As the world shut down in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, stir-crazy citizens searched for ways to stay occupied, entertained and socially engaged. Immersion into geeky culture and pastimes served as a lifeline for many people as shows like “The Mandalorian,” video games like “Animal Crossing” and hobbies like collecting “Pokémon” cards each respectively had a surge in popularity.
Although the word “geek” has traditional connotation to social ineptitude or technological prowess and historically refers to circus performers who bit the heads of live chickens, members of Geek Girls Forever use the term to mean anyone who is passionate about a certain area of pop culture.
Geek Girls Forever is a social club that formed as a part of the Brave New World comic book store in Newhall and broke off into its own organization in 2016 when the store changed ownership. Kate Moore, owner of Geek Girls Forever, said the organization and its affiliated youth program Geek Girls Society started as a way for women to bond over activities based on shared fandoms.
“We started out as this organization for geeky women to fangirl together and we’ve grown into this wonderful community that celebrates everything women can do,” Moore said. “I think it’s really important on the kids’ side of things because a lot of the new kids who will come in feel like they don’t have any friends since they don’t relate to a lot of the things other kids like. A lot of adults who find us think they’re not geeky enough but you don’t need to prove yourself to us or have an allegiance to ‘Star Wars’ or’ Star Trek’ to join.”
Geek Girls Forever hosts monthly events including crafts, movie nights, book clubs, and “Dungeons and Dragons” (D&D) campaigns, all highly social events best enjoyed in-person.
Enter 2020 and the coronavirus pandemic.
“Prior to COVID, I was running about 18 events a month in Santa Clarita and now I’m running maybe eight a month, if that, and half of those are D&D sessions that are run by our dungeon masters,” Moore said. “Our business license is tied under the ‘gym’ umbrella, which is funny because we’re about as anti-gym as you can get, so we were shut down early on March 15. I moved our book club online immediately because that was easy but the rest of our activities were shut down for about two months.”
Transitioning into an online format has had its advantages. Moore said that though she hosts fewer events, she feels like the events she does host have become more thoughtful and personal. Before moving online, Moore hosted more events she described as “cookie cutter, rinse and repeat” crafts and game nights. She incorporated things like online movie parties, online escape rooms and special events into the mix and also spends more time planning out her crafts because she mails packets of materials to the participants.
“One of the issues I used to have was that there was only one of me,” Moore said. “D&D folks are very creative so they quickly figured out how to run a game online. Leaning into events online allowed me to learn how to maximize my time. I don’t think I have ever spent this much time on just organizing but that is because now I have to plan so far in advance. If there’s one thing the pandemic has taught me it’s quality over quantity.”
With “girls” in the name, it does not mean that it’s exclusive. Moore estimated that between 35 to 40% of members are men. Jeane Ess, who has been a member since 2015, said that while Geek Girls is unlike any other organization she has seen in its emphasis on empowering geeky women, but “we’re not ‘boo boys,’ we’re just ‘yay girls.’” For the most part, the male members are respectful and supportive of the Geek Girls mission, but Moore said that occasionally some people have tried to use it as a dating service. This is so infrequent though that Moore doesn’t see it as a major issue.
Bryce Miller joined Geek Girls looking for a beginner-friendly “Dungeons & Dragons” group after previous unsuccessful attempts to learn and called it “one of the most fun experiences [he’d] ever had.” In fact he enjoyed his experience so much he actively tried to recruit new players and even became a “dungeon master” who led his own game sessions for Geek Girls.
“Having a group’s initial goal to be promoting women provides a more diverse group of people instead of just the typical stereotype of a group of D&D players being a group of guys,” he said. “We have a good mix of people at every single group and that makes for a lot more natural interactions with people.”
Miller said that he thinks the misogyny that is often synonymous with geek culture comes from a lot of self-described geeks lacking proper social skills and little experience interacting with women, leading to their negative beliefs and behaviors towards women.
Unfortunately even within an organization that clearly advertises its focus on empowerment, a few less progressive individuals occasionally slip through the cracks. Estelle van de Klomp experienced prolonged instances of misogyny at the hands of a male member during their D&D sessions.
“My favorite term is that he was a bulldozer: he would say things or interrupt to bulldoze the sessions to be around him,” van der Klomp said. “There were instances where he would verbally attack me and other players and even at one point told me to stop role playing completely. I went to Kate and she remedied the situation completely in less than 12 hours without blaming me or questioning my experience, but understood what was going on.”
