Monday, November 11

Enigma: Are they nerds or the coolest people at UCLA?


Some enjoy sci-fi, others like comic books, but basically, they're just having fun

Correction appended

Huddled in a small circle outside a meeting room on the 2nd
floor of Ackerman Student Union are about eight or nine UCLA
students.

A few of the boys have long hair. Not moppish, hipster hair of
the ultra-cool, rock ‘n’ roll resurgence,
the-Strokes-are-the-greatest-band-alive set, but really long hair,
hitting somewhere in the middle of their backs. Hair they’ve
been growing since middle school. Geek hair.

Several of the girls sport T-shirts displaying a preference for
science fiction or Japanese anime TV shows, like “Sailor
Moon.” Most don’t wear make-up. None of them could be
mistaken for sorority members.

More people trickle into the circle, ascending from a nearby
staircase. Some look more like graduate students. One of them even
has gray hair.

When approached and asked whether this group has gathered for
the weekly meeting of Enigma, the UCLA science fiction, fantasy and
gaming club, the response is appropriately sarcastic.

“What tipped you off?” asks third-year history and
philosophy student Fabian Primera. “The nerdy
conversation?”

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

The opening credits of Quentin Tarantino’s long-awaited
fourth film, “Kill Bill, Volume 1″ include a famous
quotation, which garnered hearty, appreciative laughter from an
audience gathered at a trendy Hollywood cineplex for one of the
film’s first showings last Friday night.

“”˜Revenge is a dish best served
cold.’”

This appears in white lettering on an all black screen, setting
the mood for the highly stylized, ultra-violent samurai film to
follow. Then, after a beat, the source of the quote flashes
below.

” ““ Old Klingon proverb,” it says. Immediate
chuckles. “Hilarious,” the audience thinks. “This
is gonna be cool.”

Allusions with origins in science fiction and fantasy milieus
are suddenly and overwhelmingly en vogue. Films, television shows,
and novels once thought to be solely the territory of the
hopelessly lame are being reclaimed by the kids who now get to sit
at the cool table. It’s “Star Trek” chic.
It’s the revenge of the nerds.

In the 1990s, it was the rise of the pop-culture reference.
Everywhere there was evidence of how someone’s hipness factor
was based on how well they name-dropped an obscure Saturday morning
cartoon from their childhood. This became the epitome of smart
comedy, evidenced in TV shows like “The Simpsons” and
“Seinfeld,” as well as in the early films of Tarantino,
like “Pulp Fiction.”

Now Tarantino, as well as savvy film autuers like Peter Jackson,
who brought Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy
to the big screen, are bringing nerd culture to the masses. And the
masses are reacting with an overwhelmingly affirmative
response.

“We are one of you,” they imply as they line up
hours and even days beforehand to shell out cash for the newest
“Matrix” incarnation. “We are all
nerds.”

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

Members of Enigma like stories by H.P. Lovecraft. They go to
“Farscape” conventions, gather once a week to watch
HBO’s “Carnivale,” and spend time debating the
comparative merits of “Star Wars” versus “Star
Trek.”

Members of Enigma refer to break time during their meetings as
“chaos.” They call their publicity officer the minister
of propaganda. And they love to play games: Elaborate, involved,
role-playing games, where they often wear costumes.

Members of Enigma embrace their geekiness like no other student
group at UCLA.

“I’m an über-geek,” Primera said. He
joined Enigma after searching for what he calls his
“brethren” at a UCLA orientation event. “I
embrace it to its fullest. It’s just so much fun being a
geek. You’re allowed to enjoy all these things that other
people look down on.”

Not everyone in the club shares the exact same interests. Some
only love “Star Wars,” while others are most fond of
comic books or anime. Some prefer role playing in smaller,
table-top settings, while others live for the live action variety.
Vampires figure strongly in some Enigmans’ personal folklore,
while for others, zombies hold more sway.

“The Enigma mindset is a general disregard for
convention,” explained club founder Robert Hurt. “I
find most Enigmans also have a deep interest in exploring new
ideas, and a high degree of creativity.”

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

The rise of the comic book geek has also, over the last few
years, been fast and steady.

A virtual sea of comic book-based films like
“Spider-man,” “X-men,” and “The
Hulk,” just to name a few, have bombarded filmgoers for the
past three summer movie seasons. “Smallville” and
“Birds of Prey” have filled the youth-oriented WB
network’s primetime schedule.

Award-winning authors like Michael Chabon have taken up comic
books as a subject of near-scholarly obsession. The result of
Chabon’s effort, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier
and Clay,” will, of course, soon be made into a major motion
picture.

A virtual army of shy, obsessive, young men (and women, although
mostly men) have grown up to be directors, authors and executives.
These are the people who are currently deciding what kinds of
culture will be available for the population at large to
consume.

What once was nerdy, now is a cash cow.

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

Hurt founded Enigma almost 18 years ago, when he started at UCLA
as a physics graduate student. He had come in pursuit of a Ph.D.,
but when he arrived, he discovered that his new school did not have
an outlet for one of his favorite hobbies, role-playing games. So
he gathered up a handful of friends, and Enigma was born.

Only a few years ago, the club was in danger of folding. While
alumni members of the group were still friends and kept up with
their general interest in gaming, few new students had been brought
into the fold. After a concerted effort on the part of these
“Elder Enigmans,” the science fiction club found new
life, culminating in several well attended Live-Action Role-Playing
games both on and off campus in the last year. One recent game,
based on the popular “Harry Potter” books, counted over
100 people as players.

And what about those live games, or LARPs, as they’re
commonly called? Aren’t those the parties where you have to
dress up, create an entire persona, and then act as though you are
that person for the entire evening, thus encountering conflict with
the other make-believe personalities present at the event? You bet
they are.

Many of the LARPs hosted by Enigma are actually somewhat
different than more traditional versions in that they tend to
emphasize social conflict between characters rather than having one
gamemaster basically call all the shots.

“I love character creation,” said Enigma member
Kitty Goss. “The act of creating another person, giving them
a personality … and then stepping into that person’s shoes
and trying to bring life to that character. That is really
appealing to me.”

Ңbull;Ӣbull;Ӣbull;

Now that nerd culture has been embraced as part of the
mainstream, Enigma could conceivably step into a larger role on
campus than ever before. But before they do, they will likely have
to break down even more stereotypes than have already been
destroyed. The general public may accept an “X-Men”
film or “Star Trek” quote, but trying to get them into
zombie costumes may be a bit of a tougher sell.

“I feel I’m pretty normal, other than I play
“˜Dungeons and Dragons,’” said Sean Diaz-Lapham,
this year’s Enigma president. “Half the people here are
very normal people. They live very normal lives.”

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