453. Fans, Geeks, and Cosplay: A Momentary Study

Geeks are fascinating creatures. In a perfect world, someone would make a nature documentary about them, and it would be narrated by Morgan Freeman. Tragically, since I don’t own a video camera and can’t afford to employ Mr. Freeman, I’ll have to keep writing blog posts about geeks instead of producing that well-deserved documentary.

Yes, it’s time for another brief exploration of geek culture. Today’s subject is cosplay, the hobby (or art, depending on your point of view) of dressing up like characters from movies, comics, video games, or other media. It’s sort of like wearing Halloween costumes, but really… hardcore.

Lord of the Rings cosplay

Here’s some Lord of the Rings cosplay.

The word cosplay is a portmanteau of costume and play; it denotes not only the hobby, but also specific examples of it.

Dedicated cosplayers often create their own cosplays. This sounds easy, but flipping heck, some cosplays are complicated. Depending on the complexity of the costume, a cosplayer may need the expertise of a tailor, makeup artist, leatherworker, blacksmith, or even computer modeler (for 3D printing).

Cosplayers show off their creations by attending geeky events (such as conventions) in costume, or by holding photo shoots and sharing the photos via blogs or social networks. Some fans are so good at cosplay that they do it professionally. In order to promote their brands or products, companies may hire professional cosplayers to mingle or manage booths at conventions, trade shows, or other events. Some cosplayers don’t merely dress as characters, but act and speak like them in improvised performances.

While some cosplay strives for perfect authenticity to its source material, other styles may feature creative twists on familiar characters, or gender swaps.

Darth Batman and Lady Link

On the left is a gender-swapped Link from The Legend of Zelda. On the right is… wait, is that Darth Batman? That is AWESOME!

What separates cosplay from other forms of dressing up? Costumes feature in some holidays and cultural events, but their purpose is nearly always rooted in tradition, religion, or symbolism. Cosplay, by contrast, is an expression of enthusiasm for a particular work or character. (Halloween costumes can be a bit cosplay-ish.)

Aided by the spread of the Internet, cosplay has gained prominence in just the past few decades; the term itself originated in the eighties. However, dressing up as fictional characters has a long and rich history. For example, just off the top of my head, I recall a scene in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott in which a couple of its characters dress up as literary figures for a fancy dress ball. Cosplay has evolved as a hobby in recent times, but its roots are firmly planted in centuries of human history.

Like many geeky hobbies, cosplay sometimes carries social stigmas. Cosplay may be considered childish, creepy, or inappropriate.

I’m not a cosplayer, but I usually disagree with these stereotypes. Cosplay is a creative hobby. It often requires superb dedication and all kinds of specialized skills. Like dressing up for Halloween, it’s fun for a lot of people. It can be inappropriate, certainly—but generally as a reflection of inappropriate media or characters. If a cosplay is in poor taste, it’s probably because the media it represents was in poor taste first.

Sadly, not all of the stigmas against cosplay come from outside its community. Fans and geeks can be as cruel as anybody. Over the years, some cosplayers have been criticized or insulted for having the wrong body type, skin color, or physical features for cosplaying certain characters. That’s dumb.

Perfectly fine cosplay

Black Captain America? Plus-size Batman? Cool. I see no problem here.

Do you see that black guy cosplaying Captain America, a traditionally white character? He’s a cosplayer. He’s not actually Captain America. It’s okay. Everyone can stop freaking out. The chubby fellow cosplaying Batman? He isn’t Batman. He lacks Batman’s muscular physique, and he’s smiling happily, which isn’t terribly Batman-like. Does it matter? He’s having a good time. So is the black gentleman in the Captain America suit, and the lady rocking Link’s iconic green tunic, and whatever mad genius created Darth Batman.

Cosplay isn’t about rules. It’s about fun, acceptance, and coming together as geeks to wear goofy costumes. Anybody should be able to cosplay as whatever the heck they want. After all, isn’t that the point of cosplay? Isn’t cosplay a chance to be an actor without a stage, becoming a completely different person, if only for a little while?

I don’t cosplay, but I understand why so many people have embraced it as a hobby. I respect them. I wish more people did. In fact, generally speaking, I wish more people respected geeks instead of assuming the worst of them. Heck, while I’m at it, I wish more people respected other people. That would be a great start.

I’m not planning ever to cosplay… but if I did, I bet I’d make a pretty good Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, or even a tolerable Tenth Doctor. Just a thought.

449. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Introverts (but Were Afraid to Ask)

I’m currently gathering questions for a blog Q&A this Friday. I’ve received questions from exactly one person so far. (God bless him.) Friday’s post will be really short if no one else speaks up! If you’ve ever wanted to ask me anything about my life, blog, book project, or anything else, ask away!

