Sex, mutton broth and gaming at Icon festival

Hundreds of South African nerds, geeks, and the generally weird were flipping through comic books, playing with action figures and slipping into medieval robes at the Jabula Recreation Centre in Johannesburg last Saturday.

And I was there with them for the annual Icon Convention, one of the few comic-and-gaming-themed conventions that’s held in South Africa. A friend suggested I write about the festival after he showed me photos of himself Larping. Larping stands for Live Action Role Playing, and involves dressing up in costume and hitting your friends with foam weapons. I wanted to meet the people behind the subculture.

Grant Charlton, organiser of Icon and owner of Outer Limits, a gaming store in Melville, Johannesburg, seemed out of breath when he met me at the front door. Charlton wears glasses; he’s balding but has long hair that reaches past his shoulders. He has been running Icon for about 18 years, “nearly by myself”, he said as we rushed through a dim hallway and into the exhibition hall.

Medieval games, fantasy art and role playing converge in Johannesburg at ICON, one of South Africa’s few gaming conventions. View our slideshow and experience the weirdness.
Inside the hall were tables covered with comic books from local dealers, South African “fantasy artists” hawking their computer drawings of curvaceous, button-nosed women, and stalls selling handmade leather corsets. It was a one-stop-shop for South African gamers.

Icon began in 1992 after a group of role-players at the University of Witwatersrand decided to start their own convention, having been disappointed by the lack of breadth in “WitsCon”, the university’s convention. Icon started with role-playing and fantasy war games and expanded to include Larping, Magic: The Gathering and every other type of game you could imagine.

There were rooms filled with males from adolescence all the way to the twilight of middle age, playing computer games or throwing dice over tables covered with foam trees and miniature, ax-wielding monsters. Grant pointed out a room dedicated to the semifinals of Magic: The Gathering, the fantasy card game, and said that next week the South African team would be boarding a plane for Japan to compete in the world finals.

‘They all live in the past’
We walked outside. “There’s the SCA,” he said, and pointed to a group of men wearing tunics. The men stood around the perimeter of a grass yard that sloped up to a playground and was bordered by gaming tables. At the table behind the men were two women wearing medieval dresses. “They all live in the past,” Grant said. “They’re about to put on armour and beat the hell out of each other.”

The SCA, or the Society for Creative Anachronism, is associated with one of the most notoriously dorky sub-cultures: Larping. Larps are usually set in a certain time period or fantasy-land. The most common Larps are medieval-themed, but it can be anything from Victorian times to cowboys and Indians.

Thousands of people around the world Larp. In South Africa, one of the most common variants of the game is called Mead, where players dress up as fantasy characters, such as monsters, goblins or wizards. While Cape Town is said to be South Africa’s Larp capital, in Johannesburg, big Mead events happen roughly every three months, where hundreds of players get together in Larps that last for hours or days.

But the SCA is different, the Honourable Lord Rainer Wulfgar, real name Russell Abery, told me. First of all, he said as he traced his finger along one of the display swords, unlike the foam weapons that Mead players use, their weapons are made out of long rods of thick cane. And they hurt.

But the most important thing that separates the SCA from every other role-playing society in the world is its emphasis on history, he said. Two American medieval studies graduates from UC Berkeley started the SCA in 1966 when they paraded down Berkeley’s Telegraph Avenue wearing medieval garb and whacking each other with fake weapons.

Since then the SCA expanded into a non-profit organisation that claims tens of thousands of members around the world, and a hierarchy of kings, queens, lords and ladies. It’s medieval history and culture without the religious oppression or the plague.

Lord Rainer Wulfgar said he and many others initially joined the SCA because they were enticed by the chivalry and opportunity to learn medieval combat.

‘We play, we drink’
“It’s the pageantry of it,” he said. “I’ve been doing this for over 14 years. On the weekends I get to play with swords. I go out with my friends, we play, we drink. It’s fun.”

Before the SCA performed their combat demonstration before the curious onlookers, I spoke with Lord Caerthgyn of Dunbeath, real name Cameron Gray, a former tattoo artist and metalsmith with a grizzled beard and bald head. He had been chain-smoking cigarettes and drinking Red Bull in preparation for the demo. As he tightened the leather straps of his steel shin guards and adjusted the rest of his armour—all steel and handmade by him, including a stunning helmet modelled after one used in the Crusades—he said that the SCA can be “like a virus”.

