25 and 26 August, Taradale Intermediate School By Rosheen FitzGerald
In recent years, geek culture has shifted in the public consciousness. On one hand it has undergone a massive resurgence, being pulled from the fringes to the heart of mainstream cultural consumption. Whereas once an encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars’ alien races, an ability to wax lyrical on the magical systems of the world of Westeros, or an affinity for comic book characters might have been grounds for social ostracisation and the occasional toilet waterboarding; today they have captured the imagination of the masses … and have been commodified for consumption in the form of blockbuster movies, television and ancillary merchandising.
At the same time, the expansion of online social spaces, and the buffer this places between communicants, has given voice to the previously voiceless, and, in the process exposed the seedy underbelly of a sector of this subculture. Incidents such as the Gamergate debacle reformed our perception of the nerd from a put upon, essentially good-natured character – played by Anthony Michael Hall in every John Hughes movie, ever – to a neck-bearded troll lurking behind a keyboard to spew coordinated vitriol on normies.
The medium of board games excises the distal component that allows people to be horrible to one another online. They exist in a delicious sweet spot, providing a format for face-to-face interaction with clear rules and boundaries for the creation of a shared reality that is by its nature elevated from the mundane. In an arbitrarily cruel world, the ability to sit down with a group of peers and, for ninety minutes, give or take, live into a fantasy realm where an even hand is dealt to all, is balm to the soul.
The good folk of Hawke’s Bay’s Geek Guild know all too well the guiltless pleasure of tabletop gaming. They meet up weekly, with extra sessions on long weekends, to share their love of play, and to unabashedly reclaim the moniker of geek. For the second year running, they have combined their extensive stash of games and offered up their exhaustive knowledge to the rest of us at Hawke’s Bay Con.
The hall at Taradale Intermediate School is awash with tables and chairs. In an anteroom the board games are piled up high, thoughtfully arranged in order of complexity. Six of us pay just ten dollars’ entry – under sixteens are free – and much less in evidence than you might imagine. The majority of attendees are adults, and there’s a collegial atmosphere – a safe space has been created in which a mutual passion can be indulged – and shared. Helpers are on hand, identifiable by their bow ties, and summonable with specially crafted flags, to guide new players through their games. To a fault, they do so with patience and kindness, keen to spark the same joy as they receive from their play.
We play an exhilaratingly fast dice game, a deceptively strategic tile game involving penguins on ice floes, and a toilet themed card game that requires the loser to wear a plastic poo-shaped fascinator on their head. The older kids ambitiously embark on a post-apocalyptic world building game that calls for multiple cards, tokens, gems, intricately wrought figurines and takes almost an hour just to set up. What we don’t see are any of the classics – no Scrabble, Chess, Monopoly or Cluedo are to be found.
There are special events too: tournaments, instructive sessions, and the opportunity to engage in an escape experience. We take up the latter enthusiastically, somewhat hampered by a pair of under sevens. Our mission is to recover a stolen Scrabble trophy by solving a series of puzzles to yield the codes to combination locks to progress through the treasure hunt to victory. We manage to see it through to the end within the allotted hour, admittedly with the help of a clue for which we incurred a five-minute penalty. Though our time doesn’t come close to the provisional winners – announced on a whiteboard for all to see – the children are elated by our success and the experience is a much chattered about highlight.
The whole event is fuelled by sugar. An old school ice-cream van parked up outside does a brisk trade in soft serve cones. There’s a stall selling home-baked confections. Hardcore gamers have come armed with soon-to-be-obsolete plastic bags stuffed with energy drinks and packs of biscuits, sustenance for the marathon ahead.
Participants can be divided into amateurs and professionals. The former is composed of families and individuals looking for a day’s entertainment, a break from the norm. The latter are the guild members, settling in for some serious fun. There’s a potential twelve hours of gaming on offer here on Saturday and a further six on Sunday’s session. Time to come to grips with the nuts and bolts of complex games with extensive back stories and layers of internal logic, and to lose oneself in a co-created universe.
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