Gamescom 2015 African nerdettes and other impossibilities

 Life is a game: Visitors at Gamescom
Life is a game: Visitors at Gamescom | Photo: Christoph Deeg

In 2004, the word “Nerd” made it into the standard German dictionary, the Duden, according to which it describes a “very intelligent, but socially isolated computer fan.” Use: colloquially “derogatory.” Whoever came to Gamescom in Cologne with this definition in mind was set straight.   By Sonja von Struve

Nerd = noun, masculine?

Game Design teacher Hanli Geyser Game Design teacher Hanli Geyser | (Photo: private) Apparently, the German language, which has a masculine and feminine word for nearly everything, has no term for a nerd of the female gender. Entire forums rack their brains and throw out suggestions like “Nerdine” or “Nerd-Mädchen” at regular intervals. None of them stick. Yet we have Hanli Geyser, with her ginger bob, blue eyes, dry sense of humour and hearty laugh. The South African is a lecturer in game design at University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and is herself a passionate gamer. “A professor of literature reads books. I try out games: strategy games, board games, avatar shooters,” she says, grins, and takes a sip of cola.

The sun is burning down on the surprisingly entirely computerless outdoor section at Gamescom. “The guys who play shooters and then crow the loudest on the Internet about it are also the guys who have problems with women in the game scene,” says Geyser, “but the designers are all supportive. We do need diversity and with that I mean more than a few female characters in games.”

As lecturer in game design, Hanli Geyser is able to combine her art history background with her passion for games. This is her first time at Gamescom and she is astonished, “that many people here are familiar with our games, but never noticed that they are from Africa.” According to Geyser this is because games like these can be made almost anywhere; they make no reference to their place of origin. “We need to include our cultural, linguistic, social spectrum,” she believes. “We have eleven official languages. We have a long tradition of board games. We have our own stories. When our games are played internationally, they give us a voice for worldwide reception of our culture.”

To play the games people sometimes queue for an hour To play the games people sometimes queue for an hour | Photo: Sascha von Struve

Nerd = socially isolated?

“People play games, from the kindergarten playground to diving into complex digital worlds as adults.” Hanli Geyser pushes a strand of hair from her forehead. If you look around at Gamescom you notice that she is right. Parents with children, couples, entire tour groups from England and the Netherlands. No one here looks alone and socially isolated. Even Geyser did not travel here on her own, but is part of a group of visitors of the Goethe-Institut, which brought twenty game designers (male and female!) from South Africa and Korea to Gamescom.

“More exchanges between universities, game developers, industries, game cultures – to me, that would be the main prize,” says Geyser emphatically. For her, it focuses on conversations about culture, art and information and about games as the perfect medium for our time. “They provide a new space for cultural dialogue and artistic reflection in which many rules of our everyday world are suspended.”

The lecturer is not alone in her opinion. Simone Lenz launched the EU project Faites vos jEUx for the Goethe-Institut. Young people from Portugal and Germany got together to express their questions about the EU in games. “Games are communicative and interactive,” Lenz tells us between expert workshops and game trials at Gamescom, “this was the aspect of communication described by Richard D. Duke forty years ago in Gaming: The Future’s Language. We take this up with projects like Faites vos jEUx or a game jam about surveillance with students from Boston. The enthusiasm and joint productivity of everyone involved speaks for itself.” Now at Gamescom young people from the project are meeting the designer from South Africa and other experts and they all speak a universal language: love of games.

Nerd = colloquial, derogatory?

The shortcut to tickets for Gamescom 2015 is called www.gamescom.de/gamescom/Für-Alle (for all). If Gamescom is for all, what about nerds? Or are they all nerds? “Africa has a healthy film industry, there is a great deal of literature from Africa; games can play the same role in society. And – pragmatically speaking – game design is a billion dollar industry,” explains Hanli Geyser. For her, games are not a marginal phenomenon that affects only a few, sedentary people in basements. They are cultural asset, educational opportunity, social phenomenon and also a promising profession. “Games can be a door opener. Something easily accessible that people quickly understand, with which they identify,” says Geyser. From this basis you can easily switch to other computer technology fields, also internationally. “It's much easier to go to somebody and say, ‘Hey, you can design a game,’ than to say ‘Hey, would you like to make a living programming software?’”

The nearly 350,000 visitors counted at Gamescom this year bear her out. This many people are not an insignificant part of society; gaming has long become socially acceptable. And nothing can change that now, not even the elderly gent waiting for the tram in front of the exhibition centre grumbling, “Some of these kids over there make more money than professional golfers.” Maybe it’s time to revise the word “Nerd” in the German dictionary, and maybe, just maybe, replace it with “Golfer.”