The State of Geek Culture’s March, and we are now weeks away from the beginning of Convention season.

I know that conventions actually go on year-round, but March is often considered the kick-off of convention season with Emerald City Comicon at the end of March and going through New York Comic Con at the beginning of October.

Already, I hear the laments of cosplayers trying to get their costumes done in time. I hear fans complaining that San Diego Comic Con sold out in under an hour, again. I have friends doing panels at conventions who are stressing about what they are going to say. I had one person explain to me how the Gen Con Hotel lottery system is broken and how he wrote a program to fix it, if they would just respond to him.

All in all, pretty normal stuff.

But this year feels different.

There has been a lot of stress lately in geek culture and, with convention season almost here, people have to deal with what is happening in person instead of just online. The concerns about harassment, and even violence, have a lot of people on edge.

Most of what is going on is not new. I have been covering it here for the last few years. A lot of the old factors are still at play: misogyny, gatekeeping, fear mongering, and privilege. What has changed is the level of focus.

It would be easy to say that this is all Gamergate’s fault, but that would be over simplifying the situation. Gamergate is not the cause of what is happening, it has simply provided a rally point for the problematic aspects of geek culture. The old triggers are still at the heart of what is going on, but what has caused things to go ballistic is actually the fact that things have been improving.

Last year we saw several conventions adopt harassment policies that were well worded and comprehensive enough to actually be effective. You have also seen women, minorities, and LGBT come forth and demand representation and a safe place to be geeks with the rest of us. You’ve seen the industries that fuel geek culture start to respond positively to these segments of their audience.

Sadly, for many people, strides made by others are seen not as an expansion of geek culture but as a threat to them. It’s as if even though 95% of everything is still being about them, they begrudge the other 5%.

Thus, we have the atmosphere of fear that now pervades geek culture. The old guard fear that they are losing something, and they use fear to try to drive off those they see as interlopers. And with the escalation of threats, there is a legitimate fear of violence.

But as awful as Gamergate is, it also has a silver lining.

Yes, there are people being driven off, or deciding never to join in geek culture due to this, but others are being galvanized. People who might have just been going along have become activists to show that the harassers are a vocal minority and not representative of our culture.

The escalation of harassment is terrible, but it has caused wider exposure to it, resulting in more discussion on how to deal with it. It has also led to more mainstream media attention, which helps.

I am not saying it is all rainbows and kittens. I know several people who have been targeted. One had to find a new bank, due to repeated hacking attempts at her account. Another deleted her twitter history after receiving a Gamergate education post, so that she could remove any potential information about her daughter.

As a white heterosexual cis male, I doubt I can even begin to imagine what it is like to be a woman, minority, or LGBT on the internet.

I also do not expect any of this to just go away. I have been writing about it since 2012 and I expect I will still be writing about it, on some level, in 2020.

But as long as we still talk about it, and make sure we as a culture strive to be better, I can have hope for the future.

Until then I am still going to several conventions this year, and plan to do my part to make sure they are safe and inviting events for everyone there.

Fanboy News Network Episode 20

Fanboy News Network Episode 20

“A Geek Culture Review Of 2014”

Jeff is Joined by Jillian Venters of Gothic Charm School, Michael Montoure and Jennifer Lovely of Don’t Read the Latin, and Jennifer’s husband Brian to look back at the past year in geek culture.

Fanboy News Network Episode 5

Fanboy logo

“2013: the year in geek culture”

A look at some of the big events in geek culture from the past year, and a look ahead to 2014.

The Safe House Restaurant

safe house

I mentioned the Safe House back when I was talking about trips to Milwaukee for Wizards of the Coast. It was a natural hang out for a bunch of geeks in town for a convention. However, I did not take time to describe it, as no short blurb would do it justice, and those columns were already so long.

So, as promised, here is the story of the Safe House.

The Safe House is a spy themed restaurant and bar located in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, that opened in 1966. It is easily the most interesting themed bar I have ever been in. This is due to just how into the spy theme they have gotten.

First off you have to find it. Part of the fun is the amount of secrecy involved. Going here to their web site even includes an agreement to not disclose their location. Please tell me I don’t need to explain the joke on that last one.

Let’s take a step back, for a moment, and go over the experience from the beginning. First off, be warned that the last time I visited Milwaukee was in 1994, but I suspect that what I experienced then is still largely true today.

The first time I went there was  with other folks from WotC in 1993, while we were in Milwaukee for Gen Con. I didn’t know what to expect, only that the Gen Con veterans said that going was a must. We took cabs, as none of us expected to be in driving shape later that evening.

