“Everyone’s Fun is Different:” A Conversation with Gabriel De Los Angeles

Nick here: I had the honor of meeting Gabriel at the Popular Culture Association / American Culture Association meeting earlier this year, where he presented on the phenomenon of “bleed” in LARP from an educational psychology perspective. He was also a Keynote speaker at the Living Games Conference, where his talk was titled “Culturally Responsible Game Design”. His current research is concerned with the development of identity and personality of characters within the minds of players in role playing activities. Other areas of interest for him are complex systems reasoning in role play and role adaptation, moral and ethical systems in role play and games, domain specific reasoning in cultural communities, the positionality and agency of land and place that occurs in game design and storytelling, and the agency of imagination. As soon as I met Gabriel, I couldn’t wait to introduce him to the TGA Community. In the conversation below, Gabriel offers his thoughts on geek culture, intersectionality, and why Bob’s Burgers is good feminist theory. Enjoy!

Nick: Can you tell us a little about your geek history? When did you start to identify yourself as a geek and how has your understanding of what that means changed over the years?

Gabriel: Oooh, there’s so much. So I started waaaaaaaaaay way back in junior high school with Advanced D&D – that’s when I knew I was a geek. I fell deeply in love with Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance and Ravenloft  as campaign settings, though I rarely got to play in any Ravenloft games. Kender as a race in Dragonlance actually influenced a lot of things for me. I was also there for Alpha and Beta of Magic the Gathering, and no I don’t have those cards anymore.

Though if I think more deeply on it though, my love of games came even before then with NES, Atari, and Commodore 64 games. It shifted even more when I discovered that cartoons that I grew up with came from Japan (like Voltron and Transformers) and when I first became a fan of anime through Sailor Moon. That enjoyment of anime deepened severely with the first time I ever encountered a main character death with a show called Fushigi Yuugi.


Spoiler Alert: Someone dies in this show. Image from Wikipedia.

Video games and game playing culture that lead me to my first convention whose name I can’t even remember anymore because it was in a mall space next to the gaming shop I played at. I feel like if I keep talking, the story will get away from me, but these experiences lead me to an anime convention called Bakacon, which soon became Sakura-Con, where I became convention chairman and vice president of the board above it for a time in my life, when my sister once called me “King of the Geeks.”

From there, I springboarded to an opportunity at some point to travel around the world after my master’s degree with a company that sold comic books at conventions around the world. Getting to be around the many different types of fandom-laced geek conventions around the world showed me the types of fandoms (comic, video game, anime, furry and all of the subgenres in between) in Japan, Europe, and North America. And somewhere after quitting that job, I got drawn into LARP by my best friend, Ron Leota, something that changed the way I want to play games for the rest of my life as well as shown me the things I want to study about learning and development in play.

If I remember the old Brunching Shuttlecock’s Geek Hierarchy correctly, I’ve been involved with most every single fandom of geeks on that that table. All of this rolls up into love of the various types of geeky activities. Everyone’s fun is different, and there are cool everyones-fungeeks and assholes in every community I’ve chosen to be in; but damn, everyone loves hating on everyone else’s geekdom. I’ve fully embraced enjoying every part of geekdom as a geek over the years, commercial, fanmade, professional, homegrown; they’re all beautiful little geeky communities. Some of the spaces that “mainstream” geekdom judges have been the most fun loving and inviting groups, specifically furries and LARPers. What’s changed is recognizing how not diverse most all of them seem to be as I’ve gotten older and how pervasive the more destructive things that geeks do to be conservative about their hobbies and what they believe is most important.

Nick: What has been your story as far as navigating being a part of geek culture in reference to other aspects of your identity, whether academic, Snoqualmie, male, etc.?

Gabriel: The cisgender male part of me has always been a card of privilege that in the early years of my life I never recognized helped me get through geek spaces. As a Snoqualmie Native American, when I didn’t forefront that part of my identity, the only thing people cared about is if I was a good role player, knew how to joke about rules and mechanics, could list details of shows and Japanese and American voice actors (I used to have a large part of the Seiyuu Database memorized because I recognized actors across shows), and what I had done in the communities that benefited all. The academic part rarely came up as well. People knew I was smart based on how I was thinking about the content or how much I spoke up at meetings and cared little beyond the walls of the hobbies about my life outside of it, so I rarely brought it up. In fact, the fact that being an academic is such a strong part of my life right now comes up with my closest circles of friends often teasing and making fun of me for how I talk about thing “as an academic.” Oftentimes, other geeks seem to not want me to bring that up the fact that I’m an academic about a lot of the things we’re playing in and with, some tell me they want me to relax, others just think the relaxway I think about things is too full of jargon. At this point, I’ve happily embraced being an academic geek and just sort of get bummed out when I’m told to leave the academic part of me at the door. It just feels more like geek culture chooses its heroes and anyone else academic gets shunned with anti-intellectualism.

