Sunday, March 29, 2015

I came, I saw, I conned....

So, this weekend marked the Emerald City Comic Con, an event that has grown in 13 years from a small local gathering drawing fewer than 3,000 people to the third-largest comic con in the country, with an attendance of over 80,000 this year. Since I was shut out last year after foolishly thinking I could get tickets a mere six weeks before the convention, I bought tickets well in advance this time, and attended two of the three days with my geek pal and cosplay fan Margaret. (Wonder Wife, after handling a day of Geek Girl Con last year, chose to skip the sensory overload this time around.)

I have to say, at the risk of sounding like a crotchety old cliche, that the comic-con isn't about comics anymore. No longer is a con a dealers' room, and artists' alley, and some panels with comics creators. The Hollywoodization of geek culture is a fait accompli at this point, and comics qua comics as a common denominator for all the participants is sketchy: a number of elements of the con have only a tangential relationship to comics at best and even those are much better known for representations in other media. The biggest booth seemed to be The Walking Dead, which did at least start as a comic but which is much better known as a television show.

This is not at all a bad thing, but it is a thing. Historically, there have always been fuzzy lines between comics culture and sci-fi culture, and more recently with gaming, and all of those interests overlap with movies and television and video and of course art, so it doesn't seem that this change is unnatural, but more like an evolution.

At the forefront of my mind, however, was the question of what any convention is for at all anymore. 

Back in the day, the dealers' rooms at a con were literally the only place you might find an item to complete your collection and the only place you might run across something you didn't even know existed. Nowadays, no matter where you are, you can find anything you need through an online seller, and there's a wealth of websites and blogs reviewing and critiquing comics old and new to let you know about what's out there. Way back when, meeting an artist at a con might be the only way to get some original art or sketch. Now, just about every artist has their own website selling stuff directly to fans, and many even accept commissions online. Cons have always been when the latest and the greatest developments were previewed or revealed; all of that is leaked online almost immediately now. Conventions have always been the place to meet industry professionals and get that autograph; well, you can still do that today, except that instead of a chance meeting on the convention floor it will be a highly managed photo op that will cost you anywhere from $20 to $90.

I guess what hasn't changed much is the community aspect of a convention: there is a certain feeling that comes from being in a room filled with people who share your interests that cannot be had elsewhere. The panels are nice, the events are fun, the displays are great, but being able to share your experience with others who appreciate many of the same things you do, in much the same way and to a similar level of intensity - that's the cool. It's sort of like the mood at a superbowl party, but with thousands of people over a whole weekend instead of a few friends for a few hours.

Perhaps the best example of this bonding took place when Margaret and I went to the Red Dwarf Fan panel, which was billed pretty much as just a conversation among local fans. Instead, there was a surprise guest: Danny John-Jules, who played Cat in the series, was Skyping in from somewhere in the U.K., right in the middle of location filming for his current TV series. The delight in the room was palpable, magnified by the community that had been created by this particular collection of people self-selecting for this particular fandom. You can't quite get that electric feeling online.

In any case, something is pulling these people in - ECCC was as crowded as all get out. And of course, a significant fraction of those present were in costume. Maybe cosplay is the reason that conventions still exist. It can certainly be an elaborate avocation these days. There were tons of very professional-level designs, and some actual professionals, folks who are paid to come to cons and show off. It was great to see just as much crossplay here as at Geek Girl Con, and Margaret and I got into a very academic discussion about the difference between crossplay (playing a character of a different gender without modifying the costume) and gender-swapping (creating a modified version of the character for a different gender). And there are all the other variations: steampunk versions of anything and mashups being the most frequent.

Saturday night saw a fantastic costume contest with some of the most dramatic and well-executed stuff. Three things things stood out as we watched the parade of characters.

First of all, I just don't get some of these mash-ups, even at the pro level. For example, one entry combined Elphaba from Wicked and Elsa from Frozen. Hunh? Does that even make sense? Or how is it ironic?

Second, the hours and hours of work that go into the competitive costumes make for impressive results - and pretty much guarantee that the pro-am divide is going to remain or even widen. Even Margaret, who loves cosplay and has a pretty mean hand with a sewing needle, says she would never dedicate the time and effort that it would take to make something at that level. Forget about mooks like me. We wished there was some way to showcase the more casual cosplayer.

Third, some of the presentations went beyond costumes into what would have to be classified as practical effects or puppetry. A full-sized Star Wars Tauntaun or Bioshock Big Daddy manipulated by an operator inside, complete with articulated parts and sound effects, is not a costume. Entering these was the equivalent of bringing a submarine to a scuba suit competition. Crazy!

Anyway, I am sure you'll be able to find any number of high-def, high-res videos and stills of the major league cosplayers, so here are some shots of folks just having fun. We especially liked the highly specific and/or obscure stuff.

A great Suzy Bishop and Sam Shakusky. 
They were just tickled  as all get out to be cosplaying.

