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Gaming in the Wild: With Open Arms

Some interesting things have been happening over the last couple of years regarding our little passion of gaming. Extensions of our subculture often include a love of video games, literature and visual media that all contribute to the realms of science fiction, fantasy and the amazing pool of thematic inspiration drawing from real life events of the past and present. All of these things have contributed towards a resurgence of interest from generations of people who have been rarely or never exposed to our little corner of the ‘verse. So what happens now? I guess it’s up to us…

Black line art illustration of a happy person with open arms.

Black line art illustration of a happy person with open arms.

Star Wars, the Marvel and DC Universes, The Big Bang Theory. The list goes on and on. For better or worse, even our beloved childhood stories like The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Transformers have worked their way back into popular culture in a big way. This means that all kinds of new and hopefully wonderful people have started returning to the toy sections and game stores that are our stomping grounds. They want to know more. They want to join in and test the waters, to see if they are good for them.

Wil Wheaton and his popular YouTube cast “Tabletop” has had an inspiring effect on what could be called the Meta of Gaming. Their episode playing AEG’s “Smash Up!” had such a huge impact on the sale of the game that the company went so far as to produce a faction for the game called The Geeks, with Felicia Day and Wil as cards. His team has never stopped promoting both classic and new games, and as a result of their efforts, many tabletop games are enjoying a renaissance.

Dungeons and Dragons is experiencing their highest sales in years, and are enjoying new popularity with the help of online streaming of celebrity game groups and convention event sessions broadcast to anyone with an internet connection.

Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have fueled innovation and availability (albeit with mixed success) of games of all types in a way I don’t think anybody anticipated, and even larger companies like AEG and Indie Board and Card games are making great use of the system to produce quality products for those interested at great advantage to everyone involved.

The Big Bang Theory has also cast a light on our world, and no matter what you may think of their interpretation of “geeks” and “nerds,” it is obvious from their inclusion of tabletop gaming, comic book culture and television and movie geekery, more of us are being inducted into our numbers every day.

None of this is happening under the banner of basement dwelling mouth breathers who can’t meet girls, either. As a matter of fact, I saw a report recently stating that millennials and hipsters seem to be spending the most money, populating trendy gaming cafes which are springing up in higher numbers the world over.

However, every bunch of apples are not without their rotten ones. We have all whispered tales of dark and gloomy FLGS wherein the inhabitants are none too clean elitists, harbouring sneering resentment for those who are “outsiders.” There have always been outcries from those who challenge the “street cred” of interlopers. Arrogant know-it-alls who proclaim with immovable resolve the quality of one edition of D&D over another, and belittle or condescend those whose opinions differ in the slightest.

These heinous acts are nothing new. Indeed in every hobby are those who have behaved poorly, ostracising any who are not instant experts or competent participants. Be it fishing, astronomy or geocaching, insensitive jerks are everywhere. We’re not special.

For us however, the stakes have always been higher. “Normal” hobbies are normal because so many more people are involved. Mainstream pastimes enjoy acceptance because they are mainstream. SO many people do it, so what is there to deride? The businesses make money and take little risk. The communities are staggering, and mistakes made are a drop in the bucket. If someone never gets interested in Cricket, there are hundreds more waiting to give it a try.

We are a comparatively smaller bunch in our bailiwick. Mistakes made by companies living on the skinny side of the profit margin (and most are), can have devastating effects on their fiscal futures, and if one person finds they are not into our scene, there may only be tens of people waiting to give it a try.

Which is why it is so important for us to police our own. That may sound a little strange at first, but it isn’t really. Even running a gaming community can be risky. I have not yet had to deal with any incident resulting in me asking someone not to return, but I have heard enough stories from those who have that it is not a great experience, and has led to an awkward kind of disharmony in the time following that is a challenge to recover from.

So when I say policing, I mean that in the kindest way. This year continues to see the releases of films and television shows that will draw new people into the hobby. A new series of Tabletop is coming to the Geek and Sundry YouTube channel, and popular licenses like Star Wars and Marvel are enjoying fantastic sales for products like X-Wing and Dice Masters. That means more people coming in to FLGS, and more people in our lives finally taking an interest in that thing we do when they’re not around. Co-workers, friends and family all of a sudden asking what all those boxes are sticking out of your bag.

The policing part comes into play with how we are going to choose to treat these new people. Notice how I haven’t once referred to them as N00Bs? That’s intentional. Labelling somebody right out of the gate is a great way to make a bad first impression. And that’s the main thing. Make a good first impression.

This is true in any situation. Job interviews, bank appointments, family dinner with a new partner’s parents. You want people to not only think well of you as a person, but also of the things that you represent. Like gaming. You can’t open a conversation with someone interested in D&D with a diatribe on why 4E sucked. Especially if they are carrying a 4E player’s handbook that they picked up at a flea market because they had heard so much about the game and finally decided to take the plunge.

Making a good impression is about being welcoming, polite, and most of all excited. Not Stepford Wives happy and polite, but not cynical and judging, either. Explaining things simply and with minimal discourse is a great start. The thing to watch for is condescension and arrogance. Just because you know everything about a given game or subject, doesn’t mean that these potential playing partners are less intelligent or not as cool as you. These are not disciples to be expounded at, they are new gamers to be laughed WITH.

If you are lucky enough to teach someone a new board game, don’t pick Mage Knight. Especially if they are only familiar with Clue. That’s another thing to work on. Picking the appropriate subject matter. Ask these people what they are interested in, and find the introductory level of that. If it’s D&D or a Star Wars RPG, grab a Beginner Box. Tile placement game? Carcassonne. Push your luck or card drafting? Zombie Dice or Sushi Go. Do they love the Marvel movies? You might consider Legendary or Dice Masters, depending on their interest. Keep it simple enough that you can teach the game in under five minutes and play it in under half an hour.

While you are playing with them, ask them about themselves. How did they find out about this place? Why come in now? Have you ever been interested or involved in gaming before? Family? Children? This is what we call small talk. It might be small, but if you mess it up, it can also have a great effect on their overall impression of what it’s like to be a gamer. If you are cold and competitive, giving no quarter and keeping to yourself, they will not have fun.

Tabletop Gaming is a social activity. Cracking wise and having chit chat is a part of the deal, and one of the big reasons more people are getting involved in an age where digital isolation is so prevalent. Asking someone questions about themselves helps them feel welcome and wanted. You are getting to know them and their preferences, which also helps you find them the next game they didn’t know they always needed to have.

Online and in stores, people complain about not being able to find people to play with. Their games sit collecting dust on a shelf and their interest in gaming withers and dies. Did you ever wonder why that is? In the last few years of this hobby, more people than ever are giving it a try. You know the games are worth it, and with online shopping worldwide, crowdfunding sites and the good ol brick and mortar stores themselves, there is no lapse in availability.

So if those aren’t the issues, what’s left? Did you ever hear the phrase, “Be the change you want to see in the world?” Well, do it. Get out there and get people gaming. And have an eye for those who might be unwittingly turning people away from the hobby and have a word with them about how they might change their own ways for the better. Really, what’s the worst that could happen?

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