the costume is what matters. Note that this can apply to people who have excellent historical costumes as easily as cosplayers who base their looks on fiction – I’ve seen Revolutionary War soldiers try to play at fantasy larps in full kit or period-perfect 1920s gangsters arrive at a cyberpunk bar. Having really great costumes can be a boon to any character or any larp, of course, but the Cosplayer is a problem because they want the game to shift to accommodate their aesthetic, rather than the other way around, and can wind up being visually distracting or outright disruptive to the game environment as a result.
The Fanfic Superfan
Sure, this game setting is great, but OMG! You know what it reminds them of! THEIR FAVORITE [BOOK/ANIME/MOVIE/TV SHOW/COMIC SERIES]!!!!111oneoneone This player compares the game to their beloved inspiration whenever possible and immediately tries to figure out how to shoehorn in terminology, backstory, characters, world concepts, or other elements from this source, regardless of whether or not it is a good idea. These are the players who try to turn your local fantasy larp into straight up Game of Thrones, who want to make a Requiem game into a live-action Vampire Diaries fanfic, or can’t seem to so much as see a wand in a setting without endlessly equating everything to Harry Potter. Now, every game has inspirational material behind it and that’s great, but the trouble is that the Fanfic Superfan just can’t let it go and embrace what’s new about the game setting, which does both their inspiration and the larp a disservice.
The Exchange Student
This player brings in a character from another game that they love and want to keep playing, regardless of whether or not the concept really fits the game they’re arriving at now. Rather than change their backstory or other core concepts, they try to bring their original character elements into the game even if it doesn’t suit the world as presented. An example would be a player who tries to bring a vampire character from a homebrew setting into a Masquerade game, but refuses to use the clans and Disciplines of the new setting, instead trying to get their original clan and powers approved instead. Speaking as someone who’s played variations on the same base character off and on for 16 years now, believe me I understand – but the difference between me and an Exchange Student is that I always reshape and reinterpret him to fit the game world, instead of assuming I can walk in as the same person with the same backstory and capabilities regardless of setting.
The Backseat Designer
This type of player can be a little more subtle than some of the other types, but winds up being far more disruptive if their behavior is not caught early. Simply put, the Backseat Designer thinks they know better than the game runners when it comes to a game’s rules or setting or both, and therefore feels free to introduce their own elements instead. Sometimes they can’t help but comparing the game to some fabled game of their past, and constantly try to reinvent this one until it’s a copy of that one, or it might just be that they can’t help tinkering with what they see. This might be making up an important historical event that never happened in the official game timeline, or it might be choosing to ignore a rule they don’t like (or impose one of their own design instead), but whatever form it takes, the Backseat Designer sees no problem in changing the structure of the game in order to make it what they feel would be “better.” Naturally, while larp is a collaborative exercise, changing major elements like rules or important world history without consulting the game runners is a reciper for confusion at the very least, and serious player discord and event problems at worst.
It’s pretty rare in my experience, but sometimes people come with a concept they know doesn’t fit for no other reason than just to mess with the game/see how much game-breaking they can get away with before they get tossed or the game grinds to a halt. The trouble is that a troll can appear to be one of the other types, but while those players generally aren’t trying to deliberately create trouble – they might just be a little confused about the setting, their character, or both – the troll is just there to be as disruptive as possible. Needless to say, if it becomes clear that a player is simply playing a character who doesn’t fit in order to mess with the game, it’s best to toss them out as quickly as possible, and if necessary retcon their actions if they ruined play for others. Giving a supposedly repentant troll a second chance is up to individual game runners, of course, but it is worth remembering that other players who don’t make such selfish and disruptive decisions are worth giving priority.
So What’s to Be Done?
As evidenced above, there are a lot of motivations that might cause players to try to bend a game to suit their needs rather than adapting their characters to the world they’re offered. Regardless of why they do it, though, it’s important to recognize that this is not acceptable behavior – while larp is a collaborative effort, it is still important to respect the role of the game designers and the vision they have for the kind of game they want. Some may not care if players freely add or change elements, but many do, and unless a player has been given specific permission to make changes or bring in characters who don’t quite fit the normal setting parameters, they should work with what they’re given rather than spend energy trying to make it into something else.
This may sound harsh, but at its heart it’s actually advice with the best interests of everyone at the game in mind. For instance, if a game designer announces a new larp set in a four-color superheroic world of her own creation, where the players are going to portray old school straightforward superheroes, attending that game is an agreement on the part of the players to take part in that world. Yes, the game designer needs to make it clear what kind of game she’s putting on – if only so the players don’t make inappropriate characters by mistake – but she should not have to then further defend it from players who want to play a different game and so try to make hers into what suits them.
Sure, a player may wish he could have a darker, more modern superhero character. He might think that modeling his character on Rorschach from Watchmen would be the coolest thing ever, or that it would be great to have Infinite Crisis have occurred in this world, or wish he could bring in his wonderful Dark Knight cosplay outfit based on Batman’s iconic battlesuit in The Dark Knight Returns. He might want to have time control as a power, and have a whole rule set worked out for it, even though it’s not on the regular powers list for this game. All of these might be great elements … but not for this game.
This game is not about those things, and trying to make it so is not conductive to group play.
Let me be clear – it’s OK to ask game runners questions, or even offer suggestions. Nobody is saying otherwise! However, if the game runners decline to make changes a player desires, it’s the responsibility of that player to accept such a decision and either play the game as presented or leave and find a game that better suits their needs. After all, one of the wonderful parts of being involved in this golden age of larp we have going right now is that there’s certainly no shortage of alternative games available if one doesn’t suit you. Or, for that matter, no shortage of players who’ll likely be interested if you start your own!
But if you go to a game, don’t try to make it something it’s not, or judge it for not meeting expectations it was never intended to fulfill in the first place. Instead, embrace the world and the system you’re offered for what they are, because that’s the vision the designers have in mind. It’ll be less stress and more fun for everyone that way.
I see more ghosts
on New Year’s Eve
all of Halloween.
All Hallow’s Eve
is like a tourist town,
one the living
invade once a year.
The dead enjoy
the attention, sure,
but soon they wish
we’d go away.
No, New Year’s Eve
is far worse haunted,
because they gather
around the lights
and across the gap
of tears and sighs
they watch us plan,
and vow, and live.
You can feel them
best at midnight,
if you try, if you listen –
mouthing our promises,
sad and hungry eyes
reflecting the cycle
of hopes and regrets,
seeing all the mistakes
they would gladly make
again, if only.
Yes, the dead are close
on New Year’s Eve.
So as you toast, count
the faces in the glass,
and if you see
some you’ve lost,
don’t be sad, or afraid –
just raise your glass
I feel like a fraud. Always have, and sometimes I suspect I always will.
Nobody likes to hear artists complain, but I’m sorry folks, this one won’t stay caged. I’ve wanted to be a writer almost as far back as I can remember, ever since my family praised a ghost story I wrote when I was little, ever since a friend of mine almost offhandedly said “This is good, you should write more” and unknowingly gave me permission to share my stuff with my friends. To step up and be that artistic writer guy, which is not an inconsiderable risk in the wolf-haunted woods known as middle school, especially for a chubby gamer kid.
So with family and friends behind me, I wrote, pretty much all the time. With the boundless optimism and heedless ambition of the very young I decided I wanted to write games, I wanted to write stories, I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write articles in the paper, I wanted to be able to reach up on a shelf and pull down paper with my words on it and share it with anyone who’d stand still long enough.
I have done all of these things, some of them several times over, even won a few awards here and there in the process, and yet the vast majority of the time it still feels like I haven’t done anything at all. And I’m far from alone in this. A lot of the other artists I know feel the same way, even if they can’t quite put it in words. Hell, I know it’s not just artists that feel this way, really. I know it can strike anyone, so please don’t take this as a dismissal of anyone who feels these same feelings about their own field – business, athletics, academics, parenthood, you name it. I sympathize, I truly do. If I focus on artists it’s because that’s how I relate to these feelings, not because I don’t think anyone else falls prey to them.
So what does it feel like? It’s like running a race and watching the finish line creep along ahead of you, always out of reach, but also looking over your shoulder and seeing nothing of the race you’ve run so far. Which leaves you running in limbo, neither capable of reaching the satisfaction of finishing nor able to at least look back and be proud of how far you’ve come. I know that might sound a bit like ambition, and I think they can certainly have some things in common, perhaps even spur each other on at times, but in the end they’re not at all the same. At the core of ambition is inspiration, a dream of what you can accomplish, can become, but at the core of impostor feelings there’s only a frustrating desolation. Because any time you try to look over what you’ve done, a conversation remarkably like this one plays out in your head:
I wrote a story!
It’s not published, though, is it?
I’m going to be in an anthology!
Yeah, well, how’s that unfinished novel?
I wrote a novel!
Fine, but it was work for hire, not your own original work.
I wrote my own novel from scratch!
Oh, and look how all those agents are just dying to represent you.
I’m going to self-publish!
Have fun getting lost in the crush on Amazon. By the way, ever finish that original game you wanted to write?
I … I don’t feel so good.
There you go.
And so on. Sometimes, just for variety, that mocking voice will take a different tactic, just so you can’t ever be prepared for it. All those accomplishments you stubbornly insist on claiming become dumb luck, favors from friends, cynical maneuvering that happens to favor you for the moment, even a sort of conspiracy if the voice really feels like running wild that night. Anything but something you deserve, something you worked for, and just as quickly dismissed as soon as possible.
Allow me to give another example of the kind of tricks impostor feelings can play on your mind. Not that long ago, I was talking about game writing with some folks at a convention, and somebody said rather wistfully that they hoped to see something of theirs in print some day. I agreed, and another person in the conversation looked at me funny and said, “Haven’t you already been published?” I hesitated, embarrassed, and finally said something to the effect that I hadn’t published a game entirely of my own design. The others looked at me like I was being a bit of a bastard, and I can imagine why – that must have sounded like the worst sort of patronizing false modesty. A “humblebrag” to use the very apt new term, designed to call attention to my publishing resume by pretending to forget about it.
But the thing was, when I answered, I wasn’t pretending. I really, sincerely didn’t feel like I’d written anything that qualified. Hell, at that instant I didn’t feel like I’d written anything at all. I was being absolutely genuine in my sympathy with the person who wished they could be published, because all the game books I’d worked on in the past didn’t count, because nothing I’ve done in the past counts, not for long. I answered honestly in that moment, because that voice in my brain says those books are old and irrelevant, and so I don’t even add them in my tally unless I stop and think about it.
