My relationship with geekdom is complicated.
On the one hand, I’m absolutely a geek. But there are geeks, and then there are geeks who have honed their geekiness to a razored point and invested in one thing – the history of Cylons, or Atari, or 5e DnD rules – and if you aren’t as geeky as they on this particular topic, then you’re not a real geek. This has always struck me as a bit of a shame; geekdom is vast and glorious, and geekdom is a spectrum, and spectrums are great.
At the opposite end of this there is still a lingering cultural thing of how being a geek is Not Cool, despite the entire world having watched Star Trek, Stranger Things, Lord of the Rings, Avengers etc.. This is also a shame. For everyone who has found their identity by being the world expert in the history of cheese in video games – and good on you – there is someone who has defined their identity by being waaaayyy cooler than nerds who know about cheese in video games. What’s that you say? These anti-geek hearty realists can tell you every single goal scorer for Spurs in every game they’ve played for the last ten years, including friendlies? That’s not being a geek that’s being a real passionate and manly guy, damn you!
Anyway. The broad topic of identity as a social construct aside, I sit in this place of being a generalist nerd. I love SF/Fantasy but it’s way too big a genre for me to have read everything, which causes an immediate pang of imposter syndrome whenever someone’s like “ah, but what about x?!” I have watched loads of SF/Fantasy movies but still haven’t got round to seeing Ex Machina even though I’ve heard it’s great. (It’s on the watch list, honest.) My geekdom is a bit like that moment when you speak enough German to trick the person you’re conversing with into thinking you’re vaguely competent, at which point they reply far too fast and fluently and you have to back away and go “ah, no wait, um….”
I love computer games, have always been a PC gamer, but am the queen of waiting 12 months for the very expensive game that everyone else is already playing to halve in price before I jump on that bandwagon. I have no special interests – I cannot describe the history of racing games nor tell you why Luigi is green. I like games where I can shove archers on top of a hill and hide cavalry in a forest for a flanking attack; I like building cities; I like throwing fireballs. Also the first Mass Effect games remain an emotionally defining experience in my life and yes, yes, it was the right thing to do and I made the choice to let it happen but Mordin! Mooorrrdddinnnn!
(For any Mass Effect geeks reading this: I sacrificed Kaiden, romanced Garrus (obvs), betrayed Cerberus with glee, saved the galaxy like a goody-two-shoes paragon and brought peace and harmony wherever I went – although let me add another primal cry of Leeegggiiiooonnn!! as the price for my smugness. At the end I chose to jump down the green magic spout of narrative woo, cos the other options sucked. And I know, I know Ashley was a bit of a space-racist, but I was already playing as a biotic and kinda needed a tank, and also figured senior officers should make senior-level sacrifices. This is the end of an incredibly specific Mass Effect geek-out.)
I say all this to give context to the statement that when I say I love the youtube channels OutsideXbox and OutsideXtra, it’s possibly one of my truest geekiest joys. Do I give a damn about weird fighting games? Nope. Am I ever gonna play Metal Gear Solid? Almost certainly not. Do I even care that there were 155 original Pokemon… things…? Not even slightly. My only encounter with Pokemon was a surreal few hours I spent on a movie set watching a very excellent director and some papier mache heads doing some sort of film thing, and my best mate’s Charmander costume. Oh – and that incredibly surreal morning I spent in a shopping mall in Sendai while all around me hoards of people stood in absolute, enthralled silence on their phones like something from an episode of Dr Who, but which I’ve been told was some sort of mobile Pokemon game. And yet somehow I will happily watch two people lose their minds trying to remember all the Pokemon, in what shouldn’t be an emotional rollercoaster and yet somehow, in the nicest, fluffiest possible way, is.
Look. I’m a geek. But my geekdom is a broad, thin thing that I sometimes hesitate to share for fear of it being a) not geeky enough or b) too geeky to be cool. And yet in a time of plague… in a time of political ughness where everything is just ugh… the sheer joy and delight that have been these two channels have been a genuine blessing. On a fairly reliable schedule now and then every week I don’t have to stare out of the window and contemplate the bleakness of it all, but can instead bathe in some top-notch video game snark while a bunch of consumate professionals are consumately professional at that thing they do. And for that, right now, I am so, so grateful.
The Expanse is brilliant TV, but it’s full of people making understandably shit decisions under convincingly awful circumstances, and I can’t handle that right now. The Terror is a thoroughly well-done story of going utterly nuts and claustrophobic as the world closes in around you, and oh boy I can’t handle that right now. But half an hour of five people trying to out-compete each other with lame jokes against the clock? Yes. Honestly – yes. That’s precisely what 2020-21 ordered, thank you muchly.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the thing that they do which I wasn’t initially into, but which has now grown into something of a cultural highlight in my household, towit: playing DnD. I grew up playing DnD on the PC via stuff like Baldur’s Gate 2 (that moment the whole monstrous transformation thing happened is still seered into my youthful teenage brain as a moment of pure narrative betrayal and excellence) or Neverwinter Nights (I have fewer strong feelings about Aribeth but it’s definitely stuck with me) but I always kept this secret. If people knew that I liked it I’d definitely be a Geek Too Far, which actually in the early 2000s for a girl at a posh secondary school, was probably a fairly decent survival instinct. The idea of playing the pen-and-paper version as a result held no interest for me whatsoever, because clearly, if I did, I would be shunned.
Now DnD is coming back into popular culture all across the board – even amongst those many people who absolutely aren’t geeks, nah mate, not me, it’s just that they’ve watched every Star Wars movie and have strong feelings about Captain Marvel and play DnD, but they’re not geeks, not nerds, you know?? The internet has started filling up with very earnest people who are interested in wringing high drama and intense feelings from pretending to be halflings, and while that’s cool, it’s not my cuppa tea. Whereas the Oxbox/Oxtra DnD games are an exercise in pure, gleeful, joyful delight. A huge amount of this comes down to their ridiculously excellent DM, Johnny Chiodini, who has recently started a patreon and whose efforts are 100% worth your time.
When I was a judge for the Kitschies we had to consider three criteria when choosing a shortlist of final books. Were the nominees a) progressive b) intelligent and c) entertaining? ‘Intelligent’ felt fairly easy for us all to agree on – it’s not too hard to spot a dumb book. ‘Progressive’ was a minefield. Its briliance was in how open to interpretation it was as an idea, and we would spend inordinate amounts of time arguing over its meaning. In that process we could sometimes forget the final criteria – entertaining. It’s all very well having a hugely intelligent book about interesting stuff, but if every single page is a slog that leaves you wanting to pluck your eyes out, is that really the win we all hope for? Entertainment – joyful entertainment – is a gift that has become even more precious in the last twelve months. And right now Oxbox and Oxtra are the two most entertaining highlights of my week, and for that I give inordinate, endless thanks.