The setup is interesting. First off there are no signs that say Safe House. What you do find is a door in an alley with a plaque over it that says “International Import and Export”. Going through that door, you find yourself in a small office. There is a person sitting at a desk who asks if he can help you. One of the people in my group knew the password, so we were fine. (No, I am not going to give you the password; it’s been 19 years, for all I know it is different now, anyway.)

But not to despair if you do not know the password, the person behind the desk can help you out, as long as you pass a test of loyalty. The test can vary: you might have to try and use a hula hoop, you might have to put on a wig and sing and dance to Stop in the name of Love, or you might have to put on bunny ears and hop around the office singing Little Bunny Foo Foo. No matter which of the events transpire eventually the person behind the desk will be satisfied and will press a button, causing a bookshelf to open up. Through the bookshelf is a hallway reminiscent of Get Smart. At the end of the hall way is an automatic door that opens into the bar proper. If you had to perform a test of loyalty you may find yourself getting a round of applause, as there is a video feed from the office that can be viewed in the bar.

Even with pictures, you couldn’t really do the Safe House justice by describing it. The interior design is a bit of a maze. It has three floors (well, really four, but I will get to that). Back in 93 there were three bars, which I assume is still the case. The main one (right by the entrance), a small one on the second floor, and a medium one of the third floor. There were various seating areas including a dining area, smaller dining tables styled as holding cells, a seating area with booths featuring beaded curtains, and traditional bar seating. There were also pneumatic tubes that connected the bars, through which they could send each other messages, but usually there were only glow sticks moving through so that there was some visible action.

But it was actually the other theming elements that really made the Safe House fun. A simple one was that the bartender at the small bar on the second floor was also a magician. Others were more involved.

There were two different alarms that would go off periodically. The first sounded like an air raid siren. It went off whenever anyone ordered a drink called the Spy’s demise. This was a drink that had (and likely still has) a limit of one per night, due to how strong it was, and which had to be ordered at the third floor bar, so they could keep track. The siren went off as soon as you were handed the drink.

The other alarm sounded more like a bank alarm. I asked our waitress what it was about, and she told me that in the women’s restroom was a nude picture of Burt Reynolds with a flap covering his crotch; the alarm would go off whenever someone lifted the flap.

There was another special drink called the Hail to the Chief. You did not order it for yourself. It was a drink your friends would order for you, and had to be done at the main bar. When it was ordered, the recipient was escorted from their seat and taken down to the basement and placed in an interrogation chair. They would then be asked questions, mostly personal and some just oddball. Once the interrogation was over they were handed their drink.

And then the chair they were in would rise up and carry them to the main floor where they found themselves facing the bar. A screen at the bar would start playing a video and the captions in the video would make use of the information learned during the interrogation.

Two other elements, that I personally enjoyed, were the payphone booths. Again this was 1993/94, in the days before everyone had a cell phone. The first of these was called the alibi phone; it was a normal payphone booth, except that it was fairly well soundproofed, and it also had a panel with a dozen buttons that were labeled with things like “bowling alley”, “airport”, or “Italian restaurant”. You could make a call, and press a button to cause a recording of background noise (appropriate to what you selected) that would play on loop, during your call. The other phone booth was what I called the escape phone.  You went in, picked up the phone, and put in a quarter. The phone gave you a number sequence. You entered the sequence into the phone and a wall opened to a stair case that lead you to the basement, past the interrogation room, and out of the bar. It was one of three exits the bar had.

These were not the only touches the Safe House had, but I don’t want to give away everything and, in nineteen years, I am sure there have been changes.

What I remember most about going to the Safe House was the fun that came from the total dedication to the spy theme, not just in how it was set up, but from the staff as well. You could have the best themed bar in the world, but if the staff wasn’t supporting it, it would just fall apart. Fortunately, the Safe House did not have that problem. The staff was engaging and pleasant.

In the years since, I have often thought about the Safe House, and wished that we had a place like it in the Seattle area. The problem is that you need to have a community that can support such a place. Locally, we now have a lot of geek themed restaurants, like the AFK Tavern that I wrote about previously. But these are general geek themed, and not as specific or as immersive as the Safe House. I think the reasons are that it would be a huge risk to make something like that fly and you need regular patronage. Seattle is not known for its night life and even well liked clubs and bars will fold, and so a specialty place would be a hard sell. I think the same can be said for a lot of cities, which is why places like the Safe House are so unique.

