It began as so many things do, the wondrous and the disastrous alike. It began with a drink. Or two. Possibly even three. An idea is hatched, one never raised in sobriety but which finds fertile ground in the alcohol-fogged mind. A plan is made. Bolstered by Dutch courage, my friend (who I will not publically shame here lest his family disown him and so henceforth he shall be known simply as J, because Deep Throat was already taken and would only have given him ideas) and I were going to do something strange together, something a little shameful and secretive. We were going to partake in a clandestine experiment, one that couldn’t be safely discussed in front of other people.
We were going to play a game of Warhammer.
Our local Games Workshop had a poster in the window advertising a free game to any prospective customer, like a dealer promising the first hit for free to draw in the vulnerable. In our inebriated state, this seemed like a great idea, though obviously we were only going to mess about. We certainly weren’t taking it seriously. It would just be a laugh, a quick game to pass the time, not like those losers who take up tabletop gaming as a hobby. Such ran our thoughts, and we parted for the evening with a promise to meet again the next day and put our plan into action. The next morning, through the aching head, churning stomach, fuzzy recollection and all the other delightful features of an average Saturday morning, one particular memory stood out slightly more so than its brethren: did I really agree to try a game of Warhammer?
One of my flatmates gets up and stumbles to the kitchen and I venture to mention in a ha-ha-isn’t‑this-silly kind of way that I might be going into town to play a game. He shoots me a look – trying to work out if I’m joking – before he bursts out laughing. It’s understandable. I had brought up the subject to test the waters, to confirm whether my own strange feelings of shame were normal, and his reaction cements my suspicions. Hastily I explain that obviously we’re just going to dick about and clearly neither of us actually cares. I only just fall short of claiming that J and I are only doing it “ironically”. This explanation seemingly accepted, and some tiny shred of dignity salvaged, I head out.
Meet the mate. Pub lunch. Couple of pints. Not falling-down drunk but tipsy enough to calm the nerves and the growing sense that we’re doing something wrong. We sit in the pub for an hour or two, talking the usual toot, but the conversation has a brittle and nervous edge. Eventually buckling to the pressure, one of us (and I honestly don’t recall which) hesitantly speaks up – “Sooo…shall we go and see what it’s all about, then? We’ll just have a quick look. If it’s shit, we can leave.” The gauntlet is thrown. Here we go.
Like the intrepid explorers of old, we gird our loins (or at least we would have, had we known how to) and venture forth. Arriving at the shop, we discover something that sends chills down our spines – a sign, one that reads “gone for lunch, back in five!” We can see someone in the shop, but the door is locked, and suddenly things have gotten worse than we could have imagined. We’re no longer two normal guys who just happened to wander into a Games Workshop, as if by accident. Now we’re two guys waiting outside for the shop to open. It’s a disaster. Shooting furtive glances around at the busy street, trying to see if anyone notices, if anyone is judging the pair of freaks with nothing better to do than turn up early and queue for their chance to paint little model aliens.
Suddenly we’re saved by a staff member, who opens up the door and, with a rush of gratitude, we duck inside the store.
The employee, a totally normal-looking bloke (rather than the twisted, pasty, Gollum-like homunculus that some deep recess of my subconscious mind was expecting), is friendly and welcoming. We explain that we’ve never played Warhammer before, that we have no idea how any of it works, but that we thought we’d “give it a go.” He’s understanding, but a little suspicious; the drink has buoyed our confidence but made us more comfortable in cracking little jokes, as if to prove to each other that neither one of us is really taking this seriously. He thinks we might be taking the piss out of him and his hobby, we can see it in his eyes. We are, a little bit, but we’re here now and it looks quite interesting and it becomes a matter of who will crack first and admit that they actually would like to play. Eventually one of us does, and we set about the sample game which has been laid out for the newbies.
