Adventures in geekdom

Our writer flies to Southern California for an annual World of Warcraft convention. Will he survive the fringes of nerd culture?

Blizzcon attendee Manzi Deyoung dressed as High Inquisitor Whitemane, a character from <i>World of Warcraft</i>. Convention geeks dug her costume for its authenticity. <i>Riiight</i>.

Blizzcon attendee Manzi Deyoung dressed as High Inquisitor Whitemane, a character from World of Warcraft. Convention geeks dug her costume for its authenticity. Riiight.

Photo by matthew craggs Inset courtesy of blizzard entertainment

It’s 5:37 a.m. on a Friday, and I can barely shuffle forward through the airport-security line. That large Red Bull I downed for breakfast opens only one of my eyes, but some guys near the back of the line utter two words and I’m wide awake: “Resto Druid.”

Instantly, I know they’ll also be on my flight headed to Orange County for Blizzcon, an annual gaming convention put on by Blizzard Entertainment, best known for the hugely popular multiplayer online game World of Warcraft.

Blizzard fans are true geeks incarnate. Fanatically devoted to the brand, these gamers immerse themselves in fantasy worlds such as Diablo, Starcraft and, of course, World of Warcraft, which alone boasts 11 million players worldwide. Some 26,000 geeks will attend this year’s Blizzcon.

Accordingly, over the past decade, the general public has paid increasingly more attention to a budding geek culture. Fashion adopted nerd glasses and Hollywood’s highest-grossing films have been titles such as Star Trek, Harry Potter, Spider-Man and Transformers. Now, it’s not only cool to own an iPod, it’s also a status symbol.

Geek is chic.

But while some see this as a chance for the trampled-on meek to rise up, the geek revolution likely will not be televised—simply because there will be no revolution.

You see, the mainstream media only is interested in a facade of true geek culture—the equivalent of wearing a Darth Vader costume on Halloween. In reality, true geeks have distanced themselves even more from status quo.

Blizzcon speaks to this fringe-geek way of life: passionate and awkward men and women who demand something mainstream society can never provide—and if mainstream society offered it, they wouldn’t even want it.

Consider Manzi Deyoung, who’s at Blizzcon dressed as High Inquisitor Whitemane, a boss from the Scarlet Monastery dungeon in World of Warcraft. Her costume, which took roughly 120 hours to construct, is dead on in its accuracy. And her combination of red thigh-high boots, elbow-length gloves and large phallic staff isn’t lost on the fanboys, either. People snap her picture and compliment the costume’s attention to detail. Deyoung effortlessly shifts into the same poses that Whitemane would strike in the game.

“I definitely think that WoW has something unique to it,” Deyoung says while chilling outside the Anaheim Convention Center. “More so than even Star Trek, WoW has a distinct language. You can make a joke about Vulcans and people are going to get it.”

A new nerd language is a means for geeks to offset mainstream culture. While playing World of Warcraft, gamers forgo English in favor of a watered-down language of abbreviations. Specifically, most gamers talk in code, “1337” or “leetspeak,” a language of typographical shortcuts that uses deliberately incorrect spelling and grammar.

A typical chat message during World of Warcraft, for instance, might read, “LFM DPS 1Healz no shammy 4 H HOL.” In English, this means: “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.”

Geek speak also carries over into real life.

“Are you Horde?” someone at Blizzcon asks, sliding an arm around my shoulder. After loading up on overpriced beers from the bar, my friends and I made our way to a rooftop pool, where hundreds of people cram into lounge chairs and even flower beds. We also discover Sippy, said stranger with his arm on my back.

“Are you for the Horde?” he repeats, wanting to know which side I’m on.

“Alliance,” I reply, hesitantly.

“Dude. That. Doesn’t. Matter,” he says. “Whether you’re Horde or Alliance, we’re all here for the same reason: The World. The World, man.

A room filled to the brim with hundreds of geeks going deep into gaming sessions of <i>WoW</i>.

Photo By matthew craggs

“I still like you,” he reassures before stumbling off.

Inside the convention, which is filled with spiraling colored lights and huge banners, a Zealot on stilts, Night Elf Druids, Draenei, Boomkin and a Mistress of Pain—a spider-woman who would eventually win the convention’s costume contest—roam the halls along with people of all ages, and even families.

“What a lot of people looking in from the outside don’t understand is the social elements to these games,” says Todd Pawlowski, who is attending Blizzcon with his wife, Cheri, and his 10-year-old triplets: Jordan, Caitlin and Lukas.

“The kids brought me into [World of Warcraft]. I actually took a job with Blizzard because of what I saw in their game,” he explains. Pawlowski moved his family from the Bay Area to Irvine, in Orange County, where he now works as Blizzard’s vice president of customer service.

“I know grandparents who keep in touch with their grandchildren through Warcraft. Friends and families stay connected using these games.”

Some friends take things to the extreme.

Brandon Kunimura and his pals Jin Kim and Paul Hsu wear cow outfits and carry giant weapons—an homage to a secret level in the Diablo series—and women at the convention flock toward the herd. Jenny Harris, dressed as the Grand Widow Faerlina, even snuggles up to take a photo with the cows.

“It’s about the quality of the game,” explains one giant cow. “There is a depth to the stories that you’ve come to expect.” And it’s the depth that nurtures camaraderie.

“I started when I was unemployed. I had to kill things,” explains Arabella Benson, whose Warlock hood falls across her face as she bends to pick up a piece of weapon off the ground. “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.”

World of Warcraft is like Facebook on crack: Fans embrace it to a degree that the mainstream can never keep up with—or even accept. Rare game items sell for nearly $1,000 on eBay. And the penchant for dressing up in costume is like the Oakland Raiders’ black hole times 10. And the fans vary from young to old.

A boy who can’t be older than 14 steps in my path.

“This is my dad’s room. We’re Horde,” he informs.

“Good to know. For the Horde!” I masquerade, setting off repeated shouts.

“This is my dad’s room. We’re Horde,” he reminds as I walk off.

Inside the room, heated debate over weapons, dungeons and quests punctuates a cacophony of cheers and garbled 1337 speak. A beer-pong table grabs my attention, however, so an Alliance friend and I challenge two members of the Horde to a contest.

The room becomes silent and all eyes focus on our game. I suddenly wonder if Sippy’s love-to-all attitude perhaps is not universal. An odd sensation, perhaps Crips vs. Bloods mixed with Star Wars vs. Star Trek, permeates the room, but the important lesson to take away is that we, the Alliance, beat the Horde. And beat them bad.

One of the last things I remember at the convention is hearing Michael Morhaime, president and co-founder of Blizzard, say something while standing over us in the hotel bar while playing the World of Warcraft card game at 4 a.m.

“This is great. Can I get a picture?” he asks. For nongeeks, this is the equivalent of President Barack Obama wanting to shake your hand. We barely have time to strike a pose, let alone bow and chant “We’re not worthy” before he’s gone.

One thing I learned from Blizzcon is that this rich and unique world may seem trivial, even ridiculous, but geeks will protect it. And with every forward step mainstreamers take, geeks will retreat three steps back, continually building upon a culture that most don as a costume once a year.