Tagged with " geek"
Sep 21, 2012 - Social Studies    9 Comments

How Not to Be a Fan

I’ve been open about parts of my identity on this blog that I haven’t felt comfortable “coming out” about almost anywhere else in my life, certainly not all at the same time. And everyone’s been so wonderfully welcoming and encouraging–you’re only making my general lack of brain filter worse! But what I’m about to admit may bring down the flaming hordes of trolls upon me in force.

I’m not sure how to say this, so I’ll just come right out with it (like taking off a band-aid, right?)…

I don’t get fandom. I utterly fail to understand it, on both individual and sociological levels. I am a Bad Fan.

What do I mean by “fandom”? I’m talking about that state of being in which a person enjoys spending time thinking, talking, reading, gathering, and making things about a particular piece of intellectual property, beyond just the time spent engaging with that medium. Those properties might include books, movies, music, sports, collectors’ items, games (video and otherwise), crafts, hobbies, or pastimes.

I truly believe in the broadest, most inclusive definition of ideas such as “fan” and “geek,” and I think the cultural behaviors that characterize traditional “geek culture” appear in a lot more “non-geeky” domains than any of those enthusiasts would expect to find. I also don’t judge among the various sources or expressions of fandom–I’m an equalist in this, as in just about everything else. Don’t try to tell me someone’s doing it wrong, or that something doesn’t “really count.” That just doesn’t hold water with me.

Of course, this is not to say I don’t enjoy and get enthusiastic about things that give me intellectual, creative, or aesthetic pleasure. I clearly do–I’ve enthused about books and music and movies and games and a dozen other things, sometimes with the fervor of a revival-tent preacher. But there’s an uncloseable distance between where I am and the distant shore of fandom.

I love what these ladies created. I even know some of them. And I’d proudly wear one of these costumes. But I can’t imagine ever making one myself.

I am fundamentally boggled by fan behaviors. I don’t understand re-watching or re-reading for the purpose of picking apart, or putting together, or harvesting quotes, or answering questions. I’ve never felt the urge to search or contribute to a wiki, beyond the most basic of research needs. I probably wouldn’t have the patience to wait for hours on end for the chance to see someone I admire. I can’t imagine following a band, performer, author, or artist from tour date to tour date. If I have the occasion to meet one of the people or groups I truly enjoy, I get a little fluttery but I’m conversationally functional, and I’m interested in them as people, not as characters or icons. I love dressing up for the sake of dressing up, but I could never conscience spending the dozens of hours and hundreds (if not thousands!) of dollars it takes to make a quality cosplay costume. Even if I could, there’s no one person I identify with so strongly for whom I’d be willing to pass myself off as a decent representation (this also has a lot to do with the absence of plus-size role archetypes, and my unwillingness to be a “fat” so-and-so).

Like this, but much, much simpler

All of this makes me feel like I’m carrying a shameful secret when someone hails me as a geek. A big circle of the geeky Venn diagram overlaps with the fan circle, and geeks are often graded on their proofs of fan-level devotion. Like any outsider, I have ways of “passing.” I have an excellent memory, which helps, but nothing like my Darling Husband’s capacity for encyclopedic knowledge available for immediate recall. And, more importantly, I empathize and enthuse well. If you’re excited about something you’re sharing, I can be excited for you and with you, and for most people, that’s all the engagement they’re really looking for when they share their fandom. But I also use my abilities to divert conversation from minutiae I know/care nothing for, and when that fails, my considerable skill at turning into a mirror.

Occasionally, this also makes me a Bad Friend. People hear that Jim Butcher introduced me to the Darling Husband, and they immediately launch into deep machinations within the Dresden universe, leaving me far behind. I’ve played some of the games my friends have written or designed, but there are many more I’ve never had the pleasure of enjoying–hell, I haven’t even played Marvel Heroic Roleplaying yet. Many more of these paradoxes litter the landscape of my relationships, and they don’t mean a thing for my dedication to those loved ones. When they need me or something I can do to brighten their day or lighten their load, I am all in. But they’ll have to settle for a good friend, because I can’t be a good fan.

And this must also mean I’m a Bad Autistic. Aren’t all autistics supposed to perseverate, or focus to an uncommon extent on a very specific thing, to the exclusion of everything else? I certainly did so to a greater extent as a kid–I had books and books about the First Ladies and American History, and my very own Presidents of the United States trashcan. But there was never a world I fell into that I couldn’t fall right back out of when something else grabbed my interest. And I always preferred to make up my own stories and characters in my favorite settings, rather than retread the same classics over and over.

I’m not waiting for that evangelical moment, when I find something that “finally” turns me into a full-fledged fan. I don’t think it’s going to happen. If it hasn’t already, with the abundance of amazing media to which I’ve been exposed in my life, it seems unlikely that something so radically new will come along to change that. And most of the time, I’m not even looking for that experience. But I do steam up the window glass sometimes, peering in at all the people who seem to be getting so much more fulfillment from the things I merely enjoy. As I used to (and sometimes still) feel about the LGBT community, I’m a strong, vociferous ally and advocate to fandom, but I often feel I’m missing some extra dimension in life because of these limits to my senses, boundaries, or imagination.

So here I sit, on this awkward fence. I speak the language of fans, and I understand and appreciate their culture, but I can never fully participate. I’m far from a “fan widow”–I don’t reject or feel left behind by the enthusiasms of my friends and family. But I can’t understand prioritizing those things above more basic obligations and engagements. I can’t even really explain what I mean, and I’m worried this sounds condescending or judgmental. (If I have come off this way, please accept my apology and my vow that I intend neither of these things.)