That’s what it’s like to feel like an impostor at what you do. Not only can it poison your own sense of accomplishment, it can also make you seem like a jerk to others, which of course only makes you feel worse about yourself, and even less deserving of any sense of accomplishment. I don’t know why the human mind loves vicious cycles so much, but sometimes it seems like it was designed for little else, I have to admit.
Let me be clear, though – I’m not asking for sympathy here, exactly. And I’m definitely not asking for people to prop me up, sing my praises, or anything like that. Most of the time I get through these feelings on my own, and when I can’t, I am lucky enough to have a wife, family, and friends who know how to pick me up and shout down that voice for a good long while. And that’s a kind of luck I’ll happily own up to, nagging whispers be damned. I’m not always OK, but I’m always alright, and for that I count my blessings most every day.
No, the reason I’m writing this is for anyone out there who knows that voice, who feels like a fraud sometimes, and thinks it might just be them. That those feelings of being a fraud, being forever unable to cherish accomplishments or just take credit for your own well-earned competence in your field, are unique to you. They’re not. Don’t let them drag you down, don’t listen to the doubt and uncertainty – and if you can’t handle them on your own, that’s OK too. Nobody can do it all the time. Reach out and find some help, because trust me, you can do it. Because you deserve it. Because you’re not an impostor.
Disclaimer: This is not intended as a snide dismissal of fan input, or an attempt to crush anyone’s dreams of working for a game company. It’s intended as practical advice for anyone who wishes to contact a game designer, whether it’s to bring up mistakes they feel they’ve uncovered in that designer’s games, suggest improvements they think could be made to the system in question, submit a proposal for a possible game supplement, or even to just inquire about writing opportunities with a particular company or game line in general. For the curious, it’s written from the perspective of someone with almost twenty years of professional game writing experience as everything from a freelance writer to a full line developer, who also knows a large circle of fellow game designers at companies large and small.
Without a doubt, we’re living in an amazing era of game design. Kickstarter, viable small press distribution, improved print on demand services, high quality PDFs, and the increased ability of individuals to reach and capture the attention of the market has transformed the tabletop rpg gaming business. Part of that evolution has been a radical transformation in communication between game designers and their fans – while in the past you might have a company forum that employees occasionally replied to, or some RPG.net exchanges with a favorite designer, a lot of the time game companies of old were often hard to decipher.
Now, though, the world of game design has become increasingly transparent and approachable, with designers blogging about their latest rules or system changes, crowdsourcing advice on game design forums, incorporating backer ideas as Kickstarter rewards and so on. As a result, things like talking directly to the creators of a game about problems you have with a game, submitting a proposal for an idea you have about a possible game supplement, asking about playtesting opportunities and the like are easier than they’ve ever been.
Before we talk about how to approach your favorite designers, though, there are a few general things you need to know about the gaming industry:
About the Business
Gaming Is A Small Industry …
Make no mistake, there are still some larger outfits still out there – Paizo, Wizards of the Coast, Fantasy Flight, Steve Jackson, just to name a few – but a significant portion of the tabletop gaming world has moved to a different model, one centered around small design houses or even individual designers. And even the “big” companies aren’t exactly Shadowrun-level zaibatsu, at least compared to what counts as a “large company” in most other industries. With that in mind, you need to understand that most companies either produce everything in house, or bring freelancers aboard on a work-for-hire basis to do their projects. There simply aren’t “entry level” permanent positions available at a lot of gaming companies – you’re either one of a small number of permanent staff, or on a roster of freelancers they hire when they need extra project hands. How to make it on that roster? Read on.
… And Everyone Knows Everybody
When it comes to publishing games, even with the self-publishing, print on demand, and the indie explosion, you’re still not talking huge numbers of industry people, and many of them have been in the business for years. Quite simply, a lot of them know each other, and they talk. Which means that if you develop a reputation as a troll, a pest, a deadbeat, a flake, or some other sort of potential undesirable, word of that behavior will travel a lot farther and more quickly than you might expect. (Conversely, a good reputation as a polite, creative, and reliable individual goes around too, and can pay off in unexpected ways at unlikely times.) Meditate on that a moment before sending a snarky reply to a designer’s email or posting a flamebait review.
Gaming Isn’t A Get Rich Quick Environment
Like a lot of entertainment fields, game writing is not exactly a path to fame and fortune – people do it because they love it, not because it’s going to buy them a separate Gulfstream for their dog. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of successful game design professionals out there who make a living doing it! But generally speaking, the definition of successful is going to be a lot more modest for this field than, say, what we usually think of for a successful actor, athlete, or medical specialist. Be prepared about that reality and therefore realistic in your related expectations.
Check Their Application/Submission Process
If you’re interested in applying for work or submitting a proposal, make sure you read and adhere to any submission guidelines the company has posted. (If they don’t have such guidelines posted that’s usually a good sign they’re not looking for those things, though you can always check to make sure.) When I became a line developer, I was told the SOP was to destroy without reading any submissions that did not follow the posted guidelines, and I’ve since learned this is a pretty universal rule (it’s also often a legal thing). It may break your heart a bit to try to condense your 300 page sourcebook into a two page pitch, but if that’s what they want, trust me, doing otherwise just about guarantees that your submission will be deleted unread.
Read Their Work/Play Their Games
This probably seems like the most elementary step, but when I was with White Wolf, I got more proposals/critiques than you might think that demonstrated a clear lack of familiarity with our games. If you’re going to contact a game designer about working for them or offer a criticism of their work, it’s generally best to at least read through the material once or twice, if not actually log some time playing their games. If they have a blog, that’s usually worth a read too, if only to see what they’re thinking about, learn any pet peeves you might want to avoid, and generally get a sense of who they are as individuals.
Use the Proper Channels
A lot of game designers are easy to contact these days – many have public email addresses, not to mention things like Twitter accounts, Facebook pages and so on. Try to find out how they prefer to be contacted for professional communications, and if none of their available contact information is tagged as such, it’s generally best to send your first message with a “Is this the right way to contact you about X?” message. Sometimes it will sort itself out, of course – if they only ever use their Twitter feed for joking with friends and sharing pictures of their dog doing hilarious things, it’s probably not their preferred business communication tool.
Be Polite, Precise, and Concise
If you’ve never spoken to a particular game designer before, keep your communication as brief and to the point as you can without being rude. A simple greeting, a quick explanation of what you’re interested in – “I was wondering if you’d like my thoughts on X” or “Are you looking for any writers on Y?” is fine, for example – and a thank you for their time is a lot more likely to get a response than a rambling three page breakdown of all the errors you’ve found in their game so far (or worse yet, the unasked-for resume).
If you’re approaching a designer in person, say at a game convention, these rules still apply! Try to judge if it’s a good time to approach them – if they’re drinking with friends at the bar or slammed with a line of customers at their booth, it might be best to try starting your conversation later on. If you think there’s an opportunity, introduce yourself politely and ask if they have a moment to talk about what’s on your mind – if they do, great! If they don’t, they might give you another time that would be better, and they’ll remember you as being polite regardless (sadly it’s often rare enough to be memorable). This is also a great time for business cards, as you can often hand one over even if they’re not able to talk at the time, and it gives you a natural way to contact them in the future.
Remember, Designers Are People
When you talk to a designer, remember that the game you’re discussing is the product of hundreds if not thousands of hours of their effort and care, not to mention expense and often frustration. It’s a reflection of their creative desire in dreaming it up as well as their personal discipline in seeing it through to completion, and in many cases their ability to work with a number of other professionals – artists, editors, layout designers, playtesters, etc. – in order to realize their vision. This doesn’t mean you can’t criticize their work, but it’s important to remember that personal dimension. I’ve seen otherwise apparently well-meaning gamers cheerfully tell designers that their games sucked, the rules were totally broken, they didn’t like huge parts of the setting, etc., and then turn around and complain that the designer was being a jerk or a wuss for not wanting to talk to them anymore. It’s important to remember that there’s a difference between constructive and destructive criticism – the former isn’t shy about addressing problems and complaints, but does so from a position of respect, while the latter is insulting and dismissive.
If you’ll forgive an odd extended analogy, walking up to a game designer and telling them you want to “fix” their game is a lot like walking into someone’s house and telling them you want to “fix” their decor. Sure, it might not be arranged to your taste, but they probably have plenty of reasons everything is the way it is – maybe that area rug you don’t like is covering a stain they just couldn’t get out, and so removing “just that one little thing” would actually mean reshuffling their entire living room arrangement to compensate for the alteration. Or perhaps the sofa configuration, which looks odd and impractical to you, is set up for an ideal surround sound experience for their home theater system. Or – and this is valid too – maybe they just like it that way, which is fine because after all, it’s their house. And even if you’re absolutely, objectively correct about how something is “wrong” with their decorating scheme, and they know that you’re right, it doesn’t make it any more obnoxious for a stranger to walk in and loudly declare it when a quieter, more polite way would also have sufficed.
Again, this does not mean that game designers are some special genius/martyr social caste that is above the reproach of lowly common gamers. It certainly does not mean they are infallible – I’ve had people point out mistakes in my own games plenty of times, and I happily signed on writers and approved book proposals that resulted in better ideas than what I would have come up with if I was given the same projects. I’m the first to admit my books had problems ranging from the merely hilarious to the totally tragic. I’ve been taken apart on forums, by email, and in person, and I can tell you from personal experience that I didn’t most some of the most technically scathing critiques because they were presented constructively, while other relatively minor points drove me to distraction simply because people presented them in rude and insulting ways. I’ve got a pretty thick skin – necessary adaptation to working in this field – but that doesn’t mean etiquette and presentation don’t matter. I’m much more likely to listen to someone who’s polite and presents their points constructively, or who submits their proposals in the proper format and through the proper channels. That’s just human nature. If you’re rude to me, I react accordingly, while courtesy elicits the same in return. Simple as that, and yet a step that eludes a lot of folks when they post game reviews or detailed rules breakdowns – they forget there are people behind those rules, and thus lose a lot of any potential they might have had to effect real change in the process.