As for the Safe House being the best themed bar I have ever visited, this is true, but my sister, who never had a chance to visit it, challenges that she found a better one. Time Scare in New York, which is a horror themed bar, with a year round haunted house attraction.

Until either I finally visit New York, or she visits Milwaukee we may never know.

But if you find yourself in Milwaukee, I highly recommend seeking out the Safe House.

Just don’t tell them I told you to.


The Dickwolves rise again


I had planned to have a completely different subject for this week’s column, but then the dickwolves had to rear their ugly heads. So now I feel the need to really weigh in on this matter.

Some ground rules before we get into this. I am going to recap what led us to this sorry state of affairs, if for no other reason than to make clear what my understanding of it is. Then I am going to give my opinion on what it all means and what can be done about it.

And due to the subject at hand, I feel the need to place a trigger warning here. This subject includes discussion of rape and sexual harassment. I am going to go in bluntly at times, so be aware going in.

And with that, here we go.

This all started on August 11th 2010 when the web comic Penny Arcade published a strip titled The Sixth Slave. The strip was about the odd morality presented in MMOs where you are given a quest to rescue five slaves. In it, a sixth slave begs for rescue and when detailing the horrid conditions of his captivity says he is raped nightly by monsters called dickwolves. The mention of rape is not the central them of the strip, and is clearly there as a means to make the condition of the slave as horrible as possible.

However it was still a gratuitous use of rape as set up for a joke and some people did take offense. The creators of Penny Arcade, Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins, reacted to the criticism by offering a quick commentary in their blog which amounted to “agree to disagree.” If that was all they had done I doubt I would be writing this right now. They also made a response strip called Breaking it down, which made light of the rape concerns.

This was the insult that really started the issue. Several blogs and even newspapers comment on the situation and almost universally object to how Penny Arcade had handled the situation. If you are interested in looking at these then go here to the Tumblr Debacle Timeline which has an exact timeline of events and links to articles.

Penny Arcade responded to these complaints by making dickwolves merchandise and selling them through their store.

Courtney Stanton, who had been asked to speak at the Penny Arcade convention PAX East, said she would not go to the convention as she is a rape survivor and could not support them, due to how the dickwolves situation was being handled. There were a couple of responses to this. One is that the dickwolves merchandise was removed from the Penny Arcade store. The other is that Courtney Stanton starts getting harassed by Penny Arcade fans. Of special note is that a pro Penny Arcade twitter account, @teamrape, is created with the express purpose of harassing people who voice any disapproval or the Penny Arcade over the dickwolves.

During all this there were no comments from Jerry Holkins. Mike Krahulik does comment, but only to mock the complaints or egg on the fans who are supporting the dickwolves. Again look at Debacle Timeline for specific examples.

And there were death threats made. Courtney Stanton of course received both death and rape threats. So did many others who commented on the situation. My friend Mickey Schulz, who writes Geek Girls Rule, wrote about this and to this day receives threats whenever the story resurfaces.

In February of 2011, Krahulik also received a death threat. This marks the only time Holkins makes any comment, to decry the people threatening Mike and to ask people on both sides to calm down.

There is much more that happened over the next year. Far more than I can possibly go over here. Again, debacle timeline covers it all very well.

Over time the dickwolves controversy, while never going away, faded into the background. But it was not completely forgotten. In July of this year, Krahulik had another controversy come up when he got into a twitter fight over his views on transgender. I covered that situation here. Unlike the dickwolves situation, Krahulik actually apologized and made an act of contrition. It was a good sign. However, this incident, combined with the dickwolves, led indie game developer The Fullbright Company to cancel their booth at PAX prime.

There was also an article posted by the Financial Post, in July, titled Penny Arcade needs to fix its Krahulik Problem. While a direct response to the transgender issue, it does reference the dickwolves.

And this leads us to the most recent event. On the last day of PAX Prime, at a panel, when asked what his biggest regret was Krahulik said it was removing the dickwolves merchandise from the Penny Arcade store. PA President of Operations and Business Development Robert Khoo backed him up, saying the complaints should have been ignored. The audience cheered and applauded.

This, of course, has reopened the wounds of the entire controversy. Almost immediately, articles and blog posts came up condemning the statements by Krahulik and Khoo. On the flip side, you had posts once again calling those making complaints crybabys, and defending Penny Arcade by pointing out all the good work they do.