I’m not sure what this coming-out story accomplishes, not the way I have with the others I’ve told. I still love the things I love, but I love them differently than so many of the other people in my life. Mostly, I hope this just explains why I never seem to get particularly flustered or anxious when everyone around me is freaking out about The Wait, or The Trailer, or The Leaked Detail, or The Brush With Fame. And I hope it doesn’t make anyone more hesitant to share their enthusiasm with me. Please know that it finds a safe, welcoming harbor with me, as do all the other pieces of you. Because what I’m really a fan of is people, in all their exuberant difference and intricate detail. That’s what I’m willing to invest in, and I don’t have to go to a con to wallow in the wonderful world that creates.

Welcome Home

One summer day when I was about 10 years old, my grandma was driving us down to catch an old movie in the blessedly cool interior of the old Oriental Theater. We came to stop at an intersection, not far from the MECCA Arena.

And a man in full plate mail and medieval tabard walked over the crosswalk, right in front of our car.

I was in the front seat (it was the ’80s–seat belts, wha?), and my jaw dropped to my lap, where it remained for the rest of the car ride. When I finally achieved intelligible thought, my one focus was: “Wherever he was going, I have got to get there too.”

When I was 16, I finally got there: Gen Con. I’d been playing AD&D in our church library on Sunday afternoons for a few years, and tabletop strategic wargames for a few more years than that. So when some of the guys said, “Let’s go to the big game convention in Milwaukee,” I was all in. Of course, I didn’t know that’s where the guys in plate mail were from, but I found out fast enough.

I was too uncertain to assert myself at the big tables, full of miniature mecha-robots and World War I dogfighting planes, surrounded by very intense, slightly malodorous young men. And I wasn’t ready to ask questions, to invite myself into the pick-up roleplaying groups scattered throughout the convention center and the labyrinthine guts of the arena building. I was a young woman, and there weren’t many of us there.

Instead, I just took it all in. Dice, in numbers and colors and polyhedrons and sizes I’d never dreamt existed. Men, like carnival hucksters, hawking their models or settings or must-have game accessories. T-shirts with slogans and jokes I mostly didn’t get (though I loved the Douglas Adams references; I’d never seen those in America before). And enthusiasm–so much enthusiasm, everywhere.

I came again the next year, and the whole world had changed. TSR was under siege, in their four-story castle in the center of the dealer’s hall, but there were sappers among us in the crowds, skulking around in clown white and satin capes. Vampire: The Masquerade had arrived, and with it, a small but palpable influx of female gamers, drawn to a game that made strengths of drama and emotion and relationships.

I didn’t get to all the Gen Cons during my college years, but I kept my foot in the pool. I looked at the new games, lurked and watched, occasionally sat down when invited. One year, I waited all night in the lobby of the Hyatt for someone from a scheduled AmberMUSH get-together to recognize me. Only after about three hours of waiting did it occur to me that nobody knew what anyone else looked like in real life.

I’d been married for about three years before I went again. It was a homecoming, but it was also the Darling Husband’s first trip. He’d read about Gen Con in magazines and rulebooks, half a world away, never dreaming he’d not only ever have the chance to go, but to go for the purpose of meeting his heroes. He’d earned a place on the (volunteer, but still nerd-prestigious) Whitestone Council, the organizers and fact-checkers-par-excellence of the online Dragonlance Nexus, and as a result, was invited to meet Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, authors of the groundbreaking Dragonlance novels. He was gobsmacked at every turn, and I basked in his excitement and some better-planned meetups with Amber friends.

Gen Con became an every-year thing for a while there. I mourned through the last one in Milwaukee, but did so with good friends, good (Persian) food, and hours-long sessions of a pirate RPG that cleared a good section of the under-arena area and left me hoarse for days afterward.

That was also Connor’s first trip to Gen Con, when he was six weeks old. I didn’t see another mother with an infant in arms the whole time, and I had to crouch in stairwells and on bathroom floors to nurse him. I asked Warwick Davis (Willow, Professor Flitwick, etc.) to hold him for a picture. Surprised and nervous, he acceded. (I cannot find the digital file of this picture, which is driving me crazy, and my scanner won’t work. Trust me, it’s adorable.)

Next year, I watched the con breathe and unfurl its wings in Indianapolis, expanding into the vast new spaces with a sigh of both sorrow and relief. And it grew and grew, every year–every year, more of a reunion and a blessed, brief respite from the Mommyverse. At Gen Con, I was just Jess again, not Mommy. I needed that.

But Griffin came to his first Gen Con when he was three months old, and though I still needed to find secluded corners to breastfeed, at least I no longer felt like I was the weird woman with one tit at time on display for interested passers-by. Sure, there were still jerks who thought families didn’t belong at the convention. One of them said, behind me in the crowded dealer hall, “I can’t BELIEVE someone would bring a FREAKING STROLLER in here. This isn’t the place for that. How selfish.”

To which I turned around and replied, “At least I can park the extra forty pounds I’m pushing around in here and walk away from it.”

I hear there are nursing rooms, changing stations, and child care providers now. It makes me so happy. It says to me, “Gen Con belongs to all of us, and I don’t have to grow up and give it away if I don’t want to. I’ll keep coming, I’ll keep gaming, and I’ll raise my family here.” The Gen Con community is aging, yes, but it’s maturing and diversifying too.

I hoped this would be the year I brought my boys back to Gen Con and let them get dizzy and overwhelmed and excited and exhausted by the people, the choices, the magic. But it didn’t happen. I haven’t gone for four years, and I miss the friends (family, really) I’ve made like I would miss a limb. But I know that, when the stars are right, I’ll come back, and I’ll tell my boys, “Here’s where you belong. You’ve belonged here since before you can remember.”

