Citadel guards Michael (left) and Don Smith battle for control of Middle Earth, aka Governor Dodge State Park.
What do Middle Earth-inspired gaming, steampunk theater and a feminist science fiction conference have in common?
They all have a home in or near Madison.
Madison sits at an apex of the political, the quirky and the passionate -- and that intersection is no more apparent than in the city's multiple manifestations of what you might call geek culture. Get a group of people in a room together who are very, very excited about the thing they love -- whether that's Star Trek or historical fiction or anarchist activism or gaming -- and the energy is palpable.
So while Madison's geeky side is distinct from its political character, there's no small amount of overlap. And perhaps Madison's geeks, galvanized by the large numbers of visitors who are drawn to events like Ring Game and WisCon, are uniquely equipped to address the city's political and social issues with imagination, creativity and an obsessive interest in what makes things tick.
If you've ever fantasized about fighting orcs, or perhaps you admire the generous meal schedules of hobbits, Ring Game is for you. This live-action role-playing game, which takes place in Governor Dodge State Park twice a year, lets participants become characters straight out of J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, with good and evil characters battling for possession of the Ring. Points for creative or elaborate costuming give players advantages, and the event has spawned a spinoff game, Second Age, which takes place in early Hobbit history.
Karen Beres has traveled from Milwaukee for Ring Game for four years now. "I love dressing up and the strategy and tactics of the game," she says.
Beres also LARPs, or live-action role-plays, a more theatrical extension of tabletop role-playing games. "I enjoy 'being' a character for the day," she says. "I love hanging out with the other players, who have become new friends with whom I can share my love for Tolkien's world."
Geek culture often comes down to "finding your people," being surrounded by those who love something as much as you do and aren't afraid to wear their excitement on their sleeve.
Rachel Spartz, who has played 16 Ring Games, says it's the people who have kept her coming back. "I've liked just about everyone I've run into. The first few games I was nervous if I didn't know the people I was starting with, but I don't worry about that anymore," she says.
Spartz adds that not all Ring Game fans are Tolkien fans, and there's plenty of crossover with other geek scenes, like the Society for Creative Anachronism, an organization dedicated to reenacting the arts and skills of Middle Ages and Renaissance Europe. "There are lots of creative costumers too," says Spartz.
Jack Barker, who has long been involved in Ring Game and founded Second Age, actually moved to Madison because of Ring Game.
"For some of us it's a lifestyle choice," he says. "We have kids who come who are 12 or 13; we have one fellow who was well into his 70s playing in his wheelchair with his son and grandson and great-grandson. For some people it's a family. It all shakes out to being, for me, a very fun and great group of people."
Barker's move to Madison has suited him well. In addition to Ring Game, he's involved in live-action steampunk mystery events like the Darke Carnival at the Inferno, a steampunk-themed music and entertainment event. (Steampunk is a subgenre of science fiction set in the context of either Wild West or Victorian culture and attire; think writers H.G. Wells and Philip Pullman.) Among the activities: dancing and magic and carnival games. Barker co-hosts a monthly game night, too.
Barker knows other locales also have these same kinds of cultural events, but says, "There's just something about Madison where all that stuff comes together."
"There's just something about Madison" is a common observation from visitors as well as residents at local geek activities. WisCon, a feminist sci-fi convention that convened in Madison for its 38th year in 2014, has many participants who aren't from Madison but love coming here for the city's unique vibe.
"When I came here for the first time, I didn't know a soul, but the people were so kind and the programming is amazing," says Isabel Schechter, a panelist from Chicago who's attended many WisCons. "Madison is really in keeping with the ethos of WisCon. You walk up and down State Street and you see us."
Lauded as unique among conventions thanks to its volunteer-run environment and focus on inclusivity and accessibility, WisCon is one of the most diverse geek-culture events Madison offers, not just racially but also in terms of income, age, orientation and gender identity.
"It's definitely grown and become much more diverse," says Schecter. "For the first few years I could count the people of color on one hand, and I was one of them." This year her panels included "The Oppression of the Majority: How to Drink the Tears of Your Enemies."
Efforts to improve diversity among both speakers and attendees have been successful, and have had a ripple effect, increasing such efforts at other conventions.
When WisCon founder Jeanne Gomoll graduated from UW in the mid-1970s, her feminist reading group decided to publish a fanzine that discussed science fiction and feminism. From that zine, Janus, the concept for WisCon was born.
"We attended a women's panel at another conference and the room was packed, and we decided, why not do an entire con?" Gomoll recalls. "We started out at 300 guests; now we cap it at 1,000 because we don't want to hold this con anywhere else. The Concourse is the largest venue in town, and we have a relationship with them. And our attendees love Madison."
Gomoll says the activism and feminism inherent in WisCon link to the political activism of the city, but the early years weren't without pushback. "We got backlash for having LGBT speakers and themed panels. Some opponents gave us the nickname 'Pervert Con,'" she remembers. "But more progressive fan groups created a partnership with us."
Gomoll will be recognized at the World Science Fiction Convention this year for her contributions to science fiction, including her work with the Tiptree Award, an annual literary prize for works of science fiction or fantasy that expand our understanding of gender. Her pride at WisCon's success is evident.
"When I retire, I know it's going to keep going," she says with a smile.
WisCon's focus on social justice includes a commitment to accessible facilities, services like ASL interpreters and closed captioning, and financial assistance for low-income guests.
Panels such as "The Politics of Being Poor" and "Prioritizing Activism" include Madisonians who combine an interest in geek culture with a passion for social change.
"When you're poor it's very hard to go and vote," Kate Carey remarked during the "Politics of Being Poor" panel. "We need to start thinking about how we as a community who go to these cons can be a voice for change."
Shayla Dunn of Madison, another panelist, cited the city's numerous resources while also describing the enormous time investment involved in locating and taking advantage of them. "It's a full-time job," she says.
This was Dunn's eighth WisCon. To her, an interest in science fiction and a sense of social justice go hand in hand. "We think about the future a lot and how we want it to be." As a place for addressing social issues by putting them in an unfamiliar setting, science fiction has historically been an ideal setting for conversations about social change.
Another local WisCon panelist, Sarah Tops Rogers, has organized radical book clubs, the steampunk scene and Ring Game as well as social justice activism. "I'm passionate about how nerd culture and activism/politics collide. There's a cultural overlap," she says. "A lot of geeks are mindful of social issues. A lot of activists are into geek stuff. With things like radical sci-fi book clubs, they intersect."
Rogers credits Dane101, a now-defunct independent media site and resource for geek culture, with building the scene locally in the past few years by sponsoring several geek-themed events and covering others in depth. She also lists Madison's numerous gaming shops as well as venues like the Sector67 hacker space as examples of places where counterculture interests can thrive.
The energy in Madison encourages that: "Madison's an active town in general," Rogers says. "There are microcosms of alternative cultures and so many venues to pursue those interests. Madison is open -- eccentricities are celebrated. You saw Star Wars puns being used at Occupy. It's a way to reach people."
Rogers spoke at the "Prioritizing Activism" panel on the challenges activists face in avoiding burnout and finding ways to be effective. She says the greater Madison community could learn a lot from WisCon's environment of encouraging constructive criticism through discussion and challenging assumptions. "Being okay with criticism -- that's how change happens."