Ultimately it’s important to remember that just about all game designers were regular old gamers long before they designed a system – their passion for the hobby is what drove them to want to make their own games in the first place! (And when they’re not designing’ games, most creators are still avid players.) I’m stressing this because it’s important to remember on both sides – that designers and fans are far more similar than they are different. You’re talking to an industry professional, true, but you’re also talking something that is intensely personal to them. The more you remember and respect that, the better your interaction with them will be, whether you’re offering game feedback, proposing a book or asking if they’re looking for talent for future projects.
Seriously, Courtesy Counts
I’m not exaggerating when I say that pretty much all gaming industry professionals have a thick file of stories involving times when people trashed them, their work, their dubious parentage, etc., whether electronically or in person. More amazingly, these people often don’t actually realize what they’re saying is seriously rude, or at least, that they phrased what might otherwise have been an interesting point in the most insulting way possible. I had one guy send me a very personal and highly insulting two page email detailing at length all the faults he’d found in my various publications, then turned around and – I guess having figured he impressed me with his superior intellect? – ask me to hire him for future projects. I had another person tell me “yeah well no offense but those rules are total shit” and then act completely amazed that I might take issue with his wording, as though “no offense” was a magic incantation that warded off my ability to be insulted. The list goes on, but the point is not that everyone who talks to a game designer is a jerk – just that sadly it happens enough that politeness really makes an impression. If you’re polite, professional, responsible in making contact, you’re ahead of the game. Why not get off to a good start?
So that’s pretty much that. I can’t guarantee that following these steps will mean game designers take your feedback into account for future rules changes or hire you to write that book you’ve been thinking about, but it certainly won’t hurt your chances – and in many cases, might improve them dramatically. Above, always remember that game companies are composed of people – gamers a lot like you, in fact – and that being friendly, constructive and respectful will go a long way toward developing positive relationships in the game design community.
We’ll see you at the panels!
Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates!
After Watchmen… What Next?
I was on a panel at Philcon earlier today, and I promised the audience that I would post the list I’d made up of some of my favorite comics (since I forgot the handouts I’d made to bring). So hello Philcon attendees, and anyone else who’s looking for comic recommendations! Welcome, and enjoy!
Understanding Comics & Reinventing Comics
Written by Scott McCloud. Perhaps the most definitive works examining where comics came from, how they work their special brand of magic and where the medium might be heading. They are fun and easy to read, yet also quite scholarly and informative.
Written by Neil Gaiman. One of the most ambitious series of all time, this modern myth follows the designs of personified cosmic forces such as Dream, Death, Destiny, Desire and Despair, as well as dozens of the lives they touch throughout time and space. A heavily allusive yet very accessible and intricately plotted tale from start to finish.
Written by Bill Willingham. Exiled from their homelands by a villainous being known as the Adversary, refugees from dozens of fairy tales band together in a small community in modern New York. A good premise executed with wit, humor and endless originality.
League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Written by Alan Moore. An arch, intelligent, postmodern examination of Victorian values featuring a “dream team” of period heroes such as Alan Quartermain, Mina Harker and Dr. Jekyll as they battle all manner of evil plots and sinister villains.
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. What if a superhero decided to treat the disease instead of the symptoms? In this alternate timeline, a superhero gives up punching muggers and runs for mayor of New York. In office, the true test of his heroism really begins.
Written by Warren Ellis. Black humor, trippy illustration and cultural satire combine in this sci-fi tale of a gonzo journalist named Spider Jerusalem and his quest for Truth! in a bizarre yet all-too-familiar future city fraught with idiocy and corruption.
Written by Garth Ennis. A preacher sharing his body with a renegade cosmic force, his ex-assassin girlfriend and their Irish vampire buddy – and that’s just the first issue! This series is a bold, bawdy, bloody look at faith, loyalty, America and second chances.
Written by Robert Kirkman. Son of Omni-Man, protector of the world, Marc can’t wait for his superpowers to develop – but when he at last becomes a hero, he learns just how hard life is under the mask. A sweet, funny and charmingly retro super hero comic.
Y: The Last Man
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. An escape artist named Yorick and his pet monkey, Ampersand, are the only survivors of a mystery plague that kills all the male organisms on the planet. Part mystery, part romance, part gender study, pure science fiction.
Written by Garth Ennis. In a world where superheroes are the new weapons of mass destruction, the CIA keeps one group of absolute badasses around to keep the supes in line: The Boys. Bloody, profane and provocative, this series examines the human cost of superpowers and the damage they do on the human mind.
V For Vendetta
Written by Alan Moore. Set in a dismal totalitarian future Britain, this tale follows a freedom-fighting terrorist as he trains his successor to sow intellectual mayhem. A deep and disturbing dystopian tale in the tradition of 1984 and Brave New World.
Written by Bryan Lee O’Malley. A young slacker falls in love with a mysterious girl, but before they can live happily ever after, she reveals that first he must defeat her seven evil ex-boyfriends! A hilarious, slightly surreal tale told with lunatic charm, featuring manga-esque art and a lot of truly funny, knowing and often surprisingly touching dialogue.
Written by Brian Azzarello. An old man offers select hard luck individuals a unique gift: a briefcase containing a folder full of proof that someone else ruined their life, an untraceable gun and 100 bullets. A stylishly illustrated, grim, twisting noir action epic.
Written by Mark Waid. What happens when great responsibility no longer accompanies great power? As Superman and his peers grow older, a new generation of irresponsible heroes and depraved villains threatens to tear down everything they’ve built.
Written by Brian K. Vaughn. A group of teenagers run away from home after learning their parents are supervillains, vowing use their own gifts to bring their folks to justice. A mundane premise, maybe, but it’s executed with real humor, wit and heart. Vaughn writes teens with honesty and sympathy, and without talking down to them.
Written by Alan Moore. In Neopolis, a city where everyone has a superpower (however minor), who keeps the peace? This smart, quirky, visually striking “cop show” comic follows the super-police officers working to keep Neopolis safe, and it’s one helluva ride. Beware the volumes done after Moore left, though – let’st just say the quality is different and leave it at that.
Written by Frank Miller. This graphic, brutal noir series follows a number of different characters as they move through the rain and shadows of Basin City, seeking justice and vengeance, addiction and absolution. A highly stylized series of grim, hardboiled tales.
Written by Brian Wood. After the Second Civil War grinds to an uneasy truce, novice journalist Matt Roth finds himself the lone voice for a ravaged New York City awash in martial law, militant gangs and scared refugees. Gritty, idealistic and passionate.
Written by Ed Brubaker. Old school heroics and Cold War espionage mix in this twisting tale of a superhero gone undercover in a league of villains, only to find that he’s no longer sure which side he’s on. A clever blend of two genres, with deceptively simple art.
Feel free to chime in with your own recommendations!
[Update: This review refers to the film’s “Festival Cut”, which is available now for free streaming and $10 downloads throughout August. According to the creators, the film’s “Extended Edition” will premiere in serial form in September, and apparently it addresses some of the concerns raised in this review, such as the absence of Lodge and Joanna as well as adding elements like Leo’s own subplot. Mea culpa for not noting this sooner.]
Full disclosure: I’m a geek.
Now that we have that bombshell out of the way, I’m sure it will be even less surprising to learn that I backed tihe new Gamers film from Zombie Orpheus when the Kickstarter went up last year, and have been waiting rather eagerly for the film’s release. As the third film in the series, The Gamers: Hands of Fate+ is following in some pretty big footsteps – I think the first two films can best be described as witty, loving satire of tabletop gaming and the relationships of the players behind the characters. (The creators also do a great comedy-fantasy series, JourneyQuest, which wrapped up its second season a little while back.) Understand that when I say loving satire, I mean that we’re laughing with the characters rather than laughing at them, and though gamer stereotypes are found in the films, they’re clearly intended as just that, caricatures. It’s not mean-spirited, and even if you’ve never gamed with people like those you see in the movies, you probably know people who have. It’s insightful and dead-on in many ways, but always affectionate – for gamers by gamers, if you will.
I enjoyed both films a great deal, though I particularly enjoyed the second film, Dorkness Rising, because I felt like they really captured one of the best parts of gaming that non-gamers almost never see: the camaraderie of a good gaming group (or “table” as it’s often called). I’ve been blessed to have great tables throughout my gaming history, but I know some people go years trying to find that perfect mix of players, and if you get gamers talking old war stories some of them will reminisce about tables they used to have much the same way people might talk about past romances and old friends. Which is where I’ll start this review of The Gamers: Hands of Fate.
[EXTREMELY MILD BASIC STORY ARC SPOILERS AHEAD. NO ENDING OR TWIST SPOILERS.]
The table that came together in Dorkness Rising returns for this film, though rather than returning to the tabletop gaming arena of the first two movies, most of the film’s action is centered around sarcastic competitor Cass as he tries to master a collectible card game (CCG, for the uninitiated) in order to impress Natalie, an equally sharp-tongued gamer girl who catches his eye at a local tournament. The rest of the table is still there, particularly Leo, who acts as the Morpheus to Cass’ Neo as he teaches him the ways of the card game, though I wish some of the others had gotten a bit more time on the whole. Gary has a great running subplot that pits him against a Pikachu-esque character seemingly bent on tormenting him, but Lodge and Joanna show up all too briefly, though they get some good laughs when they’re around. (Plus we get some more resolution on their romance subplot from the second film, which is nice.) After some establishing work, the film’s action quickly shifts to GenCon Indy, where it focuses on Cass’ progress through the CCG tournament, dabbling in larp and tabletop gaming and the politics of competitive play as it goes.
As with the previous Gamers movies, many of the moves the players make in the CCG universe are also dramatized – and that’s where Hands of Fate deviates from the other two installments, as drama is the key word here. Whereas the in-game sequences were almost entirely played for laughs in the previous films, allowing us to chuckle at the kind of silliness that happens around the gaming table, the scenes set in the CCG universe start off a bit comedic but are soon played mostly straight. In fact, for reasons I don’t want to spoil in this review, the story of the CCG characters becomes quite compelling, and you find yourself rooting for the hero characters as they battle sinister forces out to destroy their world of Countermay. (In a clever stroke of set design, the actors are superimposed over illustrated backgrounds drawn from the art on the game cards, literally pulling you into the card game and giving the world a cool, stylized look.) It’s an interesting twist and ties directly into the setup for the next Gamers film – because oh yes, they set that up, and you’ll enjoy how they do it – but I must admit it did throw me off a bit, because I’d come with the expectation that this installment was going to be much like the first two. As in, lots of rapid fire gaming jokes, witty player banter and fun re-enactments of the game activities that keep us hopping between the real and fictional worlds. It has those things, but the aim is a bit different this time, and it took me a while to realize that. When I did, though, I found myself getting more and more into what it was saying.
