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Felicia Day

[META] Tabletop, on Geek and Sundry: Improv Meets Instructional Video

It’s hard for me to explain just what I find so entertaining about the Geek and Sundry Network’s webshow Tabletop. It’s not a huge transmedia playground like The Guild, and it’s not a zany talk show like The Flog, but rather a half-hour (by TV time) webshow, in which a rotating cast of three geeky New Media creators get together with Wil Wheaton to play a tabletop game. I knew that that Wheaton, who co-created the series with Geek and Sundry founder Felicia Day, would shine in this environment by the sheer enthusiasm with which he related the rules to the game he played in the first episode. However, I remained suspicious that he could reliably recruit actors who would take so readily to the concept. From my own limited experiences with tabletop gaming, I feared that, even with significant editing, some games and some sets of people simply wouldn’t have it in them to create an entertaining half hour of television. Fortunately, I was completely wrong, which I conceded when I watched the June 29th episode, in which Buffy‘s Amber Benson, The Guild‘s Michele Boyd, and YouTube’s Meghan Camarena teamed up with Wheaton to play the hilarious card game Gloom.

Before the Gloom episode, I felt like I was watching instructional videos — incredibly well-made instructional videos, populated by highly-likeable New Media celebrities — but still instructional videos. However, the Gloom episode changed all that, and, for the first time, invited me to relax and enjoy improvisational comedy and storytelling, with the game resembling a series of thoughtful prompts, and a loose structure, rather than constraining the players’ in-game actions to the point of first-timer confusion. I say this not to critique highly complex games — I am a huge fan of long-arc commitments to any storyworld, be it a game, a television series, or, my favorite, a transmedia universe populated by fictional gamers — but rather to suggest that the show realized one of its creator’s major goals in the Gloom episode. Wheaton summarized his two-part mission in a May blog post about Tabletop, in which he said, “I want to inspire people to try hobby games, and I want to remove the stigma associated with gaming and gamers.” In order to inspire the broadest range of viewers to try out new games, I think that the decision to feature a different game in every episode is wise, and I think that offering games that allow a diversity of skill sets to be showcased is important. For example, any opportunity to highlight Amber Benson’s macabre sense of humor is an opportunity for a fine moment in webshow history, and I’m glad that this show took it.

The second part of Wheaton’s mission, the removal of stigma, is harder to assess. Those who absolutely reject gaming and geek culture because of its stigma are unlikely to watch the show long enough to realize the error in their own thinking, and those who stigmatize from within, for example, those who hate on women gamers, apparently need someone like Felicia Day to do even more than found an entire network devoted to their interests before she can prove herself. However, for someone like me, who is primarily a television fan, and only somewhat curious about expanding my horizons into games, I think that the show makes an excellent case for me to try out some of what’s newly available. (Gloom, for example, was designed in 2004, long after my lazy high school summer afternoons of rejecting Settlers of Catan had been taken over by other obligations.) I love storytelling, and I love experimental storytelling, and Tabletop provides a bridge between my love for Michele Boyd’s New Media celebrity persona and my love for creative approaches to communal storytelling. Like compulsively refreshing a ficathon, watching an episode of Tabletop gives me the sense that people can easily help each other to articulate their surprising and creative observations about the world, and that the end result will be worth preserving.

As with Wheton, so much of what Felicia Day creates and oversees is an inspiration to others to tell their own stories and to do so in innovative ways. Her Vaginal Fantasy book club, for example, has inspired women who may not have felt hailed by previous book club cultures to form their own, specifically devoted to genres that appeal to to them and their sexuality. And perhaps that is the stigma that is most flexible and removable — the stigma that people can internalize about their own desires, which they then miss the opportunity to express to like-minded friends. Within New Media culture, women who don’t feel particularly spoken to by The View or The Talk can instead watch Vaginal Fantasy, and thus perhaps be inspired to expand their fannish engagement in new directions, or simply find peace in the fact that there is such visible interest in women’s responses to literature written with them in mind.

The Geek and Sundry lineup lives, in terms of accessibility, somewhere between this weekend’s Comic-Con, and online fanfiction. Hosted on YouTube, the shows do come with advertisements, which, understandably, might frustrate people. However, the content is all original, and I am excited to see what will come of the experiment, as well as from other experimental networks, such as Pharrell’s i am OTHER, which is now showing the second season of Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl. While there is still a crucial distinction to be made between fandom proper and fandom as industrial response, I do think that experimental and independent media about which one is fannish merits a different kind of consideration than the mainstream, especially when its creators are specifically trying to reach an audience of which certain segments of fandom are a central component. The Geek and Sundry channel is far from representative of the incredible diversity of fandom at large, but its structure invites a great variety of possible responses, ranging from affirmation to imitation, and from transformation to critique. Ideally, these networks will take advantage of one another’s talent and ingenuity, as, for example, The Guild‘s Amy Okuda settles into her new role as Sam in BFF’s, a series appearing on Justin Lin’s YOMYOMF Network, thus bringing her old fanbase to a new set of creators. As this particular segment of the media landscape takes shape, inevitably fans will respond just as creatively as they always have, sometimes through industrial response, and sometimes through their own networks, which may include their own unrecorded evening of storytelling with the assistance of a card game.