And Gen Con will be waiting for us with open arms.

Pride and Prejudice

My nine-year-old son Connor finishes the partial hospitalization program that saved his life this spring on Friday. He’ll return to school, and his beloved friends and teachers and staff, for the last eleven days of the year. It’ll be a lovely reunion–he’s determined to surprise them on Tuesday–and he’ll get to show off the amazing new self-control and trigger management he’s developed, in a manageable, boundaried time period.

As part of his evaluation and treatment in the program, Connor was tested on a wide battery of skills and scales. Most irritating of these tests was a tear-your-hair-out boring attention test that required TWELVE FULL MINUTES of participation to determine a baseline. We laughed at the irony of his twice quitting an attention test because it bored him, but as soon as he tried it with someone to tell him to keep going, the test revealed no attention span issues.

Connor's first-place winning science fair project this year, about predicting compressive strength of materials based on their atomic structure.

Equally unsurprising to us were the results of his IQ test. He scored 136. Now, officially, there’s no “cutoff” for “genius level” anymore in the updated IQ scoring, but 136 puts him into the 99th Percentile for kids his age. In other words, only one percent of nine-year-olds score higher than that. His vocabulary and reading level is that of a 12th grader. According to a new study, that’s two grades higher than the average of the U.S. Congress.

This kid is staggeringly intelligent. Which comes as news to absolutely no one who’s ever met him. I feel far less proud than affirmed. These scores only quantify the bar that we’ve always felt we have to rise to as his parents. The doctor who evaluated him repeatedly emphasized how unusual Connor’s mind really is–the words “exceptional,” “exceed,” and “excellent” appear frequently throughout the write-up, and he urges several times that Connor receive gifted and talented services.

What did shock us in this evaluation was the statement that immediately followed the quantitative elements: “Connor indicates that he enjoys role-play games, which I would strongly advise against, given how these activities can result in him being more obsessed with fantasy than reality. Connor should be devoting his time and effort to normal activities socially, recreationally, and athletically that would be pursued by a nine-year-old.” Further down, he returns to this point: “Repeatedly, I witness children like Connor becoming consumed with fantasy and role-playing games, derailing their social and emotional development and ignoring ‘normal’ endeavors. The result is a pattern of unusual or atypical interests that ultimately are not shared by their peers, causing them to be viewed as unusual, odd, or atypical and, therefore, contributing to social rejection and emotional alienation.”

My first reaction was, “Holy crap, he thinks geeks are pathetic.”

I saw the Darling Husband’s hackles rise as he read, though he channeled it into humor, since the therapist who gave us the papers wasn’t the one who did the evaluation. Instead, he suggested that they give the doctor a call and tell him what Connor’s dad does for a living.

We shared a laugh at the time, with Connor in the room and unaware of what the papers said, but we were shocked and bothered by the obvious bias in the evaluation, and how utterly dissonant it was with both of our life experiences. How could anyone think such a wonderful hobby was destructive and alienating?

For both of us, fantasy literature and roleplaying games were the ultimate sandbox, an environment finally big enough for the universes our minds could imagine. Sci-fi and fantasy, both in prose and comic books, gave us colorful and expansive vocabularies that challenged us, in the days of stultifying spelling tests and reading assignments that left us cold. Games gave us math problems we wanted to do. They gave us new friends at home and around the world, hours of solo and group entertainment, and eventually, roleplaying games gave us each other. They are our hobby, and our work, and now our legacy to our children.

We understood the doctor’s concern that, if Connor was only into media far beyond his peers’ comprehension, he’d have no common interests with them. But what’s “normal” for a nine-year-old? Chess? No, no chance of obsession there (ahem, paging Bobby Fischer). Baseball? Just what he needs to stay away from unsociable statistics (or not). Guns? That can’t possibly turn out badly. In fact, I’d like someone to tell me what subjects are, in fact, more normal for a nine-year-old American boy in 2012 than heroes, monsters, superheroes, Star Wars, LEGO, and XBox games?

Sure, we’ve known our share of people who couldn’t function well socially in contexts that excluded their primary enthusiasm. Every joke refers to a D&D stat, or a video game plot, or a Monty Python sketch. Every anecdote ties back to a Star Trek episode. And yes, autistic kids get fixated and study the everlasting hell out of what they like. Some days, it’s all they can talk about, and that can be off-putting to other kids who don’t have the sheer bloodyminded endurance they do. But that’s not the vast majority of today’s geeks and gamers, and it’s certainly not Connor.

Connor got a make-your-own sonic screwdriver kit for Christmas. He may have been pleased.

Cam and I will take some credit for keeping his interests wide. Every time he finishes a book, movie, or TV series he’s thoroughly enjoyed, we’ve got three new things racked and ready to suggest. So you liked Star Wars, did you, kid? Here, meet this guy called Indiana Jones. Muppets tickled your fancy? Fantastic–watch this Wallace and Gromit short. Harry Potter and Doctor Who are pretty awesome, aren’t they? Let me tell you about my friends Sherlock Holmes and Lewis Carroll. And the same lack of inhibition that sometimes leads Connor to say tactless or oblivious things allows his passion and enthusiasm for his favorite things to bubble over giddily, and it’s absolutely irresistible. He’s a trendsetter among his peers. They don’t tell him he’s weird for liking what he likes–they want to know what’s got him so excited.

I know the kids around him won’t always be as forgiving of his differences. But the age when that happens was exactly when Cam and I found roleplaying games, and we weren’t alone. Neither will he be. In fact, he’s likely to be in demand as a creative, versatile gamemaster with deft control of rules and narrative, and a bag full of hacks and tricks. Heavens know, he’s learning at the feet of The Master.

