Geekery as a Safe Space

As a white, straight guy it’s hard for me to be sure about what I’m about to write. But I’m starting to think that geekdom – that space full of scifi shows, board games, comic books, and general nerdishness – might be turning into one of the safest spaces for a more diverse society to grow.

Don’t get me wrong, I know there are problems. Shut Up & Sit Down have rightly called out certain board games on their representation of race and gender. The sad/rabid puppies showed a white male backlash in the realm of science fiction and fantasy literature. There are more genre blockbusters in which the lead actor is a white guy named Chris than there are ones with female or non-white leads. There’s still a lot to be done.

Having said that, progress is being made. The puppies have been soundly thwarted in their reactionary agenda around awards. Conventions such as Nine Worlds make huge efforts to be inclusive, down to giving participants a chance to display their pronoun preferences. One of the biggest and most prestigious LRPs out there places a strong emphasis on diversity and in-game gender equality.

Even as the reactionaries scream “social justice warrior” as a term of abuse*, forward thinkers are creating a safe and accommodating space. Every transgender person I know I know through this sphere. While they face struggles, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they all felt that they could be open in choosing the gender that suits them.

Geekdom is still associated with straight white guys. It’s going to take a while for people to get past that image and for a wider range of people to feel comfortable there. But I have high hopes. Because I like a lot of the people I’ve met who aren’t like me, and I want them to be able to share the awesome things I love.



* I’ve got to say, as insults go I find that one dumb. Since when is it insulting to say that someone fights for justice? And in society of all places?

Understanding Yourself Through Games

Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.
Following some dice rolling and deep reflection, Elmo decided to play a were-human.

I’m a big fan of games. Board games, card games, roleplay games, even the occasional computer game. Games are awesome.

I’ve long thought that games are an under-appreciated part of our culture. Even as fans, we sometimes talk about them as something childish or nerdy. In reality, games can be produced as skillfully and become as thought-provoking as any other part of human culture. Minecraft is a near-limitless tool for education. Profound Decisions create live roleplay of incredible immersion and complexity. The Battlestar Galactica board game captured the spirit of that show perfectly, with its atmosphere of boisterous paranoia.

I hadn’t thought much about how games let us explore our own personalities. That changed for me recently, when I attended Dungeons of Yendor, a one-day game run by Pennine Megagames. This was a sort of giant board game for a hundred or so players, involving diplomacy, war, trade, trickery, and ancient secrets hidden in the darkness beneath a fantasy world. It was an impressive achievement, and the people playing had a lot of fun.

Here’s the thing though – I played it wrong. Not wrong for the game, but wrong for me. I did what I often do in large multi-player games and took on a small leadership role, organising the vanguard of a military expedition. This left me organising supplies, trying to see to the needs of others, and generally doing a lot of stuff that, while potentially satisfying, was actually more stress than fun.

When I stopped to think about it afterwards, I realised that I often do this, and not just in games. I take on responsibilities because I feel like I ought to, rather than because I’ll enjoy them, and I don’t even notice that I’m doing it. It’s killed my enjoyment of hobbies and jobs on many occasions. The open systems of the megagame gave me space to do that, and time afterwards let me see my mistake. I’d have had a lot more fun if I’d just thought about what I enjoy and done that.

Few other forms of culture engage us so actively as games. This makes me wonder if they create a unique opportunity for us to act out our subconscious impulses in a contained space, and so to gain insight into who we are. It certainly seems to work for me.

Board Game Blogging

Wesley Crusher says games are cool, it must be true!
Wesley Crusher says games are cool, it must be true!

One of the frustrations of freelance writing is that I often can’t point toward the things I’ve written and say ‘I did that’. Sometimes even when I can I don’t want to – no-one wants to read three hundred words designed to sell toothpaste. But right now I have a gig that not only has my name attached, it’s about something readers of this blog might be interested in – board games.

I’m currently writing blog posts for a price comparison sight called Board Game Prices. These aren’t in depth, critical analyses – it’s a site selling board games, so I’m focusing on the positives, the things that make me enthusiastic. Fortunately I have a lot of honest enthusiasm for board games.

Not all the blog posts there are by me, but if you want to read the first couple you can see my top tie-in games or read me enthusing about Doomtown Reloaded (again – I think I may love that game a little too much). I’ll have articles going up there fairly regularly, and they’re tagged with my name, so if you’re interested in board games then please go check it out.