I’m rocking Space Marines of an uncertain chapter while J represents the forces of Chaos. I have four grunts, a sergeant and a captain who apparently use increasingly ostentatious helmets to denote rank (our new mentor does not really appreciate this observation). J has five Chaos Marines and one enormous thing called a Hellbrute, who we immediately and unthinkingly began referring to as “the big bastard” (also not appreciated).
We lined up our men and battle was joined. Our patient guide, ignoring the bad jokes and frequent nervous glances at the shop window, began explaining to us various little backstories about our troops. Apparently that Hellbrute bloke is an ordinary Marine forced into a set of armour, in which he suffers eternally and goes mad. With that in mind, the whole “screaming skull” facial expression makes a lot more sense, and I’m even moved to forgive him for trying to murder my dudes. We’re informed about various weapons, “bolters” and “repeaters” and “power fists” (cue much childish sniggering, once again unappreciated), about how many hits they can launch per round and how we determine hits and wounds, which are apparently different things. There are a lot of dice rolls in the game of Warhammer, and a lot of details to remember about various units. It’s frankly impressive that our instructor can rattle them off as easily as he does, though we don’t say so. Wouldn’t want to seem impressed by this nerd and his nerd knowledge.
The game wears on, and as we become familiar with how many dice we should be rolling and when, it starts to become rather fun. Despite ourselves, we seem to be getting into the swing of things. My first volley wipes out a significant portion of J’s force, and I crack a smile. The returning fire knocks down my captain and his fantastic hat, his brave decision to lead from the front unfortunately not the wisest choice.
Luckily, one of my remaining guys has a gun that can fire multiple times per round, and with that – combined with a series of very unlucky rolls on J’s part – I’ve soon whittled the rampaging hordes of Chaos down to just the big lad with only the loss of Captain Coolhat on my tally. Taking the only avenue left to him, J charges his mad armoured fella right into the midst of my chaps and starts wildly laying about with a giant claw. Our instructor stops us here to inform me that while most of my grunts have power fists (still funny), the closest guy to the enemy is my sergeant, who has apparently made the tragic mistake of bringing a knife to a “fucking enormous hell demon” fight and so I nominate him to take the brunt of the damage. I’ll miss his only-slightly-less-ostentatious hat, but he was the dickhead who didn’t come prepared to do any proper fighting. This actually annoys me – as he breathes his last and I remove the figure from the battlefield, I’m muttering to myself that it was his own stupid fault. From there my Marines surround the last bastion of Chaos and power fist him to death amidst further sniggering. I claim victory, and victory feels good.
Then I wake up. It’s a sudden shock to the system, akin to post-orgasmic bliss, when the realisation sets in that you’re going to need to clean up all the jam and put the weasels back into their cage. A glance across the table confirms things – J has the same slightly stunned look. That was fun. For a while, we forgot that we were doing something so uncool that even ordinary geeks look down upon it, and just enjoyed ourselves. We got into it, to the point where I was muttering dire imprecations at a tiny ill-equipped model. It’s a very weird sensation. We make quick goodbyes, throw up a pretence of briefly looking around the shop and even have a desultory conversation about going halves on a starter kit, and then we leave on the double. Heads down, quick march, looking furtive as if we’d just left a sex shop with our latest purchases and were reluctant to make eye contact with anyone. From there the day slides back into a more normal reality; beers, video games, generally hanging out. Asked later by the aforementioned flatmate what it was like, all I could manage was a shrug, a muttered “alright if you’re into that sort of thing.”
It was only later that I began to think about the experience, about how completely bizarre the entire thing was. Not the game itself, but the way everyone treated the exercise. My friend and I with our over-the-top bravado to hide our embarrassment at being caught playing Warhammer. My flatmate’s reaction. We were doing something weird and we knew it, and we fully accepted that others would laugh at us and even unconsciously ceded them that right. Hell, we were laughing at ourselves, distancing ourselves from the idea that we could be the sort of people who enjoy the game by acting as if it were all just a joke that we were in on. Warhammer, and other such similarly maligned activities, are for the real bottom-of-the-barrel geeks – that’s not us. We’re down the pub on Friday nights instead of at home painting models. That’s for the real sad acts.