We want to let this doctor know that we respect his experience and knowledge, but in this area, he’s got it flat wrong. Games knit society closer together. Connor’s entire existence, and his loving home, come from the power of those stitches. His whole life, since before he was even born, he’s been on the receiving end of love and support from the friends we’ve made through games. He’s already discovered the delight and the challenge in them, and he’s learning social skills in a safe, welcoming environment, in the community of gamers.

How on earth could he grow up healthier without all that?

May 11, 2012 - Social Studies    No Comments

You might be a geek… : Friday Night Lists

I’m a fool for stand-up comedy, and lots of one-liners and references have made their way into the Banks household lexicon. As with my books, music, and movies, I’ve got prodigal tastes that include things that might surprise even those who know me best.

So let me here admit: I love the Blue Collar Comedy Tour films. Don’t judge me–that’s some funny stuff right there. We laugh at Jeff Foxworthy’s redneck jokes, but if we’re honest, we know that more of them apply to more of us than is comfortable. And as a joke format, it’s just about perfect.

So, for today’s Friday Night Lists post, here’s my spin on Foxworthy’s list. If you don’t recognize them all, fire up that Google machine! I’m sure I’m leaving out a billion things, so if you’ve got one that should be included, be sure to leave it in comments! Hopefully, this conveys my general view that geekdom is universal, and everyone’s a geek about something.

You Might Be A Geek If…

… you know that MUDs, MOOs, and MUSHes aren’t limited to a barnyard.

… you know that 1964 1/2 is a real model year for the Ford Mustang.

… you know that K1P1YO and 1.e4 c6 2.d4 d5 actually spell something.

… you know the difference between declension and conjugation.

… you know what “frabjous” and “brillig” mean.

… you know Ted Williams’ lifetime batting average.

… you know why 2 pistons and 1 pin are the basis of a copyrighted sound.

… you’ve ever reamed a pearl.

… you know that you’ve probably seen the movie “Blue Harvest.”

… you have a favorite Federalist Paper.

… you’ve ever had to explain the joke on your t-shirt to someone.

… you’ve ever made a costume for a convention, but you take shirts to the dry cleaner for mending.

… you care deeply about the Oxford Comma.

… you have a favorite Doctor.

… you’ve ever paid for shareware.

… you’ve ever written shareware.

… you’ve ever risked serious bodily harm for the perfect photograph.

… you carry a Sharpie so you can correct punctuation on signs.

… you’ve ever bought a new die because “the old one doesn’t work.”

… you’ve ever bought wooden knitting or crochet needles so nobody hears if you drop them in church.

… you can tell the difference between Chinese, Indonesian, and Vietnamese cinnamon by smell.

… you use a thermometer and a timer to make tea.

… your child must cite history and/or literature when introducing themselves by name.

… your body bears a tattoo featuring a mythical beast and/or language.

… you wish they made trading cards for astrophysicists.

… you took the day off work to celebrate the solution of Fermat’s Theorem.

… a museum or library security guard has ever let you “take your time” because they know you so well.

… you’ve ever walked out of a movie because the inaccuracies were ruining the whole experience.

… you’ve ever been kicked out of the room during “Jeopardy!” or “Trivial Pursuit.”

… you have to remind yourself that Malcolm X wasn’t a medieval Scottish king.

… you own your own libretto for any work.

… you know who Weapon X is, and what the X stands for.

… you can name more than four Beatles or Kryptonians.

… your boxen have ever frotzed.

… you can sing Tom Lehrer’s “The Elements.”

… you know there’s a male Pink and a female Pink.

… you’ve ever heard of the Butlerian Jihad.

… you’ve ever traded bottlecaps for a stimpak in Megaton.

… you’ve ever bought a lottery ticket with the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, 42.

… you’ve bowed your head for a moment of silence in the direction of Reach or Hera.

… you’ve ever played a video game so much, you dreamed about it after you went to sleep.

… you’ve ever complained about a sign’s kerning.

… you’ve ever blamed your kid’s misbehavior on Mercury.

… you can recognize the sounds of a glockenspiel, a celeste, or Franklin’s armonica.


Rolling to surmount the language barrier

This story was originally published in the RPGirl zine in 2010, a fine publication edited by Emily Care Boss and containing the writings of quite a few other fascinating women in the gaming community. Enjoy!

I hadn’t been in France long when I met my first foreign gamer. And it didn’t just come up casually in café conversation—I was introduced by another student who knew I’d met my then-boyfriend (now Darling Husband) in an online RPG, and grasped that the concept was related to what this student had been describing to her at a party. I agreed to meet him, knowing that, at the very least, I’d know another geek.

But she was right. Nicolas was a real live French gamer guy. I thrilled him in our first meeting by having Secret Knowledge. We were talking about TV shows, movies and books we liked, and he asked if I watched “Aux Frontières du Réel,” or “On the Frontiers of Reality.” I said I didn’t know it, was it French? “Non, non,” he insisted, and reached for a book. The cover explained it all—behind the French title was a distressed, typewriter-style X. “Oh,” I explained in French, “In America it’s called ‘The X-Files.’” “That explains everything!” he exclaimed. “I always wondered why that X was there!”

Still, scheduling kept us from getting a game together for months, though Nicolas and I would chat when we bumped into each other. Mostly this consisted of him asking me if I knew about a game that had just come out in France, and me apologetically explaining that it had come out four years earlier in the U.S. When I finally met the group, it was to play a one-shot of something I’d never played: Time Lord.

I’d only seen Doctor Who played by Tom Baker on PBS, when I was about five years old. What I’d seen, I didn’t really remember, except, of course, the scarf, and several aliens that looked like upended rubbish bins on wheels. I’ve become a rabid fan since the 2005 reboot, and there’s no doubt I would’ve enjoyed the game more, knowing what I know now.

