Visionary Education of a Geek

Visionaires, a toy series beloved by geeks. Photo by bergerbot, used under Creative Commons.One of the things that made living in New England so comfortable for me was the widespread geek culture. Comics, superheroes, science fiction, high fantasy, Steampunk…whatever your interests, there were groups of commonality. Wearing a t-shirt bearing the answer to life, the universe, and everything brought acknowledgement from the person taking your order at the local Five Guys.

In the South? Not so much. You receive some interesting chuckles, but…let’s just say that I’ve met many fewer Bronies in Raleigh than I met in Boston.

While I generally don’t wrap up an excessive amount of my free time in these sorts of geeky associations…that is to say, attending conventions and cosplaying aren’t currently in my list of hobbies…I find that the lack of common interests with people makes socialization difficult, even more difficult than it normally is for an introvert. Thusfar, I’ve met two people wearing Dr. Who costumes, and that was on Halloween. The geek ratio here is low.

When I was young, I enjoyed an animated program called Visionaries. The heroes were “Knights of the Magical Light.” It was (obviously) a fantasy piece. Each character had an animal counterpart that represented their personality, and into which they could transform. In addition, some characters carried a staff…a totem of sorts…that released a personified power: speed, strength, the power to shield others…you get the idea. One of the knights possessed the power of wisdom, and another the power of knowledge. These balanced the more physical powers…anyone knows that a healthy team of heroes needs to have these sorts of abilities in its ranks.

I had never explored the difference between knowledge and wisdom at that age…in fact, I largely treated them as synonymous until confronted with the likelihood that they were different concepts, as they were here represented by different characters. So, I began doing some research. I forget where exactly I did this reading…probably in the rather expensive encyclopedia set in which my parents invested for me when I was young…but I learned the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I then knew an important concept, thanks to the ideas presented by animated heroes. Not just trivia, mind you, but an important concept that would later even bear spiritual significance.

There’s no deep meaning to this story, other than to say that really important things can come from fun childhood entertainment…the sorts of interests that can stay with us into adulthood, and mark us as geeks.

My disappointment with the South and the noted lack of any sort of geek sub-culture here isn’t some warm and fuzzy need to belong and be accepted, although I find those things as nice as the next person. It’s the mentality that I encounter…a sort of underlying attitude…that these sorts of hobbies lack maturity or that they’re excessive escapism, a perspective easily disproved by the wealth of academic research out there on topics like the philosophy or theology behind various superhero story arcs.

Good art is good art, and there are always subcultures that grow up around it. Some of these subcultures can very much become obsessive to an unhealthy degree. Most of the time it’s not that. Rather, it’s those of us who weren’t the cool kids in school and who now have found a way to make a living doing things that we love, and who resonate with the deep, pervasive aspects of the human condition illustrated by these stories and characters. It so natural to identify with certain characters, to see the good in ourselves, and perhaps the good that we wish we could convey.

Or to respect them as the medium through which we learned important concepts about life growing up…knowledge that has hopefully led to wisdom.

Image attribution: bergerbot under Creative Commons.

Transformations and Ponies

My Little Pony has gone through many transformations since it began

Our daughter has recently developed an affinity for My Little Pony. Which was sort of cool the first thousand times she watched it. Now, I tend to experience some neurosis whenever I hear the theme, but…such is parenthood.

I’ve met a lot of people who are into the My Little Pony culture, or Brony culture, as the case may be. It’s really interesting to hear them talk about this show that they love, a sort of specialized genre of geek…and I’m all about anything that’s geek (going through a bit of culture shock about the lack of it in the South, but that’s another post).
Whenever our daughter shows interest in watching something, Karen and I do our research. We’re very choosy about her screen time, and there’s a high bar of standards that something must pass to end up on her to-watch list (five programs have made it so far). So, we did our research into My Little Pony, also, because, while it’s been really cool to listen to people I’ve known discuss the show and it’s fan culture…there’s still those standards.
So, to the Interwebs we went.
I’m far from an expert, and I defer to anyone who is, but it’s really interesting to watch how the characters that comprise My Little Pony have changed in the years since they first released. In fact, the show as it exists today is quite different than it was at it’s debut, as is the toy line. The version that our daughter enjoys is not the most recent, which has a more anime flavor to it’s appearance and is still a bit frightening for a toddler, but rather a previous version with softer, friendlier ponies and very little-girl-friendly story lines about special wishes and dancing in the clouds. I love hearing her imagination run wild and watching her spin new tales based upon what she’s seen.