Nick: Why is it important to study learning in the context of play, as you do?

Gabriel: My goal is to broaden learning across the life course, both lifewide and lifelong learning.

There’s so much learning in informal environments in our lives, so that’s where I want to focus. What I hope to accomplish is to demonstrate the learning that we do in play, both as children and as adults, to get policy makers and curriculum designers to put play back in schools so kids can play in them again and that parents recognize the importance of free time and unstructured play for everyone’s children. Also gamification has become such a weirdly pervasive new space, and I want to get away from that because throwing game mechanics, like badging and achievements into a classroom is less helpful to me than adaptation of content into games design with students. Gamification produces consumers,gamification games design produces creators, analysts, and critical thinkers.

Nick: You tend to focus on analog play, as opposed to the digital gaming which has tended to get more attention. What can we learn from analog games that we can’t from video games?

Gabriel: Well first, the majority of the world does is not digital yet, so focusing on digital play is a really privileged maneuver for play. Analog play has less high walls around it for access in terms of technology. The things we can learn from analog play are as deep as the ocean itself, also an unstudied environment. What can’t we learn from analog games! I suppose it becomes more difficult to do things like eye gaze tracking, but with point of view personal cameras, even that can be approximated. Analog game play also gives us more mainstream forms of social interaction. On average, we talk less on video and on the phone than we do in person – person to person communication is still the main way we communicate with one another. Analog games are stronger tools for studying person to analog-gamesperson communication, competitively, cooperatively, and overall narratively.

Nick: How does the intersection of learning and play show up in your work on promoting indigenous education and indigenous ways of knowing?

Gabriel: They’re deeply tied together. I wouldn’t be wanting to observe learning and play as deeply culturally if I didn’t focus on Vygotskian sociocultural theory, place-based education, and the concepts of timespace all rolled with Bakhtinian areas of heteroglossia, dialogism, and chronotope. Then you throw in some equity, equality, and social justice, and you have the frameworks for how important it is to represent indigenous education and indigenous ways of knowing within play. So one major portion of my life’s work is to create frameworks for culturally centered play for marginalized communities; first, I’ll start with Indigenous LARP, leaning heavily on Dr. Gregory Cajete’s “Spirit of the Game: An Indigenous Wellspring” and games like Allen Turner’s “Ehdrigohr.”


Ehdrigohr: The Roleplaying Game. Image from Council of Fools.

Nick: I know that you are not an anthropologist, but are there any anthropological concepts, methods, or theorists that influence your work?

Gabriel: I don’t have any anthropological theories in specific that I tie myself to. However, anthropological people and practices have been tied to both the Snoqualmie Nation’s anthropologistshistory and my own family’s in that anthropologists have gotten much wrong about my people. So in a way, there’s plenty that anthropologists have done to influence myself and my work. But probably not in the way that is being asked about here… Although Tim Ingold says some cool things that I like to take up in his books, Making: Anthropology, Archaeology, Art and Architecture and Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. Both of these books help flesh out the importance of crafting, embodiment, and doing it all in in reference to place and space that keep pointing me back at Live Action Role Play as the method I like to use to express this thinking.

Nick: I love the idea of the NDN Players Group. Can you talk a little bit about the goals of NDN and tell us how the group came together?

Gabriel: NDN Players Research Group (http://ndnplayers.com) is a intertribal, intergenerational, and interdisciplinary group of US indigenous academics (Dr. Jeanette Bushnell, Dr. Jonathan Tomhave, myself, and Tylor Prather) that focuses on representation of indigenous knowledge systems and indigenous peoples in media and pop culture, right now mainly within geek spaces, like games, comics, tv, and movies. We hope to see more nuanced representations of indigenous peoples in geek spaces, from all populations, not just non-indigenous ones.

