The geek hierarchy needs to go: why it’s time to stop hating furries and LARPers
When you’re sitting around a table pretending to be an elf, it’s hard to justify making fun of people who read Twilight. Many of the things we talk about on the Penny Arcade Report may seem ridiculous if you’re not a part of this culture, and we lash out when we feel judged, but we’re also incredibly comfortable making fun of people who take part in certain sub-cultures. This came to a head when we recently ran two stories in The Cut: one was about people who take part in the live-action game Darkon, and the other about furries, or people who enjoy creating animal-like personas for themselves. So what is it about both pursuits that bother us so much? Why are we okay with playing online games where we pretend to be orcs or Jedi, or we roleplay the part of elves and wizards, but this is where we draw the line?
Going to the source
“What I find appealing about the notion of furries is the same thing that I like about D&D. It’s my time and I choose to enjoy it how I wish,” someone who preferred to be identified only as “Kyrie” told me. People judge furries, often viciously. I understand why they might want to stay out of the public eye. “Why be an imaginary human character with epic powers if I can have the size and strength of a minotaur, or the elegance and charisma of an elf? I am human every day, and I choose to expand my boundaries and play as something other,” Kyrie explained. Another furry named Jason shared these thoughts. “I've found furries appealing since before I can remember, I never had a name for the fandom until a several years ago when my internet navigation skills began to become more honed,” he explained. “The idea that you can be something so much different that what you are, more than human is what attracts me to the fandom. I tabletop roleplay a lot and it's similar impulses that drive me to that geek niche that I can find in furry fandom. You can incorporate anything you want outside of human shape into your persona and avatar, it's very liberating and in a lot of ways it can be sexy too.” And the sexual aspect of being a furry may be part of the reason it’s so openly mocked. “The biggest reason for all the open contempt is probably the view of the fandom as sex-crazed, bestiality loving deviants. While I'm not going to pretend that a big chunk of the fandom isn't involved in the sexual aspects of being a furry, there are just as many who aren't and just like dressing up, having fun at cons, and enjoying their particular fandom,” Jason explained. “All geek fans have their own version of cosplayers. Anime cons have tons of people running around as their favorite characters. Trekkies for decades have been donning Starfleet uniforms. The 501st Stormtrooper Legion marched in the Rose Bowl, how much more public can you get? But it's not okay for people to don fursuits and it is for others to be Klingons? That's not okay.” It may seem weird to argue against the often open loathing people feel towards furries, but why are we so threatened by something that hurts no one else? “Things are assumed about you, stigmas made, and suddenly you're othered very fast; and that's sad from a community that has had its fair share of othering from the mainstream,” Jason said. “Furries are an instant, guilt-free source of ridicule, a pariah that is safe to mock openly, because hey, you may be into LARPing, anime, and video games, but at least you're not a furry.” Now comes the interesting part: being part of a reviled fandom doesn’t mean furries don’t have problems passing that fear along. “At the same time though, it doesn’t bother me that people in non-mainstream scenes may not be accepting of this particular subculture because I know I have been just as guilty for judging other hobbies at one time or another,” Kyrie said. “I used to laugh at LARPers because my other friends did, but honestly I had never tried it so I shouldn’t judge. There are always going to be people that don’t understand something and don’t want to, it’s just the way of things.”