ST:TOS family fun! I met them right after attending the "Mature Fan" panel.

Get it?

Lobster Johnson in the house!

This young woman captured both the look and the spirit of the Kamala Khan Ms. Marvel.

 Not just one...

... but two Jack Knight Starmans. Starmen?

This young Velma-Daphne duo was totally charming.

 Victorian women, Super- and Wonder-wise.

 Awesome Black Manta!

 Bwa-ha-ha! The JLI redux! 
Hey, I've sorta said that before... but this was a nice nostalgia.

Brilliant JLU Hawkgirl - in brilliant sunshine outside!

I stood in line with a friendly She-Ra!

Best FTM gender-bending: Tank Boy! We heart Tank Boy!

Season Two Scully! (Wish she had posed so you could see her great FBI I.D.)

So, as usual, Margaret and I ventured into the cosplay world ourselves. The first day, Margaret cosplayed The Dude and I was Walter from The Big Liebowksi. Margaret had a beard all ready to wear, but her first event was Geek Speed-dating, so she chose not to wear it right away, and actually never got a chance to put it on. Nonetheless, in her bathrobe and shorts and with her container of half-and half, she got a lot of props.

At the bus top on the way to the con.

No one guessed I was Walter. I just looked like a guy in a hunting vest and cargo shorts. I tried to attribute this to my being alone most of the day, but even when Margaret and I were together, and even when I put on my yellow range glasses with the aviator frames, people didn't go "Ah!"

On the second day, Margaret went as Alex Millar from the fifth season of the British series Being Human. That's about as obscure a character as one can cosplay, and since the outfit is a green dress and  leather jacket, it doesn't immediately read as a costume. So, just like with Walter, no one recognized it. In shame, Margaret borrowed a Steampunk Boba Fett helmet to create the mashup Steampunk Boba Alex.

I made that last part up, she was just playing with the guy.

I had given up on cosplay for the second day and just wore my normal clothes. About a half-dozen people commented on my appearance, telling me how much they liked my look. That's an example of comic-book irony for sure.

Fan-Walaka action figure, comes with with water bottle and con program.

Believe it or not, this is actually an abbreviated report: I skipped Sunday at the con, giving my ticket to a pal so he could attempt to get his model TARDIS signed by some Doctor Who cast members, and Margaret had to go it alone (and went as Ianto from Torchwood). It worked out okay; it was a great time, but totally exhausting, just because of the scale and scope.

We'll see about next year.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

5 x 5 Book Review: Of Dice and Men

Of Dice and Men
by David M. Ewalt
Simon and Schuster, 2013

Thanks, Gracie, for lending it to me!

1. The promotional catchphrase for this book is "The Lord of the Rings meets Moneyball." I'm not that's the best description* of this memoir cum business history, a cocktail that is two parts nerd apologia for the general public and three parts analysis of the game, product, and scene that is Dungeons & Dragons, topped with a splash of insider reference for hard-core gamers. I think in the end, no audience will be totally satisfied: not regular folks looking to understand the nature of geekdom, not business students wishing to understand a commercial phenomenon, and not game geeks looking for new scriptures. But everyone will take something away.

2.  The"autonerdography" bits work well enough in the beginning of the book, as Ewalt establishes himself as a functioning geek: a professional with adult relationships and an ostensibly normal and fulfilled life, but who hasn't let go of some of his early influences and interests - in this case, D&D.  There's perhaps a little too much cuteness in the comparisons between a gaming habit and drug addiction and too little self-awareness of how much his position as a journalist allows him to indulge his avocation in ways not available to most adult geeks, but it's an engaging enough portrayal nevertheless.  One writing choice damages that connection for me late in the game. Ewalt establishes a convention early on of switching to italics when he is describing the scenes and characters in the games he is playing, rather than the real people he meets. Toward the end of the book, however, he starts to relate his inner reflections on the outer world the same way. This conflation of the "fantasy" representations with those of his allegorical awakening to the True Meaning of D&D seemed a little too precious, as if he were trying to elevate his story a little higher than it deserved.

3. The business history seems oddly skewed. It takes 180 pages to go from The Fantasy Game in 1972, perhaps the earliest direct ancestor of D&D, through The Blue Box and The White Box and The Red Box and Advanced D&D and all the other editions and get to Version 3.5 of the modern game in 2003. Then Ewalt skips to D&D Fourth Edition, released in 2008, in literally the next paragraph. D&D 3.5 was a major phase in the evolution of the game - and is still a force to be reckoned with, especially if you include the Pathfinder series by open-license publisher Paizo (often referred to as D&D 3.75), which isn't mentioned at all. The book takes a detour after D&D 4e into LARPing (live-action role-playing, which isn't really D&D at all) before returning to the Fifth edition of D&D. This omission smacks of something besides objectivity.