I plan to attend a writing conference later this summer. It will probably be an educational experience. It shall certainly be a caffeinated one. I plan to drink a lot of coffee, that very present help in trouble. After all, as an introvert at a crowded social event, I’ll need all the help I can get.

That said, I recently picked up a book titled Networking for People Who Hate Networking on my latest visit to the bookstore. The book was on sale, is marketed to introverts, and has penguins on the cover. Penguins, guys. How could I refuse?

Networking with penguins

Professional Networking: Now with 100% More Penguins!

The book hasn’t offered any spectacular insights, but it has served (so far) as a solid introduction to introverts, extroverts, and ways both groups can connect with new people.

A few of the book’s points are well worth sharing, so I am going to share them.

Misconceptions shall be shattered! Stereotypes shall be broken! A sword day, a red day, and the sun rises! Ride now! Ride—wait, sorry, that’s Théoden’s speech from The Return of the King. I got a bit carried away. Let me try again.

For introverts and extroverts alike—and for all of those people who don’t know the difference—here is everything you ever wanted to know about introverts, but were afraid to ask.

Trying to cope

I’m an introvert. You may have noticed.

Introverts are not necessarily shy or quiet.

Many introverts can be talkative; this introvert, especially so. Introverts are often labeled shy because we tend to be guarded around people we don’t know well. Once we feel comfortable around others, we drop our guard and speak up.

Extroverts, by contrast, often feel comfortable talking around others, even people whom they don’t know well. That can be a great gift. Good for you, extroverts.

I’m generally very quiet around new people. Once I get to know them, they sometimes can’t shut me up.

Introverts are not necessarily negative.

Introverts tend to be less impulsive than extroverts. We need time to consider circumstances and process decisions. Thus, when given a request or invitation for which an immediate response is expected, we tend to say, “No.”

If we have a little time to think about an invitation or request, and to make up our minds without being rushed, introverts are much more likely to respond positively.

Introverts need time alone.

I use the word need here deliberately. We don’t merely want it—we need time alone in order to function well. Without opportunities to regain our mental balance, away from distractions and other people, we become stressed, anxious, or grumpy.

This, dear reader, this is why it bothers me so much when people interrupt me when I’m reading a book on break at work. It isn’t really about the book. In my job, which consists of working with dementia patients whose behaviors are often exhausting, I need time alone, immersed in a book, without coworkers dragging me into inane conversations. I get enough tiring human interactions when I’m working; I don’t need them on break.

Not that I’m bitter or anything.

(I may be a little bitter.)

Introverts tend to weigh their words carefully.

I typically choose my words with near-obsessive care. I want to say exactly what I mean, and to mean everything I say. Nuances matter to me. Like most introverts, I think to talk.

Extroverts, by contrast, often talk to think. Talking is how they reach their conclusions. They think out loud. This means their views and opinions can change wildly from one conversation to the next, and even from one moment to the next. This makes it easy for introverts to label extroverts thoughtless or indecisive. It’s important for introverts and extroverts alike to understand these differences in mental processing.

Introverts excel at depth, not quantity.

Extroverts often have vast social circles. Introverts tend to have a close circle of dear friends. Extroverts go wide; introverts go deep. With fewer social commitments, introverts can spend more time and effort developing those closest relationships.

These principles can be applied in the context of networking. Introverts can be aware of different communication styles, plan opportunities to recharge, and focus on making a few key connections instead of using up their energy on small talk. As I’ve read the Guide to Networking with Penguins, or whatever that book is titled, I’ve been rather gratified to see that it also recommends some of my own strategies for coping with social events.

When I attend that writing conference later this summer, I will add to the book’s admirable list of tips my own tried-and-true strategy: liquid courage. It is for such times, after all, that God made coffee.

440. Christianity in Video Games

In my last post, I wondered whether video games can be art. They’re fun, sure, but can they be anything more?

My own belief is that video games have artistic potential. Whether they actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they favor fun over artistic expression, leaving weighty subjects to other media.

Religion is an especially weighty subject, and its effect on art is incalculably great. Christianity in particular has inspired art for two thousand years, and some of it isn’t particularly religious.

Of course, much of the art informed by Christianity is overtly religious in nature: works by Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, classics like The Pilgrim’s Progress and Dante’s Divine Comedy, music like Handel’s Messiah, and countless more. However, Christianity has also influenced many secular works—watch nearly any movie by Quentin Tarantino or the Coen brothers and you’ll see what I mean.

