Real Nerds Only: A Beginner’s Guide to Gaming Venues

This week has had some familiar tropes resurfacing about attempts to enter the nerding world. I was first linked to an article about the trials and tribulations of a woman with the audacity to want to play fighting games in a community outside of her living room. What followed is exactly what you might expect: confusion, cold shoulders, condescension, callousness and creepers.  This article was followed by a piece about the growing, very dangerous, and wholly imaginary threat of imposter nerds. You know, those pretty girls that say they like stuff that they shouldn’t just to carry out some clandestine operation within your gaming circle.

The small oversight that I thought to comment on is that these experiences are not purely gendered. Granted, they are added to and exaserbated by being of the wrong gender, but they are not unique to female invaders of gaming spaces.

I like to think of myself as something of a renaissance man of nerdery. I’m a peripheral part of a lot of communities and at various times I have been the insider, the outsider, the participant, victim or idle observer in rather a lot of these situations and so I’d like to add to the narrative. What follows are my observations and interpretations of the patterns of the initiation of new members to a nerd enclave regardless of gender.

Perhaps this will give outsiders a better understanding of Hatter’s tea parties and dark ritual circles that seems to occupy the various gaming venues.  Perchance it will help those on the inside remember what it was like to be new, and unprepared. More likely, though, it will just give me opportunity to make some silly pictures.

First I want to talk about a few of the individuals that you might likely meet in a den of nerds that may make your experience something of an endurance test. I’ve only included the sort of people that I have seen actively seeking out and engaging with newcomers. While there are psychotics, introverts and troglodytes lurking in the shadows, along with normal folk just there for a good time, they tend to keep to themselves unless asked.


The Bridge Troll

By troll, I don’t mean as in the modern vernacular of internet wankery. I mean the sort that hides under bridges and demands absurd tolls. You may also think of the Bridge keeper from Holy Grail, someone who takes it as their duty to test the heroes before they pass the threshold.  These folks quiz new people on their experience and knowledge with the apparent goal of making that person feel wholly inadequate.

While I’m fairly certain that the intention behind these interrogations is a usually a combination of curiosity and categorization for the interrogator, it comes off as antagonistic and often creepily prying for the brave new knights attempting to cross the bridge into the unknown. This feeling is amplified when an entire table full of people decide to dissect the newbie at once.

I have seen someone sit down with some magic players, because they used to play in high school, and be subjected to fifteen minutes of rigorous questioning by several players at the table about colors, strategies, famous players, specific cards… While those players were just trying to figure out what deck of theirs would be best to lend the newcomer and which to use themselves to make a fun and challenging game for all, the newcomer was so frazzled by the experience, they rejected the offer and left.

At their worst, though, Bridge Trolls are exactly as they seem; they are a self appointed tribunal to see whether you are worthy of acceptance. They will test you and they will let you know when you fail. And you will fail.



Ever played Ocarina of Time? Ever wanted to kill that damned fairy that wouldn’t shut up and leave you alone? Well if you haven’t, you would.  There is an analogous member of many gaming shops and they are, while possibly the most well intentioned people you will meet there, the most annoying. These are the folks that will recognize that you are new, and “help”. Note that I did not say “offer to help”. No, they will just go right ahead and help and they will be so nice about it that it is nearly impossible to refuse their constant, incessant, unending, introduction to whatever you might be trying to do.

You might imagine that these would be the staff members, and sometimes they are, but often the denizens of these shops spend so much time there that they forget that they are not staff, and that there may be a reason for that.  I think that where these helpful individuals trip up is that, perhaps, they read tension and nervousness in others as being caused by uncertainty. Uncertainty is best solved with explanation, right? Knowledge and understanding will make people more comfortable, will it not? More tension, more explanation. Simple.

This is, of course, often true. But when the things causing tension are the explanations and unwanted attention themselves, it becomes a deadly cycle. I once sat at a gaming table while someone actually explained the mechanics of rolling dice to a curious walk-in because she looked uncertain when handed the dice.  The Navi was not explaining how to discern between a d10 and a d12, mind you, or some strange arcane use of polyhedrons hereunto known only to gods and devils, she was explaining about rolling two six-sided dice and adding up the dots… to an adult.

The rest of the table got on quite well with the new patron, though, as we quietly exchanged polite glances that let her know that we were all aware of how ridiculous this was and that we respected her ability to roll dice and perform simple arithmetic.  Her Navi was completely oblivious to this, to the amusement of all, even the newbie.  So at least there’s a happy ending to this story.


The Geyser

Also known as the anti-hipster or, somewhat more colourfully, as the squee-vomiting-fanboy.

Have you ever been so excited about something that you had to share? So overcome with glee that you couldn’t stop talking about it? So utterly exuberant that you would berate any stranger fool enough to make eye contact about your particular passion? I have. And I apologize to those that have suffered in imposed silence.

There is something charming and wonderful about the part of geek culture that wants to share. It is fantastic to see people exchanging ideas and enjoying each other’s passion for whatever arcanum to which they are particularly inclined.  However, all too often, these passionate individuals are unable to contain themselves for an appropriate and appreciative audience and erupt all over anyone who shows even a passing interest.