But (and it’s a big but, the kind so beloved of the resolutely truthful Sir Mixalot);
We also had plans for the rest of the day, post-Warhammer. We were going to grab some beers, rent Borderlands 2, and spend the afternoon co-operatively blasting fantastic alien beasts and psycho bandits on a faraway world. Around seven, we would need to take a break – time for the latest episode of Doctor Who, a show we’re both big fans of. We spent our sunny Saturday in a room filled with retro consoles, blowing seven kinds of crap out of marauding pixels before watching a time-travelling alien have campy adventures. So given our planned entertainment — and this is the million-dollar question — why were we looking down on Warhammer?
At the time it seemed so normal and natural. Tabletop gaming is for the uber-nerds, and we laugh at those people. My flatmate’s derisive laughter was justified, our decision to experiment an invitation to mockery. A laugh that says “I am cooler than you by virtue of the fact that you’ve even considered this”. He’s a guy able to look down and judge from a lofty perch; plays football several times a week, goes down the pub with his mates to watch the sport, has a long-term girlfriend, the very picture of an ordinary bloke. You’d never catch him spending his weekend moving little models of spacemen around a table, pretending they were shooting each other. So what did he do with his day while J and I were playing with toys? He sat at home playing Uncharted 3. Messing about with what is, when you get right down to brass tacks, just a different sort of toy. The man who, by his surprised laughter, dismissed the very idea of Warhammer as ridiculous is also, in no particular order: addicted to the Game of Thrones TV show, a massive fan of The Muppets, an avid gamer, happy to pick up and read any comics that I leave lying around and a long-time player of an online fantasy RPG. All of a sudden that unassailable position of superiority vanishes. How is it then that the lot of us, all with a deep and abiding love for things labelled “geeky,” seem to have drawn a mental line whereby these things are acceptable but those things aren’t? What’s the justification for putting Space Marines in a ghetto while Timelords are on a pedestal?
The decision, made not on a personal level but apparently by society at large, seems ridiculously arbitrary. Doctor Who, enjoyment of which was once seen as a better indicator than even a Star Wars bedspread and a vintage 45 year old virginity that someone was a geek, is cool now (much like fezzes and bowties). It’s one of the biggest shows in the world, not only finding that Holy Grail of a US market but discovering that the US market for the show is actually enormous. Video games in the public consciousness have moved (or at least are in the process of moving) away from the stereotype of fat, sweaty virgins in basements to being a normal, everyday activity that even proper grown-ups can engage in with only the bare minimum of self-conscious shame. Geek chic is a fashion trend. Some of the best-reviewed and highest grossing movies of the last few years have been about spandex-clad comic book heroes having adventures. Geek culture is coming out of the closet in a big way, but it seems that not everyone is invited to the party.
If you are even a casual Internet user, you are probably aware, if only peripherally, of the “Brony” phenomenon (Bronomenon?). You may not know who or what Bronies are but you’ll have likely seen forum avatars of colourful cartoon horses become much more prevalent recently, or noticed mentions of something called a Pinkie Pie in a comment section here or there. Perhaps you took a closer look, only to be disappointed to discover that a Pinkie Pie wasn’t a sexual euphemism, and moved sadly on with your life.
These Bronies are adult men who revel in their enjoyment of My Little Pony, a children’s cartoon, and suffer one hell of a lot of flak for it. Geek culture (represented here by the Internet at large) has a serious hate-boner for the Brony movement, with flame wars erupting as pro- or anti-Brony threads appear on totally unrelated forums. On the surface, the reason for the derision seems obvious enough; a bunch of grown-ass men sitting around watching and actually having the audacity to enjoy the frolicking antics of some cartoon ponies. The cartoon itself is even called “Friendship Is Magic,” and holy shit is that not the girliest thing you’ve ever heard? That’s not just lame, that’s pathetic. If nerds in general are miners of pop culture, then Bronies are the dwarves of Moria who dug too deep and awakened something terrible.