On Wednesday, following PAX Krahulik posted an apology and clarification on his position. While he does think it was a mistake to pull the dickwolves merchandise he does state that he thinks making it in the first place was also a mistake. He basically says that their handling of the entire situation was a long series of mistakes.

So where does this leave us?

First, why does this situation keep having legs?

The problem comes down to the how Penny Arcade overall, and Mike Krahulik in specific, have dealt with the situation.

As I said earlier, the original joke was about the senseless and abusive MMO story mechanics but the execution of the joke was crass and caused the point to get lost in the ensuing argument.

The entire mess could have been avoided, in the first place, if Krahulik and Holkins had just apologized for offending readers and moved on. Even a BS non-apology, or simply ignoring the situation, would have probably led to it blowing over. Instead, they opted to mock those complaining and double down on the offense. That fact that Krahulik himself says he now recognizes this is hopefully a step in the right direction.

But there are a lot of people not giving any slack on this. They have pointed out that this is not the first time he has apologized, after doing something like this, and yet here we are again. There are a lot of people saying that this is purely a PR move by Penny Arcade, and that when everything dies down it will be back to business as usual. This could very well be the case, and if true than something else will happen again, and we will all be having this discussion all over again. That is assuming this blows over, this time.

There is also a lot of speculation that this may not have been the most sincere of apologies.

One good question, about the apology, has already been raised: if Krahulik says that he regrets everything they did, than why, when asked at the panel, did he say his biggest regret was pulling the dickwolves merchandise, instead of saying his biggest regret was making it in the first place?

Also, there is no mention of any steps he is taking to avoid doing this in the future. Now it could simply be that he is not the most introspective of individuals, and taking those steps never dawned on him. It could also be that the entire apology is damage control, with no other purpose behind it.

Really, there is no way for us to know.

For the purposes of the rest of the points I want to make, we will be taking Krahulik’s comments from Wednesday at face value. Just mentally add “if he is truly sincere” to everything I write, from this point on.

Krahulik had stated, during the transgender incident, that when he feels threatened he gets hostile. If he is now recognizing this, and trying to work on it. then it is a step in the right direction.

When the comments appeared on Monday, Krahulik appeared to be lacking in this empathy. I think there may be some truth to this still, as he seems to not have the necessary awareness when he says things like he did on Monday. It is also possible that his apology comes from the fact that he has at least learned to recognize when something is blowing up in his face. His comments on Wednesday show that this may not be the case. The impression coming out of his latest comments could be those of someone who is in over his head. I don’t think he ever imagined, when starting the comic with Holkins, that they would end up running one of the largest conventions in the industry, and be seen as role models by the community. He has said that he still sees himself as just the guy that draws a web comic.

Unfortunately for Krahulik and Holkins, they now are role models, and off the cuff comments from them do have an effect.

Then you have the fans. As I stated earlier, Penny Arcade fans can get really passionate and aggressive against PA critics. They have been known to crash web sites in the name of PA. Hell, I recognize that just by writing this column I could very well become a victim of the Penny Arcade fan rage. But if Mickey can stand up to regular death and rape threats, then I can handle being called names and maybe having my site crashed.

Let us remember that the fans cheered when the dickwolves were brought up and people in the audience called for the merchandise to be brought back.

There is a very straight forward problem with all of this. Penny Arcade has made a goal of making PAX a safe and inclusive environment for all gaming fans. In fact, they have one of the best harassment policies of any large scale convention that I have seen. However, with the continual uproar over the dickwolves and the stirring up of the fans, they actually create a hostile environment for rape survivors and, really, women in general. During PAX east, in 2011, the @teamrape twitter tried to organize a dickwolves flash mob, and did so using classic bullying language (come join our fun dickwolves flashmob). If  Krahulik and Holkins really want us to believe they want the inclusive environment, then they need to publicly decry @teamrape, and others like them, that harass people in Penny Arcade’s name.

Whether the apology was sincere or not, if they do not get a proper handle on this, Penny Arcade is running the risk of having the good work they do being damaged. Already you have people writing that they do not find PAX a safe place in light of these comments and the fans reaction to the dickwolves statement on Monday.

That segues into another problem with this, a lot of the people defending Penny Arcade simply point to the good work they do, such as the Childs Play charity, as a defense saying that they do more good than harm. This is an empty defense, as harm is harm and good work does not offset it. It would be like saying Michael Vick does good work through the Vick Foundation, so that offsets staging dog fights. And Krahulik knows this, as he has said that he worries that his comments can damage the work they do.

So what needs to happen?