Pulp Fiction

The book of Ezekiel is apparently a bit more vengeful than I remembered.

Yes, the influence of Christianity has reached some unlikely places. It begs the question: If video games have artistic potential, have they used any of it to explore the subject of Christianity?

The answer is… hardly.

Christianity has informed many video games, but its influence is mostly superficial. Many games draw upon Christianity for its cultural or symbolic flair—or, if I may put it another way, its flavor.

The Legend of Zelda, one of the most important games ever made, uses Christian iconography not to make a point, but rather to convey an impression. For example, the game’s protagonist has the symbol of a cross on his shield.

Zelda NES screenshot

Is it just me, or does the hero of The Legend of Zelda look like he’s going from door to door with a Gospel tract?

I don’t know why the game’s developers put a Christian cross on the shield. Perhaps it was inspired by the cross designs on shields in medieval Europe. Maybe it was supposed to represent nobility, righteousness, or heroism. Either way, this symbol of Christianity is literally front and center in one of the greatest games of all time.

Incidentally, the game features another Christian symbol: the Bible, whose title was translated for Western versions as the Book of Magic. In the game, the Bible empowers the protagonist to throw fireballs, which isn’t something Bibles generally do. (At any rate, mine doesn’t.)

I’m going to discuss a few more games in this post, but for full disclosure, I should admit that I haven’t played most of them. I know them mostly by reputation, by reading about them, or in one case by following the game’s story on YouTube.

Christian imagery shows up occasionally in video games, many of which avoid association with the religion itself in order to avoid controversy. This has led to fictional religions that bear outward resemblance to Christianity—particularly to Roman Catholicism.

Video games such as the Final Fantasy series sometimes feature Christian (especially Roman Catholic) elements such as priests, churches, cathedrals, holy water, and baptisms.

Final Fantasy VII church

Can we take up an offering to repair the church in Final Fantasy VII? It could use a new floor. And some more pews. And a table in the back for coffee and doughnuts.

A few games even tackle the subject of religious corruption, but always within fictional religions whose resemblance to Christianity is only superficial.

Of course, some video games take a more direct approach, depicting Christianity itself (instead of a fictional religion) for its imagery, culture, or history.

The Hitman series—which, as its name suggests, is all about assassinations—uses “Ave Maria,” a song based on a Christian prayer, as its theme. It may be meant to evoke a somber mood, or perhaps to suggest an ironic parallel between the Church and the syndicate that employs the eponymous hitman. Either way, the series doesn’t have anything meaningful to say about Christianity; the games merely borrow from it.

The Assassin’s Creed series uses religion as a backdrop to its fictional history. The first game takes place in the Holy Land during the Crusades, and the second in Italy during the Renaissance. That second game apparently ends with the player beating up Pope Alexander VI, which seems weird to me. What developer, when given the limitless possibilities of game design, decided to make a game that climaxed in a fight against a fifteenth-century Pope? Did that developer just assume that all Christians are evil? Should I be offended?

There are a few games—just a few—that try to say something meaningful, whether good or bad, about Christianity.

The Binding of Isaac is an indie game named for the biblical account of Abraham nearly sacrificing his own son. It follows a young boy through an underworld of twisted imagery: much of it Christian. The game seems almost blasphemous with its lurid imagery and grotesque monsters.

The Binding of Isaac

This is, um, not a game for children.

I’m not sure what point The Binding of Isaac is trying to make. The game definitely has something to say. It may be an exploration of how religion can be abused, or maybe an outright censure of Christianity. I’m in no hurry to find out; I prefer my video games not hopelessly gloomy, thank you.

The most interesting treatment of Christianity I’ve seen in a video game comes from Bioshock Infinite, a story-driven first-person shooter. (For the uninitiated: a first-person shooter is a game in which the player shoots things from a first-person perspective, simply enough.) The game doesn’t focus on religion itself as much as on what it brings out in people.

The original Bioshock game is set in Rapture: a ruined underwater dystopia. It was built by an atheist who was convinced he could harness the potential of humankind in an enlightened society. The city fell apart, its remaining inhabitants fighting for the survival of the fittest.

No gods or kings

Welcome to Rapture?

By contrast, Bioshock Infinite is set in Columbia: an airborne city bustling with religious folks and overseen by Father Comstock, a self-proclaimed prophet. Despite its bright exterior, Columbia is also a dystopia. It reflects not a Darwinian struggle for survival, however, but the ugliest blunders of American Christianity.

The religion in Bioshock Infinite is the Christianity that excused slavery, oppressed Native Americans, reviled foreigners, and mistook love of country for love of God. It’s an exaggerated picture, but also one based on history.

