How We Lost Our Geek Courage

This is one in our 'Geek Like Me' series of columns exploring the nuances of geek culture.

Once upon a time, we weren't Rider and Shiloh Strong.

As much as our names already sound made-up, we had fantasy names, too. Rider was Javock, a half-elf thief. Shiloh was a human cleric named Whiploh.

That's right, when we were young, we played Dungeons & Dragons. If you were a "cool kid" growing up, let us explain this to you in your terms: it was that really geeky fantasy role-playing game that "losers" played.

Even harder to admit? We never played it correctly. We didn't bother learning the actual rules. Sure, we bought the rulebooks, but mostly for the cool artwork they had inside.

Instead of learning the rules, we let our imaginations run wild. We'd spend whole days -- barely aware of our surroundings -- talking through what we were doing in another world. In our version, it wasn't a structured game; we played D & D more like a free-flowing, collective storytelling experience.

Eventually, like a lot of children of the 80s, we moved on. To video games, to the card game "Magic: The Gathering," to actual, um, physical activity...

It was only recently that we decided to try and play D & D again. This moment of geek-relapse was awkward and clumsy. But the experience inspired us to make a short film about the game called, The Dungeon Master.

Not surprisingly, in addition to more traditional film festivals, we've been screening this film at major geektopias like Comic-Con, Dragon*Con, and Fantasia. As a result, after a 15-year hiatus, we've found ourselves thrust into a world we thought we'd left long ago.

And here's what we've discovered: it's a golden age for geeks.

Geek is the new cool. It's mainstream. When we were growing up, most people wouldn't know an elf outside of Santa's helpers. But thanks to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, the Narnia films, and all their endless iterations, fantasy is everywhere. For the first time, everyone can enjoy it without fear of mockery.

Which is not to say we've donned our capes, memorized spell charts, and started playing D & D again. If anything, what this reintroduction has shown us is just how much we've lost over the years.

Namely, the courage to be geeks.

At its heart, being a geek is about commitment. Consider the difference between a "fan" and a "geek." A fan watches every episode of Star Trek. A geek knows how many photon torpedoes are standard armament for the USS Federation (Shiloh would like to clarify that it depends which class of starship you're talking about).

Such commitment to facts about a fictional TV show, movie, or book is one type of geekiness, but being a D & D geek in particular is about committing to personal imagination. You have to take your character, and the world he or she inhabits, very seriously. The more seriously you commit, the more fun you have.

And so playing D & D requires a genuine bravery. You have to invest in your imagination, you have to invest in something that has no relation to the "real" world.

As filmmakers, committing to our imagination is what we do for a living. But can we do it with conviction purely for fun and, most importantly, in the presence of our peers?

Not yet. When we tried to play D & D as grown ups, we found ourselves retreating to the rules. We didn't want to talk "in character," or spend too much time describing the dungeon we were in. We wanted to fight things and use dice to figure out what happened. When faced with having to "negotiate with the innkeeper in character" or "stab the troll," we kept choosing to stab the troll.

We wanted our D & D experience to be more like a board game, or a video game. In other words, safe. In other words, unimaginative.

Which is the antithesis of what we did when we were kids. Back then, we didn't have time for the rules. When we were 12 years old, investing in our imagination was easy. Our entire life was a creative free-for-all.

But as adults, it's hard to throw social caution to the wind and, without a trace of irony, utter the words, "If you don't let us pass, I shall slay you, evil hobgoblin."

Philosophically, we can say we believe in the importance of imagination, in the enjoyment of collective storytelling. But practically speaking, we've had to face the sad fact that we're just too insecure to participate.

So in a tragic twist, the freedom that made us feel like outsiders as kids is the one thing that would help us fit into the burgeoning geek community today. After all, more people are playing Dungeons & Dragons now than ever before. And we admire and applaud those people. If geek is the new cool, they're the new cool kids. And us, with our pretensions of only wanting to utilize our imaginations for something "practical"? For a "job"? For a "reason"?

Well, we're the new losers.

To learn more about The Dungeon Master, visit the official site here.

Also check out the Strong Brothers' official blog.