A lot rests with Mike Krahulik himself. He is not just an owner and creator at Penny Arcade, the brand is largely built around him. He has to internalize that his words carry weight, and that he needs to learn to pick them more carefully. If he has not taken sensitivity training, he needs to consider doing so.

In addition, Penny Arcade and its subsidiaries are going to have to face up to the fact that they have been damaged by this. They are certainly losing the impression that PAX is an inclusive environment. They are going to have people, in increasing numbers, not want to have anything to do with them. Right now, that will not have much impact, as Penny Arcade and PAX are so popular that there are more than enough fans to take up the slack. But if their long term goals are to be welcoming and inclusive, then they have a lot of work to do in order to regain that.

We, as the greater geek community, have a role to play too. Just as I am doing here, people need to give voice to this issue. But in doing so, we have to be careful to not just be screaming into the wind; we need to be making points and backing them up. The best way to make change happen is to make sure things don’t just get swept under the rug

And then we bury the dickwolves once and for all.

The evolving view of harassment in geek culture


John Scalzi

John Scalzi

Author John Scalzi has opened a new chapter in the ongoing debate about harassment at fan conventions. Scalzi is a successful science fiction author, and until very recently he was the president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. A week after his tenure as president ended, Scalzi announced what he refers to as his new hard requirement for any convention that wants him as a panelist, participant, or guest of honor. The convention must have a very clear and readily accessible anti-harassment policy.  Said policies must include clear guidelines about what is unacceptable behavior, and where attendees can go for help in those circumstances. The policies have to be made available in places such as the program book or the convention website.

This comes in parallel to another recent incident involving Penny Arcade. You can find more specifics here, but in short Penny Arcade co-founder Mike Krahulik got into a fight on twitter over comments involving transgender issues. The commentary got heated and Krahulik made what many people felt were transphobic comments. Taken on its own it is bad enough, but there was also the specter of the “Dickwolf” controversy from a couple of years ago, which had many people starting to look at Penny Arcade and it’s convention PAX as a hostile environment. The irony here is that PAX has one of the strongest anti-harassment policies of any convention out there. Immediately people started distancing themselves from Penny Arcade, including one game company canceling their booth at the event.

During the Dickwolf issue Krahulik stuck to his guns, which turned a lot of people off. In the time between then and now, he and the people around him clearly learned from the experience. The two days after the transgender argument saw Krahulik issue multiple apologies, admit he has an issue of getting hostile when feeling threatened, and a vow to try to work on these issues. He also made a $20,000 donation to the Trevor Project as a sign of contrition. He also acknowledged that his behavior was damaging to the Penny Arcade brand.

So with these events having just happened, we are once again having the conversation of how welcoming the fan community environment is to people. The positive in both these cases is that there is clear recognition that there are issues and that they need to be dealt with. I also feel they show that progress is being made.

In the Penny Arcade case, in the past this issue would have just festered, but now there is acknowledgement that there was a problem and an actual apology. It is a step in the right direction.

In the case of John Scalzi, you have a prominent author using the cred he has built up over the years to attempt to influence positive change. As of this writing, several 100 people, myself included, have co-signed his pledge.

This does put me in a slightly awkward position, of course. My local convention, Norwescon, is one of the conventions currently lacking in such a policy. However, they aren’t ignoring it. They had a discussion forum that I participated in at this year’s convention about adopting such a policy. Also someone connected with the convention posted in Scalzi’s comment section that they are forwarding the discussion to the convention committee for additional consideration. It is all about getting these important conversations started.

Emerald City Comicon is also in the same boat. I expect they will be addressing this soon as well. At least I hope they do.

It is worth noting that San Diego Comic Con also lacks an adequately published policy. They have one apparently, but it is not where you could find it.

If you are looking for a good listing of which conventions do or do not have policies in place, the site Girl Wonder is compiling a database that can be found here.

While it is clear that we still have a lot of work to do, I feel hopeful that we are seeing positive change, and that geek culture is coming around in regards to how it treats everyone.

I’ll be keeping an eye on all of this and I am sure we will be talking about it again in the future.

State of the site 2013

2ndanniversaryIt’s been 2 years since I started writing Fanboy News Network, and a year since we migrated from BlogSpot to the WordPress site. I figured now would be a good time to take a look at what we are doing and what plans are for the future. I also thought for once I would talk about some other projects I am working on.

Last year I set the goal of posting an article every Saturday. For the most part I have kept to that, with just a few hiccups, and I think that will be the schedule for the foreseeable future. It balances my writing with my work schedule and the rest of my life.