Don’t get me wrong – Hands of Fate is still a very funny movie, and if you’re coming for another round of affectionate satire of gamers and the gaming community, you’ll find plenty of that to enjoy. (I mean, it’s GenCon – if you can’t laugh at least a little bit at what we gamer folk do there, you obviously haven’t been.) But whereas the first two movies mostly confined themselves to satire – save for the surprisingly poignant end of Dorkness Rising, which I think foreshadowed the depth that really comes through in this film – Hands of Fate starts off knowing that it has some important things to say and isn’t shy about making its points. Don’t worry, it’s not one of those dreaded Message Movies that tries to hit you over the head with its ideas until you’re sick to death of being preached at, but as far as depth of insight and cultural examination, Hands of Fate shows that the Gamers series has really leveled up.
For example, while Dorkness Rising also touched on the topic of sexism a bit with jokes about “bikini mail” and “broad swords”, Hands takes on some of the abuse that female gamers put up with and puts it front and center. In an early scene, a male gamer spouts some stereotypical insults at Natalie while she gets ready to enter a tournament; significantly, not only does Natalie absolutely put him in his place (without needing a guy to jump in for her), but then we also see him tossed out by the store owner for being an obnoxious jerk even while the guy sputters some equally stereotypical excuses for his rude behavior. (Having had experiences in the past with both store owners and players who didn’t do the right thing in that same situation, it’s nice to see a change modeled here.) Then there’s one of the central matters of the plot – the only reason that Cass learns the game in the first place is because he believes winning the tournament will get him a date with Natalie. Just when you’re about to cringe over this rather archaic plot chestnut, though, the movie turns around and throws it right back at you, with Natalie herself objecting to being treated like a prize to be won and rightly calling it out as shallow and sexist. I won’t spoil the ending of the film, but suffice it to say that her objections are given real weight, and we’re allowed to realize how easily we accept that “guy does X so girl will give him Y” premise in other movies, and how uncomfortable it really is when you think about it. No, it wouldn’t pass the Bechdel, but it doesn’t just ignore some of the attitudes of the community either, and I applaud it for that.
Edit: As the creators and my astute commenters have pointed out, the film pass the Bechdel. Repeatedly and deliberately, in fact. Mea culpa again, folks, for not checking more carefully before going to press.
Another issue that the film tackles rather effectively is gamers hating on other gamers – the so-called “geek hierarchy” of who looks down on whom – and how pointless and illogical it is. For example, Cass starts off sneering at CCG “cardfloppers” as unimaginative obsessives because they play an expensive game that doesn’t utilize the imagination the way his beloved tabletop RPGs do. Even as he starts doing well he still sees it merely as a means to an end – getting the girl – and it takes a lot for him to finally see it the way its devoted players do. There’s also a scene at a larp run by players of the CCG, where they play as characters from Countermay and meet to discuss important developments in the game’s ongoing storyline, and prior to showing up, Cass is as dismissive of larpers as he is of CCG gamers. It’s not an after school special, so he doesn’t get a special lecture about tolerance and understanding before hugging it out with a puppet, but watching him come to realize what other gamers see in their particular game styles is subtle but well done overall. It’s a reminder to never forget that when it comes to gamers, we’re all geeks, so we should embrace the fact that we all love our games more than mock each other for enjoying different parts of the hobby. Especially at a place like GenCon, where everyone is quite literally there for the love of their games.
(Sidebar: Speaking as a larper myself, I loved how true to life the larp scene was. They had larpers who were dressed like larpers actually dress at cons – you know, where we often have trouble bringing all of our big costumes and killer props due to luggage constraints – and I loved it. The costumes were fun and appropriate, but not so over the top that it immediately rang false to me as to what people might bring to a con. I know it sounds like I’m giving a very left-handed compliment there, but I’m not trying to be insulting at all. Quite the opposite, in fact. I like to see larpers represented by larpers, and I think it’s a fantastic choice to make their costumes look as much like what you see at a con as possible. Kudos to Janessa Styck, the costumer, for the great costumes throughout the film as a whole – I want Dundareel’s coat! – and for making it feel incredibly real during that scene in particular.)++
Though it’s a subplot and largely figures for comedy, Gary’s hilariously insane blood feud with Pokemon spoof Chibichan even has a message of sorts, and a pointed one for a culture that often sees things cut short before their time. (They also released a NSFW deleted scene of Lodge ranting to Leo about cancelled TV shows that speaks even more directly to this theme.) Interspersed with all the amazingly satisfying Chibichan abuse – including an absolutely brilliant Tarantino moment – is the message that you don’t have to hate something to prove how much of a fan you are of something else. In fact, doing so might actually get in the way of being able to appreciate what you like for what it really is. Like I said, it’s not something they come out and hit you over the head with, but it’s there and surprisingly sweet, in Gary’s lovably demented sort of way that is.
And that’s not even counting the existential dilemma that rolls in by the end of the film. But, in the words of Dr. Song, “Shh, spoilers!” So no more of that.
As far as the actors go, the regulars returning from Dorkness Rising are as charming and witty as ever, and it’s a pleasure to watch how Brian Lewis manages to pull off keeping Cass the sarcastic bastard we’ve come to know and love while still allowing him to go through a plausible and moving evolution as the film goes on. Scott Brown looks to be having great fun showing a bit more depth to the character of Leo – sorry, should I say Mr. DaVinci? – as he steps into the mentor role, plus the affection he conveys for the CCG really helps sell the love the players have for it. (Look for a nice nod to him and the game’s history in the throne room of Holden.) Christian Doyle is a marvelous madman as always and can pull a great Tarantino out of his pocket when he needs it, while Nathan Rice and Carol Roscoe are an adorably sweet (if often exasperated) couple.
Looking at some of the newcomers to the series, the men of the sinister Legacy team make a great cabal of menacing gamers – I’m pretty sure I’ve played against at least one of you in Swiss before! – while Trin Miller brings great strength to the character of Natalie, giving as good as she got and not compromising herself for others. I particularly enjoyed her dressing down of Cass during the larp scene, it’s the sort of wakeup call that a lot of gamers need from time to time when they start judging their fellow geeks too harshly. And Conner Marx steals a lot of scenes as Jase, the adorably enthusiastic leader of the Displaced faction in the CCG and one of Countermay’s endangered “story players” – it was hard to take my eyes off him whenever he was around, his energy was contagious and fun to follow. Samara Lerman and Jesse Keeter make a charming pair as Myriad and Dundareel, and sell the CCG scenes and their evolving storyline extremely well. Combined with Matt Vancil’s trademark witty writing and both Vancil and Ben Dobyn’s impressive direction – seriously, those crowd scenes in the finale are beautifully shot – it’s a whole lot of great stuff, folks, great stuff.
So in conclusion, Hands of Fate is another fun, witty trip through geek culture with some great characters we’re really coming to love. It’s able to keep us laughing while still pulling off a number of solid dramatic twists, not to mention sneaking in some great points about some troublesome parts of the culture in a way that doesn’t feel preachy or intrusive. The creators have shown a keen eye for geek culture for years, but now it looks like they’re ready to go beyond satire and deliver a film that’s funny, moving, and most of all, true. Superb!
+The title also turns out to be a pretty clever reference, on a couple of levels. Just a heads up.
++By the way, if there’s a R9E larp next year, I’m totally calling one of the Displaced. WWII military garb mixed with fantasy elements? I’m so in.
I’m a larper, author and game designer who’s been publishing professionally in the RPG industry for almost two decades. I write a few semi-regular series for this blog, including Table Manners – a commentary and criticism series about gamers and their corner of geek culture – as well as Badass LARP Tricks, which focuses on advice larpers and larp organizers. Amused by the GenCon bits? I’ve written a few posts about cons as well. Interested in sexism and the gaming industry? Check out the breakout post “Guys, We Need to Talk” about gender and sexism problems in the community. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog stay for future updates!
I would also like to note that I received no consideration for this review. I was a Kickstarter backer, as indicated, but have no relationship with Zombie Orpheus, the Dead Gentlemen, or any of the cast and crew of The Gamers film series.
So! That last Table Manners post had some real legs, didn’t it? Wow. Y’all are amazing, I have to say. One of the responses that came up as the reactions to the post went on, though, was a call for more specific, helpful advice for gamers in general and guys in particular in order to improve or avoid some of the bad behavior that was the subject of the post. After all, these responders reasoned, if I’m going to take these guys to task for being ill-behaved and ask them to do better, shouldn’t I also do more to help them know what that means? I figured that was a fair point, so I gave the traditional Internet response – “Challenge accepted!” – and put the word out to some of the gamers and geeks I knew that I was looking for advice to help people treat each other better in the scene, then collected their answers.
After sifting through some of the responses I got, I decided to split it into two parts, spread across two posts: Conventions and Gaming. Conventions is a bit more general, and covers all kinds of cons – gaming, comics, entertainment, sci-fi/fantasy/horror, you name it. In particular, it focuses a bit on proper etiquette for approaching strangers – celebrities, cosplayers and costume designers especially – since that seemed to what got the biggest response. Gaming is a bit more specific in scope, and talks mostly about tabletop and larp gaming, though I think a lot of it applies to video games, board games and other gaming forms as well. I wanted to make them one post, honestly, but as I wrote it became clear they were each long enough to justify their own post, and I felt lumping them together would also detract from the message of each. You can look for the follow-up to drop in a day or two, promise!
It’s worth noting, of course, that these are tips and guidelines, not absolutes, and what’s appropriate in one situation might not be in another, even if they seem otherwise identical. Some cosplayers love having their picture taken, but others might decline no matter how polite you are, and even that cute couple who gladly posed for your “Dr. Who versus Pinkie Pie Deathmatch!” photo earlier in the day might just want to get back to their room and not be in the mood for pictures later on. With that in mind, as a rule of thumb I encourage you to treat each situation as its own new experience; even if you had a great conversation and photo op with a celebrity earlier in the day, that doesn’t mean you should just walk up to them while they’re talking to their friends at the hotel bar and act like you’ve been buddies for years.