Bioshock Infinite mural

Welcome to Columbia?

I appreciate that Bioshock Infinite doesn’t blame Christianity for Columbia’s problems, but acknowledges how it has, throughout history, sometimes brought out the worst in people. The game suggests the problem is not with faith, but with human beings.

Fortunately, Christianity also brings out the best in people. The game’s debt-ridden protagonist, Booker, is hired to rescue a woman from Columbia on the promise that his employer will “wipe away the debt.” As the game unfolds, it becomes clear that Booker’s debt isn’t just a matter of money. He needs to be forgiven.

Besides forgiveness, Christian themes in the game include baptism and longing. The latter is beautifully expressed in the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which is part of the game’s soundtrack.

Bioshock Infinite isn’t a perfect game, and its depiction of Christianity is definitely upsetting. However, it’s a more ambitious and nuanced take than I’ve seen from any other video game, and I respect it for that.

While a few games offer thoughtful explorations of Christian themes, others exist simply to appeal to a religious market. They’re the worst. They often steal their ideas from other games, and they’re nearly always terrible.

What are your thoughts on Christianity in video games? Let us know in the comments!

439. Are Video Games Art?

Can video games be art?

This question has proved divisive and difficult. Some people have praised games for their visuals, music, writing, and interactive narratives; others have dismissed games as a childish diversion.

Are games art

My own opinion, for whatever it’s worth, is that video games have the artistic potential of any other medium.

A few days ago, someone with whom I shared this opinion smirked, shook her head in contempt, and said “Nuh-uh,” before walking away as though she had just won an argument. I didn’t pursue the matter any further, though I did suppress a strong impulse to kick that person in the shin.

Such a jeering derision of video games—not of any specific game, but of video games as a medium—irritates me. If books, films, and songs can be valued as art forms, why not video games? They are just as capable of conveying ideas, challenging perceptions, and evoking emotions. What makes game design any less valid than other media as a form of artistic expression?

After all, many games blend acknowledged art forms—music, graphic design, storytelling, and sometimes acting—into a single medium. It seems irrational, small-minded, or even prejudiced to dismiss the entire medium as intrinsically inferior to other media, especially without giving any good reasons why.

Of course, some people have given good reasons. I’ll be the first to admit that some of the arguments against video games as an art form are well worth consideration.

Roger Ebert, for example, argued that the interactive nature of games interferes with their artistic value. Some degree of creative control is wrested from the game designers and thrust into the hands of players. To illustrate his point, Ebert posited a video game retelling of Romeo and Juliet that allowed for a happy alternate ending. Such an ending would weaken the story; the storyteller’s vision would be lost.

Romeo and Juliet

I’ve never played a Grand Theft Auto game, but its “Game over” message was too perfect not to use for Romeo and Juliet. I’m so, so sorry. (I’m not sorry.)

Another argument claims that the popular nature of video games disqualifies them for serious artistic consideration. Hideo Kojima, the creator of the Metal Gear Solid series, stands by this argument. More than perhaps any other medium, games typically exist not to convey moral, emotional, or existential insights, but simply to be fun.

Yet another argument states that video games, with their rules and conditions, are no more artistic than sports, cards, or board games. Few people consider soccer matches or poker games works of art.

What about video games that exist not to be played in a traditional sense, but simply to immerse the player or tell a story? The argument goes that these aren’t really games, which brings us back to the contentious not-a-game debate. What is a video game, really?

In the end, the question of whether video games can be art hinges on an even bigger question: What is art, anyway? That’s a question with no easy answer, and without a categorical standard for art, there’s no way of knowing whether video games can meet such a standard.

Fortunately, it doesn’t really matter whether video games can be art. I believe they have value as a medium in any case. For example, I think the Portal games are works of art, but I know they’re tons of fun. My appreciation for those games doesn’t depend on whether anyone labels them art.

Adam and... GLaDOS

If any game is a work of art, it’s Portal 2. (I covered up the indecent bits.)

The question of whether video games can be art is interesting to discuss, but not worth a fight. I suppose the thing that irritates me is when people express unsupported opinions as fact, without acknowledging even the possibility of discussion—and that’s a problem that goes far beyond the video-games-as-art debate.

I believe video games have artistic potential. That said, whether video games actually fulfill that potential is an entirely separate question. For the most part, they tend to favor fun over artistic expression, which is a valid choice.

In my next post, I’ll discuss the ways a subject of particular interest to me has been handled by video games. Stay tuned!

Geeks Vs. Nerds: A Dorky Comparison

Geek vs. nerd

Comic by Brian Gordon.