“Every penny you’ve got goes on metal, leather and rivets,” he said. “I enjoy the combat, the honour, the chivalry, the hands-on element to the crafts. I don’t like running around in medieval garb. That’s not me. You know, it’s excellent anger management. You have to control yourself, because somebody out there could get really hurt if you don’t. But when you’re out in there in combat, there’s nothing else like it.”

Lady Rose, a large woman with short, curly brown hair sitting behind the SCA table, said she had been active in the SCA for nine years. Her specialty, she said, is to brew mutton and barley broths and other medieval food when the SCA gets together.

I asked her if others ever made fun of her. She shrugged and looked down. “There are people that point and laugh, but you get used to it. They think it’s weird and strange but ...” she trailed off.

And then, Lady Rose, real-life name Janine Russon, an office administrator for an unnamed company, looked up and unfolded her hand. A small red leather pouch sat in her palm. “I made this,” she said. She smiled. “And I made that,” pointing to a pouch hanging off her husband’s belt. “If you would have told me five years ago I would be doing leatherwork, I wouldn’t have believed you.”

‘Icon gets me hot’
There is a myth that nerds aren’t as horny as the rest of us, that they are all asexual amoebas too busy staring at computer screens to ogle a pair of breasts. I’m not sure where this myth came from, but I realised I was guilty as the rest of society in believing it. I heard one guy mutter, “Icon gets me hot,” as he watched a girl in a corset bend over.

When a woman in a platinum blonde wig and a sexy bee costume walked by a table of men meticulously painting miniature monsters and aliens, one of the men looked up and said, “I can see your bee-hind.” The other guys laughed hysterically and elbowed each other in the ribs. All around me, I noticed, from the T-shirts that read WHAT HAPPENS IN THE HOLODECK STAYS IN THE HOLODECK, to the occasional latex corsets for sale in the exhibition hall, were horny nerds.

I then met the all-girl role-playing team “Tits and Ass.” They are called Tits and Ass, said a leggy redhead dressed as Jessica Rabbit and drinking from a bottle of pink sparkling wine, because they found that “you don’t have to be good at the game, you just have show enough tits and ass to distract the boys”.

Role-playing, where players act out characters around a table, is a male dominated field. The bee-woman I saw earlier sidled up to Jessica Rabbit and brandished another bottle of cheap wine from behind her back. “We are the originally shy little girls who got dragged into the scene by our boyfriends or brothers,” the bee said. “The way we dress is a satire. It’s funny. Plus a woman only gets scored well if she shows tits and ass.”

A group of men wielding cameras surrounded the T and A girls, and they lined up to pose for the cameras.

“Lets see those tits and asses,” one man yelled. “Bend over,” shouted another. “A little more.”

“Role players are either terrified geeks or completely liberated,” the bee told me later. “Or somewhere in between the two.”

The centre of attention
It was as if all the years of paying their dues as a nervous outsider girl could be redeemed at Icon. Here you are allowed to enter the world of camp sexuality that “normal” girls get access to when they hit puberty. Here the girls can let everything—moles, pale skin untouched by the sun, beautiful breasts and sexy, red-lipped mouths—hang out, and enjoy, for once, being the centre of attention.

And the men at Icon loved them for it.

“Do you see why I like role-players?” my friend from the office asked as we watched the girls pop open another bottle of sparlking wine and the froth spill down the bee’s thigh.

“Definitely,” I said.

Icon, Grant said, doesn’t make a lot of money. But while South Africa’s gaming industry is very small compared to countries like the United States, it is growing.

“I’m trying to grow the industry. We have a whole bunch of very strange people here. The geeks, the nerds, not so much the dorks,” he said, and laughed. “This is a place where they can come and feel at home. Normal people come through and we try to convert and corrupt them.”

The biggest threat to the industry in South Africa is not necessarily the fact that the country has to import all the games at a high cost to users, Grant said, although that is a problem. Mostly, he said, it’s the culture.

“Another thing we’re fighting is this,” Grant said, and pulled open the curtain next to our table to show a blue sky. “South Africans go outside and they play sport. We sit indoors and play intellectual board games. South Africans are not intellectual indoor people. We are having a hard time attracting youngsters nowdays because they don’t get much exposure to the games anymore.”

As the afternoon waned, T and A and assorted male hangers-on were pouring coffee-flavoured liqueur into water bottles filled with milk—the official drink of Icon.

The people at Icon aren’t sad: they were fun, smart, and they like things that most other people don’t.

And then David said what I had discovered, after hours of watching grown men gallivant around in costumes, and girls getting spanked by guys with tape around the middle of their glasses. “Well, we are all human at the bottom of it all,” he said. “Aren’t we?”

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