And yet. How many of those anti-Brony individuals would have no problem admitting a love for Transformers? GI Joe? Thundercats? Widen the net – Power Rangers. Anime. Pixar movies. Isaac Asimov. Lord of the Rings. “That’s totally different,” would come the angry response, “those things aren’t as lame as My Little Pony!” To which the only possible answer is “Why the hell not?” If a grown adult can hold nostalgic cartoons as the pinnacle of entertainment, then why can’t other adults do the same with a modern cartoon? What is the obsession with drawing lines in the sand? They aren’t even very well-drawn lines; consider Warhammer again for a moment, and it becomes obvious that it isn’t the setting or the brand that it is the problem but the context. A Warhammer video game, like the recent Space Marine, is perfectly socially acceptable to play. There’s no shame in having played a video game, after all. Buying, painting and playing with the models, though, is weird.
There is a ghetto even within nerd culture, where we like to put the things we consider uncool even by the standards of the traditionally uncool. There’s very little basis for one nerdy thing being less cool than another nerdy thing, the glass ceiling being apparently arbitrary and applying different rules on a case-by-case basis, but we still do it. Sometimes – as with Warhammer or (presumably, since I’ve never seen anyone wearing an MLP t‑shirt openly outside of the Internet or proclaiming their love for Rainbow Dash on a street corner) My Little Pony – those judgements are handed down not just by geek culture but by society at large. In researching this article (a rather grandiose term for starting a forum thread, granted) I’ve spoken to Bronies who have experienced accusations of paedophilia, the logic apparently being that if you like something ostensibly intended for children then you must want to have sex with kids. I’ve never heard the same argument applied to candy, or to the films of Pixar, or any of the other numerous kid-friendly things which find favour with an adult market. More often than not, the people throwing out these accusations are fellow nerds, people who will happily watch a cartoon with every sign of enjoyment unless it is this cartoon. Similarly, even amongst people who will gladly spend hours at a time manipulating virtual soldiers into battle will look down on those who do the same with physical models of soldiers, as if one is somehow innately inferior to the other.
Consider this, though. We’re in the middle of a recession, a global financial crisis. Businesses are closing left and right, with high streets beginning to look akin to ghost towns. Game, formerly the UK’s largest video game retailer, has crumbled and closed many of their shops. Even Woolworths, that stalwart bastion of the high streets of my childhood, has disappeared. However, one thing is noticeable in every major town I’ve visited, and that’s at least one Games Workshop. Last year the company posted operating profit of 15.3 million pounds. If Warhammer is so lame and nobody even remotely cool will go near it, then how are they still afloat? It’s beginning to seem as if many of those who will sneer at the concept – like J and myself – might actually be lying in social self-defence to prevent anyone discovering that they actually rather enjoy something so uncool. How many people might be hiding a secret love for My Little Pony, afraid to confess lest they be publicly hung, drawn and quartered by their peers?
Perhaps it’s time to abandon these divisions. There comes a time when we all need to agree that enjoying battling tiny models or liking a children’s cartoon is no more inherently ridiculous or shameful than deriving pleasure from wacky Japanese animation or slaying virtual dragons. To say, “My hobby is geeky, but yours is worse,” is to attempt to deflect personal feelings of inadequacy, a sense of socially imprinted shame about the things we enjoy. I may be uncool for loving comics but that guy over there loves Warhammer, so clearly I’m cooler than somebody. Maybe I’m reaching, but it seems as if in our desire to be seen as less uncool, geeks in general are throwing some of our brethren to the wolves. Why deprive ourselves of something we’ll enjoy just because other people have labelled it hideously uncool?
Perhaps I’ll buy that starter kit after all.