I am not a nerd. (At any rate, I like to think so.) I am, however, a dedicated geek. The difference is neatly explained in the comic above. I knew it already, but then I’m totally a dork, so that’s no surprise.

In another attempt to define the differences between such labels, some well-meaning nerd (or possibly dweeb) made the following diagram:

Nerd venn diagramAlthough the diagram was (presumably) made as a joke, it offers unexpected insight. Geeks, nerds, and their ilk are fascinating creatures. They are frequently lumped together in the same sociocultural category, but their differences are worth exploring.

By the way, did you notice that in the last panel of the comic above, the word preferred is misspelled? You didn’t? Huh. Maybe I am a nerd after all.

Strange American Valentine Rituals

The United States of America has many strange customs and holidays, and I consider it my duty to research them. With St. Valentine’s Day soon taking place, I set my studies of Halloween and Thanksgiving behind me in order to give this latest holiday the anthropological scrutiny it deserves.*

My findings were… dark. Despite its popular image as a time for giving gifts and expressing romantic love, St. Valentine’s Day represents bloodstained history and wanton consumerism.

Verily, of the various letters vividly visible above, the very first veers vaguely toward the visual vibe of a violent yet entertaining film I once viewed.

Verily, of the various letters vividly visible above, the very first veers vaguely toward the visual vibe of a viscerally vicious and violent film I once viewed: V for Valentine, or some variation.

As the holiday is named for a historical figure, my first task was to research St. Valentine himself. Little is known of this ancient Roman martyr, whose death is celebrated every year in America by the sale and distribution of gifts such as flowers, chocolates, cookies, cards, jewelry, and frilly undergarments. St. Valentine, who is known as Valentinus in some accounts, is surrounded by legends, but few facts remain.

Upon finding the study of this dead saint to be a dead end, I turned my researches toward the holiday itself, and discovered a sordid celebration of Valentine’s demise.

The name of the event, St. Valentine’s Day, is generally shortened to Valentine’s Day by the disgraceful omission of Valentine’s hagiographic title. Just as the Christmas season is marked by certain colors (viz. red and green), so Valentine’s Day is recognized by the colors red and pink.

The significance of these colors is open to speculation. Given what little is known of St. Valentine’s personal history, the color red may represent his violent death as a martyr. Pink generally represents love or sweetness; its association with the bloody red of Valentine’s death demonstrates a disturbing veneration of violence.

More than fifteen centuries after Valentine’s tragic end, why is it celebrated by the giving of gifts? Why is romantic love the legacy of Valentine’s martyrdom? What aspect of his brutal death inspired sappy cards, heart-shaped candies, and other mawkish gifts?

These are distressing questions, and my best researches have yielded no answer.

Do you know what else is distressing? These awful pills. I don't know what kind of medication they contain, but they taste awful.

Do you know what else is distressing? These awful tablets. I don’t know what kind of medication they contain, but they taste awful.

Perhaps it would be prudent for me to narrow the lens of my researches from the purpose of the holiday to its specific observances.

The greatest tradition of Valentine’s Day seems to be buying things, such as the aforementioned flowers, candy, cookies, cards, jewelry, and lingerie. This eclectic assortment of romantic items has no discernible connection to Valentine himself, leaving me to surmise that their popularity as Valentine’s Day gifts is prompted by the theme of romantic love that has left its indelible and inexplicable mark upon the remembrance of that saint’s death.

Never mind the occasion—coffee is always an appropriate gift.

Never mind the occasion—coffee is always an appropriate gift.

Although these gifts are generally exchanged by romantic partners, it is common for celebrants of Valentine’s Day to distribute cheaper and less intimate gifts among friends, classmates, and coworkers; candy and cards are among the most popular options. Other Valentine’s Day traditions observed in America include going on dates or to parties.

A romantic card or letter given on Valentine’s Day is known as a valentine. This eponymous designation is shared by any person to whom such a card or letter is given.

(If I may permit a personal view to interfere with my serious studies of American holidays: I strongly opine that video game valentines are the best valentines.)

If you recognize all of the games represented in these Valentine's Day cards, you deserve a cookie.

If you recognize all of the games represented in these valentines, a winner is you!

In conclusion, Valentine’s Day seems to celebrate the violent death of a good man, associating it (for dark, unknown reasons) with romantic sentimentality. I acknowledge, regardless, the importance of the virtues venerated by the holiday—to wit, love and friendship.

Thus, with sincerity and due caution, I wish you a happy St. Valentine’s Day.

*I should remind my dear readers that my studies of American holidays are silly, sarcastic, and absolutely not serious. This blog post is a joke. Please don’t take it seriously!