Prior to the pandemic, Geek Girls Society had a group that met in Burbank in addition to its Santa Clarita Valley-based activities. Moore said that when meetings were held in person, she had trouble growing Geek Girls Society short of driving all over Los Angeles to facilitate meetings. Furthermore, the youth groups experienced a 50% drop in participants because many of the kids felt fatigued from attending class over Zoom and did not want to spend even more time on the virtual meeting platform.
“The difference between how adults and kids have adapted to Zoom is that adults are more aware that Zoom is a necessary evil,” Moore said. “For a lot of the kids who have stayed, they just want some form of interaction with people they don’t live with. Also I’m not school so it’s not like they’re paying attention to curriculum for an hour and a half, we’re having fun playing a game or doing a craft.”
Technology has played an increasingly important role in Geek Girls, especially the communication app Discord. Member Eleanor Stevens first created a server for Geek Girls in 2018 as a way to keep in touch with the members of her “Dungeons and Dragons” campaign over the holiday break.
“I thought I would use the Discord for two weeks and then people would forget about it but fast forward to 2020 when everyone was panicking, I said hey we still have the Discord so even though we can’t see each other, we can still communicate,” Stevens said. “I thought it would be a month before we could see each other. Here we are a year later but it hasn’t been as bad because we’ve been able to talk online.”
Stevens, who moderates the Geek Girls Discord, said she was pleasantly surprised by how well the community has adapted to Discord. Before the pandemic Stevens said less than 20 people used it and messaged about once per week, but the day after the lockdown the membership and usage exploded to over 50. The server quickly grew to include 33 different communication channels and rooms within the server for things like a general chat, cosplay, the different D&D campaigns and even a channel exclusively dedicated to shopping for dice. Stevens said that having set up the server two years before the pandemic helped ease the transition to online because it removed any learning curve that she would have had if she was just learning the platform.
Van der Klomp and her friend Skyler Reede are both members of the SIlver Marches D&D campaign, which eagerly embraced the opportunity that Discord offered them to continue their games. Reede, who is the dungeon master for SIlver Marches, said the group tried several different ways and platforms to bring their game online in the most convenient and immersive way possible including voice only games, video chatting with multiple cameras and using the Roll20 virtual tabletop.
Virtual gaming is not a perfect fix though and it takes away much of the immersion aspect of a role playing game as video chatting cannot always accurately convey the performed nuances of eye contact and facial expression, and lagging internet connection can ruin a particularly tense battle or story moment. Still, Reede said they are grateful for the opportunity to still play with their group in a time when so many people are starved for human connection and even bought web cameras and microphones for members of their campaign.
“I would rather still do the virtual games until we don’t need to have masks anymore because I feel like you would lose more connection with masks,” Reede said.
Technological issues also present a roadblock when playing. Reede lives in a rural area without strong internet which makes it difficult to play in sessions with other campaigns and forces them to go to their partner’s house for stronger internet to be the dungeon master for Silver Marches. According to vander Klomp, many of the older players were not able to adapt to the new technology and web-based format and eventually stepped away from the campaign out of frustration. However, she said that the nine remaining players have really embraced the new format and found new ways to engage with each other and immerse themselves in the world of the game.
In order to keep the organization functioning, Moore increased her advertising and for the first time, adults and children from other states began to find the organization and join in some of the events. Ess, who runs the book club and graphic novel club, said that she was surprised when she first realized that she had members from outside of California when previously the most remote attendee lived in Pasadena.
“I was talking with some of the regulars about local Saugus things when one of the girls asked where we were from and she said she was from Arizona,” Ess said. “That made me realize that we can reach out to more people and this can branch out to be more than just a local thing. People get really excited when they meet people who like the same things they do, so even though we meet them online they’re excited to be part of the organization even though they’re not local.”
In 2020, Moore planned on hosting youth summer camps for the first time and planned eight weeks of in-person activities. After the organization moved online, she restructured her curriculum into four weeks of online-appropriate material.
“I had to change some of the curriculum because I found out it’s really hard to teach kids origami over Zoom,” she said. “Since I usually provide the supplies, at first the challenge was creating activities that only use pencils and paper since I figured that most kids would have those at home. I started mailing packets when I realized that the pandemic was not ending anytime soon.”
Though progress is being made in terms of vaccinations and reopening businesses, Moore said she doesn’t know what the future will bring regarding how she runs the organization but prefers to play it safe in the meantime and stick with virtual meetings.
“I think there’s going to be a lot of social anxiety because a lot of us haven’t had to ‘people’ for a year or more,” Moore said. “But I’ll get messages from people asking, ‘Hey do you have any events I can sign up for just to help keep money coming in through your door.’ It’s been a tough year for everyone, but it’s nice to know our audience is still engaged.”