Doomtown – Magic Poker and Mad Science

There are few things more awesome than seeing your passions combined in one great story, film or game. My pleasures include westerns, fantasy, steampunk, boardgames and clever design. Based on all of this, it was inevitable that I’d get into Doomtown Reloaded.

Doomtown Reloaded is a card game from AEG, in which you grapple for control of a lawless Wild West town. The factions involved include ranchers wielding mad science gadgets, a creepy magic carnival, ruthless outlaws, and of course lawmen. There’s a great mix of genre elements in the setting, and character cards that hint at so much more depth than they have space to describe.

But what really sold me on it is the game mechanics. Doomtown cards have suits and values like normal playing cards, and you win or lose shoot-outs by creating poker hands. It’s thematically perfect, not just because poker is so evocative of dark dealings in the Wild West, but because of the tension it builds. As each of you looks at your draw hand, deciding whether to take a risk on changing some of your cards, maybe trying to bluff the other player into a risky play, you can feel the tension mount. It’s like a shoot-out in a film, this long drawn out build-up followed by a sudden, swift moment in which everything is resolved and one side lies dead.

It’s a mechanic that elegantly captures the tone of the setting. And that, to me, is massively pleasing.

Laura and I now play Doomtown most days. It’s not the most relaxing game, but it’s really interesting, and a whole lot of fun. And it’ll probably have me writing magic card game stories like ‘Straight Poker‘ for months to come.


To my own shock and horror, I realised this weekend that most of us love a traitor. And it got me thinking – why is that?

Don’t Hate the Player

This whole line of thought started with a board game, or more accurately three board games. On Saturday I was at Stabcon, my local twice-yearly gaming convention. I spent most of the day playing games of back-stabbing and treachery, and relishing every moment.

Despite the box, my friends insisted that I play with my shirt on. Apparently writing ‘abs’ on my chest in biro isn’t the same as having the real thing.

First some friends and I played Spartacus, the game of the TV show, in which you play Roman families trying to outmanoeuvre each other for profit while casually throwing gladiators and slaves to their deaths.

Then it was One Night Werewolf, the speedy version of the classic game of bluffing, gruesome murder and rushed lynchings, in which players are either werewolves or villagers, and your only aim is to live through the night.

Finally I sat down to play Battlestar Galactica, based on the modern version of the sci-fi show. It’s a cooperative game, in which the remnants of humanity look for a promised land – sounds much nicer, right? Except that one or two of you are secretly cylons, murderous robots trying not to get caught while you plot your comrades’ downfall. We survived, to the immense relief of most of the players, but it’s a tense game in which one false move can see you locked forever in the brig or mankind doomed to starvation.

Pick Me! I’ll Be The Baddy!

Two things about these games made me ponder the appeal of treachery.

First is the obvious the games are all driven by trickery and double dealing, and they’re all fun to play. Even as my friend Matt destroyed my Roman household’s reputation, I took great relish in declaring my intention to take bloody revenge (in the game, of course – there were no beatings in the hotel car park).

But the choices of characters people made were also revealing. In Werewolf, nobody chooses to be the werewolves, but everyone knows they’re the most fun. If you’re playing Battlestar, Gaius Baltar is always one of the first characters picked, because fans of the show love the conniving and egotistical scientist who accidentally doomed mankind. Similarly in Spartacus, anyone who’s watched the show wants to be Batiatus, even though he’s one of the hardest characters to play. After all, he’s the fun one.

For The Love Of Conflict

But I don’t think this is just about our love of villains. I think it’s about the value of conflict.

These games are fun not because every single action is a fight for dominance, but because even acts of cooperation could have schemes and conflicts hidden beneath them. It means that every moment is exciting, because every moment is filled with suspicion.

Similarly, these favourite characters are constantly in conflict with the others in their stories. That makes them more fun to watch and to be. In real life, we strive to be helpful people. But in stories and games, when it’s all about aesthetics, picking fights is way more fun. It’s why I swore vengeance on Matt – if I couldn’t win, I could at least have fun going down fighting.

So there you have it – my theory of why treachery makes for great stories. From the classic example of Long John Silver selling out both sides in Treasure Island, to Littlefinger’s duplicitous shenanigans in Game of Thrones, treachery means we see conflict even where there is none, and that makes everything exciting.

What do you think? And who are your favourite traitors, historical or fictional? Share your thoughts in the comments.