This post was originally published on February 13, 2015. TMTF shall return with new content on February 22, 2016!

419. Fans, Geeks, and Fan Fiction: A Momentary Study

The pursuit of knowledge does not always take us to pleasant places. It may lift us to dizzying heights, but may also drop us into dark valleys where no sane person should go.

Today we’re talking about fan fiction. Brace yourselves.

Fanfiction everywhere

The Internet has a lot of fan fiction, and also a lot of visual memes.

Let’s begin with the basics. Fan fiction is an amateur literary genre in which writers use worlds, concepts, or characters from other stories to tell their own.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem so bad—indeed, some fan fiction is actually quite tolerable. For example, many fan fictions (abbreviated fanfics) have been written and even published using characters now in the public domain, such as Alice from Alice in Wonderland and Sherlock Holmes. At its best, fan fiction is… all right, I guess?

However, most fanfics are terrible. Many writers of fan fiction lack the skill or experience to make good use of the ideas they steal from other stories. On top of that, too many writers use fanfics not to tell good stories, but as a cheap form of wish-fulfillment. Heck, there are entire categories of fan fiction devoted to fulfilling fans’ private desires.

For example, self-insert fics put the writers themselves (or fictional versions thereof) into the stories. (These representations of the authors are known as OCs, or Original Characters. OCs sometimes exist outside of fanfics, as many fans enjoy creating characters based on ideas or styles from existing stories.) Hurt/comfort fics inflict harm upon familiar characters, giving fans the emotional catharsis of seeing them comforted. Slash fics put characters in romantic or sexual relationships, thus upholding Rule 34 of the Internet: If it exists, there is porn of it.

(Here I must credit TV Tropes for its helpful information on fan fiction subgenres.)

Fan fiction can tell meaningful stories, but in practice, it hardly ever does.

Trying to cope

My reaction to most fan fiction is… not favorable.

Besides the problems with individual fanfics, fan fiction as a genre has two colossal faults. The first concerns law and ethics; the second, creativity and intellect.

Fan fiction is technically illegal. Companies hardly ever sue writers of fan fiction unless they try to publish their fanfics, and sometimes not even then. Regardless, fan fiction infringes copyright. It’s theft of intellectual property. For that reason, it has ethical as well as legal implications.

The second problem is more personal. Fan fiction represents relatively little initiative and creativity. Instead of creating new characters, situations, and settings—or at least pretending by renaming existing ones, changing them slightly, and using them differently—writers steal whole worlds from other writers.

Why do fans write fan fiction? I’ve already mentioned the aspect of wish-fulfillment. Some fans read or write fanfics as a way to delve deeper into stories they love, and fan fiction writers are usually guaranteed an audience within their fandoms. (Of course, conversely, they are usually guaranteed an audience nowhere else.) Like shipping and waifus, fan fiction is an enthusiastic outpouring of affection and interest toward a story.

In this post, I’ve been rather merciless toward fan fiction as a genre. I don’t mean to offend anyone who enjoys reading or writing fanfics. Heck, I’m as guilty as anyone. In years past, I read a few fan fictions, and even wrote a few. I still enjoy a lot of art, music, and webcomics by fans. We live in a culture of remakes and remixes, and fan works are part of that. Even unimpressive fan works are proof of how stories encourage and inspire creativity in their fans!

Calvin & Hobbes

Fan works are at their best when they add something funny or clever to an existing work. In this picture, a fan of Calvin and Hobbes reimagined its characters as… well, Calvin and Hobbes.

Reading and writing fan fiction are valid hobbies. Creating it can develop writing skills, and reading it can evoke positive emotional responses. Fan fiction isn’t necessarily a bad thing… but I don’t believe it’s a particularly good one, either.

Jesus Christ and Admiral Ackbar

Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words.

~ Matthew 22:15

Meet Admiral Ackbar.

Admiral AckbarThe Admiral is a minor character from a Star Wars film. Although he presumably has a life beyond the few scenes in which he appears, he is remembered for one thing and one thing only.

He proclaims, with a glassy-eyed expression of dazed astonishment, “It’s a trap!”

Admiral Ackbar, the ever-useful trap detector, was absent in the days of Jesus Christ. Fortunately, the Lord was shrewd enough to detect a trap without the advice of Star Wars characters.

Quite a number of people disliked Jesus, you see. Two religious groups, the Pharisees and Sadducees, hated the way his teachings upset the balance of things. They wanted him gone—disgraced—dead. These religious groups resorted to all kinds of underhanded traps to bring down the controversial upstart called Jesus Christ.