If ever you’ve been assaulted by one of these enthusiasts, you will know the feeling that grows as you are bombarded with anecdotes, history, and trivia. It is the sense that you will never be as passionate as they are, a sense that you do not and cannot belong in their club. It becomes clear that this is a place for the mad, not for you. Bedlam is not a welcoming place.

So sad to know that many casual participants are chased away by the overwhelming enthusiasm of rabid devotees.


Those are just a couple of the troublesome folks that you might run into when venturing into a public gaming space.  But how do you recognize the gaming spaces themselves?  What might you expect in the vast wide world of public venues hosting gaming events? In my experience, mostly friendly and helpful folk. They tend to game in public places because they don’t have a consistent gaming group of their own, so they are sympathetic to the plight of the uninitiated. It is not uncommon, though to find yourself in a less welcoming environment. Here is a short list of over-generalized stereotypes:

The Old Guard

These guys are instantly recognizable to any patron of gaming shops, especially small ones. They are a group that has been gaming together, almost exclusively in that exact spot, since they were zygotes. They should, by all reckoning, be gaming at one of their houses, but it is unclear that they have their own homes, or ever leave their seats. Brush away the cobwebs, push aside the member that appears to have fossilized and ask to join up and you’ll be met with utter bewilderment.

There’s a stunned silence, as if you had just died and they’re not sure how to inform you of the fact. It is not necessarily that you are unwelcome, though you may well be, but more likely it is that it has been so long since a new member has joined their enclave, that they’ve entirely forgotten the form. They stare at you, trying to discern what sort of thing you might be, searching for some distant fleeting memory of a time before the campaign had begun.

If you somehow manage to penetrate their inner circle, you will spend much of the following weeks having them attempt to share stories, realize that the story doesn’t make sense without the context of a yet older story, and be caught in a recursion of anecdotes.


Fight Club

Remember Fight Club? The movie? If not, go watch it. I’ll wait. Got it? Good.

It would seem that some gamers saw that movie and thought it a brilliant model for their group.  What could be more fun than a night of beating the living shit out of each other, verbally, virtually and occasionally physically?  There’s nothing more welcoming than controller throwing, table flipping, epithet spewing competition, right?

This sort of thing is rampant in competitive video gaming but can be found in just about any head to head gaming subculture. Ever seen someone break their fist on a wall after losing a friendly game of Magic the Gathering? It happens.

I can’t say much about the nuances of these groups. The couple of times that I’ve stumbled across one, I’ve run screaming. I think they like it that way.

True Gamers

There is a lot of talk about there not being a such a thing as a true gamer. With the sentiment of this argument, I agree. Everyone should be allowed to play in the way in which they enjoy and if they play games, they are gamers. However, there is a such thing as a true gamer. They deserve the label as both a badge of honour and a warning to others.

These people are spooky intense. When they’re playing, that is all they are doing. There is no talk outside of what is mandated by play. There is no joy in their eyes. There is no love or sympathy for their opponent, not while the cards are on the table. They are miserable people to play with socially, so they congregate with others who understand that gaming isn’t about having fun.

When you walk into a venue that hosts these people, you will know it by the deafening silence. Nobody will look up. Nobody will help you find your way. If you try to intrude on their game with questions, you will most likely get the shortest answer possible, if they even notice. What seems like rudeness is actually focus. They may not be yet consciously aware of you. The response was automatic. If you actually pulled them out of the game, they would not thank you.

These are fine places to hone your skills and test your mettle, but for the beginner, it’s a cold, heartless hell.


Share your sordid tales of gaming store invasions below.


Ryan is a professional nerd, teaching engineering in the frozen north. Somewhat less professionally, he is a costumer, author, blacksmith, juggler, gamer, serial enthusiast, and supporter of the Oxford comma. He can be found on twitter and instagram @studentofwhim. If you like what I do here, feel free to leave a tip in my tipjar.

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  1. Can I tell a happy story?

    I started Larping 10 years ago, then took a hiatus, and have recently restarted.

    When I first started, people took “half damage from girls”, often asked me where my boyfriend was, gave ENDLESS unsolicited advice (just like your example above), only RPed with me to ask me to go “make out” with elves in the trees, assumed my armor wasn’t real…
    I could categorize the interactions just like you did with game store citizens.

    But now! Oh, frabjous day! People ask me rules questions, spar with me to get practice, seek me out for important missions, don’t argue about treasure with me… And because I’ve been away for a while, I can’t really chalk it up to experience. The attitude has just changed! I’m so proud of my Larpers! So, if you have trouble fitting in at a game store, come Larp! Apparently, we are a great bunch. 🙂

    Of course, it is not universally true, but the change is pretty drastic! I think it is due to the hard work of a group of players who WANT to bring new people to the game and understand what helps that happen. Hooray for happy endings!

    So, how can we, video/boardgamers create an inclusive environment? Can we create National New Gamers Day? I’m serious! What are we going to do to fix our problem?

  2. I know exactly what you mean by those game shop people! Of course it’s worse being female, because women know nothing about gaming right? It got so bad at the Gamestop near me, I can’t remember the incident, but it caused me to call the manager and report the employees as being sexist. I think it probably was being taunted for playing games for babies because I didn’t like violent games. It’s crap like that which made me order games of Amazon almost exclusively. Although really I don’t buy games much now that you can download them. I’ll never understand it, yeah you look big and macho in front of all your male friends, yet wondering why no one will date you.

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