As the mainstream gets geekier, the geeks have to go really overboard
At 5:37 a.m. on a Friday, I’m barely able to focus my attention on anything besides clumsily shuffling forward so that I don’t hold up the airport security line. The large can of Red Bull I downed for breakfast only managed to open one of my eyes, but two words coming from a group of guys at the back of the line snapped me awake: “Resto Druid.”
Instantly, I knew they would be boarding the same flight as me. I was headed south to Orange County, where the Blizzard Entertainment gaming convention, Blizzcon, takes place every year. Best known for the massive multiplayer online (MMO) game, World of Warcraft, Blizzard fans are the definition of true geeks. Fanatically devoted in their loyalty to the brand, Blizzard gamers immerse themselves in the fantasy worlds of Diablo, Starcraft, and World of Warcraft (WoW), which alone boasts 11 million players worldwide.
The Resto Druid is a type of playable WoW character. The one behind me was among 26,000 other players on their way to Blizzcon. Players who represented what it meant to be a geek: passionate but awkward men and women who demand something the mainstream could never give them—and if the mainstream offered it, they wouldn’t want it.
Within the last 10 years, geek culture has enjoyed an unprecedented level of interest from the general populace. Chic fashion has adopted nerd glasses; the highest grossing films have been titles such as Star Trek, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Transformers; and not only has it become cool to own an iPod, it’s a status symbol. The New York Times has claimed that the geeks have inherited the Earth. Some see this as a chance for the stereotypically trampled-on meek to rise up and enjoy the spotlight. But the geek revolution will not be televised, simply because there will be no revolution. What the mainstream has adopted is a façade of true geek culture—the equivalent of wearing a Darth Vader costume to sell commercials. In reality, as the mainstream continues to yell that it’s geek at heart, it forces the true geeks to distance themselves even more from those who are proclaiming kinship.Games people play
“I definitely think that WoW has something unique to it,” says Manzi Deyoung outside the Anaheim Convention Center. Deyoung is dressed as High Inquisitor Whitemane, a boss from the Scarlet Monastery dungeon in WoW. Her costume, which took her roughly 120 hours to make, is dead-on its accuracy. The combination of red thigh-high boots, elbow length gloves, and a large phallic staff isn’t lost on the fanboys. As people come up to snap a picture of her or compliment the detail of her costume, Deyoung effortlessly shifts into the same pose that the in-game character strikes. She knows exactly what she is doing.
“More so than even Star Trek, WoW has a distinct language to it,” says Deyoung. “You can make a joke about Vulcans, and people are going to get it.”
WoW players forego their native tongue when in game—and sometimes out of game—in favor of a language that relies on brevity, code, 1337 (leetspeak, a language full of typographical shortcuts that uses intentionally incorrect spelling and grammar), and game references. A typical chat message seen in the game may read, “LFM DPS 1Healz no shammy 4 H HOL.”
In proper English, the player is saying, “I’m in a group that is looking for more people. We need one person who does damage per second and one healer—but no Shamans—who want to do the Heroic version of Halls of Lightning.”
A unique language isn’t entirely an exclusive technique; it’s a defensive tactic to protect what the players have invested in with their time and money. When you break it down, WoW players are snobs—no different from wine, music, art or sports snobs. Wine snobs say tannins, WoW players say Tanaris.
And, oh, how they have invested. Inside the convention halls, darkened and filled with spiraling colored lights and huge banners, Deyoung isn’t the only attendee in full garb. A Zealot on stilts, Night Elf Druids, Draenei, Boomkin, and Mistress of Pain (a spider-woman who would go on to win the con’s costume contest) all roam the halls. Fans are drawing inspiration from a canon that goes further than any other medium could hope to accomplish. An MMO game allows players to control where they go and what they do in a world. As a result, fans demand extensive storylines not just for major characters but for minor characters, as well. When was the last time Law and Order gave you more than a three-minute back-story on the corpse that drives the episode? In WoW, you’d be able to explore the story of the deceased, his family, friends and his killer. As a result, people can spend countless hours exploring the fictitious world. It may seem isolationist, but these video games have more in common with Facebook and Dungeons & Dragons than Pong and Mario.
“What a lot of people looking in from the outside don’t understand is the social elements to these games,” says Todd Pawlowski, as he takes a break in the lobby. Pawlowski is attending Blizzcon with his wife, Cheri, and his 10-year-old triplets, Jordan, Caitlin and Lukas. “The kids brought me into the game. I actually took a job with Blizzard because of what I saw in their game.” Pawlowski moved his family from the San Francisco area to Irvine, right outside of Los Angeles, where he now works as the Vice President of Customer Service for the company. “The social aspect isn’t only in events like this. I know grandparents who keep in touch with their grandchildren through Warcraft. Friends and families stay connected using these games.”