I find it hilarious, and extremely impressive, how the Lord Jesus dodged every trap with bravado and brilliance.

The Pharisees watched Jesus closely on the Sabbath, the divinely-ordained day of rest, to see whether he would heal a crippled man and thereby dishonor the day by “working.” Jesus didn’t heal anyone secretly. He was way too cool for that. Instead, he had the crippled man stand up in front of everyone and healed him in the most public way possible, pointing out that doing good on the Sabbath is more important than merely following regulations. (See Luke 6:6-10.)

It happened again and again. Even without Admiral Ackbar’s insight, the Lord Jesus never fell for a trap.

The priests demanded to know who gave Jesus his authority. If he claimed it came from God, they could accuse him of blasphemy. If he gave some other answer, or simply refused to reply, they could claim his teachings carried no weight.

Jesus answered this trick question with one of his own: “I will also ask you one question. If you answer me, I will tell you by what authority I am doing these things. John’s baptism—where did it come from? Was it from heaven, or of human origin?”

The priests were baffled: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will ask, ‘Then why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin’—we are afraid of the people, for they all hold that John was a prophet.”

They couldn’t answer his question, so Jesus declined to answer theirs. (See Matthew 21:23-27.)

“Is it right to pay the imperial tax to Caesar or not?” demanded the Pharisees. If he answered “Yes,” they could accuse him of being a sellout to the Roman authorities. If he answered “No,” they could get him into trouble with those authorities.

He pointed out that Roman coins came from Caesar in the first place and said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”—an answer with which neither Romans nor Jews could find fault. (See Matthew 22:15-22.)

The Sadducees added a trap of their own, but Jesus kept his cool.

If a woman is married more than once, they asked, whose wife will she be in the afterlife? By this question, the Sadducees (who didn’t believe in life after death) meant to discredit Jesus and his teachings.

Jesus’ answer? There is no marriage in the afterlife. Take that, Sadducees! (See Matthew 22:23-33.)

One trap stands out among the others. It was a matter of life or death. A woman had been caught in an affair. According to Old Testament laws, she deserved to die. However, in Jesus’ day, Jews couldn’t sentence anyone to death without consent from the Roman authorities. (This is why Jesus was taken to Pilate, a Roman official, to be condemned to be executed after the Jews had already declared him worthy of death.)

If Jesus said the woman should die, he would break Roman law. If he said the woman should live, he would break divine law. There was no way out. It was a trap even Admiral Ackbar could not avoid.

Go ahead, said Jesus. Execute the woman according to Jewish law—but let someone who hasn’t sinned begin the execution.

With infinite calm, Jesus called their bluff. They could threaten to kill the woman—perhaps even watch her die—but not one of them could carry out the execution with a clean conscience. One by one, they slipped away. (See John 8:3-11.)

“Woman, where are they?” asked Jesus at last. “Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she replied, perhaps trembling in fear and awe.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” declared Jesus. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

I find it fascinating that Jesus gave tricky answers only to trick questions. When a Pharisee finally asked him a fair question, Jesus’ answer was honest and straightforward.

What, asked the Pharisee, is the greatest commandment in God’s law?

Love God and love others, answered Jesus.

That, dear readers, is not a trap.

This post was originally published on May 29, 2013. TMTF shall return with new content on November 30, 2015!

Strange American Turkey Rituals

As much as I like the United States of America, I’m confused and disturbed by some of its customs. (The traditions in my homeland of Ecuador seemed so much simpler.) For example, Americans will celebrate a festival of ritualistic gluttony known as Thanksgiving in just a few days.

We at Typewriter Monkey Task Force pride ourselves on our anthropological researches. Although we generally reserve our investigations for important matters such as geek culture and cartoons for little girls, we’re expanding our vision to cover American holidays. Our research is completely authentic, and presented in a factual manner utterly devoid of humor, sarcasm, or silliness.*

As I recovered from last month’s sinister pumpkin rituals, I heard disquieting rumors of a November celebration for which Americans gather to disembowel turkeys and observe brutal bouts of gladiatorial violence. Halloween was odd, but Thanksgiving truly takes the cake… or the pie in this case.

Let’s start with the turkeys.

Turkey sacrifice

I’m guessing this is some kind of ritual sacrifice.

According to tradition, many American families prepare a turkey for the Thanksgiving festival. The bird is slaughtered and disemboweled. Then, in a macabre twist, its innards are replaced with a mixture of dried bread and spices. Thus desecrated, the turkey’s carcass is placed in an oven, cooked, and then served as part of the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

I can only speculate that the Thanksgiving turkey is a sacrifice offered as an act of thanksgiving for a good year, hence the name of the holiday. Note that the bird is not immolated as a burnt offering. It is eaten instead by participants in the Thanksgiving festival. I can only infer that the turkey’s ceremonial function is similar to the wave offering prescribed for ancient Israel in the earlier books Old Testament: an offering dedicated, but eaten instead of burned.

