I remember once, when I was quite little, back in nineteen eightymumble, finding a red box with some books inside, with pictures of dragons and monsters. I think there were also some dice, a map and some picture cards. My memory is hazy as it was a long time ago. I don’t remember where the box came from, but it did end up amongst my other games and occasionally I’d take out all the contents and try to understand them. I have a vague memory of asking MummyDinosaurPirate how it was played, but I don’t remember the actual answer, just a vague sense that it was ‘complicated’ and ‘for grown ups’.
Fast forward several decades to last night – I played my first ever actual game of Dungeons and Dragons. It was confusing, but an awful lot of fun. I took pictures and posted them online to the shock of some of my friends. The overall reaction was along the lines of: NO WAY this was your FIRST GAME? WHAT THE HELL WERE YOU DOING as a child? Well, not having many geeky friends, is the answer. I didn’t really have any close friends, having moving moved around a fair bit and changed schools a couple of times, until I was in my late teens. I knew almost no boys at all, going to an all-girls school for the entire duration of my schooling, and up until a chance encounter in my first GCSE English class (for non UK people, you start GCSEs at 14) with a girl who I’d never even spoken to before, pretty much every person I called ‘friend’ thought I was a little weird. I wasn’t entirely sure why, if I am honest, but I really struggled to fit in with most of the girls at my school. I think MummyDinosaurPirate was rather worried at one point that I didn’t seem to have any friends and spent most of my time reading and drawing unicorns.
So when the girl at the next desk and I discovered we were both reading Discworld books and she said “do you want to come to a Discworld fancy dress party in the woods on Friday?” I did. I really did. I went dressed as Nanny Ogg, met this girl’s friends and suddenly for the first time ever had friends that liked the same things as me. I felt for the first time that I was among kindred spirits. Not only did they not think I was weird for starting a conversation about which colour dragon you’d rather have, they’d enthusiastically join in. We’d go round to each others houses and sit up all night watching Red Dwarf, saying every single line a fraction of a second before the dialogue. We’d go into London in the early hours of the morning and stand in line for hours for Terry Pratchett book signings at Forbidden Planet. I saved up to buy a Star Trek TNG communicator pin badge from there which actually made a sound when you pressed it, then lost it a few weeks later at a party where I’d gone as an “unnamed crew member in a red shirt” and spent all evening ‘dying’ in increasingly bizarre ways.
None of us, however, at that time, played D&D, or any sort of role play really, and so it was not something that I ever got into. As happens in life, we got older, went to university, moved to different cities and I rarely see any of those old friends any more, although we’re all back in touch via social media (The Future. We live in it.)
The longer I didn’t play it, the harder it got to find a way of getting to play it, because the harder it became to admit I’d never played it. And if I couldn’t admit I’d never played it, I couldn’t find away of getting to play it. I think of this as the ‘Fake Geek Paradox’.
Just in case you’ve never used the internet ever and haven’t come across the phrase ‘fake geek’ or ‘fake geek girl’ A ‘Fake Geek’ is someone that is accused of just liking geeky things in order to appear cool, or in the case of ‘fake geek girl’ to get attention from men (the total LOGIC FAIL of the latter is rather nicely dealt with here). If you don’t know EVERY GEEK THING EVER, or if you don’t know ALL OF THE TINIEST MOST OBSCURE FACTS about the things you already like, then you are a Fakey McFakester Geek and you’re only doing it because you want to bathe in the Coolness that is GEEKERY.
The idea that this is a thing that someone would do – co-opt geek culture to be cool – boggles my mind, having grown up as a weirdo geek type with fringe interests and an offbeat sense of humour and having experienced friendlessness, bullying and ostracisation as a result – until I found my little bubble of equally weird and geeky mates that is. But nowadays, the Geeks have inherited the earth (someone was standing at the back for the sermon on the mount and clearly misheard) and geeks are cool. Comics are cool. Sci-fi is cool. Dragons are really fucking cool. Movies made from comic books are at PEAK cool. So of course people want to be geeks now.
The Fake Geek Paradox is when you can’t find out about new things you will probably like, because you can’t admit you don’t already know about it, because to admit you don’t know about it opens you up to accusations of fake geekery. Those accusations are, effectively, what stops you being able to find out new things you’ll like.
Say, for example, if you don’t know ALL THE THINGS about The X Men comics, but think you might quite like to read them, because you watched the Saturday morning cartoons and they were kind of cool, and you kind of liked the movies but they weren’t totally amazing and you’d like to check out the original source. But admitting you haven’t read the X Men comics, and only like the X Men because you liked the cartoon and the movies? FAKE GEEK. So you can’t ask people for recommendations of where to start and have to work it out for yourself. Of course, we have Google so you could research and work it out for yourself – but it’s not quite the same as being introduced by a friend or someone that knows you, and it’s more expensive than, y’know, just being able to borrow them. When it comes to something like D&D, you can’t really just work it out for yourself because it by definition involves other people. Unless you are able to literally clone yourself and that’s a fairly extreme way to go about playing D&D while not letting on to anyone else that you’ve never played D&D before.
Over the last few years the concept of the ‘Fake Geek’, and the ‘Fake Geek Girl’ in particular, have been beautifully criticised, debunked and satirised. I started recognising where the Fake Geek Paradox was actually preventing me from discovering things I might really enjoy. I realised that if I was going to be able to get out of the Fake Geek Paradox trap I was just going to have to start fessing up when I Didn’t Know Things. So on one of the online communities I am in I just came out and said “I have to admit, I’d never heard of Guardians of the Galaxy before. Where should I start with the comics?” To my surprise, several other people (and not just all women either) commented afterwards that they hadn’t heard of it either, but felt they couldn’t admit it, and had wanted to read the comics but felt they couldn’t ask. Fake Geek Paradox in action, people.
After that first ‘coming out’ moment with Guardians of the Galaxy, it seemed to get easier to start admitting all the things I knew nothing about but wanted to try. I admitted I’d not read or seen any Game of Thrones – and someone offered to lend me all the books. Then I admitted I’d never played Dungeons and Dragons but had always wanted to, ever since puzzling over that red box as a child. 3 other people said “me too” – within a matter of weeks a game was planned and thus last night another virgin D&D friend and I found ourselves being led into a cave of goblins, wolves and other monsters and discovering that bugbears have a limited vocabulary and speak in the 3rd person and that 20 sided Dice really are bastards.
I didn’t entirely understand it all, and the maths part of it I found really tricky, but I really enjoyed the storytelling and the collaborative aspects – it’s a game that requires a great deal of communication and teamwork so it’s strange, and totally nonsensical, that over the decades it has become synonymous with socially awkward dudes playing in a dark basement. I wish I’d felt able to spot myself trapped in the Fake Geek Paradox years ago and just said hey, I’ve never played this before. Can someone teach me?
So I am going to keep trying to avoid that paradox from now on, because sometimes good things can come of admitting you don’t know everything. And if I get called a ‘fake geek girl’ at times because of it? That’s fine, go ahead. I’ll be in a well lit room with a group of socially awesome smart people pretending to be a totally badass 7′ tall 300lb half dragon lightening breathing paladin and it won’t be any less fun because someone thinks I am doing it to be cool.