That said, I enjoyed myself quite a lot. It took several hours to get up to full speed on the French, but that says more about the universality of gamer speed- and geek-speak than it does about my French; I’d already taken on a French customs officer over the phone and won, which I consider the height of my skills. It turns out it’s also universal to play nonstop into the wee hours of the morning.

As we moved into the climax of events around 3.00 a.m., I found myself caught up in the action. We were likely to get cooked by the savage inhabitants of the place where our TARDIS ditched if someone didn’t quickly impress the hell out of them. I chose the much-maligned classic gambit: C3PO and the Ewoks.

“I’ll start speaking in tongues!” I asserted excitedly, preparing to let fly with a steady stream of fast English. I opened my mouth as Nicolas set the scene for the natives and…

Nothing. I could not conjure a single English word to save my life. Surely this was just a late-night misfire. I opened my mouth, tried again.


My English was gone. It had sunk deep in the weeds of my second language, lost in hours of linguistic and narrative immersion. I was stunned by how quickly my language—something I consider integral to my personality and cultural identity—had deserted me in the marathon of collaborative storytelling and group bonding. Two more false starts, and I finally managed a reasonable facsimile of what I’d been aiming for, enough to move the action along toward its conclusion.

At least I rolled well, thank goodness.

Gamerography, vol. 1: Early Adopter

This is the first installment in an ongoing series about my history with games: what I’ve played, when I’ve played, who and with whom I’ve played. As such, if all this prompts a question, please ask — it’ll help me figure out what to say in later episodes!

I’m a gamer girl. I have been for my whole life, in one way or another. And even on the nights when I’m home with the kids while my Darling Husband is gaming with his group, or working at a convention like Origins or Gen Con, I am decidedly NOT a gamer widow.

But things get complicated almost immediately after that statement of basic identity.

For one thing, I don’t play video games. I really don’t like them. Sure, they’re clever and shiny and all sorts of other great things, but similarly to my problem with Boo, video games give me all sorts of nervous system problems. I can’t play any game for more than about two minutes before my anxiety levels start rapidly ramping up, and before long, every muscle from my scalp to my waist is wound tight as a bowstring, and my stomach is churning out acid like the mother in Alien. No matter how good your game is, it just ain’t worth it for me.

But my gamer credentials run deep, starting with my mom and grandparents, whose favorite way to pass an evening was over a game board or a deck of cards. Aggravation, Yahtzee, and Uno were staples of my upbringing, but our real speciality were speed card games. To this day, we’ve got a strict “no rings and watches” policy around the card table, because we play so fast and furiously that people get cut. Trust me — it’s hardcore.

Part of why I’m such a fanatic for using games in the classroom is because I really started my adult gaming journey with my fifth and sixth grade teachers. Mr. Boisvert was a brilliant teacher, truly dedicated to the craft and vocation of teaching. His walls were covered with colorful, detailed maps for the games he employed as teaching tools. Wizard was a fantasy land through which you moved by doing spelling homework and tests, and each day brought a new Fate Card (beware the dreaded Booga Booga!). The Social Studies year was divided by three different roleplaying games: Discovery, in which you were a colonist trying to survive those first difficult months on the American continent; Pioneer, in which you were a homesteader headed for Oregon with your wagon train; and a cross-country car race game whose name escapes me entirely at the moment.

Sure, these games drove us to complete more work, more creatively, and work more cooperatively than you can imagine 10 year olds doing on their own, and that has had a huge influence on me as a teacher and a parent. But, for all that, what’s most remarkable is that I still know my pioneer character’s name and everything that happened to her. She was Sarah Hoskins, and her 11 year old daughter died of scarlet fever in Colorado. She tripped and fell into a campfire, burning her hand (I had to wear a sling for three class days). And when her wagon train got snowed into a mountain pass when winter came early, it was one miraculous shot with a whiffle ball — into a trash can at the front of the room, with my back against the chalkboard at the back of the room — that saved her life and let her cross into the Oregonian valley where she and her husband settled.

That, my friends, is what every game designer is trying to achieve — game immortality.

Mr. Held, my sixth grade teacher, deepened both my experience and love of gaming. He set up his copy of 221B Baker Street, a mystery-solving board game based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes, when the high reading group finished its first unit, and we took to it with such passion that the space between those flimsy paperback readers grew longer and longer as we played more rounds of the game, then watched the Jeremy Brett episodes with a rapt attention 11 year olds don’t usually lavish on Victorian literature.

World History was punctuated with games, too. For Ancient Rome, we watched the chariot race in Ben-Hur, then played Circus Maximus — first for speed, followed by the mandatory heavy chariot round dubbed the “Hamburger Rally” for our gleeful overuse of the wheel spikes. For World War I, it was dogfighting airplanes over France with Fight In The Skies (later, Dawn Patrol). How many sixth graders do you know who can identify the silhouette of a Sopwith Camel, and know why pilots were more likely to have a brick in the cockpit than a parachute? Yeah, me neither.

By the time the guys in my church youth group invited me to join them on Sunday afternoons for AD&D, I was already a dedicated gamer. Sure, the only roleplaying I did for most of my teenage years was defending my female characters from unwanted sexual advances. But I was well-equipped for the future with the clear and certain knowledge of what games could do and be — a source for characters and stories to rival anything literature had to offer. The real revelation was finding those things in my own mind.

My Big Fat Geek Wedding

It’s my 15th wedding anniversary this Wednesday, October 5th. And there are many other things I want to write about my amazing partner in the sublime and ridiculous adventure we’ve undertaken together. But before I get to that, it’s worth laying down a little groundwork.