4. For all that Ewalt misses, he connects best on one element aimed directly at hardcore gamers. As part of his pilgrimage to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, the birthplace of D&D, he plays in a session and later has dinner with Frank Mentzer, a close friend of Gary Gygax, the "creator" of D&D and author of many of its key editions. Ewalt is on the verge of moving from lifelong player to a fledgling Dungeon master - the one who has to run the games - and gets this advice from Mentzer:
The ideal game is a player-driven game. They are not actors in a play you wrote. You are presenting a setting, you are doing the stage dressing and letting them come up with the play. And when they come up with a plot twist, you should be able to go that way full force, because that is what they want to do. Some of the worst games are when somebody has a great, grand, and glorious vision, and they want victims to walk out and play their roles with no input in what happens.
That alone was worth wading through the sometimes shallow waters of the book.

5. The cover image shows a twelve-sided die with the book's title on the face where the "1" - an automatic failure - would be. Why Ewalt, who several times mentions in the book how much small details matter to geeks, would use a graphic that showed both the least-used die in the game and the least desired outcome is a mystery to me.

*But then I have a bad history with literary marketing catchphrases.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Why I game

That's my buddy Karmin and I after completing Forbidden Desert, a cooperative board game with individualized player roles and an ever-changing (and hostile) board. With the help of some gaming buddies, we survived sandstorms and the desert sun to explore, find artifacts, and build a flying machine so we could escape. (That's us escaping in the flying machine above.) It was tough go - the first session lasted all of five minutes before we collectively lost, so victory was even sweeter when we pulled together and won. Karmin is making fluttery victory fingers, even.

But moreover, it was damn fun, win or lose.

Games have been occupying a lot of my consciousness lately. I took an on-ground class in Fundamentals of Game Design through the University of Washington last quarter, and followed that up with a Coursera MOOC on Gamification from the Wharton Business School this quarter. Those efforts were in service of my becoming point person for "Gamification in the Classroom" on our campus, and I have been supplementing it with lit reviews and outside reading.

Nothing is hard work if you enjoy it, I guess, and the classes have sure seemed more like play than work. I don't know what else, besides comics, has been as consistent a hobby or avocation for me as gaming. I had to to take a break from actively gaming for a bit, but now I have the space to add some game time back into my schedule, and I am relishing it.

One pal has started a regular board game get-together on Monday nights. We're not talking Monopoly here; we have mostly been playing complex, cooperative games in which all the players work toward a common goal- and against the nasty stuff produced by the draw of a card or the roll of a die. A great example is Arkham Horror, in which a team of adventurers tries to avert Lovercraftian doom:

That one is awfully complex, so we have also played a simpler, more streamlined version called Eldritch Horror:

I find these games cool the because collaboration is a nice switch from competition and because in most of them, there's no elimination of players, even in multi-person games. Everyone gets to hang in until the very end, and that allows everyone to hang out and have a good time.

Which is not to say we don't enjoy a little head-to-head once in a while. Last session we played King of Tokyo, in which players assume the roles of giant monsters and battle each other for control of the city.

 I lost twice and still had a great time.

Of course, the centerpiece of my gaming activity is probably not board games, but tabletop RPGs. Dungeons & Dragons is the version most folks recognize, but there are other flavors as well. Some are very "crunchy" - rules-intensive - and others are looser and more story-oriented.

I have played a lot of Pathfinder, which is a very close relative of D&D. Of course, in this case "playing" means "sitting around with a pencil and paper and bunch of dice and creating a story together." From a distance, it looks more like writer's workshop or a meeting than a game.

But it can start looking a little board-gamey as well, when the crunchiness requires miniatures and a grid to establish the scene and the physical proximity of characters.

Currently, I am running a FATE game (a bit less crunchy than D&D) set in a sort-of ancient Rome and will be starting up a d20 (sort of generic D&D) game set in an alternate-history 18th century North America in a week or so.

I have been taking this walk through this garden of gaming to try to figure out what draws me to it.

One obvious answer that shouldn't be overlooked is the simple enjoyment of the settings and "plots." I'm still a sucker for swashbuckling, and exploring deserts, fighting monsters, and intrepid adventuring will suck me in regardless of the mode: comics, movies, books, or games.

But of course, there's interactivity with the game rules. Learning the rules, figuring out successful strategies, and reaching success through your efforts is rewarding. We've talked a lot about this in the classes, and it all rings true with my personal experience: finding that sweet spot between challenge and frustration gives a satisfaction like no other. We don't often get a chance to feel that in real life, but games can give it to us almost on demand.

Probably most importantly, games facilitate social interaction. From bowling leagues to bridge clubs to Bunco, people use games to make connections, and I am nothing if not a connector.

But moreover, it is damn fun, win or lose. 

I haven't talked as much about games on this blog as about my other geeky stuff; I think I was worried about which register to write in. 
I'm not gong to worry about that anymore, so there'll be some more gamey stuff here in the future.