The Transformers have gone through many evolutions since they began

When I watched the first Transformers movie, I had a bit of an issue with Barricade, the Decepticon who assumes the guise of a police cruiser. My issue was that he hadn’t existed prior to this film incarnation. It’s no secret that I’m a purist, but my issue with Barricade was a knee-jerk reaction that I quickly released. I don’t hold the Transformers to the same standards that I do many other science fiction characters. The reason is that there was no canonical literature at their inception. They were a toy line first, and their literary and film history spun off of that. Many incarnations of the Transformers have existed (some less intriguing than others), and the evolution happens much more fluidly because all of the literature is adaptive. The same is true for My Little Pony. Partly due to licensing issues with the original copyright holders, and partly due to the natural fluidity as the creators allow conceptualized characters, rather than fully realized characters, to develop in front of us, the process in much less finalized. And, for perhaps exactly that reason, the process doesn’t really annoy purist geeks such as myself.

The process actually smacks quite a bit of improvisational theatre to me. I never really excelled at that particular discipline (I liked to be well-rehearsed), but I certainly appreciated it. And, while I don’t have the history with My Little Pony to appreciate it’s characters’ development, I’m sure that, as our daughter gets older, I will have.

I just hope that I can get that theme song out of my head…

Photo Attribution (in order): 

Joriel Jiminez under Creative Commons

Legos, Feminism, and Why We Need Wonder Woman

Lego Wonder Woman

While I grew up profoundly geeky, immersed in Dr. Who, Star Trek, and Star Wars and the like, with my mother, my father was a technician and a builder. He skillfully brought shapes to life from wood in his small, self-built shop behind our home. When I was young, my parents bought me a small play toolkit with a rubber hammer, saws, and screwdrivers. I followed Dad around the place fixing things. It’s really cool, because those have been passed down to our daughter now, and she loves them as much as I did.

All that play at building and fixing things notwithstanding though, I never played with Legos…at least, not that I recall. I certainly don’t have any floating around in my old childhood toy collections. I’m not sure why…most of my geek friends adore their Lego memories and love the Lego movies (none of which I’ve ever bothered to see), but it just wasn’t an element of my childhood.

Several years ago now, I married a lovely woman who is a geek, as well as a feminist. She has Lego memories. During a slow weekend morning a couple of days ago, she was talking with me about Lego’s new Research Institute set of female characters. The set is a response, depending upon how literally you read Lego’s official statement, to either what their fans wanted or to critiques that they were painting female characters in stereotypically weak roles. In any case, this set (which has apparently sold out, and was unfortunately, as I understand it, a limited edition) seemed to be a step in the right direction, portraying female figures as scientists, astronomers, geologists, and the like, giving young girls aspirations of respected professions in which one uses one’s mind, rather than previous incarnations which went shopping and sat in hair salons.

There has been criticism, as Karen and I discussed, from some circles that, even in the Research Institute, there are inconsistencies with the real world (a chemist would never wear makeup to work), and she found that troubling, because the gender stereotypes persist, even if in a small way.

Having a daughter (who, at the risk of bragging, is particularly intelligent), and wanting our daughter to have strong female characters to view as role models, I’ve become more sensitive about these sorts of things myself lately (by strict definition, Karen argues that I, too, am a feminist). Our daughter has picked up our love of books, and I think any of us can attest to the fact that fictional characters carry just as much impact as role models as do historical and contemporary people in our lives and cultures. A great deal of who I wanted to be as a man came from fictional characters as I grew up reading, many of them super heroes.

Of course, I took this moment to insert into mine and Karen’s discussion that this is why women and girls who love comics need to see strong portrayals of strong heroes such as Wonder Woman, or the Black Widow. DC Comics has in their universe the strongest female super hero in comics literature. Wonder Woman, especially with the masterful way in which she’s painted in the New 52, is a hero to whom girls can look to and aspire to be like, which is one of the primary functions that super hero characters fill in our literature. She’s not (when written well) over-sexualized. She’s a warrior who places her own well-being second in order fight for good and defend the weak.

Have I mentioned that it’s absolutely a crime that she hasn’t had her own film, and that she’s being introduced as a secondary character in an upcoming film? So wrong…

I see common ground between the two worlds. Apparently, there’s some suspicion floating around that Lego felt that a lot of strong female role models like the Research Institute wouldn’t be received well as ongoing items, which is why it was a limited edition. Certainly, I’ve read of comments by film-makers that a Wonder Woman film wouldn’t be received well by a wide-spread audience, and thus it hasn’t been made. I can’t speak for Lego fans, but as a comic fan, I can respond to the latter with a resounding, “huh???” Does DC Entertainment have any idea how many new readers Wonder Woman gained with the launch of the New 52? Certainly, there’s a great deal of the parenting public out there that want cool scientist toys for their daughters.