Fortunately, I’ve already done this — rather eloquently, in fact, if I do say so myself. This essay was first published in the August 2010 issue of RPGirl zine, but I thought I’d repost it here as well, for all those who haven’t enjoyed that esteemed publication. This is the astronomically unlikely, stranger-than-fiction story of how Cam and I ended up together. Enjoy!

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I met my husband online in 1993. Back then, Internet marriages were still the stuff of The Jerry Springer Show; they were viewed by the general public with about as much trust as prison pen pal marriages. But they were startin to happen more often, and while “We met online” resulted in universal gasps and exclamations of disbelief and lurid curiosity, the real secret behind our marriage wasn’t where we met — it was how. You see, my husband and I met through an online RPG.

Before RPG meant “Rocket Propelled Grenade” to the majority of Americans, it was better known to gamers by a different set — an altogether more contaminated set — of initials: D&D. And if couples formed on the Internet were viewed with the expectation of imminent failure, well, couples formed through the unholy bonds of D&D were viewed as if they’d joined the Heaven’s Gate death-pact cult.

Only gamers really understood that D&D wasn’t the only RPG out there, but even gamers didn’t quite believe that women were in the gaming community to stay. Gamer guys expected women to date at least one of the party, in and out of character; if they weren’t willing, then they could play a guy or bring food. To gamer girls, online RPGs, which were still entirely text-based, represented a chance to play without wondering where a guy’s eyes were during each scene — wondering where his hands were would come later, but could at least be ignored, except for the typos. Though many women still felt they needed to play male characters online to be taken seriously (while many men chose to play female characters, willing to be taken in any way they could), good scene-writing was respected online, and women (not shockingly) wrote women’s parts with remarkable insight. Gamer girls were starving for respect, and provided they could write passably well, they found that respect in the nascent online gaming world.

Most of the women in online RPGs came across the games as part of their experience in the computer world — many of them were already programmers or employed in the Internet industry as technicians or support personnel. As such, I was the odd bird — I was persuaded by my then-boyfriend to create a character on AmberMUSH because I’d enjoyed the novels by Roger Zelazny, on which the game was based. I had absolutely no computer skills beyond a 100 wpm typing speed and good word-processing abililties, established by my busy schedule as a French and journalism double major. Neither of us had a computer of our own, so if I wanted to spend time with him after he began playing, it would have to be at one of the computer labs on campus; and if I wanted not to be bored, then I’d better have a character of my own.

Within a year, I’d established myself both in character — a six-foot warrior woman with a pet lion, shamelessly ripped off from a Mercedes Lackey character I admired — and in the online gaming community, which shared a parallel out-of-character site called TooMUSH, with only the few they deemed decent and “real” enough to call friends. Among the TooMUSH family, I was the newbie. There I met geniuses who coded the first online RPGs based on their love of RL (“real life”) gaming; many are now highly respected faculty, independent consultants, supervisors, and engineers. There I also met gaming devotees who introduced me to systems and worlds that fundamentally changed my idea of play. There I met virtuosos who dazzled me with their writing ability in scenes I’ll never forget; several are now New York Times Bestselling authors [NB: The NYT just recently published an article on AmberMUSH as the successful incubator for so many successful writers, including dearest friends and my own Darling Husband; it’s well worth the read.]

Me, I was just happy to have been entrusted with one of AmberMUSH’s “features,” the characters from the books which were handed out only by application to the board of “wizards” who were combination coders/referees/justices of the peace. I had applied for and won control of one Julia Barnes, a character in the second quartet of books in Zelazny’s series, a UC Berkeley computer engineering designer and up-and-coming sorceress. To her, computer coding was the effort to impose her will over an environment through the skillful application of elegant and efficient orders; sorcery was the same thing, just on a more challenging and satisfying scale. In the books, she meets Merlin, prince of Amber, narrator of the second series  and son of Corwin, prince of Amber and narrator of the first series. He shows her a good time and the secrets of the universe. While not of Amber blood, and therefore not eligible to “walk the Pattern” and gain control over “shadows,” reflections of the infinitely varied images of Amber, the ultimate Order, or Chaos, the ultimate Disorder, Julia gained and maintained control of a “Broken Pattern,” one of the flawed reflections of the original Pattern of Amber.

It was through this in-game prop, and through one of those up-and-coming authors (the guy with his picture in that NYT article. Yes, him.), that I met my husband. He’d started with an “unblooded” character and wanted access to greater powers and, probably more importantly to him, access to better players and better scenes. Since feature characters were screened, there was a greater, though not perfect, chance of higher quality play, and I certainly took my obligations to give access to the powers I controlled — the Broken Pattern and my online availability — very seriously. When my friend recommended this new player to me, I arranged to have my character “bump into” his at the game’s common watering-hole/fight-starter. As our characters hit it off, we started talking behind the scenes, and before long, he’d made a good enough impression on enough of the influential players to merit an invite to TooMUSH.

Our biggest obstacle turned out to be the time difference. You see, I lived in Kansas; he lived in Auckland, New Zealand. A 19-hour gap is decidedly awkward to schedule around. But as my hours in the computer lab had grown exponentially as I acquired more characters to play and more friends to visit with, and he had little care for a minor thing like sleep, we managed to meet in and out of character with surprising frequency. Our online scenes coincided with the mutually simultaneous meltdown of our offline relationships, and we provided each other with sympathy and distraction. One summer evening, he confided to me that he had developed romantic feelings for one of the women he knew online. Understanding yet totally failing to understand, I asked, “Is it Adrienne’s player?” His blunt response still strikes me as if I’d heard it, not read it: “No. It’s you.”