I plan on continuing with the basic format that I have been using, but I want to refine my categories a bit more, as well as set up some article series I want to work on.

  • Article will still be the category for the general articles I write, and be the general catch-all.
  • Review will continue to be used for anything I cover where I use a rating system. More on that below.
  • Geek Capital of the World will still cover any geek culture subjects that are specific to Seattle.
  • Storytime will be any time I cover an event from my past related to geek culture, with emphasis on my time as an employee of Wizards of the Coast, or when I was part of the Camarilla board of directors.
  • Podcast will be used for when I repost podcasts that I am part of. More on Podcast plans below.

But I am adding the following new categories.

  • Horror will be for articles I write covering Universal Horror or related subjects.
  • Web Series will cover the growing field original web content.
  • Geek Icons will be for a new series I will be doing on people who were pioneers or significant figures in geek culture.
  • Conventions will be for articles specifically about geek centric conventions.
  • Industry will be for articles that cover the various businesses that cater to geek culture such as the comic companies or film studios.
  • Site news, for stuff like this.

You should see the new categories now.

Now as for what other projects I have in the pipeline.

I am also working on some writing projects that I hope will develop into something more serious. One is a script for a Horror Host-type show based on a line I wrote in my Horror Host article. The other is a short story that keeps growing longer. As a writer, I find I am drawn to urban fantasy. Right now my big goal here is to have a story ready to submit to next year’s Norwescon writer’s workshop.

I am hosting a monthly writing group to help develop more of these skills.

I am also getting involved with voice acting and amateur audio drama. I’ve been posting episodes of the Hermes and Hekate Roadshow already. If all goes according to plan, I will be voicing a character in the second season.

I am working with Julie Hoverson of 19 Nocturne Boulevard on some projects. She has also offered to teach me how to mix an audio drama. This will help with other projects I have in the works, including getting a Fanboy News Network podcast off the ground.

Finally I wanted to clarify the rating system I am using in reviews. I am using an A-F format, but it was pointed out that I should clarify what each grade means. So here is what I will be using going forward:

A:  Top flight effort that can be enjoyed by anyone. Fans should go through the roof. If it is a movie, viewable multiple times in the theater. Must own the DVD

B: Superior effort. Fans will enjoy it, and non-fans will at least feel it was not a waste of time. If it is a movie would watch once in the theater. Would buy the DVD

C: An average effort. Fans will like it and not feel it was a waste of time. Non-fans may be lukewarm to it. Decent but flawed. If a movie no problem seeing in the theater. Would pass on buying the DVD

D: A disappointing effort. Serious flaws. No one will make any effort to see it again. Most will feel it is a waste of time. If seen in the theater would feel it was a waste of time. Would not buy the DVD

F: A complete waste of time. A project that should not have been made. Would consider asking for my money back at the theater.

So there you have it; where we stand and some hopes for the upcoming year. Thank you for checking us out and I hope you continue to enjoy what you see.

The role of the SMOF


Convention Registration line


I first encountered the term SMOF in the late eighties. I was just getting involved with actually helping run conventions and people would through the term around. Being inquisitive, I asked what a SMOF was. Based on the initial reaction I got from people you would have thought I had asked the Colonel what the elven herbs and spices were. Eventually someone took pity on me and explained that the term stood for Secret Masters Of Fandom. Basically it was a term for the elder statesmen of the convention scene. There were no real criteria for becoming a SMOF, it was basically something that was bestowed on someone based on longevity, activity, and how well-known you were in the community.

Had I not taken a decade long break from conventions I would probably be a SMOF myself.

But what does a SMOF actually do?

That can vary quite a bit. Many of them are convention organizers, so they are the people that provide the meeting ground for other fans. Others are people who were convention organizers but have stepped down, or are just very active members of the community that have been around for years. SMOFs tend to take on the role of advisers, or at least commentators on the goings-on at conventions.

So really what they do is advise, or in some cases kibitz. And recent years have really facilitated this with the advent of mailing lists and message boards.

In some cases this can be useful. These are people who have been around the block in regards to the community. On the other hand, they can be a pain in the butt, as they have been doing it forever and that can make some of them very resistant to change.

An example of this occurred recently when one convention, Norwescon, made a change to its registration process by introducing a new computerized system that would scan barcodes on printed receipts.   A group on the SMOF mailing list got very vocal against this system. They did not just object to the barcode scanning; they felt that convention registration should not even use computers, since conventions were able to run registration for years and years before the advent of personal computers.