The sacrificial turkey is generally served with foods such as mashed potatoes, gravy, ham, corn, bread rolls, pies, and sauerkraut. (I presume sauerkraut is eaten because it has ceremonial significance; I can hardly imagine anyone actually liking the stuff.) Collectively, these foods are called Thanksgiving dinner.

Thanksgiving dinner is often devoured with reckless enthusiasm. This annual display of gluttony occurs so widely that it may be ritualistic. Worship has taken many forms in different epochs and cultures: singing, dancing, praying, meditating, offering sacrifices, making pilgrimages, giving alms, and even inflicting self-harm. Could overeating be a form of worship unique to the Thanksgiving festival? Of course, these are just speculations.

The final custom we will examine is that of football.

This display of unbridled savagery baffles me.

This so-called game, a demonstration of unbridled savagery, baffles me.

This athletic event is not to be confused with the sport of the same name, known as soccer to Americans. Having done a little research, I have concluded that American football is a gladiatorial competition in which armored men ram into each other on a field. Their goal is to take, by means of extreme force, an elliptical object that seems to be the eponymous football. This football is carried by hand, not propelled by foot, rendering the origin of its name an incomprehensible mystery.

We conclude that Thanksgiving is an appalling display of gluttony, violence, and unexplained rituals. However, in the interests of anthropological study, we intend to sample Thanksgiving dinner this year. For science.

*Nah, we’re just kidding.

This post was originally published on November 24, 2014. TMTF shall return with new content on November 30, 2015!

388. Fans, Geeks, and Waifus: A Momentary Study

I once had a friend who had a crush on Legolas from The Lord of the Rings. This puzzled me greatly.

Granted, Legolas isn’t ugly. He has two eyes, which is generally the preferred number of eyes. That’s a good start. Legolas also has a nose, all his teeth, and a full head of hair. (At any rate, in the movies, he wears a nice wig.) So far: so good. His skin is healthy—no leprosy there—and he isn’t painfully thin or morbidly obese. Legolas also seems to have “the smolder,” a trait considered desirable by females of the species… I think.

Look, I’m no expert on what ladies find attractive in gentlemen. I’ve simply been told Legolas is a smokin’ hot stud or some such, and I’m not sure I’m qualified to argue.


Exhibit A: Legolas the (apparently) sexy elf.

All of this, however, doesn’t explain the adoration my friend (whom I’ll call Socrates) lavished upon this imaginary elf. She thought Legolas was the sexiest thing since Hugh Jackman’s abs in the X-Men movies, and I thought Socrates was crazy.

Nah, my crush was on Daphne from the old Scooby-Doo cartoon.

Of course, that was back when I was in kindergarten: a faraway time when I was tiny and blond, barely knew the alphabet, and didn’t drink coffee.

Exhibit B: Adam Stück in kindergarten, roughly nine years B.S. (Before Sideburns).

On the right, Exhibit B: Adam Stück in kindergarten, roughly nine years B.S. (Before Sideburns).

By the time I reached high school and met Socrates, my secret crush on Daphne was a thing of the distant past. As the Apostle Paul wrote, doubtless referring to childhood crushes on fictional characters, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.”

By high school, I had put childish ways behind me, and Daphne from Scooby-Doo with them. No, I was enamored of Anne Shirley from Anne of Green Gables.

My point here is that fictional characters can be attractive, and real-life people can be attracted to them. This is a common enough phenomenon. In geek culture, however, it is sometimes embraced wholeheartedly… even to a point that is frankly weird.

Let’s talk about waifus.

No waifu no laifu

Exhibit C: The anime-obsessed President of the United States voices his support for waifus.

A waifu is a fictional character to whom a person is attracted, to the point of considering that character a significant other.

The word waifu comes from an exaggerated Japanese pronunciation of the English word wife. (Thanks to anime and video games, a lot of weird geek culture originates in Japan.) A waifu doesn’t have to be female, by the way; the term can be used for characters of either sex.

By calling a character his waifu, a geek wryly acknowledges his crush on that character. It’s basically a form of shipping in which a real person ships a fictional character with himself.

Is it weird? Yes. Do I support waifus? Nah. Do they worry me? Not really. I’m pretty certain the waifu phenomenon is the sort of harmless, silly nonsense the Internet does best. At any rate, I hope it’s no deeper or darker than that!