I’ve known Dr. Bushnell and Dr. Tomhave for quite some time; I was doing my bachelor’s degree when they were doing their PhDs fifteen years ago. They had done quite a bit for me in helping me find my footing as an indigenous scholar when I was doing my bachelor’s. And I met Tylor Prather the year before the end of his bachelor’s degree journey. So I paid what Dr. Bushnell and Dr. Tomhave did for me forward by taking Tylor to a bunch of the indigenous academic spaces I had begun to access. Eventually, we all sat down and together and formed a very native geek academic group that sought change in our geeky spaces.

Nick: What’s your read on the state of cultural representation in geek culture right now? Do you see any differences between the situation in geek culture and in broader popular culture?

Gabriel: The intersectionality of race and gender is building up in geek culture very strongly, from the sexism of the Hugo awards to the formation of groupings for both LARPers and Cosplayers of color to the increased push for more diverse representations in both the Marvel and DC cinematic universes. Heck, GamerGate and the discovery of the transphobic nature of Penny Arcade creator Mike Krahulik was only 2013. Cosplay as a mainstream form of modeling has been on the rise since the popularization of anime such to the point that it’s become a part of the sex industry culture. Geek being chic ties geek geekchicculture to popular culture even more strongly than ever; and really the problems for one demonstrate the problems for the other. The United States’ transphobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and ageism are becoming more transparent to everyone. South Park’s Season 19 and 20 shine a spotlight on all of the -isms and the progressive and conservative rhetoric that fills both geek and popular culture right now. There’s a lot to say about how much this stuff has always existed and how it’s been given the greenlight to exist more openly because of this election cycle in the United States, Brexit in the UK, the actions of Duterte in the Philippines, and more.

Nick: Can you talk about the idea of cultural consulting and how the NDN Players Research Group can help people in the creative process?

Cultural consultation for your game designs, for your project management processes, for your scripts, art, and graphic novels and more are things that NDN Players Research Group can help with. We can help expand your work, go back and redo existing work, or put you on the right foot for researching the work you want to be doing in an equitably designed manner that helps consider the diverse representation of people in the world today. Diversity, equity, and equality aren’t new, but they is becoming the new “green.” We exist to make sure that your works can keep up with the changing desires and language of these cultural shifts.

Nick: What general tips can you offer people who want to approach cultural representation responsibly in game design or other geeky creative work?

Gabriel: Be specific. “Because it’s supposed to be fun” is a reason to do things AND it is so vague that a creative product or game design can leave a population alienated to your work because we don’t know who it is supposed to be fun for. Knowing why you’re choosing to go with particular designs will help everyone both appreciate and engage with your works more deeply and meaningfully.

Nick: What have you come across that got you excited about the potential for combining good cultural representation with good design?

Gabriel: I’m a huge fan of Bob’s Burgers and South Park as shows that make incredible commentary and range from lighthearted comedy to deep biting satire. The latest seasons of South Park have had an edge that cuts so many ways positively and progressively that I cannot help but shout my joy of it to the world. And Bob’s Burgers demonstrates some of the best feminist theory laced characters that I am excited to share a show like that with our soon-to-be-born child that I geek explode and memorize lines and references super thoroughly.tina VR designers are putting in tools for people to stop sexual harassment. The kickstarter for Dialect: A Game About Language and How It Dies has me wanting use the game for both enjoyable play AND research. And of course, I’m extremely excited for NDN Players Research Group’s game, Potlatch, which focuses on Pacific Northwest potlatching culture and explores gifting as an economic philosophy and game mechanic. I’ve actually got a number of kickstarters that I’m waiting for so, the list of things that I’m excited about for culturally responsible design is a lot longer than it has been over my life. Still, most of these are indie developments helped with crowdsourced funding, mainstream designers still have a long way to go.

Nick: How can someone get in contact with NDN if they’d like some consulting help?

Gabriel: They can go to our website http://ndnplayers.com and contact us via our emails there!

About Nick Mizer

Although much of my work focuses on tabletop role-playing games, I think that geek culture in general has a lot to offer for anthropological study, from understandings of modernity and consumerism to the role of the imagination and wonder in the midst of those more “serious” trends. As I explore these things, I find myself straddling the borders between anthropology, folkloristics, and performance studies.

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