Let's be honest: Rochester is a pretty geeky city. Everybody knows about The Strong's National Museum of Play, which currently sits on various national lists as a must-see geek destination, especially with its burgeoning International Center for the History of Electronic Games. But that's only the tip of the nerdy iceberg. Last year Rochester was ranked No. 11 in the country in terms of video-game spending. The collegiate community surrounding the city also helps. The Rochester Institute of Technology's graduate game-design and development program was recently ranked second in the country by the Princeton Review. Not to be outdone, The University of Rochester was named one of the Top 50 most socially awkward colleges in the country by the website InsideCollege.
So yeah, we have some major geek mojo.
While some of you may have already graduated from the hallowed halls of nerd-dom, for many readers the terms RPG, MMO, LARP, and noob might as well be in a different language. Get ready to go back to school, sharpen your pencils, and clip on those pocket protectors. It's time to level up your nerd cred. Welcome to an introduction to some of the geek-friendly enterprises of Rochester.
Computer Science 101: Introduction to 'hacking'
Even getting into Interlock Rochester's space in the Hungerford building is a testament to the organization's mission. Keys? They don't need no stinking keys. The hacker group's front door is locked by an individualized ibutton device that members swipe in front of a sensor. The group-created electronic locks allow members a creative way to lock, unlock, and enter the shared work space.
The electric-powered locks were one of Interlock's first group projects. "I had to figure that out, which was like, 'I'm just a designer, this isn't Photoshop anymore,'" says Brian Boucheron, president of Interlock Rochester. "That was my first experience with doing a project in this community. I didn't know how to do the electrical engineering part, so there was an electrical engineer who helped me with that... I had trouble programming. Every step where I got kind of stuck, there was somebody there to help out."
That kind of cooperative attitude isn't what you might imagine when the term "hacker" comes to mind. Hacker spaces, despite the negative connotation of the h-word, are more communal centers for technology enthusiasts that work together on fixing, creating, taking apart, and understanding how the world around us operates.
"The hacker-space idea - hackers in general - are getting a more positive aspect on the name I think," says Mark Manning, vice president of Interlock. "Even [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg was talking about how he's a hacker; I think it's coming back around that hackers are cool innovators and technologist lovers."
"Our goal is really to just have a physical space [where] we can do stuff. Bring in your big toys that you can't have in your apartment and share them," Boucheron says.
Inside the space is a labyrinth of electronics, machines, pieces, and parts. There are robots and monitors, a whole room dedicated to ham radios, and a networking/server room. The group gives people a chance to work on equipment they might not otherwise be able to purchase themselves, or access regularly. Membership also includes the group's most important resource: shared brain power.
"That's really what I see as the coolest part of it," says Manning. "Our backgrounds are so weirdly different, insane ends of the spectrum. But we all have this commonality that we want to learn different avenues of knowledge."
Current Interlock projects are as varied as the members' interests. One project has a webcam rigged to a pen plotter, which captures the input from the camera and then has the image traced out in pen. Another is a 3D printer that runs a plastic element through a heater (think hot-glue gun) before raising itself up a layer and repeating the process, creating a three-dimensional object as a result.
If the world beyond a computer screen is more your playground, perhaps you may be more interested in wireless security, car starters, or even a computer-controlled cheese cooker. Interlock is working on those, too.
The group has been around for two and a half years, and currently has 25 members at various levels. It also offers classes and community events. Past sessions have included lightning talks (brief, less-than-five-minute presentations on various topics), lock-picking classes, and networking workshops. Even with all the different facets to the group, its members are still careful of the word association implied by "hacker."
"Somewhere along the line, the word 'hacker' got twisted," Boucheron says. "To me a hacker was somebody who just wants to really know a lot about something in a really in-depth fashion. A great hack, it's not like a cob job; it's a cool solution to a problem. So obviously there's a split there between what people think the word means."
"It's a completely different definition," Manning says. "It's what we think the original definition has always been, but it scares the crap out of my grandparents and mom. I just tell them we're a geek workshop."