Last but not least, you’ll notice that none of these tips address how to get a date, put the moves on someone or otherwise enter the sexual/relationship sphere. That’s deliberate; I definitely didn’t want people to think this was some kind of “How to Pickup Con Hotties” or “Bringing that Elf Ranger Back to Your Place 101” guide. Besides, I think the whole “pickup artist” scene is creepy as hell, so if that’s your cup of tea, kindly drink it elsewhere. I will say this and only this on the subject: Good manners should not be viewed as a stepping stone to or a guarantee of sexy funtimes, they’re an end unto themselves and should be treated accordingly … but that said, good manners are also a hell of a better start to a conversation than the alternative. Just puttin’ that out there.
Convention Etiquette 101
Conventions are purpose-built sensory overload, but even in the midst of the panels and the demos and the workshops and the previews and the parties and the dealers’ room, there’s still no excuse for forgetting a few basic rules of etiquette when it comes to your fellow convention-goers, whether they’re working the con or fans like you. What follows is a series of tips to help you make a good impression and avoid the “creeper factor” as you meet people, take pictures and strike up conversations around the con. So if you’re nervous about the social rules surrounding the convention scene, well friend, we’re here to help you.
Yep. The Mister Rogers rule. Be nice to people. You might see what you think is a terrible cosplay and be tempted to comment on it right there, for example, perhaps even while that person is in earshot, but my advice? Save it for your blog, if you really feel the need to say it anywhere. It’s not about censorsing yourself, it’s about taking a moment and remembering that everyone is at the con to have fun, geek out about things they love and generally enjoy their fandoms in the company of other fans for a day or two. Why take that away from someone else, just because you don’t approve of their choice of costume or favorite movie or best rpg ever or whatever else it is? You probably don’t like it when people make fun of your hobbies, so why on earth would you turn around and bring that sort of bullying and aggravation into the scene yourself?
So, take the high road when you can. Be nice to people. You’d be amazed how far it gets you.
Look, Don’t Leer
OK, I know this is going to be subjective territory at times, but let me give you a couple rules of thumb – if you’re looking at someone long enough that they look back not once but twice or more in your direction, clearly aware that you’re looking at them, then you’ve probably crossed from “looking” to “staring” (and are making them uncomfortable too). And if you’re in a place where they’re not likely to see you, like looking down from a balcony, then count Nathan Fillion credits backward to yourself: “1, Castle, 2, Dr. Horrible, 3, Serenity, etc.” If you reach Saving Private Ryan, you’ve been looking too long. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, have you ever been riding on the subway or walking down the street, seen a stranger looking at you, then looked back a few seconds and saw that they were still staring at you? Creepy, right? So don’t do that to someone else across the convention floor. Sure, you may mean no harm by it – but they don’t know that, and shouldn’t have to worry about the distinction.
Also, it’s worth noting that openly staring at body parts – especially the sexy ones – is pretty much automatically going to put you in the creeper category as far as most people are concerned. And yes, it is different than simply appreciating an attractive person in general. For instance, you can think a woman is absolutely stunning and still be able to maintain eye contact for a full conversation, as opposed to spending the entire chat staring into her cleavage as though a mystical formula for transmuting d12s into gold was tattooed across it. The former shows appreciation for a whole person, but the latter fetishizes a body part to the point where the person attached to it is pretty much an afterthought. Remember, you might think that this sort of body appreciation is a compliment – “I can’t help admiring how gorgeous that costume is!”, “You can’t dress up like Captain Jack Harkness and not expect people to stare!” – but once again they don’t know what’s in your head. All they see is someone staring, and it’s likely to make them more than a bit uncomfortable.
Of course, if someone is rocking a really awesome cosplay, or is the big star of everything you’ve ever liked in film and television, or wrote that game you’ve been playing nonstop for years, or has created a super elaborate costume you just can’t believe, you might wonder: How are you supposed to appreciate all that magnificence in just a couple of seconds before moving on? Fair question. The answer is that if you think you’re going to need some serious time to appreciate the person and their work, it’s probably best to actually approach them and let them know that you’re a fan or that you’re admiring their handiwork (or both). That way you can express your admiration and not just be someone creeping on them from afar, plus it gives you the advantage of possibly getting to meet a con rock star and take some pictures up close instead of furtive, stalker-y shots from deep in the crowd.
Meeting people give you a big case of the nerves? No worries! Keep reading, we’ve got your back.
Stop and Ask Yourself, “Am I Interrupting?”
Before you approach someone at a convention, whether it’s a celebrity or an awesome cosplayer or your favorite game designer, take a few seconds to see if you might be interrupting. Conventions are busy places, and people are often juggling several things at once – talking to friends, browsing booths, texting their dinner plans, you name it. That doesn’t mean you can’t approach them until they’re standing alone and staring off into space with nothing to do, but one sure way to get off on the wrong foot is to walk up to someone in the middle of something that’s really demanding their attention – eating dinner, talking on the phone, taking a picture with someone else, having a tender moment with their sweetie – especially if you don’t seem to notice that you might be intruding.
If it looks like the person you want to talk to or take a picture of might be busy, always err on the side of the caution and acknowledge that when you introduce yourself: “I’m really sorry if I’m interrupting, but do you have a moment for a picture/autograph/question?” It’s a lot more considerate than just walking up and demanding some of their time as though you were the only important thing at the con. Plus, if they don’t have time but you’re polite when you ask, you’re more likely to have them tell you a better time later if they have one available. You show consideration for their schedule, they have a polite way to turn you down if it really isn’t a good time, everyone wins.
Introduce Yourself Politely Before Asking for Anything
OK. So you want to approach someone and it looks like you’ve got a good window to do so. Now, I know introducing yourself to strangers can be stressful as hell, no question, but as a rule it sure beats just walking up to someone and demanding a picture or launching straight into a discussion of your common hobbies. It doesn’t have to be elaborate, either; just a simple “Hi, I’m [Your Name Here], how are you?” is a great start. I know, it doesn’t sound like much, but you’d be amazed at how many people skip this step, which means that suddenly you’re putting a total stranger on the spot by launching right into a topic like you’ve been talking for years.
For what it’s worth, people are also a lot more likely to consider your requests if you approach them politely and engage them first, rather than just walking up and demanding something out of the blue. So even from a bottom-line perspective, this basic courtesy still makes a lot of sense. Practice it.
Ask Before You Touch
Here’s a big rule that a lot of people violate without even thinking about it, even though most of us were taught it back in kindergarten: Don’t touch other people without asking. Simple as that, and yet a lot of people forget it as soon as cameras come out or costumes come into play. So this one’s short and to the point – always ask before you touch someone. Even if you think it’s casual contact, such as if you want to throw your arm around someone for a photo – or shake their hand, or stand back to back, or touch them in any other way really – ask them first. If they don’t care, they’ll tell you so and you still come off being more polite than most; if they do care, you can avoid an embarrassing moment and possibly crossing into creeper territory. When I’ve posed with celebrities at cons, I’ve never had one react poorly to me asking them if I can throw an arm around them or shake their hand for the photo … but I have had some politely decline, and I’ve also seen them get justifiably annoyed when someone touched them without asking first.
Likewise, when it comes to costumes, props and cosplay in general, don’t assume you can touch anything without asking first; even if it’s a giant angel wing sticking three feet off their body, it’s still an extension of their person, and one they probably spent a lot of time working on and don’t want people messing with at random. Not only is it rude, but a lot of costume pieces are lighter and more delicate than they might appear, in order to prevent the cosplayer’s untimely death from sweating under 175 lbs of costuming all day at Otakon, and you might end up doing several hundred dollars and several thousand hours of damage very easily. I’m a steampunk and a larper who’s married to a costumer, so costume etiquette is more strongly ingrained in me than most, but let me tell you that few things annoy my otherwise sunny and amazing wife faster than people walking up and touching her costuming without asking. She’s likely fine with people examining the craftsmanship if they ask first, but if they don’t? It’s intrusive.
Oh, and About Those Photos
Just like you don’t want to touch people without asking, it’s also safe to assume that you should ask people before taking their picture. “But they’re in a public place!” I hear some people say. “And they’re dressed up! You can’t tell me that they don’t want their picture taken!” Actually, yes, I can. Believe it or not, not everyone at a con wants their picture taken, or wants it taken by people they don’t know, and that’s their right. A lawyer may not want opposing counsel to find pictures of him dressed as Weapon X; a woman might have a stalker in her past that makes her averse to any pictures of her showing up online; a celebrity might not want pictures taken when they don’t have their game face on or feel up to dealing with the public. Not that they have to share their reasons – all they have to do is say “No, I don’t want my picture taken” and that’s the end of the conversation. I know it might be really disappointing to come across the best genderbent Deadpool cosplay you’ve ever seen, approach her politely and ask her a for a photo only to be told no, but in the end, that’s her decision. Respect it and move on.
If you’re nervous about asking for a picture, you can also hang back a bit and wait for other people to take pictures – this is pretty likely with a good cosplay or a celebrity – and it gives you a natural moment to make your own request since others have broken the ice. Just try not to follow them all over the con or for long periods of time, or it’s going to make you seem like a creeper because they’re bound to notice you sooner or later.
Also, I’m not saying you can’t take pictures at a con without getting the permission of everyone in the background; that’s just not going to happen. Cons are too crowded to make that practical, and anyway, if you’re really just trying to take a picture of your best friend in front of the Evil Hat booth and a cosplayer wanders into the background of the shot, so be it. But there’s a big difference between taking crowd shots or candids of your friends that happen to include other people in passing, and deliberately setting up shots so that you can get a picture of someone else while pretending to take a different photo.
I mean, I know that right now some folks out there are thinking “Well, can’t I just take someone’s picture anyway, whether or not they tell me no or even ask in the first place?” To which I respond, stop and think about what you’re saying. What you’re describing – making a conscious decision to take someone’s picture in a way that avoids or ignores getting their consent – is really pretty creepy. And if it doesn’t seem creepy to you, that’s kind of scary on its own.
