Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Geek & Sundry

I've been surprised by the number of people coming in to buy recommended board games after watching the Tabletop program on the web based Geek & Sundry network. This is a slickly produced web show starring Will Wheaton, featuring various geek-level celebrities. It's one of the various geek culture vehicles produced by Felicia Day, the Zooey Deschanel of nerd culture.

What's kind of surprising is the concept of Tabletop is nothing new. There are years of video podcasts reviewing board games, many with more depth, and many with respected board game "gamerati." The production value of Geek & Sundry is certainly top notch, but the fan-based podcasts aren't bad. Yet, the podcasts have barely moved the needle when it comes to influence, as opposed to Tabletop, which can send a small legion of people to hunt for Tsuro after a positive review, an alright abstract board game with modest reviews that made it's debut in 2004.

The difference, of course, is the celebrity angle. Half a million people watched the first Tabletop review of Small World; a quarter million watched the Settlers of Catan episode that followed. No video blog with a scruffy gamer can come close that. My favorite board game podcaster, Scott Nicholson who makes Board Games With Scott got a little over 100,000 hits for his most popular video and that's after 6-years. And that was on Mah-Jong, about as mainstream as you can get.

It also goes without saying that there's a bit of geek resentment to see these kinds of vehicles move geek culture to the mainstream. Of course, half a million isn't even that high for mainstream culture, with a geek favorite like Leverage drawing 4 million viewers an episode in its debut season (and how come we haven't seen Leverage's Beth Riesgraf on Tabletop as promised?).

Sure, mention geeks in newspaper articles (usually with at least one glaring error), but to actually create a popular, near mainstream inclusion of geek culture smells of appropriation.
The Groucho Marx quote "I don't want to be part of a club that would have someone like me as a member" rings true in geek culture, be it technology or gaming. As gamers, we spent our childhoods dodging adults who thought our hobby was sinister and peers who wanted to ridicule us for it, plus it wasn't exactly a chick magnet. Carrying around a backpack of D&D books was akin to carrying a cache of explosive Barbies. The authorities will bust you while the bullies will still beat you senseless. To have geek celebs make your struggle popular can be viewed as a denial of that journey through the desert.

However, I would argue that geek culture is not what it used to be, far richer and diverse, but also stretched thin to the breaking point. Now you'll only be ridiculed for carrying a backpack full of D&D books because you don't have them all on your laptop. Much of what we love from our geek childhoods is in danger of becoming footnotes in geek history, dusty Wikipedia entries, or worse, something cranky white haired men play at regional gaming conventions (I'm becoming one myself). I think we need to accept a little appropriation, although feel free to remind them how you trudged through the desert. Tell them to get off my lawn while you're at it.

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