Getting Geek Speak
“Alright,” I announce to tonight’s band of adventurers—really a roomful of teenage boys, huddled around a pile of character sheets and 20-sided dice, but in our game they are sorcerers, bards, and fighters. I’m reading from a script, setting the scene for our adventure: “You’ve been traveling through the stark hills for several days. The trip has been uneventful, though at times you heard growling and thought you saw vague figures lurking—”
“Hey, I’m getting drunk,” one of them interrupts.
Every summer, starting from age ten, I went to computer camp. For someone whose previous campy experience had been entirely outdoors, this new routine was a strange change of pace. It felt weird to call something a “camp” if it didn’t involve picking ticks off your skin and taking midnight trips to a sketchy latrine. And the college cafeterias where we ate seemed like royal banquet halls to my 10 year-old self. Plus, I learned a lot of things I loved at computer camp: some Java and C++ programming, how to build a computer, the basics of Photoshop and Flash animation, and so on. But mostly, computer camp taught me how to break the rules.
During the school year, I was the furthest thing from a rule breaker. I kept quiet during class. I turned my homework in on time. If I wasn’t paying attention to the teacher, it wasn’t because I was pelting my neighbors with spitballs or hacking away at my desk with a pair of safety scissors; it was probably because I was just engrossed in a good book.
I’m not sure when or why I became obsessed with birds, but as far back as I can remember, Big Bird was my favorite Sesame Street character, Lugia was my favorite Pokémon, and Woodstock was my favorite Peanuts character. In kindergarten, I fancied myself a “bird photographer” and ran around taking pictures of robins and cowbirds in our backyard with the family camera. Since our camera was meant for cutesy family portraits rather than high-definition wildlife photography, the birds looked more like little black specks, but I kept on trying, convinced I just hadn’t gotten the hang of it yet. I nearly got in a car wreck once when I swerved into another lane, thinking I had spotted a rare bird species in my rearview mirror. As it turns out, it was just a mockingbird.
For us older folk, Magic: The Gathering—a fantasy-themed trading card game created in 1993—is a mature, strategic affair (or at least, as mature and strategic as any game featuring battling dragons and unicorns can be), played in dusty card shops nationwide. Playgroups vary, but the groups I have played with tend to be 20-something geeky dudes with ego to spare. Magic, in these circles, is as serious as a varsity sport. I would know: In high school, I spent hours crafting decks and researching strategies in hopes of ascending to Magic fame.
But there are always some ten-year-olds who wander into the shop, itching to play without knowing how. It is generally either mortifying or awkward when you are placed across the table from them. On the one hand, it looks bad for you (and your ranking) if you get beaten by a pre-teen punk. But on the other hand, you feel dirty using your 100-dollar deck of cards and five years’ experience to destroy them on turn two.
One evening during reading period, on a night my GPA will never forget, one of my blockmates asked me a simple question: “Have you ever heard of Smogon University?”
Though the name suggests a sketchy, get-your-degree-in-four-months-for-an-absurdly-inflated-price sort of institution, it turns out that Smogon University is an online community devoted to competitive Pokémon battling. I thought I knew all there was to know about Pokémon. You catch these cute yet strange little critters (which can eventually become very large critters), and you use attacks based on whatever your opponent’s weaknesses are. Most of these tactics are pretty obvious: water beats fire, fire beats grass, and so on. Its supersedes tic-tac-toe in intellectual sophistication—but just barely.