The geek hierarchy
I reached out to Penny Arcade’s own Mike Fehlauer, someone who is active in the Society for Creative Anachronism. I thought he would have some insight into why people dislike LARPers. “This is still “A Thing”. By that I mean, even some nerds feel a desire to look down upon people they need to consider nerdier than themselves,” he said. “It's sad but true, and we're all guilty of it,” he told me. “I reference that hierarchy because, thanks to a decade-old meme, a lot of gamers look down on LARP. Which is sad, for a number of reasons. One being that just about everything we do looks lame out of context. Film a dude playing Halo—just the dude, not the game's video or audio—and he looks pretty ridiculous. Show a typical D&D table during a rule dispute. It's silly unless you understand the bigger picture… what it's like as a participant.” “Here's a mental exercise: you and your friends have grouped for an RPG. You're playing Zam-Ji, a sword sage. Your pals are Lohi the ranger, Ollo the cleric, and Yosh Zabar the rogue. After much adventure, your party has come upon an ancient graveyard,” he said. “You cautiously explore, when suddenly a crypt door explodes outward and a mummy lurches at Ollo. You dash forward to defend your friend, and click a mouse, thumb a button, roll a die, or swing your sword. How, of all those choices, could ‘swing your sword’ not be considered the coolest answer? Or at least as cool as A, B, or C? People have been pretending to be wizards and warriors in roleplaying games since the '70s. Millions of people have spent hundreds of hours pretending to be elves or orcs in WoW,” he continued. “Those folks, in particular, agonize over dressing up and accessorizing their character. So why the antipathy toward role players who actually dress up, and physically act out those roles?” “The most fun I've ever had in any game was at a 4-day LARP event. It was in Nottingham, while I was studying abroad, and I attended with my best friend from college, who I'd taught to swordfight. UK LARPs were lightyears ahead of US LARPs. Technologically (they had sculpted latex weapons, wireless mics, LED lighting and pyrotechnics, etc.), organizationally, and rules… y. The event was run by the aptly-named Curious Pastimes, and it was incredible. Objective-based adventures for small parties, mass combat for armies of several hundred combatants, diplomacy and treachery,” he explained. “The costumes were comparable to the best cosplay we see nowadays in the States, and the accents were, of course, spot-on. My buddy and I were college students, unfamiliar with their particular ruleset but skilled fighters, if I may boast. We were assigned to the Arthurian-esque Lion faction, and distinguished ourselves by saving the king from a drow ambush (he, and we, were the sole survivors). For that we were knighted and promoted as the king's personal bodyguard, which meant that we had to accompany him when, at midnight, a detonation went off and three 12' wraiths with glowing green eyes rose from the bottom of Drum Hill and marched their way toward camp, led by a screaming banshee.” He was even able to bring up the Lions’ encampment on Google Maps to show me where this took place. “Such good memories of drinking 'round that campfire with the Lions, the wind roaring up the hill and battering our cloaks. Telling stories, recapping the day's adventures, planning for tomorrow's battle. Getting drunk and sneaking off into the drow encampment, killing their sentries, and stealing their banner,” Fehlauer said. “The closest that I've come to that epic level of fun is the best of the best D&D campaigns, where everyone at the table is committed to their characters and their campaign. Clicking on gold-piñata monsters in Diablo or even running through Mass Effect's scripted multiple-choice roleplaying just doesn't compare. ‘Make a Charisma check to inspire your squad to smash into the enemy's shieldwall’ doesn't stand up to pointing your sword, screaming a charge, and running beside your best friends toward death or glory,” he explained. The best way to understand something is to talk to someone who loves it, and I’ll be damned if this doesn’t sound fun.
The best way to end the weird feeling we get about certain fandoms and sub-cultures is to talk with people who love them. Try to understand why they feel so passionately about dressing up like an animal, or swinging around replicas of swords and shields. In most cases these people enjoy their hobby for the same reason we love ours, and it's stupid to draw some line in the sand about how it's cool to be one fictional creature and lame to be another. It's a rare board, role-playing, or video game that you can explain to someone with no knowledge of the hobby without sounding very weird. No one is saying you have to love furries, or hang out with LARPers. We all have things we find odd, and I have trouble understanding how people can spend hours painting miniatures. It's not my thing, but that's okay. I once wrote a story about what it would be like if the Harkonnens killed Paul Atreides' parents, and he dressed up like a bat on Arrakis to avenge that injustice. That's right, I wrote fanfiction that mixed Dune and Batman, and I still think it's a badass idea. It's harder to understand something than it is to put it down, but the more we know about what different people enjoy and why, the more we understand each other in a broader sense. I'd rather live in a world where people are comfortable liking whatever they want, because liking things is cool. Chasing the things that make you happy is a good thing, and if you try to make someone feel bad for doing so, it may be time to look in the mirror, realize you're being an asshole, and grow up a bit. I promise it will make everyone much happier, including yourself.