Be Cool with “No”
I’m not talking about “No means no” here, though while we’re on the subject, that too, damn straight. What I’m talking about is everything not covered by the above – autograph requests, attempts to share your analysis of a star’s last three movies, offering someone a free T-shirt from your gaming store if they’ll pose with it, you name it. It might make perfect sense in your head, it might be a totally innocent request, it might only take 30 seconds for them while it would totally make your year – and it their answer still might be no. And you have to be OK, not only with that being the answer, but the fact that you also might not get an explanation. Because while some folks will offer one in the spirit of politeness, they don’t actually owe you one – you’re the one who approached them and asked for something, remember?
I’ve seen a lot of fans approach people at conventions with all sorts of requests, and you can see that they’ve played the exchange over and over in their head before they walked up, never once considering it might not work. “I just know Wil Wheaton will think this shirt is awesome,” they’ve told themselves, imagining the moment as he slips on their irreverent “Kobolds Do It In Great Numbers” T-shirt and thereby becomes the envy of the con. “How can he not? He’s a gamer! He’s totally going to wear it!” But remember, just because it makes sense to you and seems reasonable in your eyes doesn’t mean it will line up with what that person is OK with, either at that moment or in general. Maybe he has a policy about not accepting gifts from fans, or he’s running late to a panel and literally doesn’t have the time, or his first TPK came at the scaly hands of a kobold horde and just thinking about the little bastards gives him traumatic flashbacks. Or maybe – and this allowed too – he just isn’t interested in the shirt. All of these and countless more are legitimate reasons to turn down your request, and you have to be OK with that before you step up and ask.
In the end, remember that when you pay your admission, you’re not entitled to anything at a con beyond any special events you sign up for – such as a guaranteed photo op or autograph session – and even those usually have rules that you’re expected to follow. Which means that even things that seem like no big deal to you might not be something someone else is interested in, and that’s their right.
Not All Compliments Are Created Equally
So now you’re talking to someone, and you want to tell them what’s so awesome that you just had to come over and say hi, but sadly, a lot of geeks are master of left-handed compliments, things that they think are positive but are actually mixed at best. You may mean all the best by it, for instance, but telling that game designer “Oh my god, I love your new game! It’s soooo much better than your last two!” isn’t likely to win you much goodwill. Why? Because even though you think you’re saying something nice, you’re essentially saying that you thought their last two games were terrible. You might not mean that – you might also like the other two – but that’s not what you actually said. Another classic is “You look really badass, for a girl” – well, pretty much anything with the “for a girl” phrase suffixed is probably a good example of a bad compliment. You might mean to say something positive, but all that the other person is going to hear is that you track women separately from men in the category being discussed, and unless gender’s an essential and obvious factor that’s not going to go over too well.
Another category of compliments that cause a ton of tension and aggravation are physical or sexual compliments. “You look so sexy!” is intended to be positive, for instance, but it also immediately suggests that you see the person as a potential sexual partner (or object). This is rarely a good way to make a first impression with a stranger, because the other person immediately has to wonder if you’re hitting on them, which can derail an otherwise pleasant exchange as they evaluate that situation instead of focus on a fun conversation. Again, you might know that you have no interest in them as a sexual partner, but they don’t know that, and given that you’re a stranger, they’re likely to assume the worst if you put them in that situation. I know, that sucks, but it’s the world we live in, at least until we change it.
And it should go without saying, but praising body parts – “You have amazing tits!”, “Your costume makes your ass look awesome!”, “Your feet are really pretty!” – is pretty much a bad call all around. Even if it’s an “innocent” body part, it makes them immediately aware that you’re closely studying their body, and that can make them very uncomfortable as they wonder why you’re doing that and if your interest is purely lecherous. You might feel like you wouldn’t mind if people said those things to you, so what’s the harm in saying them to others, but other people won’t automatically feel the same way. Now, if things take a particular turn and you wind up going on a date with them later on, that might be the time to tell them how their Akuma costume made their pecs look fabulous or how their Asuka suit accentuated their curves, but until then? Unless specifically invited to do so, I’d keep the body compliments to yourself and focus on costume pieces and props instead.
With that in mind, take a moment to compose a proper compliment or two if you have a chance. I don’t want to stress people out by making them go over and over their words until they’re absolutely perfect, but fortunately at conventions you often have time in autograph lines, panel crowds or other places to think out what you might say in advance. And if you’re really worried about getting it right, keep it simple – just say one nice thing and a thank you: “Thanks for your work, I love your movies,” “That costume is amazing, thanks for the pics,” “Your games really inspired me, thank you.” You’d be amazed how far a little thank you can go.
Have An Exit Strategy
I know most of us have this secret fantasy – no, not that one, the other one, the one where we meet one of our idols at a convention and wind up hitting it off. What starts as two strangers meeting becomes something more friendly and casual, and before long we’re swapping buddy IMs with Felicia Day or dropping guest vocals on that new Paul and Storm ode to the Valve gaming console that shall never be. Or maybe it’s not quite as star struck as that, just an invitation to join that elite cosplay group we’ve been admiring from afar or an alpha tester spot for a new MMO we’ve heard a lot about. Whatever it is, there’s this conviction that a lot of us have deep down that we’re just one good conversation with our heroes away from realizing our dreams – but while that might be true in some rare instances, it also tends to mean that people wear out their welcome at conventions trying to make it happen, turning what were pleasant interactions into increasingly uncomfortable and one-sided exchanges the other person can’t wait to end.
My advice? Don’t assume that a simple request like a photo or an autograph is automatically an opportunity for a long, in-depth conversation. If the two of you start chatting, great, I’m not saying you need to cut it short for some arbitrary reason, but try to gauge the other person’s level of engagement and excuse yourself when it looks like it’s run its course (ideally a little before it reaches the very end). If the conversation starts hitting some long pauses, or it circles back around to points you’ve already made, or they start glancing around a lot like they have somewhere else to be, you’re likely at the edge of your welcome, if not already tipping over. At that point thank them for their time and anything they might have done for you – pics, autographs, etc. – and just excuse yourself. It might seem a little awkward, but it makes a much better impression than having the moment stretch out out so far it finally snaps and they’re forced to take more direct action to end it.
Worried that you might have accidentally cut short a crucial conversation before its prime? Well, for one thing, if you go to excuse yourself and the other person protests, that’s usually a good sign that you can stick around a while longer – you gave them a chance to politely bow out of conversation and they didn’t take it. For another, this is the reason business cards were invented – have a batch of professional-looking ones made and offer them to people as you’re leaving the conversation. Nothing fancy, nothing too cute, just your name and some basic contact information. That way if they want to get in touch with you later – for example, to get copies of the pics you took of their cosplay – they have an easy way to do so, without requiring them to find a pen or whip out their phone. What’s more, giving them a card means future contact will be on their terms as well – they choose when and how to contact you, which is a lot less pressure than asking for their info on the spot. Plus offering a business card can result in receiving one in return, which can also tell you a lot about whether or not someone is interested in continued contact.
Last but most certainly not least, remember that con culture will only change for the better when it hits a critical mass of people who stand up to the jerks and call them on their bullshit. If you see someone bullying a reluctant cosplayer for a picture, speak up. If you see someone getting creepy and not taking no for an answer at the hotel bar, speak up. If you see someone ridiculing another attendee for how they look or what they say, speak up. I’m not saying wade in with fists swinging – if you think a situation’s tipping dangerously, by all means call security or the cops – but a lot of the bad behavior arises from the fact that nobody speaks up when the jerks act like assholes, which makes them think it’s OK to be that way. If we can get enough people to make it clear that it’s not acceptable, it may not change their minds, but it will take the megaphone out of their hands and give the rest of us a chance to speak our minds instead.
Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates!
In a recent post about conventions, I added a note about gender bias in the gaming community. It was a little thing, just a “hey, guys, stop assuming ladies can’t be gamers too” for the less-evolved crowd, but it turned out to get a much stronger response than anything else on that list. This post is an attempt to expand on the ideas in that post, and in doing so I found I got pretty heated myself – mostly because for every talking point I came up with I could remember some terrible evidence from my own personal experience, or which was shared with me by the ladies I know. And so I broke my normal guideline about profanity on this blog, because I think sometimes there is no polite way to express a certain measure of outrage, so I hope you bear that in mind as you read.
Let me also make a quick note for clarity: While I do address the geek community in general at points, in terms of specifics I’m addressing gamers for the most part, as that is the specific geek subculture that I have the most experience with on the whole. Likewise, when discussing conventions, I’m primarily talking about gaming cons, though I’ve spent enough time at literary, comic and entertainment cons that I think many of my points apply to those venues as well. OK! Here goes.
The Ladies Have Always Been Here (So Act Like It)
I’ve been a gamer for a long time. Not as long as some, no doubt, but as a percentage of my life it’s higher than most. I started playing tabletop rpgs when I was in first grade, and I’m in my mid-30s now. I literally have trouble remembering a time in my life when I wasn’t reading one game book or another. So while I may not be able to wax nostalgic about the glory days when the only way you got to play D&D was by picking up the original big red box – or by hanging out with Gary and Dave personally, or whatever – I do have a pretty good vertical slice of what gaming’s been like in my lifetime. And you know what? When I was a kid, it really was largely a boys’ club, no question. Yes, there were lady gamers, but they were a tiny minority. I knew two, for example, as compared to the dozen or more guy gamers I knew back then.
Then, around the time I turned 14 or so – and started playing more White Wolf games and less D&D, if you want an interesting correlation/causation possibility to ponder – suddenly there were a lot of girls in my gaming group. When we organized our first high school larp, the ratio was just about even, and while the ratio still fluctuates wildly depending on which gaming subgenre you happen to be into, it has slowly but steadily improved since then. For instance, miniatures wargaming still tends to be a very heavily male group, while larp is much more co-ed, as is tabletop gaming.
And just to be clear? I turned 14 two decades ago.
Now, I’m not saying that everything is peachy keen just yet, and I fully recognize that this is my impression as opposed to sociological data, but it’s still significant. It’s been fashionable in mainstream media outlets to talk about women in geekdom and gaming as though it was something new, when any gamer could tell you this simply isn’t so. Instead, I suspect it’s more like “cultural critical mass” is being mistaken for “new arrivals” – that is, that there are enough women in these cultures willing to speak up about some of their inequities that they’re making headlines. Or to put it more plainly, there are now enough women who are tired of being told to put up with the same stupid sexist bullshit and are speaking up about it that they can’t be easily marginalized or ignored as they might have been in the past.