This revelation came only a month before my departure for a year of study abroad in France. I resisted his appeals to try a long-distance relationship, though we began exchanging the kind of care packages essential to an online romance in the ’90s: letters, photographs, graphic novels, and mix-tapes. On the one hand, I felt deeply for him, and my own laptop and a 12-hour time difference greased the skids for communication. On the other hand, the Telecoms of France and New Zealand would end up costing us the equivalent of a family-sized car.

But love won out, and when he flew to the UK to meet me for the first time in person, it was with an engagement ring and a plan. The plan, to propose at midnight on New Year’s Eve at a Scottish castle, was ultimately wrecked; it was finally in flannel pajamas in an Aberdeen B&B where he popped the question. And I insisted on working out the finer points of “where” and “how” before I would even open the ring box. But obviously, I said yes.

“Where” ended up being Lawrence, Kansas, in October 1996; “how” was thanks to my mom and a K-1 visa — and with a surprising number of our Amber/TooMUSH friends in attendance. If I’m not mistaken, we were one of the first AmberMUSH-originating couples to marry, but we certainly weren’t the last. And if we wanted to show our two sons where we met, we’d have to do something unusual: look up an IP address. But first we’d have to explain to them about roleplaying games.

Sep 14, 2011 - AV Club, Fine Arts    3 Comments

Music Calms the Savage Geek

Don’t call the people in the padded van, but I’m pretty sure I pick up radio signals with my fillings. Because I hear music. All. The. Time. The only other theory I can think of is that someone’s secretly making a movie of my life, in real time, but that would be deeply unfortunate, because some of the songs I hear really suck sometimes, and I would hope whomever’s in charge of this project has better taste than that.

Much as my kids were destined to be reading and gaming geeks, I was destined to be a music geek. My mom sang in choirs from when she was a little girl, and loved ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s pop music passionately; her mom could play piano by ear, and knew dozens of campfire and folk songs from her years as a Girl Scout leader. I was blessed with a good ear and a strong voice, and with the exception of one elementary music teacher who told me she’d like to hear everyone else too, I was never told to pipe down or use the maracas instead.

My earliest and best memories are all saturated with music. I remember my very first concert — I couldn’t have been more than 2 — where I sat on my father’s shoulders and looked out at the sea of shimmering lighter flames as Willie Nelson sang “Stardust.” I knew dozens of Beatles songs, and they were my favorite band as much as my mom’s. I cried and cried the day John Lennon was shot. And it took me years to realize that the 20th Century Fox intro wasn’t actually the beginning of the Star Wars score.

By high school, I was firmly entrenched as both a band and choir geek. Sorry, no show choir. This was pre-Glee, and these were the jazz hands, “Send in the Clowns” days. Every geek’s got their limits. My good fortune as a musician truly blossomed. I had the very best teachers, and my stepdad’s work as a music ed professor gave me opportunities to sing in national festival choirs that thrilled me to my toes. At college, it only got better. Though I had to choose choir over band for time constraints, I worked for several years with Simon Carrington, one of the founding members of the King’s Singers, as he began his foray into a second career as choir director. His repertoire and professional expertise was epic, and he simply didn’t know to expect any less from a college choir. So we delivered. Britten’s War Requiem, Biebl’s Ave Maria, Tallis’ 40-Part Motet … we even staged Mendelssohn’s Elijah as an opera. I was spoiled forever.

High school was also where my listening tastes began evolving, formed by influences from every direction. The Morrissey tape from my first kiss; Erik Satie and Francis Cabrel from my Belgian exchange student; and every concert I could scrounge up the allowance and babysitting money to attend: Bob Dylan, Heart, R.E.M., Modern English, Skinny Puppy, Love and Rockets, The Pixies, Fishbone, Jane’s Addiction, The Swans, The Cure, Primus, Tracy Chapman, Johnny Clegg, Nine Inch Nails, Peter Murphy, Nadia Salerno-Sonnenberg, The Bobs … the list goes on, and memory fails. We had the perfect arrangement: Thursdays at Bailey’s and Sundays at Club Marilyn in Milwaukee for dancing, and The Exclusive Company and B-Side on State Street in Madison for cassettes.


Music has power over me. Sometimes, that’s not such a great thing. When I was 15, I dated a kid who was a musical prodigy. He played trumpet and piano. He arranged Bach’s Air on a G string for brass quintet from the organ score one weekend when he was bored. He would sit at the piano in my living room and improvise the most beautiful, heartbreaking songs. I basked in the reflected glow of his genius. I pretended that made up for the abuse. I made excuses for him until after the second rape, and some of my other music geek friends circled the wagons to protect me. When I would’ve crawled into myself and died, they made me eat Spaghetti-Os out of the same big mixing bowl with them and sing Little Shop of Horrors songs with my mouth full. That music saved me as surely as the other music endangered me.

And I was 35 (!) when another piece of the music puzzle fell into place for me. Part of my music geekiness is based on the fact that I have hyper-sensitive hearing, and perfect relative pitch. Put another way, I can’t ever stop listening, which is why I have to have white noise without any pattern to it in order to fall asleep; if it’s silent, I’ll lie awake waiting for a sound. And the sensitivity to sound is so bad that my one and only migraine trigger is loud, sudden noises: everything from fireworks or a car backfiring, to a balloon popping nearby. If you can feel the percussion of it “slap” your eardrum, it’s enough to trigger a migraine for me. It’s been this way since I was a baby, they think. But I’m good with prolonged loud noises, like you’d find at the kind of concerts I most enjoy, and there’s almost nowhere in the world I’d rather be than standing in front of a powerful Bass II section or a good bass woofer. If my sternum’s rattling, if I can feel a mild heart arrhythmia caused by the secondary beat in my chest, I am one hundred percent happy.

