Published on November 15th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
The Gentrification of Game Stores
or What it Means to be a Safe Space
I am fourteen years old. In the over-lit gaming hall, my peer group awaits: waist length hair and scraggly beards top the unwashed, torn, death metal t-shirts that tightly grip the rotund features of my fellow players. The smell is unmistakeable, a combination of a stale gym locker room mixed with the acrid twang of Mountain Dew. The windowless room at the back of the game store is crowded with people, exclusively males, who are huddled over flimsy folding tables while trying unsuccessfully to keep cheeto powder and an amazing amount of hand sweat off their hundreds of dollars worth of brightly colored pewter and cardboard. I balk. Suddenly I feel as if I am faced with a choice that will determine my place in the social order for the most important years of my life, and I can see all of my past social choices building up to this.
Just before this I had moved from a small town of ten thousand people to a larger town of three hundred thousand people. Now I had discovered something I had never even thought could exist: a game store. Not the EB Games store at the mall where all the high school boys my age went to buy the latest Mortal Kombat game, but an actual tabletop game store. The front of the store was loaded with Warhammer minis and World of Darkness books, both things I had never seen before, and I was in awe. I spent a good hour just wandering the store, looking at every single thing and taking it all in. During this time people would enter the store and filter through to some back area. After watching several people disappear like this I decided to take a look myself and see what was so much cooler than all the merchandise I’d been adoring up front.
In that sweaty mass of nerds I had found a Warhammer Fantasy tournament, and more than that I had found a safe space. At school and at church I was never able to really discuss my hobbies with other people. Video games were mostly fine to talk about, but once you started mentioning painting “army men” or, God forbid, Dungeons & Dragons then your social standing went out the window. I was tired of the weird looks and the blank stares when I brought up Lord of the Rings or how Starship Troopers was a much better book than a film. In this space, the friendly local gaming store, I could talk with other people like me and share my hobbies and interests without fear of judgement or loss in social standing. For the first time in my life I felt like I had found an inclusive group of people.
Inclusivity is a complex concept, especially in application. As a straight, white male I had found a safe space, but not all people would feel welcomed in that crowd. The popular conception of what it means to be a nerd has changed a lot in the last ten years. The idea that being nerdy or having nerdy interests is correlated with an outsider social status is rapidly losing ground. When I was in high school in the late ’90s and early ’00s there was still a very strong Revenge of the Nerds association with things like fantasy and science fiction literature and tabletop gaming. Now that being a nerd is mainstream and kind of cool, the sorts of communities that surround what is seen as “nerd culture” are also changing to accommodate all of this new blood. This has led to a lot of growing pains as what I had originally seen as a welcoming, accepting group of people began to become more exclusive as a larger group of people began calling themselves nerds.
The influx of new blood created a problem from the perspective of the old-timers: these cool, young kids didn’t earn the nerd badge by being saddled with it in high school and then reluctantly reclaiming it as they grew older. The community, from their point of view, was filling with people who had never been bullied or beat up for reading Dragonlance or for painting miniatures- people who then had the gall to criticize nerd culture and media as if they knew anything about either. It is a difficult thing when subcultures get co-opted into the mainstream: media gets sanitized, the message of the material is lost on people who just look at the surface… just ask any old punk rocker what they think of Green Day and you’ll get a similar story. The nerdy safe spaces were being invaded by people wearing H&M, people who looked and talked and acted like the people that a large part of the existing nerd community had explicitly ran away and hid from. And there was nothing the old guard could do about it.
“[A safe space is] A place where anyone can relax and be fully self-expressed, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, age, or physical or mental ability; a place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” –Advocates for Youth
The question of whether something should be done about the mainstreaming of nerd culture also naturally arises. Many people who are just now coming into the fullness of their own brand of nerdiness were people who were sympathetic to the outsider crowd but either weren’t able or weren’t willing to sacrifice social capital within their peer group to gain access to the crowd that talked about nerdy things. Maybe they grew up in a conservative family where D&D was considered evil, or perhaps they liked Lord of the Rings in high school but didn’t want to hang out with any of the people they knew also liked it because those people lacked other shared experiences and interests. When I was a teenager I was never a greasy-haired, smelly nerd archetype- but I knew a lot of people who were. I don’t want to perpetuate a stereotype that all nerds or old guard are like that, as that is very emphatically not true, but our community does have its fair share of neckbeards who don’t seem to know much about personal space or social boundaries. Looking back on that first game store I found, I can understand why some people would not find the nerd dungeon a safe space.
If there is anything good about nerd culture getting co-opted by the mainstream it is the increased scrutiny the spotlight places on the shady underbelly of our subculture. There are many places in my amazing extended family of nerds that very much needed to be brought into the 21st century. Let’s face it, this crowd has been a weird reflection of an Old Boy’s club for far too long and we’re overdue for a correction of that fact. Our nerd spaces and local game stores should reflect the fact that we’re accepting of people of all stripes and shouldn’t just be a grognard zone. Things aren’t perfect yet, but as we continue to discuss what it means to grow our communities we’re sure to see improvements to the tenor of our shared spaces.
So what is a safe space? A safe space, in the context of nerdy public areas, is a place where everyone can discuss and participate in nerdy ventures without feeling uncomfortable, uninvited or excluded. A game store or other public gaming area should be inviting to people of all stripes: every race, religion, color and creed. A safe space should be a place where you don’t hear insults being thrown around, or have people grill you on the amount of nerd cred you have. I’m asking that we all make a community that always strives to be:
- Welcoming – When you see people you haven’t seen before, say hello, invite them to play a game with you!
- Patient – Many people are new to the scene, and some people just need a little more time than others.
- Accepting – You may not be the same gender, color, economic class, political party, sexual orientation or a many number of other things as someone else. This should not be a problem.
- Assertive – If you see someone being a jerk, please call them on it. There’s no need to be nasty (most of the time) but letting people know in a firm, clear manner that certain behavior is not acceptable helps everyone in the long run.
This list goes for both the old guard and the newcomers to our collective playground; because when you became a nerd has nothing to do with how well-mannered or well-informed you are. Over all, the idea is to be inclusive. There are many kinds of gamers, just as there are many kinds of people and we should strive to celebrate the hobby that we all mutually enjoy.
I am so thankful to live in a place where our nerdy spaces are so well kept and inviting. My main game store, Gamma Ray Games, was voted Seattle Weekly’s Best Place to Meet Single Men in Seattle. Phoenix Comics is still new, but amazingly inclusive of our huge amounts of diversity in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Card Kingdom in Ballard is always jumping with activity and the staff and patrons alike are always friendly and accepting. I’m glad that Seattle is the home of both PAX and of GeekGirlCon. Most of all, I’m grateful to be a nerd and have you all as my family. Just remember to be excellent to each other.