Interlock Rochester will host an open house on Friday, March 16, at 7 p.m. For more information visit interlockopenhouse.eventbrite.com.
Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 252: The Rochester Sci-Fi/Roleplay Geek Meet-Up Group
You've probably at least heard of Dungeons & Dragons. The dice, the characters, the marathon-length games are often sources of mockery for geek culture. But the truth is, D&D and role-playing games like it are an opportunity for people to get together and build characters, level up friendships, and adventure in worlds otherwise unknown. The Rochester Sci-Fi/Roleplay Geek Meet-Up Group brings together area aficionados of card games, RPGs, and board games, all in one space where they can hang out, organize events, and socialize with others who share an interest in gaming. But you can keep Rich Uncle Pennybags at home; this isn't about Monopoly or any of your average board games.
"It's kind of based on the social interaction of those four guys sitting around. They can trade, work, fight, whatever with one another," says Bill Delaney, former organizer of the group. "Rather than roll the dice - 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, oh, go directly to jail - it's a very different idea of board gaming than you would really have. It's not even like Risk, since most of the randomness is taken out of it. It's more based around strategy."
The meet-up group started in 2009 and currently has 170 active members, with a core of a few dozen. Most of the members are in their 30s and 40s, and the group draws people from all walks of life: teachers, grocery-store clerks, factory workers, and even servicemen have all been part of the group over the years.
The group meets on the second Monday of every month at the Henrietta Panera, and it is free to join. Monthly meetings cover a variety of subjects, from book discussions, news, and even some hypothetical discussions on everything from historical debates (what if certain events changed or never happened?) to technological concerns (why haven't we gotten to Jetsons-esque flying cars yet?).
The group also puts on mini-conventions every couple of months, usually day-long events that include morning and afternoon gaming sessions. The mini-cons are usually a mix of experienced and casual/new gamers.
"There's a lot of people who don't want to spend a couple of hours figuring out what their character is, helping troubleshoot a game, all of that. So what we offer is everything from kind of a jump-in experience, right up to how immersive [a person] wants to get," Delaney says.
But for the hardcore, the truly dedicated, the group offers a chance to dig deep into the games. "I currently run a D&D game that is actually three years old this year," says Dan Homer, current organizer for the group.
Even though the organizers see a difference in the sit-down-and-play type of role-playing game as opposed to live-action role playing, the group still acknowledges that it may take some effort for new people to come out and join. But they encourage people who are interested to stop in and see for themselves.
"There's an awful lot of people who are very shy about meeting in a Panera with a bunch of guys who do role-playing, because they're afraid we're going to break out books, dice, and that they'll be seen in public doing this verboten thing," Delaney says.
"Especially for someone who wants to come out of the so-called closet - yeah, I'm a geek, these are the people I hang out with - we give them the experience saying, Hey, this is a great group of people to hang out with," says Bill Horst-Kotter, current assistant organizer of the group.</p>
For more information and an events calendar, visit meetup.com/Rochester-Sci-Fi-Roleplay-Geek-Meetup-Group
Similar local groups: Rochester Board Game Society (frontiernet.net/~mark_gartland/RBS/)
Movement/Acting 379: Live-action role playing: Winterfell
And then, there are the few, the proud, the LARPers. Possibly the most dedicated of role-playing gamers, live-action role players (LARPers) don costumes, armor, shields, and weapons, and physically act out their characters and adventures.
"Every kid wants to dress up in armor and run around with a sword and that kind of stuff. I guess I'm just the crazy guy that decided I'm actually going to do it instead of just wanting to do it," says Rich Hewett, the founder of Rochester LARPing group Winterfell.
But for Winterfell, a chapter of the national Dagorhir LARPing group, the past years have seen a decline in numbers, even after a huge spike in interest just a few years back. At its largest the group had around 60 members, with the group now fluctuating between five and 15.
"The thing that really kind of drew me to it and has kept me around is the fact that you get to go out and kind of experience a little bit of history," Hewett says. "You might not be doing things exactly the right way, but you kind of feel like you're experiencing a little bit of history."