At the same time this group of SMOFs were complaining that Norwescon was not a real fannish convention because it covered “Non-Fannish” subjects such as podcasting, gaming, and film making, and ignored the “real fannish” subject of fanzines.

So clearly these SMOFs were not happy that time has marched on and fandom has evolved.

To be fair, there were other members on the SMOF list that were defending Norwescon, and saying that change is not bad.

I think it is important to remember that with a group as loosely defined as SMOFs, you cannot paint them all with the same brush. But like any group, it is the loudest members that come to define it, and for the SMOFs it is the complainers.

And this is unfortunate, because in the end most SMOFs are going to be the best resource the community can hope for.  They are the people who have been in the trenches the longest. They have made the mistakes and learned from them. And those that are afraid of change are not the majority.

The trick is making sure that their knowledge is passed down to the next generation in a useful way. The best SMOFs know that bitching on the sidelines is not the way to do it. Staying engaged with the community is.

At Norwescon, there was one guy I know to be a SMOF. He has been involved with the running of Norwescon as long as I can remember, which means at least 30 years. These days he has to use a walker. But he is also still involved with the convention. When a forum was being held about a major change to the convention’s policy, he spoke up and his statement carried both the weight of his experience and the acknowledgement that a new way was needed.

This is SMOFing at it’s best.

So there you have it, the good and the ill of SMOFs. We as a community are fortunate that the good comes out on top.



Parenting the Next Generation of Geeks


I recently saw such an amazing example of parenting done right that I feel the need to share it here.

I was hanging out at my regular comic shop, The Dreaming Comics and Games, in Seattle’s University District. Usually, I will end up hanging out for a few hours when I show up. On this particular Sunday it was slow in the store, so I was chatting away with Cory, the store manager. We always sit in a way that Cory can see the front door and greet people as they enter.

A woman walked in who neither of us recognized. As is usual, Cory welcomed her to the store and asked if she needed anything.

“Do you have any King Geedry figures?” she asked.

Cory paused, so I spoke up.

“Do you mean King Ghidorah, the three headed monster?”

“Maybe,” she responded. “My daughter has gotten into Godzilla. She’s outside. I wanted to check out the store before I brought her in.”

Now this mother had picked the exact right store. Aron, the store’s owner and my former roommate, is such a fan and expert on the Japanese Kaiju genre that conventions have brought him in to lead panels on the subject. So of course his store is going to have Kaiju figures.

Learning this, the woman went to get her daughter. Actually she brought in three, but it was the oldest who I would put at about nine or ten years old, that was the Godzilla fan. I happened to know that there was a deluxe King Ghidorah figure in the back part of the store. That and the fact that I am actually more of a Kaiju fan than Cory led me to help him during the family’s stay in the store.

The girl ended up exploring the store and pointing out all the Godzilla and Kaiju figures in the store, even noting that the Rodan figure behind the counter was Fire Rodan. Clearly she was a true fan.

Her mother told me that since the girl got into Godzilla, she had started sculpting figures, and had made a Rodan figure. I told her how I loved that fandom can lead to such creative outlets.

The young lady ended up spending about 20 minutes in the store with her mother. The younger siblings got bored and waited in the car and the mother would periodically check on them. In the end our young fan bought a couple of Godzilla comics and her mother got the schedule of when Aron would be in the shop so she could bring her daughter back to talk to him.

The point here to me is the many things I feel this mother did right.

First was simply encouraging her daughter’s interest. This interest had led to creative activities. Also the fact that she was not dismissing it or dissuading her daughter from pursuing a traditionally male interest.

Next was her vetting the store prior to bringing her daughters in. She made sure it was a safe and inviting environment for her children before exposing them to it. Once she brought her daughter in, she stayed engaged with us, asking about the store’s history, our history with fandom, and our knowledge of the fandom.

Finally she helped guide her daughter in making decisions about what she wanted to buy. The daughter had her own money. The mother worked with her pointing out what the budget was vs. what the price of various items were. She also reminded her daughter that items would be available later, and that Cory could special order things for her if they weren’t immediately there. In the end, she let the daughter decide to buy the comics and conduct the transaction herself.

The young lady shows all the signs that she will grow up to be a member of geek culture. I am confident that thanks to her mother’s guidance, she will grow up to be a healthy and proud member of the community.


