RPGs: Reflections on Essen

“All gamers are born equal but some are more equal than others.”

So I was yet another newbie attending this year’s Essen. It did not disappoint. There are memories I will genuinely treasure for the rest of my life. Thunderbirds, Panamax, the smell of diesel, Irish banter and having the opportunity to share it all with a good friend. We’ll ignore the first night migraine, even that couldn’t spoil the Spiel.

But in the weeks since there has been one small bee buzzing around me. And it’s gotten into my bonnet (yes, I have a bonnet). There are clearly big issues in the video gamer industry right now and I’m not even going there – except to state quite clearly that Gamergate is wrong. Period. No ifs or buts. Take your misogyny/anti-feminist sentiment/call-it-what-you-will and go waggle someone else’s joystick. That’s enough of that, although I couldn’t just ignore it, that’s all I have to say on the matter.

So what I have to say might sound narrow-minded or petty in comparison to the disgusting status others have thrust upon them but hear me out all the same. I was struck quite forcefully by the pecking order assumed by some board gamers I overheard talking at Essen. Proper cardboard snobbery.

The Spiel this year was split across 4 halls in the Messe centre. Hall 1 and 3 seemed to house the major and middle-weight game publishers and distributors. These were largely heaving through Friday and Saturday. Working at the Stronghold Games booth allowed me to survey just how densely packed the crowds were around this area of the Messe. It might be fair to say that Hall 2 was somewhat quieter in comparison. But the companies and characters situated there should have been perceived to be no less important in the grand scheme of the Spiel – that’s how it appeared, however, at least to me. I overheard several disparaging remarks about the ‘weirdo area’ in Hall 2, that some of the board gamers ‘wouldn’t be seen dead in there’ and they had been surrounded by the ‘geeks and nerds’.

Yes, folks, one nameless board gamer had the temerity to call other gamers ‘geeks and nerds’. Now look, I’m quite happy to be pointed at and named a geek. At least it implies I have brains. Because, you know, geeks and nerds are traditionally academically smart archetypes. I work for LEGO, love quizzes and cryptic crosswords, watch Danger Mouse, and get excited reading Conan Doyle stories I’ve devoured several times over. I’m proud to wear ‘Geek’ like a badge of honour. But I had a moment at Essen when I almost put that badge away. And I will tell you why.

For years, me and the gaming friends I know have always been lightly teased for being involved in the hobby. That never bothered me, it was either said in good spirit or the person saying it wasn’t worth losing sleep over. Most of the people that have teased me have actually failed to understand why board and roleplay games captivate me so much. I always equated this to a lack of imagination. Even people who play video games and constantly belittle their cardboard cousins need the whole flipping storyline laid out on a plate, with moving sprites and a ‘Game Over’ screen to even understand what they should be doing and when they should be doing it. These people don’t read rule books. They mash buttons.

So I was surprised by some board gamers’ attitudes, nay prejudices, being displayed in such an obvious way. The dismissive manner towards RPGers, LARPers and their brethren had me confused and hurt. I’ve made it quite clear in my previous posts that I consider myself to be a roleplayer first and a board gamer second. But I am very much a bit of both. It never occurred to me before that I might be judged unequally by other board gamers depending on which one they think I am.

I am sure most of what was said was light-hearted and not to be taken too seriously. Everybody needs someone to look down on I guess. If board gamers look down on roleplayers and LARPers, I am sure we do the same with… anglers? L. Ron Hubbard enthusiasts? The chess team? But it takes a person to have the thought before they can voice that thought out loud. The thought comes from somewhere. There was a conscious process occurring before the words left the person’s mouth. In that time the brain computed an unpleasant or dismissive opinion and the person, maybe because they are genuinely nice enough, couched it in terms that was more humorous than hurtful. The thought still crossed their mind, however, and worse, they still decided to make it public.

I spent a fair amount of time during one day of the Spiel, searching through countless boxes and shelves of RPGs. I bought a handsome collection of mint condition Palladium roleplay books. I could have spent a lot more money than I did and I was thankful that large swathes of the books available were in German, which limited me to smaller sections of an otherwise vast selection. I was surrounded by other RPGers and not far away from the LARPing area of Hall 2. I shared a few conversations with other people, including those I had seen, and one I had demoed for, in and around Hall 3. There were people milling around who were dressed up. There was one Viking costume I kind of wished I had an opportunity and reason to wear. It really was awesome. My first Essen felt great, surrounded by so many like-minded people, all frantically hunting like I was for that one missing source book or out of print campaign setting. My badge, the one I was still wearing proudly, was glinting in the reflected glory of oh so many wonderful geeks.

Then I realised that a small (it might be small, it might be bigger than I think) section of the board gamers I was around attempted to burst my bubble. Don’t worry, the bubble was not unduly harmed, it recovered later on that evening. It was just that for the first time during the Spiel, whilst literally crammed between wall to wall gamers, I felt like a second-class citizen. Or at least, that a group of people I identify with were being cast in that light. Reality-check again: no one has denied my human rights or slandered me in the press; I believe I will live through this and the psychological scar will fade quickly. But it was just wrong, whether it was a humorous line to get a cheap laugh, or not. I tucked my badge away when I should have thumped my chest and kissed it – like footballer’s do when they score a goal. The power even funny, throwaway comments have is immeasurable.

So maybe that bee (it’s still there, bumbling away under my bonnet) is reminding me not to roll over and play dead next time. Maybe that buzz is annoyed I just shut up; it’s telling me to stand up and be (bee?) counted next time. That buzz will ensure I seize future opportunities to redress the balance when a board gamer feels the need to belittle a RPGer or LARPer. (It’s possible that buzz is tinnitus.)

I’m not making a big deal out of this. 1,400 words on the subject is big enough as it is. I just hope if you’ve read this far and haven’t been put off by my whining, that as a board gamer you will consider next time you jokingly put down a roleplayer. There are hygiene and Mountain Dew issues in all walks of life. We aren’t weird. We aren’t backward. We aren’t sociopathic. At least no more than your average board gamer. Our little band of hobbyists (and I include all game enthusiasts) is growing in number, is full of strong-willed, wonderful people with a vast ocean of creativity and a universe of incredible ideas. We can grow strong together and face a sea of troubles far bigger than my trivial quibble. #Gamergate is one revolting example of why we should learn to speak with one, almighty voice.

Next year I will spend more time in Hall 2. I shall polish my badge. I shall thump my chest.

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