UIX: Analog gaming and social meetups drive geek culture in West Michigan

Anyone can be a geek. In West Michigan, many are.


The West Michigan Geeks meetup group has nearly 4,000 members, second only to the Grand Rapids Hiking & Adventure Group, which holds around 8,500. The meetups are not restricted to Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, though those are certainly part of the mix. Rather, these events are set up by geeks of all stripes, and reflect many varying interests.


Started in 2014 by full stack software developer and local geek David Good, West Michigan Geeks, née The West Michigan Geeks and Nerds, can be found meeting up on Fridays at Café Boba, and throughout the rest of the week at various coffee shops and breweries, where members share their passions.


"What I kind of found with my friends after we had all gotten married and had kids and stuff, is that it's really hard to make friends once you're out kind of out of college," Good says. "I was in a group called the original introverts group and meetup but that group kind of folded up that year, and so then I decided to start the West Michigan geeks group."


The mission of the group is to provide members with a space to be their authentic selves, and share their interests, without judgement.


"Don't worry if you're into some things that are kind of different from 'normal' things like sports and things like that," Good says. "I'm even kind of a geekier geek than normal. I'm more of a sci fi geek, into Star Wars and Star Trek and things like that. And I read a lot of sci fi books, that's my big thing."


As Good says, it's not always easy to get out and make friends outside of bars or other popular social spots. By his own admission, Good is naturally shy. He says it can be tough to meet other geeks outside of bars or popular social spots. But he's no less interested in making friends,


"I thought this would be a good way to meet new people and get people together," he says.


David Good and Lauren DeGalan from WMgeeks.And WM Geeks is not a dating group, but like a good dungeon romp, its events have brought people much closer together. One member, Mariela, invited the group to a few fun winery tours and beach visits in Holland and Saugatuck, and during the group's first year, actually met her current partner at one of the meetups.


"I actually went to a wedding earlier this year, and I've got one in just a few weeks," Good says. "And then I'm actually going to be in one of the member's weddings next year, in June."


The regular WM Geeks meetups like Fridays at Café Boba attract anywhere from eight to 25 people at a time — often people who are new to the city, people who just graduated college, or those working their first jobs in the area. One of the group's earliest members, Lauren DeGalan, moved to West Michigan with her family when her parents opened up a restaurant in 2009. DeGalan was not a student and not particularly fond of going out to bars alone, so she found it difficult to make new friends.


"I was working with my folks and I really had no outlet in order to find people that had common interests with me," she says. "Needless to say it was making me feel a little frustrated and down in the dumps. I had heard about West Michigan Geeks through the meetup app and I went to an event one day and started connecting with all these really cool and interesting people and I just kept on going."


DeGalan has been an active member of the group ever since. She's seen it explode in attendance, and evolve with the interests of its many members. Today, she's also one of the WM Geeks’ 19 organizers.


The mechanics of the meetup


In its early days, "Everyone knew each other, which was nice in a lot of ways," DeGalan says. "I ended up with a tight knit group of friends; unfortunately many of them have since moved out of state. It has since evolved to include a lot of new people from all walks of life. I think that term ‘geeks’ can encompass many different kinds of interests, which is awesome. I have even found several people that are interested in true crime, which is something that I am fascinated with."


More people in the group means more events pop up on the calendar. According to Good, there is pretty regular activity all year long, posting events that neither he nor DeGalan would have ever thought of otherwise.


"We have beach days, we have picnics, during the winter there might be sessions where we all color in adult coloring books," she says. "David did an extraordinary amount of work getting this group off the ground and I am so grateful for him to have done that. I think that now though, it's like a well-oiled machine and he can take a step back and relax rather than having to stress about running it all the time."


Setting up events on the meetup's timeline isn't hard to do, so long as others are interested, but there are actually many members of the group who have never attended an event, so predicting attendance can be hit or miss. DeGalan offers a few guidelines to planning the perfect meetup.


"The most difficult thing is making sure that if there is a special bar or restaurant that we want to go to, that the restaurant is aware beforehand that we are going to have a large group of people," she says. "There are also several factors that go into deciding locations. It's very difficult to do anything downtown because of the parking situation. Most places will be chosen due to parking being close by and people being easy to find within the venue. It is also hard to do something like festivals, because if someone is new to the group, they will have no idea who they are looking for. The best place to have events are smaller locations, that will make the group easy to spot."


Unlike Good, DeGalan describes herself as a social and extroverted individual. She prefers the events where it's easy to meet new people and socialize like coffee shops and restaurants, rather than movies. And that's perfectly acceptable. WM Geeks encourages open mindedness, and not everyone fits perfectly within the fabric of the group in every context. Like a stout-hearted dungeon adventurer, questing for gold and glory, it may take a bit of experimentation to get used to the environment, and find the type of meetup that feels right.


Tabletop games are fun, and a great way to meet and make friends."I think that the WM Geeks represent a lot of people who have struggled before with making friendships or meeting people, or have dealt with anxiety and fear of making new friends," DeGalan says. It can definitely be scary putting yourself out there. What the Geeks provide is a safe space for anyone to join.”


And, no one has to go it alone.


"West Michigan Geeks really provides a great space for everyone, and I have not ever seen anything that is quite as massive and as encompassing as this group has become," DeGalan says. "I also think that we have a lot of diversity, which is great! It's wonderful to have perspectives that are different from my own. I am proud of how it has grown and I would recommend anyone to come and check us out, even if they don't consider themselves a geek."