In 2009, the Discovery Channel's "Wreckreation Nation" featured an episode about Dagorhir, and the local chapter saw huge growth in numbers. The group soon found out that such quick growth wasn't necessarily sustainable, and people were coming out to give it a try, but weren't becoming dedicated to the game and sticking around. The core of the Winterfell group has now shifted toward the Syracuse area, where a more active group currently practices.
Given the actual physical demands and sword skills used in LARPing, a certain amount of training, practicing, and athleticism is required. That's not even considering the financial component of purchasing armor and weaponry. You don't want something that isn't going to protect you when you get hit by a sword.
"The more you put into it the more you get out of it. But you've got to be willing to but something into it," Hewett says.
Some of those benefits may be more tangible than just an excuse to own cool armor or weapons. Unlike other types of role playing that focus on the imagination of a player, LARPing actually teaches its practitioners how to sword fight. Hewett recommends the books "Viking Weapons and Combat Techniques" and "Sigmund Ringeck's Knightly Arts of Combat" as good places to start reading up on sword skills.
And most importantly of all, it also teaches some self-defense techniques. "If a zombie apocalypse hits, I'm the kind of guy to look for, because I'll be walking around with a bunch of armor on, killing zombies with swords and guns. I might actually be able to survive for a little while," Hewett says.
Learn more about the current Winterfell at facebook.com/groups/17477374107.
Similar Rochester groups: Barony of Thescorre (thescorre.org).
Extra Credit: The Force Is Strong with These Ones
If something out of this world is more your light speed, then there is a segment within the local costumed-play community that may be right up your galaxy. Garrison Excelsior is the Upstate New York chapter of the 501st Legion of Imperial Stormtroopers, a reenactment group based around the "Star Wars" universe. The group has more than 5500 members worldwide; the local chapter has 50 active members, 20 of them in the Rochester area. Also - and this is rare for the cosplay world - the group operates with the blessing of Lucasfilm, which owns the "Star Wars" franchise.
In Garrison Excelsior you'll find costumes that run the gamut from storm troopers to biker scouts, Boba Fetts to Darth Vaders, and even Starkiller from "Star Wars: The Force Unleashed" video-game series.
Darren Blum, an officer in Garrison Excelsior, chose Darth Maul as his first costume. It took only a month to create - quick by comparison to some of the more elaborate costumes - and he had it ready for the original release of "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace."
His storm-trooper costume took longer; he worked on it bit by bit over several years, learning how to vacuum-form plastic in order to mold the outfit. But the costume that really takes the cake is Blum's Chewbacca. The Wookie took more than four months of latch hooking, and approximately 40 hours just to create the mask. Blum estimates that he spent more than 500 hours on that costume alone.
But, despite its prevalence of movie bad guys, the group actually works for the light side of The Force. The volunteer-run Garrison Excelsior frequently participates in child-focused events and charity work. In 2011 the local chapter raised $6000 for various charities, including A Room To Heal, the American Red Cross, St Jude's Children Hospital, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The worldwide organization raised a total of $11.8 million last year.
For Blum, when asked which of the "Star Wars" movies was his favorite, he went with "Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope," the first film in the franchise, released in 1977. It was also the first "Star Wars" film that he saw, and what got him interested in the series in the first place.
"We may grow old, but we don't have to grow up," Blum says.
For more information on Garrison Excelsior visit garrisonexcelsior.com.
Boldo's Armory (891 Monroe Ave, boldo.com) Sells an expansive selection of board, tabletop, and card games, and has its own store leagues for many games. Hosts weekly and monthly gaming events, including Magic or Warhammer. Of course, it wouldn't be called an "armory" if you couldn't find armor and weapons here as well - for role-playing needs, of course.
Game Players Unlimted (45 N. Main St., Brockport; 4152 W. Main St., Batavia, gameplayersunlimited.net) Carries retro video games and other memorabilia. Good place to find well-priced games for Jaguar, Colecovision, Game Gear, NES, Genesis, Turbo Grafx, Dreamcast, Playstation, and many other vintage video game systems.
