Geeking Out

I write about some of the uglier aspects of humanity. Sometimes escapism is exactly what I need.

Dungeons and Dragons.
Dungeons and Dragons icons.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Chris Heard/Flickr.

It was my own impulsiveness that forced my friends to kill me. I had successfully wrestled a magic dragon helmet off the evil sorcerer, allowing my friend, in the shape of a crocodile, to slay him. Impressed by how invincible my foe had been with the helmet on, I immediately donned it myself, unaware that it would turn me into an evil villain eager to murder all my allies. Desperate to stop me from shooting flames at them, my friends threw all their might and magic at the problem of getting the helmet off my head. Alas, all that firepower caused my head to pop off my shoulders along with the helmet. They apologized for my death, but I was laughing too hard to care one bit.

Thus ended the career of Viola the Halfling, the first Dungeons and Dragons character I ever played. Most fans of tabletop role-playing games pick up the hobby in their adolescent years, but along with two other members of our seven-person role-playing team, I had picked up the game on a lark in the past year. Little did we know how thoroughly enmeshed we would become, buying players’ handbooks and custom-made figurines to use during the game, researching the game and writing entries in the online adventure log created by our Dungeon Master to keep track of all the convoluted plot twists of our adventure in the mythical town of Waterdeep.

Picking up tabletop gaming in one’s 30s certainly feels like the event horizon in which it is no longer deniable—should I wish to deny it—that I am a geek.

It’s a strange turn of events for someone who spent her 20s living a lifestyle often derided by some of your more defensive geeks: that of a full-blown hipster. Back then, I devoted most of my spare time to punk and indie rock. I hung out at clubs, dated musicians, and occasionally wrote for a punk ’zine. I had (and still have) an encyclopedic knowledge of punk history. Jello Biafra of the Dead Kennedys once stayed at my house for a few days. On my better days, I came perilously close to being cool.

In many ways, I don’t think I’ve changed. I still take music very seriously, though now I devote more energy to growing my vinyl collection than staying out late at rock shows. But in the past few years, my interests have drifted toward the geekier end of the spectrum: reading comic books, watching (and joining podcasts on) superhero shows, obsessing over Doctor Who. I’ve gone so deep on Game of Thrones that I can hold myself out as an expert about Westeros for a Slate video series. I’ve been on a panel at a sci-fi convention, which competes with tabletop gaming for geek credibility.

Even though they’re becoming more mainstream, with Game of Thrones and the popularity of comic book movies, geeky interests are still derided in some corners as juvenile. For me, though, geeking out has been a direct result of the growing-up and slowing-down process. Getting together with friends for wine and Dungeons and Dragons can get rowdy at times, but we’re always in bed before midnight.

Obsessive interests are part of my personality, and geekiness is a perfect outlet for it. Being a rock fan and being a geek aren’t so different. You’re still buying T-shirts to proclaim your love to the world, still learning every bit of minutia about your favorite subject, still dedicating all your spare time to pursuing your interests. It’s just a little more reading blogs about Game of Thrones and a little less spending all your time digging up obscure B-sides of ’80s punk bands. In the end, the sense of satisfaction is much the same.

Being a writer at Slate made the journey all the more interesting, and not just because it gave me opportunities to indulge my love of Game of Thrones for a wider audience. The intersection of geek culture and what I write about generally—feminism and women’s place in the culture—is at a very interesting place right now. As geekdom becomes more mainstream, it’s becoming more diverse; a lot more women, including loud-mouthed feminists, are coming in and demanding things such as better representation in comics and video games, more policies against sexual harassment at conventions, and a chance to play with the boys without being accused of attention-seeking. Some men, feeling threatened by the stronger female presence in their world, are becoming more entrenched in a revanchist mindset, launching movements such as Gamergate and the Sad Puppies that fight not just to keep nerd spaces male-dominated, but to turn geekdom more right-wing.

This isn’t just politically interesting to me, but a personal headache as well. In both my professional writing and in my social media interactions, I’ve frequently encountered a certain breed of male nerd who is positive you don’t count as a real geek and is eager to test you or lob accusations of dabbling. Of course, women face poseur accusations in a lot of subcultures, as any female sports fan asked to spout stats or female rock fan expected to know every obscure song could tell you. But right now in geekland, the boys-club mentality has reached a fever pitch, as when comics illustrator Tony Harris went on a rant against female cosplayers who he believes are preying on “real” (read: male) comic book fans, or when sci-fi author Brad Torgersen complained that sci-fi is getting too literary and thoughtful instead of sticking to mindless adventure stories.

The geek world is about more than escapist drivel for teen boys, which is why more and more people like me—i.e., not teenage boysare pulled in. As people such as Stanley Kubrick and Margaret Atwood have long known, the imaginative worlds of sci-fi and fantasy can be literary and sublime. That mentality is hardly absent in fare that’s seen more as silly entertainment. From Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Game of Thrones to Alan Moore’s Watchmen, there’s no end of “light” entertainments that ask hard questions about the meaning of life, the limits of power, and the inhumanity of war.

And sometimes being a geek is just plain fun. My work at Slate is enriching, but it can also be tiring to keep track of stories that all too often expose some of the uglier aspects of humanity. Getting a chance to relax and indulge in escapist fantasy needs no defense. No one raises an eyebrow at a group of friends who have a weekly poker night; Dungeons and Dragons only differs in that it’s a lot more entertaining, and it encourages players to get creative.

Which is why, in the end, I couldn’t be too sad about losing Viola. Now I get to write a whole new character for our next campaign. I’m thinking she’s going to be a half-elf who’s like Katniss Everdeen, if she could only cast spells and turn into animals. Maybe now that I have some practice, I’ll be able to keep this one alive.