We typically associate the word “geek” with an esoteric obsession, something even more compelling than interpersonal interaction, and it can apply to many subjects. There’s no requirement to have seen every original episode of Doctor Who in order, including the lost nine they found in a Nigerian TV studio; or be able to recite the full script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail; or keep all your decades-old Nintendo Power magazines in plastic sleeves. Geekery is applied to anything from raspberry pie to Raspberry Pi, and everything in between. That said, ever since the mid-70s there has been one flavor of geekiness that may remain undisputed.


It requires a few dice.


The Hero’s Gambit


This journey begins with four brave adventurers in a dark and dusty dungeon. They’ve just met, and they’re about to fight for their lives.


An Aasimar paladin, a human ranger, and two dark elves, one a bard and the other a wizard, stand eagerly at the gate of an important quest. They come from different villages, for different reasons. Two are motivated by a thirst for glory, one for knowledge, and one foist into the journey by fellow villagers who'd rather never see him again.


Only by surviving the Hero's Gambit will they ever have a chance to return home again, most likely by 6 p.m.


Every Sunday at Blue Bridge Games, the quest is updated for those continuing on the Hero's Gambit, designed and led by dungeon master J.J. Lindke. As my first time participating in such a quest, following the rules of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition, Lindke helped me build my character, a dark elf, or drow, from the village of Yellowseed.


We move deeper into the dungeon, a large, three-level maze custom-built by Lindke. We find enchanted armor, fight a great black ooze and other powerful monsters from the D&D canon. A few pause for a root beer between battles. Then, back at it, before our final encounter of the day’s quest, a monstrous spider from the otherworld.


Dungeon mastery


Lindke has spent hours painting the minifigures of monsters, treasure, and trinkets that line the dungeon's main pathways. He's invested even more time arranging story elements that pose exciting opportunities at each turn. As dungeon master and the only one who knows where the traps and monsters lay in wait, it's not J.J.'s aim to destroy his adventurers but to force them into group discussion and creative decision-making, and play off those decisions with more of the story. The Hero's Gambit designed for beginners in this case; he's also gracious enough to guide new adventurers through the quest with hints from the rulebook and Xanathar's Guide to Everything.


"A lot of D&D is theater of the mind," Lindke says. "But I'm a very visual, hands-on person."


Lindke earned an art degree from Grand Valley State University, and was introduced to the game by his friends in school.


"It just really connected with all of the creative aspects of my life," he says. "So, I kind of dove in headfirst."


Ken Kleist, co-owner of Blue Bridge Games.For Lindke's first session as DM with his friends last year, he built the first level of the desktop dungeon with a gridded floor and painted Styrofoam walls for the characters to move through. The night they finished their quest, Lindke built the winding maze of the second level. The third, not long after that. Several successful campaigns later, Lindke's dungeon had become a growing local legend. He was eventually asked to lead the Hero's Gambit at Blue Bridge Games.


During his sessions, Lindke likes to keep his parties below five participants at a time.


"Everybody wants to get in combat," he says. "They want to get a turn of what they're doing. So I like a smaller group so it doesn't take as long. The more people you have, the longer you're waiting for your turn to come around."


Modern analog gaming


Tabletop games have been experiencing a worldwide resurgence over the last 25 years, as have other forms of geeky pursuits, Blue Bridge Games owner Margaret Kleist says.


"Part of the impetus is because people are interested by the new games, better mechanics, and a lot of updates on the older stuff," Kleist says. "It's not just roll the dice and move along the track. A lot of the games now utilize a lot of different strategy. There's co-op elements that require working together."


"The games got better," she adds. "And, I think another big push has been people looking for a hobby that isn't on a screen."


Blue Bridge provides more than a few opportunities for tabletop gamers to get together, with a fully-stocked board game library and tables set up in the back of the shop, weekly dungeon crawls with Lindke’s 5e campaigns every Sunday, and Pathfinder groups on Wednesday nights. Margaret and her husband Ken are fostering a growing community of analog amusement, and introducing many newcomers to the world of gaming.


The cooperative nature and themes of Dungeons & Dragons has since been reframed in countless games. Like Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu, Munchkin, and others, Many of these are found at Blue Bridge, but the breadth of critical thinking D&D requires may never be matched. This may be one of the biggest reasons for its proliferation. Of course, Netflix's "Stranger Things," which enthralled an estimated 40 million viewers on the July 4 premier alone, probably has more to do with the spike in the usage of the word "demogorgon" than poor old Xanathar, but such gatekeeping has no place this side of the Upside Down.


Even in the geekiest circles, it’s clear that D&D isn’t for everyone. It can take up a lot of time, and potentially money for players who want to come prepared with their own guidebooks and spell cards, and in the variety of events posted to the WM Geeks meetup group, it hardly cracks the top 10. However, like coffee shop or mini golf meetups, true crime discussions and movie nights, it brings individuals with like-minded interests together. These activities are where introverts and extroverts overlap, leave the digital world behind and get together in meatspace.


No matter your class, alignment, origin story, or dexterity multiplier, there's likely a worthy local quest for you, geek, and nearly 4,000 others to share it with.

Urban Innovation Exchange highlights the people and projects transforming West Michigan through sustainable efforts. Matthew Russell is the editor for UIX Grand Rapids. Contact him at [email protected].

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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