But seriously, guys, stop acting like you stepped out to the garage to get more Mountain Dew and came back to find girls where there had been no girls before. They’ve been here for a long time now, and pretending like they’re some sort of new phenomenon is equal parts patronizing and unproductive. It’s a way of avoiding dealing with gender issues by pretending they’re something new and unexpected, when in reality they’ve been around for a while and there was simply a lot of subcultural inertia holding them back. Quit it.
… You Do Realize That You’re Not Entitled to the Women You See, Right?
OK, let me make one thing clear: I’m not slamming anyone who earns some money working a convention, whether it’s in costume or otherwise. A job’s a job, especially in this economy, and I’m not gonna judge someone who decides they wouldn’t mind earning some extra scratch handing out flyers or walking around dressed as a Romulan or Red Sonja. And I’m not so naive that I don’t understand the notion of “sex sells” and its utility in the advertising world. That said … come on, people. We can do better than this. We have to do better than this. Because this shit is embarrassing.
Geek culture prides itself on being the smartest guy in the room, on being progressive and forward-thinking, and yet at every single one of the conventions I’ve been at in my lifetime, I’ve heard or seen some guy be absolutely disgusting about so-called booth babes. It’s so prevalent that most guys don’t even notice it unless they specifically tune their frequency for it – though I guarantee you, the ladies walking with you hear it every time. (That there aren’t more “Dozens Missing, Believed Castrated As Lady Gamer Snaps After 1,517th Boob Joke In GenCon Spree” headlines is a testament to their enduring patience.) And even worse, a lot of the guys at these cons not only expect to be greeted with an array of nearly-nude female flesh for their camera phone gratification, they’re completely unembarrassed about the kind of entitled asshole behavior it brings out in them. They leer, they “accidentally” cop a feel while setting up a photo, they make crude jokes and sexist comments as though the woman wasn’t even there. I once heard a guy loudly talk to his friend in clinical and exhaustive detail about everything that was right (and wrong) with the body of a girl he’d just cuddled up with for a photo at a publisher’s booth … while the woman was maybe three feet away, trying her best to smile and ignore it. It was honestly sickening, but what was even worse was what she said when I got to the head of the line and blurted out an apology on behalf of my gender: “It’s OK, I hear that sort of thing all the time.”
No. Not just no, but fuck no.
We can do better than this, or at the very least, we have to try. I’m not so naive to think that we’ll be able to de-sexualize our advertising, but shit, can we at least agree that we’ll call people on it when they’re creepy assholes about it? I don’t think that’s too much to ask. I know I wish I had the nerve to say something to that con troll years ago, and as penance I’m trying not to let that shit slide in the future. I know that some folks out there will immediately respond “this is just the way conventions work no one’s forcing them to do it” – to which my response is, and that’s supposed to make it better how, exactly? Because I can’t be the only one who finds it disgusting that geek cons still feel like they must pander to the boys in the crowd with the same level of discourse as bikini girls at boat shows. Or worse, that the bad behavior of said boys is then supposedly excused by the fact that companies are using booth babes in the first place. “If they didn’t want us to look they wouldn’t have them in the first place” is about as much of an excuse for being an asshole to booth babes as saying it was OK to steal because they left the tip jar right out on the counter where anyone could grab it. Just because you can see something doesn’t mean that it’s yours.
And for the guys who immediately jump on the “you’re just gay/a prude/kissing up to feminists” responses to this notion, respectfully, shut the hell up. It is not unreasonable to expect y’all to behave like human beings. That’s not gay, or straight, or sex-positive, or prudish, or even particularly feminist – it’s called being decent and respectful to your fellow human beings. Just because your culture passively let you get away with this behavior for a while does not mean that it’s right, and it sure as hell does not guarantee you the ability to continue doing it in the future.
There Are No Gatekeepers, Mr. Clortho, and You’re Not the Goddamned Keymaster
Over the past year or so the idea of the “fake geek girl” – and backlash against the notion of labeling people as such – has gotten a lot of attention. If you missed it, somehow, it can be summed up as follows: There’s actually a notion out there that some girls you find at gaming and entertainment conventions are “faking it”, that they’re not Real Geeks at all, they’re just there so … hell, I dunno, exactly. The actual accusations are as muddled as Mushmouth on mescaline, ranging from crass marketing ploys to trolling to trying to pick up unsuspecting geek boys (… to do what, exactly? de-nerdify them with evil mainstream vagina powers?), but whatever they’re up to, it’s definitely Something Bad, these defensive guys can all agree. So watch out, geeks, because that cute girl in the “So Say We All” t-shirt you met at SDCC is probably just a hooker your friends hired to take your coveted viriginity!*
The notion is as obviously wrong as it is goddamn absurd, of course. Sure, a lot of people working conventions aren’t actually into the subject matter – going places and doing things you aren’t really interested in is the definition of having a job for a lot of people. (And a lot of them put up with way too much shit because of it, if you caught the booth babe section earlier.) And sure, some of the ladies who describe themselves as geeks or gamers might not have the history that you feel sufficient to have earned that title … but, and I mean this with all the love and respect in the world, who gives a fuck what you consider worthy? You, and if you’re lucky, maybe a couple friends. That’s it. Stop mistaking your personal standards for scientific constants. Because there’s always a bigger fish in the geek sea, someone who knows a lot more than you about something you like to think you’re an authority on, and if you ask them about it you will find out just what kind of sad, sorry judge of human beings you’ve really been.
Honestly, the debate over fake geek girls reminds me a lot of the endless discussions about “poser punks” back during my days in the hardcore scene. You see, according to a number of angry self-appointed punk rock authorities, there are an awful lot of “poser punks” in the scene who just like to dress up in the style and pretend to like the music, but who aren’t Real Punks and therefore don’t know What It’s All About. (Sound familiar?) How to spot these wannabes was a subject of much intense discussion, of course. I remember one supposed authority setting out some very specific advisories, like a poser punk wouldn’t know who people like the Dead Boys or GG Allin were, or that they’d bought some of their gear at that notorious poser store Hot Topic, or that they hadn’t been to any shows in church basements or dive bars like real punks attended. All of which is total bullshit, of course. Plenty of punks have never listened to the Dead Boys, they can buy clothing from wherever the hell they want, and last I checked most of us didn’t actually like going to shitty and dangerous places to see shows, so why the hell would we make it a requirement? Most telling of all, I remember going to see Rancid when I was in college, and standing near the back of the crowd in my Operation Ivy shirt I unwisely remarked about how a lot of the “kids” there wouldn’t know why I was wearing my shirt to a Rancid show. A much older punk, who looked like the CBGB’s bathroom floor in human form except not as well maintained, heard my snide comment and took my head off about how all us asshole kids were ruining his scene, and how he hadn’t seen a real punk show worthy of the name since about 1988. It was a humbling moment, and one I’ve not forgotten – if you think you’re a gatekeeper for a whole scene, think again.
The most common and yet insidious way that this phenomenon is expressed in geek culture is “the quiz” – when a guy meets another guy at a convention, he automatically assumes that guy is as into it as he is and the two start chatting happily about their mutual interests. By contrast, a lot of guys still haven’t accepted the notion that there are ladies in their hobbies as well, and so when they meet they quiz them, sometimes subtly but often not, asking questions in an attempt to determine if the woman is a Real Geek like them. Most of the time, of course, they pick the most obscure or heavily bias-laden questions they can think of, so that when the lady doesn’t answer with exactly the response they wanted they can dismiss her as a fake and feel secure in their authority and their fandom.
Because that’s what it comes down to for a lot of insecure geek guys – they feel put upon because deep down one of the reasons they got into their hobby is often that it comfortably insulated them from the gender politics of middle school and high school, but now they feel that women are invading their territory, and so they lash out in any way they can. Which is doubly sad because there is no One True Authority, not in gaming, not in comics, not in anything geek related. I mean, I guess we could come up with some sort of all-purpose Geek Entertainment and Educational Knowledge Exam (GEEKE, pronounced “geeky”) , and make everyone take it before they’re allowed to register for Comic Con or host a larp, but really, how dumb is that? And yet we let people get away with a personal version of it all the time. And it needs to stop.
Threatening Rape Is Not Just “Trash Talk”
There’s been a fair amount of coverage lately about what women endure on gaming networks like Xbox Live and PSN, not to mention MMOs and other online gaming experiences – as soon as their gender is discovered, they receive a barrage of crude pickup attempts and pornographic images/requests, or are called sluts and whores and urged to “get raped”, and called thin-skinned and worse if they can’t handle it. “Trash talk is a part of gaming,” these boys say. “If you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t play.” They’re not wrong about one part of that statement – yes, trash talk is part of gaming. Always has been, always will be. But there’s a difference between mocking an opponent’s gameplay and simply spouting a litany of racist, sexist and/or homophobic language into a microphone. That’s not a matter of being prudish, that’s simple linguistics.
To paraphrase the superb Extra Credits series, who addressed this problem very eloquently some time back, the problem is right now that we’ve given the idiots the megaphone. So naturally they’re shouting into it. We need to turn the culture around, and while I’ll let folks like EC tackle the difficulties of doing so on online gaming platforms, we can do a lot to shut down this bullshit in our gaming groups and at our geek events. So the next time you hear someone talking about “raping the other team” in TF2 or how “the NPCs just totally raped us” at your larp, I recommend that you call that person on their bullshit. Chances are if they’re a decent person they’ll just apologize and not do it again, but if they object, I’ve anticipated some of the common arguments for you:
* “Freedom of speech!” BZZT. Sorry, wrong. The First Amendment only says the government can’t stomp on your speech. It says nothing about what’s allowed on corporate-owned gaming networks, or at public gaming cons, or at your local larp. Also, you are specifically not protected from the consequences of your language. You are free to threaten people all you like, but they are just as free to call the cops on you for it, and guess who’s punished for it?
* “I didn’t mean anything by it! Chill out!” OK, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt – but if it’s really not such a big deal, pick a different topic. Rape hits home with a lot more women – and men, for the record – than you know. Would you make a suicide joke to someone you know has suffered through family or friends committing suicide? No? So how about leaving out a topic that many people have only too much history with in their lives?
