It's all geek to me – You’re having a LARP: Confessions of a Live Action Roleplay Addict

Florence Smith-Nicholls 25 February 2013

‘Geek’ is a lucrative word. Online and high street retailers know this; Top Shop, Asos and New Look have all been cashing in on it. ‘Geek’ is the word du jour, emblazoned across jumpers, defining an entire subset of fashion which we know as ‘geek chic’. I’ll spare you a lesson on fashion vocabulary (just make sure to punctuate your outfit with a pussy-bow collar and brogues), to examine the much more interesting connotations of the term, and how it’s used in contemporary self-definition. Whilst I suspect that many ‘Geek’ jumpers might be worn with a pinch of irony, the word has now become synonymous with asserting an alternative identity. What does it really mean to be a ‘geek’ today?

The mainstream appeal of the ‘geek’ label can be explained by recent high profile media associations. Matt Smith and Benedict Cumberbatch have both made cerebral sexy, thereby creating hordes of ‘geeks’ who follow their series with a cultish enthusiasm. Notably, this is a particularly female phenomenon, though of course fashion fluent men haven’t ignored the potential of a nicely cut tweed jacket and a quirky bowtie. This is where ‘geek’ begins to blur into ‘hipster’ in the realm of alternative culture, though the latter puts a far greater emphasis on the aesthetic. Particularly in terms of youth culture, presenting yourself as a ‘geek’ is a method of differentiating yourself as ‘special’, whilst still being able to relate to others who share your niche tastes.

Inevitably, the ‘geek’/‘nerd’ relationship needs to be mentioned. Urban Dictionary, that bastion of streetwise wisdom, defines geeks as the “people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.” This image of the bullied underling is somewhat outdated. The important distinction between the terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ is that the latter is often used pejoratively, whilst the former can be deemed a badge of honour. ‘Nerds’ are incredibly knowledgeable in a particular (often assumed to be technical) area but lack social skills, whilst ‘geeks’ can be outgoing but also might just happen to be completely fluent in Elvish.

Perhaps it’s less a case of there being a strong distinction between the two, than an ill-defined spectrum on which what you know might influence who you know.

This discussion of geek culture is particularly relevant to Cambridge. The link between our ambitious academic backgrounds and potential ‘geek’ leanings is hardly surprising, given that both rely to a certain extent on the ability to memorise minutiae on particular topics. Cambridge is hard-wired for ‘geek appreciation’. Whilst many ‘closet geeks’ might practise their obsessive reading of Philip K. Dick novels behind closed doors, the flagrant hotbed of university societies is an obvious starting point for an examination of the Cantabrigian strains of this culture.

I’ll begin with a ‘geek’ activity you may not have heard of: LARPing. This stands for live action role-playing, an activity which self-evidently involves the taking on of a different persona in order to play in a fictional game-world structured by the ruling of the game master. LARP’s genesis was in the 1970s when table-top role-players decided it was a good idea to get some fresh air and become  evenuests. The games’ parameters can be defined by a pre-existing publication or simply made up, with numerous possible genres. The theatrical element of LARPing, along with the creativity involved with putting together costumes and the puzzle-solving elements means that there is definitely an element of personal skill involved. I like to think of the Cambridge University LARPing society as the geeky, little-known cousin of the ADC-only it doesn’t require an audience.

Cambridge is full of drinking societies with limited membership, and the issue of the possible exclusivity of “geek” clubs could be a problem. However, this doesn’t seem to be the case with LARPing. I speak to Ellie Griffiths, a member of the society: “After our adventures, quite a few people head off to the pub afterwards, and everyone’s very friendly. If somebody’s having a party, we’re all invited.” She is a fresher who got into LARPing after seeing a stand at the Fresher’s Fair – “I turned up to the squash, hit people with some fake swords, found that it was indeed rather fun, and the rest is history!” Like all other societies, it does have a social scene, and is open to anyone who’s willing to show commitment: “You’ve got to like fantasy settings, which falls into geek territory, and there are a fair few rules to learn and bits of history to memorise, which takes a while. You’ve got to have some dedication to it.” Any exclusivity in LARPing lies in a reasonable status quo-you’ve got to be interested.

I’m going to go a bit anecdotal now. As you might have guessed, I chose to write this piece because I have some personal affinities with the subject matter. At the risk of being a bit self-indulgent, here goes: I’m currently the Cambridge University Anime and Manga (CUAMS) secretary. Anime and manga are Japanese cartoons and comics respectively and, whilst they have become increasingly more popular in the West during the 21st century, they still represent an unusual interest. My status as an anime and manga fan, moreover as an active member in a university society dedicated to that interest, is not an aspect of my identity I have always been very forthcoming about. The stigma of negative stereotypes, the fear of being deemed a nerd instead of a geek, is certainly something I can relate to. Whilst it’s socially expected of me to don a costume for my college Super Hall, my past involvement in “cosplay” (dressing up as a particular anime character) might not be to general taste.

Are you a geek? If you want to be, or you think you are, you’re probably about half-way there. Like most social stereotypes, its deconstruction renders it somewhat meaningless. Probably only once an unprompted person has called you a “geek,” though, can you really consider yourself worthy of the accolade. Or you could just wear the word emblazoned across your chest, that should do the trick.

Florence Smith-Nicholls