“I play a Night Elf Hunter, a Night Elf Druid, and a Draenei Mage,” Caitlin chimes in.
“What about your mom, what does she play?” I ask.
“She doesn’t even like video games. She says they’ll hurt your eyes,” says Caitlin, as I feel glad I’m not wearing my glasses.
“I love the social element of the game,” Todd continues. “It’s like a sports organization. When I’m standing in line, I hear the emotional connection people have to these games. During the developer panels, you see how emotionally connected people are to their characters, and it’s understandable. People have a lot invested in their characters.”
That investment is not a one-way street. “It’s about the quality of the game,” a giant cow explains to me. “There is a depth to the stories that you’ve come to expect.” Brandon Kunimura and two of his friends, Jin Kim and Paul Hsu, are wearing cow outfits and carrying giant weapons—an homage to a secret level in the Diablo series—and the ladies are flocking to them. Jenny Harris, dressed as the Grand Widow Faerlina, snuggles up to take a photo with the cows.
“Cows are the new Night Elfs,” Kunimura laughs as the flash goes off.
“I started when I was unemployed. I had to kill things,” says Arabella Benson. She fumbles with a staff, her Warlock hood falling across her face as she bends to pick up another piece of the useless weapon. “Nothing was happening elsewhere. Then I started meeting people in the game, forming friendships. I got into the story and joined a guild. I’ve become friends in real life with some of these people.”
For many, like Benson, Facebook is social networking, but WoW is social networking with a better user interface and a much more addictive nature. Like a sporting event against the rival team, fans embrace their passions on a level that the mainstream could never keep up with. Even the economy within the game bleeds over to the real world—rare in-game items can sell for upwards of $800 on eBay. Fans of popular “geek” shows like Heroes, Chuck and even Battlestar Galactica are geek-lite next to WoW players. And someone was about to give these bastards alcohol.Revenge of the …
“Are you Horde?” The arm suddenly slung around my shoulder demanded. After loading up on overpriced beers from the bar, my friends and I had made our way to the rooftop pool, where we found hundreds of people crammed in lounge chairs and flowerbeds. We also found Sippy, the stranger whose arm was currently wrapped around my shoulder.
“Are you for the Horde?” He repeats, wanting to know which side of the in-game war I represent.
“Alliance,” I proclaim hesitantly.
“Dude. That. Doesn’t. Matter. Whether you’re Horde or Alliance, we’re all here for the same reason. The World. The World, man. It doesn’t matter you’re not Horde. I still like you.”
“Thanks, man. I like you, too.”
Sippy stumbles off, and I head to the open patio doors of a hotel room with a friend trailing behind. A boy who can’t be older than 14 and is either extremely tired or drunk steps in our path as we try to enter the room.
“This is my dad’s room. We’re Horde,” he informs my chest.
“Good to know. For the Horde!” I masquerade, setting off repetitious shouts.
“This is my dad’s room. We’re Horde,” he reminds me before walking off. Inside the room is a cacophony of cheers and garbled 1337-speak, punctuated with heated debates over weapons, dungeons and quests. However, the beer pong table draws my attention. My friend and I walk over to the moderator and I proudly announce, “We, the Alliance, challenge two members of the Horde to a beer pong contest.”
As the room becomes silent and all eyes focus on me, I suddenly wonder if Sippy’s love-to-all attitude is universal for all members of the Horde.
“You’re on.” Those words, along with a lot of shouting, high-fives, and a definitive victory for the Alliance, are the last thing I remember before finding three friends and myself in the hotel lobby bar at 4 a.m. Now devoid of patrons, the tables are cleaned and free for us to lay out the World of Warcraft card game.
“This is great,” the voice from above says. In high school, these words would have preceded a beating by the school bully or at the least ridicule from the football team. However, Blizzcon is a geek’s domain, and the voice was coming from Michael Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard. “In the hotel lobby bar playing the WoW card game at 4 a.m. Can I get a picture?”
For non-geeks, this is like Barry Bonds or Donald Trump wanting your autograph. We barely have time to strike a pose, let alone bow and chant, “We’re not worthy” before he’s gone.
Tired and full from a hangover-induced IHOP binge, I limp back to the Orange County airport. Pressing deadlines from the coming work week remind me it’s time to return to the real world. A world that doesn’t see a problem with Cameron Diaz and Guy Ritchie turning Comic-Con into a photo op. A world that claims to love geeks but still blocks our work computers from accessing G4, Engadget and IGN while the bosses surf for kitten videos on YouTube and update their Facebook status to “Call your mom.” The mainstream has scratched the surface of what it means to be a geek, but they’ll never be able to embrace the complete lifestyle. Every forward step they take, geeks will retreat three steps to keep their passions, full of rich stories and player interactions, safe from being watered down for the masses.