Monday, August 6, 2018

The Depth of Zero Charisma

I AM Scott Wiedemeyer!!

I've talked about Zero Charisma before, and if you want my short review of this movie: Zero Charisma is an amazingly insightful piece of cinema with a powerful message about how the popular media has co-opted the nerd culture and D&D in particular.

People have mixed feelings about ZC and its message but I think that is a part of the problem that ZC itself addresses, or else is the opinion of those that miss the larger message of the film. Watching the film again last night (it can still be rented on Amazon and with a 73% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 6.3 stars overall it is likely to be available for awhile at least) gave me pause to consider not just the overt message of the film: "what is a real nerd?"; but the deeper issue of my growing dissatisfaction with the roleplaying industry, culture and the current state of D&D.

In a WIRED article shortly after the film was released the idea that ZC didn't do nerds any favors was addressed. This idea was fronted by an io9 writer but very adequately addressed by the film's writer Andrew Matthews who said,

“Despite many good examples, it can still be hard to convince people that a untraditional main character will resonate with audiences. Just because someone is nether heroic nor a typical everyman doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize with his struggles.” (source)

The "untraditional main character" that Matthews is talking about here is Scott Wiedermeyer. And yes, despite Scott's many faults, I do identify with him and deeply sympathize with his troubles. I recall first telling people about ZC and highly recommending it, only to receive somewhat cold and distant responses to the film and its message. I also began to realize the the reason was rooted in today's modern game and geek culture as opposed to what the movie itself represents. In short, the way you react to this film has a lot to do with what kind of "nerd" or "geek" you are. ZC pretty quickly separates the hipster nerd stylist from those of us like Sam Eidson's character, feel shut out from the new wave herd.

"A Dungeons & Dragons player since junior high, Matthews wanted Zero Charisma to depict how gamer life has changed as geek culture has become more mainstream. “These hobbies that used to require so much commitment and sacrifices to pursue are now so much easier. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The more people that are playing, the more players you can find. But for people like Scott – and myself on some level – it just kind of seems unfair. This is our world, our refuge that kind of belonged only to us. Once it goes mainstream it’s not special anymore.” (source)

Anyone who watched the movie cannot mistake that it is not Scott that is the ass, it is Miles. Miles, the charismatic hipster that not only takes over Scott's nerddom but monopolizes it for his own commercial purposes. The dichotomy here of course, is that all the people hanging out at Miles party where Scott makes his last stand, all love geek culture. The new geek culture, that is. They love comics, spec fic movies, literature, video games, and the shiny new D&D that's on the market today. They are the geek chic of today.

In fact that is the name of Miles' website: GeekChic.Com. A not so subtle play on the way old school nerd culture has been coopted today to become the new chic, the new cool. Andrews couldn't be much more clear in the statement his film seems to be making; he is clearly pointing to what is what in the nerd experience today.

This disparity is even played out when Scott goes to meet the creator of fantasy gaming himself: Gary Goran, the film's stand in for Gary Gygax. Nerds of old revered Gygax, and it is no surprise in Scott's gradual unhinging that he runs to his icon to find the respite and affirmation he knows in his heart to be true. Dakin Matthews does a marvelous job looking and acting the part of Gary for a bit part, especially because the scene is so important. That Gygax himself could be irascible and ornery is no secret and we see this played out by Dakin. The dialogue is great here, and when our anti-hero Scott gets the chance to talk with Gary directly the film delivers another poignant truth. Even Gary sold us out. Many of us felt cheated when Gary Gygax so frequently pointed out that D&D "was just a game", as Goran says to Scott in the film. Scott knows it is more than that, as do we all who loved and lived the game. Sometimes we consoled ourselves that Gygax "had to say that" because of the Satanic Panic and the public outcry that it was teaching occultism, and a threat to the moral Christian foundation of society. He was delivering a canned PR statement, that had to be it. But in our hearts we felt and feel just like Scott does in this scene.

"My players say I'm taking the game too seriously...I mean is it really possible for a game master to take the game too seriously?" (Scott to Gary at Wizard's Tower) See, it wasn't really a case of Scott's players who brought this up. Though they did say it, they were parroting Miles who pointed out, just like Gary, that it's "supposed to be fun". "It's just a game." Well, **** you Mr. Goran and **** you Miles! The game is more than that, and in the moment we need you to back us up you abandon us.

You see, this is the central message of the movie, seemingly confirmed by Andrew Matthews himself, that the game has become "not special" anymore. It has become the cool in thing everybody does, and they only do it for fun, as an idle pastime, which means nothing more to them than the next Avengers movie, the next release of HALO, or the next version of the iPhone. Scott is not lamenting the loss of his gaming group (though there certainly is that aspect, others do a better job of addressing that gaming woe). Scott is lamenting the loss of his life, his meaning, his world.

Could Scott become less self centered? Sure a bit; and could he become more forgiving, absolutely. And he does by movie's end. In fact some have decried the ending of the movie, as not really showing the resolution they wanted--Scott's gaming group back together. I personally find the ending entirely appropriate to the movie's purpose. Scott grew, but he also stayed true to who he was and what gaming meant to him. There he is working in a rest home, still supporting and spending time with his Nana, and playing his games with those who really need them-the lost and the the forgotten. I personally like to think Scott probably does still game with his old friends. But that is not the point, the point is deeper and truer to what gaming was back in the day than what it has become today.

Without getting too personal, I find the movie very true to life. And I also find that it sheds some light on my increasing dissatisfaction with and the lack of connection to the current gaming industry. I find the culture at Wizbro and Paizo largely made up of Miles-like hipster groups and not representative of me, my gaming, or my experience. They do not seem to embrace gaming like I do, nor does it mean the same things to them. I may be wrong. It may very well mean the exact same things, but it is not at all apparent on the surface.

Gaming meant something to me rooted in a need for meaning and purpose and personal identity that nothing else quite seemed to provide. I was entranced from the first moment I encountered it. Something deep and profound opened within me, something that led me along paths I would not have taken otherwise and which in large part define me today. I felt like Scott felt, and though I might not have been as big a jerk about it as Scott sometimes was, I totally get why he did what he did.

What I guess I'm trying to say is that if you don't "get" this movie, you don't get me.


  1. You are not alone in your feelings about the movie.

  2. No, you are not alone. I agree with your assessment, although there may be a difference between Paizo and Wizbro. The hobby belongs to all of us, so don't be quick to abandon it to the "others". My advice is to keep doing your thing, your way.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.