Comic conventions growing pains


Crowd at San Deigo Comic Con

One of the most noticeable factors about this year’s Emerald City Comicon is the attendance numbers. It was a recorded breaking year of approximately 64,000 attendees, which was the maximum the Washington State Convention Center could handle. For the first time ever, the convention sold out, with all three day passes being gone about two weeks before the show, and only a handful of day passes available at the door, which were sold quickly. I heard people on the floor saying that it is now the third largest comic convention in the country. This is explosive growth for the show, which only drew 20,000 attendees in 2010.

Clearly there are several factors that play into this. As the show grows it is able to attract higher caliber guests. It also benefits from a good reputation amongst pros, with many saying it is their favorite convention of the year.

But I think another factor may be at play, and it involves San Diego Comic Con and its attendance issues.

To explain this theory I first need to explain the parallel that a friend alerted me to.

This came to me by way of my friend Matt. Matt carpools with me to work every day, formed the writers group I belong to, has worked with me for over a decade, and is my proof reader / editor for my articles here. He is also a ten year veteran of Burning Man.

For those not in the know, Burning Man is an annual event that takes place in the Black Rock Desert in Nevada. It is an Art/Alternate culture/self-expression-driven event that requires high levels of attendee participation.  It started an explosive growth in the late 1990’s that lead to it reaching a max capacity of approximately 56,000. In 2011, for the first time, it sold out before the event. The 2011 sell out included all discount tier tickets selling out in half a day. This now appears to be the norm. Many feel this is due to it catching the attention of mainstream culture. It has also left many veterans feeling disenfranchised from the event.

What Matt says this has done is caused an increase in what is known as regional Burns. These are smaller Burning Man-style events that take place around the country. This started with an event in Texas called Burning Flipside, organized by Burners (the self-applied name for people who attend Burning Man) completely separate from the main organization. The idea spread, and Burners in other places formed organizations to put on their own, similar event in their area. It has even spread to other countries.

They started as events that allowed Burners to have the Burning Man experience if they couldn’t make it to the main Burning Man event. Now, in the wake of increased difficulty in getting to the main event, some Burners are turning to the regional Burns as their main outlet and forgoing the main event all together.

As Matt explained this too me I saw clear parallels with the comic conventions. In 2008 San Diego sold out before the show for the first time ever. The following year the event sold out months ahead of time. By 2011 the event was selling out within hours of tickets becoming available.

Looking at the timeline of Emerald City, you see that it took a major jump in attendance in 2011. So my theory is that because it is becoming impossible for most fans to get tickets to San Diego they are turning to the other comic conventions. I looked at a few other conventions numbers, and those that I could find generally show attendance jumps around the same time. In the interest of fairness, I want to point out that I have no other data to back up my theory, such as surveys.

One other thing that I have been hearing is that both fans and pros like Emerald City, as it is still focused on comics and related media, where San Diego has branched out to the point where it is really a media con focused on TV and movies, be they genre or not. This gives Emerald City and the other regional shows an advantage in reputation.

If I am correct you are going to see growth at other comic cons continue. This does have another issue that needs to be considered: the fact that Emerald City itself sold out this year. Selling out a week or so before the show isn’t too bad, as it did give fans plenty of opportunity to get tickets. But what happens next year? After all, it took a couple of years before the San Diego sell outs were counted in minutes instead of months.

Part of the answer is expansion. This can take two forms. The first is actual space. Right now both San Diego and Emerald City have maxed out their venues. In the case of San Diego, there is always the option of moving to another city with a bigger venue, but pressure from the city and reluctance by the convention committee has prevented that through at least 2015. Emerald City could still use space in nearby hotels if they can negotiate with them. Other than that, there are not a lot of other options for the Seattle show, as it wouldn’t make sense for them to move.

On the upside, Emerald City is exploring the other expansion option, starting a secondary show. Staff from Emerald City are involved in the promotion of a sister show in Portland Oregon called Rose City Comic Con in September. Originally a separate show, Rose City has teamed up with Emerald City to help the show grow. This is a good move, as Rose City is still small but has potential. It is also far enough away from Emerald City both in distance and time of year, to offer up the convention experience without cannibalizing the Seattle show.

Overall this kind of growth is good for geek culture. It shows that there is enough interest to support multiple shows and that the culture is thriving.

In fact the only downside is for San Diego. As the smaller shows grow, more people will not bother with San Diego. At some point this could result in fan abandonment. While not certain by any means it could damage and even potentially kill off the show.  This is also a danger that Burning man could face.

Clearly the lesson here is to manage growth. A challenge when there is so much demand. I will be very curious to see what happens to all of these shows in the next year.