* “But what’s so different about threatening rape? Lots of guys say they’ll kill each other and don’t mean it!” If you ever needed an example of male privilege, you could pretty much just copy/paste these sentences into the dictionary. Let me try to keep it short, for those out there who don’t get it. Most of us were bullied at one time or another, and if so, you know the difference between a friend joking about kicking your ass as opposed to a bully really threatening to do it. We know one party isn’t a threat, but the other? Different story. Now imagine a total stranger bumps into and promptly threatens to beat you up – are you going to assume they’re kidding? Or, for safety’s sake, are you likely to take them just a little more seriously, just in case? Of course you are. Now throw in the fact that rape is not nearly the remote threat that murder is, especially for women, and you begin to understand the problem. So stop.
Oh, and Please Stop Assuming Women at Boffer Larps Can’t Fight As Well As You Can
This is a pet peeve of mine, but while we’re on the subject, guys, seriously, stop being so freaking clueless when it comes to women who can fight. I’ve been fighting at boffer larps for more than a decade now, and let me tell you, it is just plain sad to see how often the guys there just reflexively shoulder women out of the way when it comes to arranging shield walls, picking combat patrols and otherwise throwing down. What’s worse is that many of you don’t even seem to notice you’re doing it, you just unconsciously leave them out of the thick of things. So speaking as the husband of a Markland heavy fighter and all-around badass, who is also friends with many other badass larper ladies, please stop embarrassing yourselves. Watch someone fight and judge them on that, not anything else. And if you don’t think you have this prejudice, check your circuits, son, you’re getting bad signals – even I still struggle with this one from time to time and I most certainly know better.
A Final Word for the Guys
I know it seems like I’m on the warpath for a lot of this post, and let’s not kid each other, in many ways I am. I’m sad, and ashamed, and more than a little pissed off by some of the standards that this scene considers acceptable, and I want to help change them. And I know that a lot of you out there probably read sections of it and thought to yourselves, “That’s a pretty big generalization – that’s not true of me.” And I hope – I know – that’s the case for a lot of you. I painted with a pretty broad brush, and I know that gets some paint on the good guys as well as the bad. For that, I apologize. But the best way we can prove these are generalizations, and not true of all geek and gamer guys, is by living up to a higher standard. Not just by not being sexist ourselves, but by calling other guys on it when they try to pull some chauvinist bullshit, whether it’s making a rape reference in an online game, or groping a booth babe, or pushing the women aside when it’s time to stand shoulder to shoulder at a boffer larp. Don’t get me wrong, either – this isn’t about saving the ladies from wicked sexists. We don’t need more white knight bullshit clouding the issue. This is just about us looking at things that are awful and unfair and disgusting, and saying, “Fuck that, it stops here” and really meaning it. We can do it. I know we can. We have to.
Or in the words of John Custer to his son Jesse, from the incredible comic Preacher:
You gotta be one of the good guys, son, ’cause there’s way too many of the bad.
*Because of course you’re a virgin, nerd! And yes, that is also the plot of an episode of Veronica Mars. Well spotted, marshmellow, well spotted.
Table Manners is a new commentary and criticism series for gamers and their own little corner of geek culture. Like what you read? Enjoy larping in particular? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tags to read a different semi-regular advice series for larpers of all kinds. You can also follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, and subscribe to the blog to stay in the loop about future updates!
Before I get started, I wanted to make it perfectly clear – this post is designated as a major spoiler zone. If you are playing but have not finished The Last of Us, or if you intend to play it in the future and don’t want the ending spoiled ahead of time, then turn away and come back to this post later on down the line. Seriously. Normally the last thing I want to do is turn away readers, but when it comes to spoiling the hard work and superb storytelling that the Naughty Dog team put into this classic, you really don’t want to cheat yourself.
For those of you who have played it all the way through, feel free to read ahead and enjoy. For those of you who haven’t played it or finished it, but also don’t care about spoilers and want to read on anyway, here’s a brief overview of the premise and some setting details:
The Last of Us follows two characters, Joel and Ellie, as they travel across an America ravaged by 20 years of battling an apocalyptic fungal infection. Joel, a grizzled smuggler, lived through the initial terror of the outbreak but lost his family in the process; Ellie, a young teenager, has only ever known a world of quarantine zones, rationing, and martial law. The story begins during a hot Boston summer and proceeds to go a full year round as the two travel cross-country on an urgent mission, fighting zealous soldiers, desperate bandits, and the hideously warped infected as they go. Supplies and ammo are always low, trust is rare and dangerous, and even the two protagonists have a rocky relationship that frequently flares up into conflict. And unlike a lot of post-apocalyptic games where you simply wade in and blaze away, you’re frequently forced to sneak and plan to survive, not to mention improvise all manner of nasty surprises (like duct taping broken scissor blades to a baseball bat). It’s a harsh world and the game pulls no punches about it, yet for all the rough violence and hard choices, the content doesn’t feel forced or exploitative. When Joel tortures someone for information, there’s no cheap sadistic thrill for the audience like you might find in a GTA-style game, only a sick and sobering realization of what needs to be done to survive in this world.
OK. I think that about covers it. Let me just get one more warning out my system to make sure everyone knows what’s coming:
WARNING! WARNING! HUGE
HONKIN’ SPOILERS AHEAD!
So, I finally finished The Last of Us. I’m not quite sure how I feel about it, honestly, but I mean that in a good way, the way I believe was intended by the design team. Joel’s decision to “save” Ellie despite the fact that her sacrifice might mean the salvation of humanity was a choice I honestly did not see coming, but which made perfect sense given his actions up to that point. It’s been established that he’s no revolutionary, and doesn’t really care about the world at large or the future of the human race in general; at the outset, he doesn’t seem to care for much at all except survival.
Don’t get me wrong, we can see his affection for Ellie coming a long way off, given his history, but it still doesn’t feel forced – I like his reaction to her killing the man in the hotel lobby for that reason, the first kill we see her make onscreen. We expect him to give her a grudging thanks for saving his life, and he doesn’t, and they fight about it for a while, and their relationship feels more real because of it. (Elizabeth’s “wrench moment” in BioShock Infinite felt much the same way to me.) But we figure that by the end of the game, it’s going to be a father/daughter sort of bond, an affectionate sort of connection that makes both of them feel better about the world and their place in it. Ellie replaces her lost parents – one of them, anyway -and Joel replaces his lost daughter. Very neat, very poetic, and we’ve seen it all before in various incarnations.
And that’s the core of the matter when I consider how I feel about how the game ended. I’ve seen a fair amount of hate for the ending here and there online, and I’m pretty sure I know why. It’s not a comfortable ending. We see a lot of “what is the life of one versus the life of the many” decisions in video game endings, but we’re accustomed to either receiving a miracle at the 11th hour that allows us to avoid making the choice after all, or our protagonist makes the hard call themselves and we can at least feel noble about it (see BioShock Infinite, Mass Effect 3). Either way, though, it fulfills our expectations – whether it’s a last minute reprieve or a stoic farewell, we’re familiar with it. It’s safe. It’s expected. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, either, by the way, but it’s normal. We get it.
In this case, though, there’s no magic cure-all to save us at the last second, and more importantly, there’s very little nobility in Joel’s decision. Maureen says it directly, that Ellie would want to sacrifice herself if it meant finding a cure and saving everyone, and Joel doesn’t bother to deny it because we know she’s right. Everything we’ve seen about Ellie up to that point says that’s probably true – I mean, she wouldn’t leap to be a martyr, she’s too cynical for that, but if it meant a real chance at saving humanity I don’t doubt for a second that she’d do it. But Joel can’t accept losing her, and suddenly the cute father/daughter relationship we’ve been building up in our heads for most of the game takes a very grim turn. We often say that parents would do anything for their kids, but we don’t often examine the darker implications of that statement. Joel doesn’t care what Ellie would want, or what is best for the world at large – he simply can’t handle losing another daughter, and so he puts his needs above those of literally every other human being on the planet.
I think it’s also important and amazing that the design team didn’t villify the Fireflies at the end. They could easily have done so, ramped up factors like callousness and brutality in order to make us root for Joel taking Ellie away, but they didn’t. And that’s crucial, because that would have been a major cop-out, an excuse to let us feel better about the ending by making it a simple “good guys/bad guys” dynamic. Instead, they twist the knife a bit more, at least if you find the recorders that are scattered around the final stages – we hear about the loss and struggles of the Fireflies as they came west, we hear Maureen agonizing over the decision to take Ellie’s life, we hear the researchers talking about the promise of the cure as a real thing and not simply a hypothetical.
There’s a great quote from near the end of The Wire, when one of the main characters, Detective Jimmy McNulty, is trying to explain what went wrong during an investigation in the final season. I won’t spoil it, and it’s complicated besides, but let’s just say that he starts coloring outside the lines in order to try to put a bad guy in jail, and things most definitely do not turn out as he hoped. Desperate to justify his actions, he says to the woman he’s seeing: “You start to tell the story, you think you’re the hero, and then when you get done talking…” And he just trails off, because he realizes that he’s not the hero, and maybe he never was, and maybe there just aren’t heroes, not like we’re brought up to believe in anyway. Maybe life is just people doing things to get what they want, and we label it all later.
In that moment he has much the same realization that the audience does – that we’ve been rooting for him because we’re conditioned by movies and TV to cheer for “loose cannon” police officers who break the rules to get results, but when we stop and think about what that would really mean in real life, it’s not that noble or that simple. That’s my interpretation of the scene, anyway, but I think it’s a fair one.
And that’s exactly what the end of The Last of Us made me feel like. Like I’d conned myself into thinking I was watching a hero’s story, when in reality – looking back over everything Joel says and does throughout the game – it’s pretty clear that he’s not really a hero. Anti-hero, maybe, and a pretty damn dark one at that. He does some good things, maybe even some selfless things (depending on how you look at his relationship with Ellie), but he also does a lot of pretty awful things too, and not all of them strictly necessary. You can argue that he’s a product of his world, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but the ending shocks into remembering exactly what that means.
Like cheering for McNulty in The Wire only to realize how screwed up some of those assumptions are in the light of day, The Last of Us sets us up to cheer for an outsider hero and his bond with a spunky surrogate child, only to rip away the easy ending and remind us exactly what’s really going on in this world we’ve been playing in. Looking back, the evidence is all there, we just chose to see it differently because that’s how most games would spin it. But taken on its own, Joel’s brutal choice really shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
And I think that’s pretty damn amazing.