Our daughter shows inclinations toward many things: reading, athletics and kinesthetic learning, storytelling and imaginative play. As she reads and watches more, and she will eventually reach an age at which Karen and I curate what she reads and watches less and less, I want to know that there are strong female role models in the fictional characters that she experiences, because she will look up to them and they will impact what she feels that she is capable of doing (have I mentioned that she’s already liking superheroes?). The idea that a marketing department might use some statistic acquired after conducting some focus group to determine that there would be a poor return on investment (I hate that term) if they provided us with more exposure to such characters is not only obviously in error, but openly reprehensible enough that I have even less cause to think that marketing is necessary as a discipline.

These sorts of characters, whether in literature or in toys, are necessary, and they do good, and there should be as many of them as we can get. History, if it proves anything, proves that they will be well-received.

Photo Attribution: Julian Fong under Creative Commons

Illumination by Laser

I grew up in a rural area. I have always wished that it were otherwise, but its one of those things in which you really have no say. While I wouldn’t trade my family environment for anything, there were parts of growing up in the 80’s that I always wanted to experience, but was only able to experience from a sort of peripheral perspective…the outside looking in, if you will.

When Laser Tag exploded onto the scene in the mid-80’s, I wanted little else than to own a set of the equipment and play with friends. I even got a strategy book complete with exercises to improve your skills, and different games that you could play with different sizes of groups. Ultimately, however, none of my friends’ parents would invest in the equipment, so, no matter how many of us wanted to play, it just wasn’t an option.

I became acquainted with Photon through the short-lived television series (not really such a great piece of small screen history, but it remains supremely exciting in my memory as it was viewed through middle-school boy eyes), and was even more enamored by having a set of equipment for that game. I was attracted by the large arenas, complete with mazes, catwalks, smoke and lights in which teams played tournaments of Photon, and the rougher, more swashbuckling aesthetic of that game. No such arenas existed anywhere near me, though, and this game was a bit too geeky for the area. No one else was interested. So, I pined in secret, watched the television program, and even bought the book series to read further adventures. Playing “capture the flag” with friends and fully automatic water guns just wasn’t the same. It missed the essential geeky ingredient.

Ultimately, I did what I frequently did and still do: I imagined wild stories based around my dream, and I wrote them.

Of course, Photon no longer exists today, but Laser Tag does, in various iterations. When an arena arrived in my college town, I jumped on my first chance to play. Since then, I’ve played various times, and attempted to recognize that its a nostalgic wish of my childhood that I’m now getting to fulfill, and attempted to resist the urge to make it a full-blown hobby.

Honestly, though, there are times when its more difficult than others. Recently, while playing for the first time in months at a local arena, I listed my name for the scoreboard as Bhodi Li, and was simultaneously struck by how easily I could do this every weekend, and how no one else understood my reference.

What’s always been missing from the experience for me, though…either in childhood or in the years since college…is that, in these sporadic encounters, I’ve never been around a group of people interested enough to play with any degree of regularity. The game still attracts mostly teens, and showing up solo at an arena to play when nearly everyone else there is in high school…well, I’ve never done it, but I imagine it would be awkward.

Since our move, I’ve played at a local arena once, and then discovered that a family member here owns some equipment. Its not the original Lazer Tag or Photon equipment from the 80’s, but neither is the equipment at any arena in which I’ve ever played, and here’s the thing: once you’re playing, it doesn’t matter. It’s about the experience.

So, last night, we went to the park after nightfall with a group of four of us, and played several rounds. We won’t discuss how I fared in these rounds, but what’s important is that I had more fun than I’ve had in a long time. I’ve never played outside of an area, before. It was very different, challenging in a different way, and I love both equally.

And, I’m even more dangerously close to making it a hobby if I thought for a moment that there were enough adults around who loved it as much as I do. I see how easily it would be more about the camaraderie than the game, which is the case with much of what geeks like me love.

When I’ve played, I sometimes become the kid who wanted to play the game so badly for a few seconds (this usually occurs in the briefing room as everyone is putting their gear on and getting ready to enter the arena). I wonder if, had I lived near an arena and played Photon seriously then, would I love it as much now? Would I love it in a different way? Is there a difference between re-living a nostalgic love and experiencing a childhood desire for the first time? I’m not sure what that difference would be, but I love every second of the random occasions when I get to play this game.

The light shines.