Hammergirl Anime (376 Jefferson Road, Henrietta, hammergirlanime.com) Just around the corner from RIT, Hammergirl is a store for fans of all things anime. Here you can find DVDs, trading cards, manga, apparel, figures, decor, snacks and more. Weekly and monthly card-game tournaments including Pokemon, Naruto, Dragon Ball, and more.
Heckle & Jeckle Collectibles (3240 Chili Ave., 889-9130) Carries a wide selection of collectible toys, cards, and other memorabilia. While the focus is on sports cards, it also has a good selection of other trading cards like Magic, Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and others. There is also a selection of retro video games from the 80's and 90's.
Plastic (650 South Ave., plasticforever.com) Sells designer vinyl and plastic toys, apparel, art, and other collectibles. Plastic has a good selection of Gashapon, or "blind-box" collectibles, and often is home to DIY toy-decorating events.
Pandaman (439 Monroe Ave., pandamantoys.com) In addition to being a cafe, Pandaman is a toy shop, an art gallery, and a retro-video-game hangout. There are regular weekly and monthly events, including DIY vinyl-toy decorating nights; movie screenings; retro-game tournaments on NES, SNES, Genesis, and N64; and trading parties for vinyl figure collectors.
Millennium Games & Cyberstorm Lounge (3047 W. Henrietta Road, cyberstormgaming.com) Millennium has a large selection of board games, table-top games, trading-card games, and accessories. It holds weekly events for Magic, Yu-Gi-Oh, Malifax, Warhammer, and more. Cyberstorm is the video-game side where you can play multi-player PC and console games. There are college-night specials and a monthly lock-in where you can stay up all night playing video games, Magic, Warhammer, and others.
National Museum of Play (1 Manhattan Square, museumofplay.org) Generally known for the National Museum of Play and the National Toy Hall of Fame, the Strong Museum is also home of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. This part of the museum includes a video-game history exhibit and also houses the "eGameRevolution," a playable selection of vintage arcade units and consoles.
The Steel Source (3047 W. Henrietta Rd., thesteelsource.com) A good warrior is always prepared for battle, and swords just aren't as easy to come by nowadays as they used to be. If you have an axe to grind and your own iron forge isn't working, check out its coffers of axes, armors, knives, daggers, pole arms, and more.
Comic Book Stores
Rochester has a healthy selection of comic-book shops. Most have decent stock of back issues as well as current issues and graphic novels. Some stores also carry books, collectible toys, action figures, and other memorabilia.
All Heroes Comics 4410 Lake Ave. 865-9113.
Collector's Choice 54 Main St., Brockport. 637-8556.
Comics Etc. 274 N. Goodman St. in Village Gate, 473-7150, angelfire.com/ny/comicandcardstore.
Cosmic Comics 6385 Route 96, Victor. 309-1899.
Empire Comics 1176 Mount Hope Ave, 442-0371; 375 Stone Road, 663-6877; empirecomics.com.
First Print Comics 1320 Buffalo Road. 978-9791, 1stprintcomics.com.
Park Avenue Comics & Games 713 Park Ave. 271-4549, parkavenuecomics.com.
Pulp Nouveau 92 S. Main St., Canandaigua. 394-8250, pulpnouveau.com.
Wonderland Comics 1620 Penfield Road. 248-0450.
Local geek-related events
Simcon (March 30-April 1, University of Rochester Riverside Campus, simcon.org) Annual gaming convention focused on role-playing, board games, trading-card games, and tabletop gaming sponsored by UR.
Tora-con (April 20-22, Rochester Institute of Technology, toracon.rit.edu) Annual anime convention held at RIT, showings, dealers lobbies, and more all centered around anime fans.
Rochester Sci-Fi Anime Con (September 21-23. Main Street Armory, 900 E Main St. rochesterscifianimecon.com) Annual science-fiction, comic-book, fantasy, anime, gaming convention held in the city with many guests and panels.