And I think that both of these come from the fact that, in all likelihood, I have Asperger’s Syndrome to some extent too. The wrong kinds and frequencies of sound make me extremely uncomfortable, but music — especially lyrical bass (not that stupid bass-bumping crap) — fills me up. It forms a glowing, golden spiral from the center of my belly, up through my whole body, like a mighty architecture that leaves me so much stronger that the light and joy just spills out my voice and my smile and my fingertips.

This is one of those rare instances where I am not a nerd at something I’m a geek about. I’ve never had a single day of music theory, or any other formal course of music study, and I stopped piano lessons when they asked me to do two things with one hand at the same time. But there’s no question I’m a music geek. When people look at our CD collection, the first question is usually, “How many people did you say live here?” And the second question is usually, “Can I borrow this?”

Sep 12, 2011 - AV Club, Physical Ed    9 Comments

+2 Size, +2 Fashion, +2 Courage

If I’m going to be perfectly honest about how I got to be a geek, I’ve got to admit right up front that the fashion hooked me as much as the action. Mock the Cinnabon hair all you want, but Princess Leia’s white dress has got it Goin’ On, and her ceremonial garb at the end is even cooler. Jennifer Connolly’s ballgown in Labyrinth makes every Disney princess ever look like a bag lady, and when the demon in Legend turns Mia Sara all evil-looking, it makes you wonder who would want a Little Black Dress when you could have a Big Awesome Black Dress.

There’s only one little problem with all of this, and it’s not even the one you find about when you watch the DVD featurettes and learn that the actress had to stand for 14 hours because it was physically impossible to sit or fit through a doorway in that gorgeous wedding-cake confection. No, it’s the problem that doesn’t occur to you when you’re a 1st-grader in your Princess Leia costume, or you’re a 10-year-old swanning around the living room in a pirated nylon nighty pretending you’re Arwen or the Virgin Mary or whomever your role model is.

It’s that fantasy fashion is made for skinny women.

Sure, the best fantasy fashion is flowy and silky, or all princess seams and gravity-defying architecture. There’s no good reason why it shouldn’t be available in every size they make, or why it wouldn’t look great on almost every woman. But it is the gods’ honest truth that there are no Buttercup costumes in size 20. Not even in a 12. Trust me — I wanted to get married in one, so I looked *hard*.

In the rare instance, there might be a practical consideration why a plus-size actress isn’t right for the role. I mean, that iconic swing across the chasm on Luke’s little grappling hook wouldn’t make such a good poster if the shoelace snapped, allowing the two of them plummet into the Death Star’s HVAC system. But otherwise, as your dress size goes up, your choice of roles goes down, until all you’re left with is the bearded dwarven battlemaiden (emphasis on the maiden).

Geeks are pretty good at recognizing and giving respect for the hard work and creativity that goes into good costume-making, but nothing draws contempt and derision at a convention faster than a female fan who has the audacity to dress for a role that doesn’t “fit.” I’ve seen women posing for the battery of cameras that come out to capture the super-size Slave Leia or a larger-than-expected Invisible Woman. I’ve wondered and worried at how many of those picture-takers know (or care) how many hours of work went into making the costume, and how many more went into working up the gumption to wear it. And I’ve wished I had the nerve they had, even as I knew I couldn’t ignore the pointing.

Girls, of course, are no better. Even geek girls can be Mean Girls; in fact, sometimes it’s the first time they’ve ever been in the position to be Mean Girls, and it’s an exercise in power they’ve never had before. Just because they should know better doesn’t mean they can resist that temptation. Even once that phase has passed, geek girls have often been taunted for being different for so long that they’re reluctant to step between the critic and his or her object, even if it would save someone else a little of that pain.

So here’s my first challenge for Speak Out with your Geek Out week. Let’s rip out the seams on this stereotype and make room for more women to live out their sci-fi/fantasy dreams. I can’t make costume companies start selling Galadriel dresses in women’s sizes, but I can encourage all the geeks I know to start stepping up and giving honest props to good costumes when they see them. If they’re on a large woman, chances are she had to make it herself, or hire an artisan to help her, in which case it’s even more worthy of your encouragement. And who knows? Maybe if more statuesque women start owning the classic fantasy roles for themselves, writers and directors will let us kick ass in the pretty dresses for a change.

5 Ways to be a Great Geek Grown-Up

Short post today, by way of pointing you to a longer post I wrote for an awesome, positive, community-building event I’m helping to admin. It’s called Speak Out with your Geek Out, and it’s an effort to counteract the recent wave of geek bashing online. The goal is to get lots of people blogging and tweeting and talking positively about their geekiness, and transform the discussion into one that makes the environment more supportive and encouraging both for and among geeks of all stripes.

My contribution to the preparatory guest-blogging at the core site is a short piece about how every geeky grown-up can be more like the adult ally that every geeky kid wishes they had, no matter whether that’s in the form of a parent, older relative, or mentor. You can find it at http://www.speakoutwithyourgeekout.com/2011/09/jessica-banks-on-5-ways-to-be-great.html . Hopefully, you’ll find it full of good ideas, whether the kid in your life wants to be the next Bill Gates or the next Joe Buck or the next Tim Gunn.

I’ll be hosting a few guest-posts here on this blog over the next week, as part of the Speak Out event, perhaps from way-cooler-than-me friends like Atlas Games creative director Michelle Nephew and bestselling romance author Shannon K. Butcher. So, if you’re coming through to read what they’ve got to say, welcome! I hope you come back for more of the homecooked weirdness in the future!