Game designer Skaidris Gunsmith
When he suggests we meet at Holy Moly, I assume he means the minigolf place – so am surprised when I show up to find we’re actually at a pizza bar. The fact that either option would have made sense, however, does say something about the eclectic nature of Skaidris Gunsmith’s career.
“Would it be fair to call you a full-time geek?” I ask after we find a table.
“Yeah,” he says with a laugh. “Absolutely.”
It’s the easiest way to sum up what is less a job and more a constant and hectic series of different but interconnected projects – at any one time he could be juggling events management, game development or building an arcade machine.
Gunsmith was one of the first people I met when I moved to Melbourne. He had recently made it to the finals of iiNet’s now defunct “Top Geek” competition and was working in Fitzroy’s Mana Bar, one of Australia’s first video game cocktail lounges, also now defunct. I know two examples doesn’t exactly set a pattern – but seeing the jobs ebb and flow for him over the past few years shows just how fickle and fluid a career in the “geek” industry can be.
In the end, struggling to find someone to hire him to do the things about which he was most passionate, he set about creating the job he has now. It’s been a long time coming, it seems.
“When I was a little kid, actually, I got business cards made up from an auto business card printer in Chadstone Shopping Centre,” he says. “When it asked what’s your job I wrote something like Expert Game Freak. Everyone sees geekiness and pop culture and gaming as stuff that you do in between work and in between who you are and what you do. But I realised as soon as I started embracing those aspects of what I was about, people started responding better.”
Now he runs regular events and develops games, including the popular card game Suddenly Drunk, which shares a publisher with Cards Against Humanity.
We’re at Holy Moly because it was one of the original locations for Beta Bar, the weekly event that takes up the bulk of Gunsmith’s time and focus. He co-founded it with his business partner, Bonnie Bradley, and, when pressed, hesitantly describes it as “a pop culture nightclub”. He’s quick to clarify that it isn’t the stereotypical definition of a nightclub – their goal in creating Beta Bar was to create a different kind of space that is stripped of the usual pressures of nightlife. Each event centres on a theme and offers competitions and activities, but the goal is less to have everyone participating than to provide a hub for a growing community.
Even though it’s a weekday afternoon and there isn’t an event happening, there is clear evidence of this tight-knit group. Over the course of our conversation, Gunsmith sees multiple people he knows pass in and out of the bar. He greets the person working behind the counter by name. At one point someone passes our table and stops to ask how his arm – currently in a sling – is going. “Oh, you’re being interviewed. Sorry,” the man says. “I’ll see you later.”
As someone who helps curate the community, Gunsmith is aware of the responsibilities he has. I ask him about a recent post I saw: “Beta Bar Is Run By Feminists. #Boycott” and about the myriad times I’ve watched as he “waded into battle” in the comments section. While we both laugh at the melodrama of the phrasing, it’s still, unfortunately, kind of apt.
The fact is, there is a vocal minority in the geek community that at times, frustratingly, dominates and defines what is actually a much broader church. On the lower end of the spectrum, these are the people who, if you say you enjoyed Iron Man, insist then that you list every comic you’ve ever read in publication order to “prove” your credentials. On the higher end, they’re the ones who dox games journalists and send death threats.
“Working with geek culture, there’s a few things that you have to understand first,” Gunsmith says, “and one of them is that people usually are in geek culture or ‘escape culture’ because they’re escaping something. They didn’t fit in somewhere.”
This means that a large part of his job is protecting both the online and the physical space from more toxic aspects of the culture.
“I look at everyone who comes to our sort of events as potentially they’ve been the outcasts their whole fucking life and so if anyone comes in there with a gatekeeper attitude, then that is toxic and that is the thing that must be stricken out.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 7, 2018 as "Geek mythology". Subscribe here.