Monday, 30 August 2021

Name That Subculture: The Extreme Lower Middle Class RPG/Wargame/Metal Matrix

I recently said to somebody that my background is the absolute bottom of the middle-class. My grandfathers were both factory workers; my parents both grew up in council houses (that is, public housing) in rough areas and basically had nothing. But the booming economy of the 1960s and the benefits of free education managed to get them both low-level office jobs. They were the first people in either of their families' histories to be able to buy a house. I was the first person in my family to go to university. So, we were not exactly poverty-stricken, but we had little, and my parents had known real deprivation; yet on the other hand we were on the cusp of something resembling better. 

I say this not to identify myself as special - rather the opposite. In my school, basically everybody was in this category, except for those kids from the wrong side of the tracks who were really in what you would have to call the underclass, and the occasional child of a doctor or dentist or whatever. In England during the period 1975-1995, my class of people formed a vast mob, millions strong; people who 100 years previously would have been living in absolute penury as a kind of industrial lumpenproleteriat, but who rising living standards had elevated to a position, a century later, of having some leisure time, some pocket money, some cultural activities to participate in.

For those of us within that class who were naturally bookish, "sensitive", intelligent, and interested in creative pursuits, though, there wasn't a huge amount on offer. There were museums and libraries. But our family backgrounds and educations gave us little to draw from. Posh kids of our type presumably got their stimulation from reading classics at school, having thousands of books (the right kind of books) around the house, fabulous dinner parties with sparkling conversation every weekend, and so on. Those possibilities were closed to us even if we had known about them. Our personalities had to find their expression somehow, but they had to find it elsewhere.

Where they ended up discovering it was in heavy metal; in plastic military models; in SF/horror/fantasy books and films; in Games Workshop; and in D&D. These different phenomena formed a unique cultural space, very male (there's no getting away from that), very creative, very self-referential, and always aware that it stood adjacent to and aloof from both the mainstream culture of our peers (football, club/dance music, cars) and the highbrow culture of posh people (rugby, theatre, politics, wine, contemporary literature). It was a world of big brothers wearing leather jackets and Iron Maiden t-shirts; games shops full of Rifts books; music shops full of Cannibal Corpse records; groups of teenage boys hanging out in living rooms playing 40K and listening to Metallica; bedrooms stacked high with shelves covered in Airfix Focke-Wulf Fw 190s and T-34 tanks, Warhammer skeletons, and space marines. It was a world of bad BO, broken adolescent voices, acne and Doc Martens. Of constant (often violent) disputes with those we called "trendies" and constant awareness of not quite fitting in. I don't know what the word for this phenomenon was, but it fed on the bad mojo, awkwardness and imaginative genius of pubescent males who haven't got a lot going on and haven't got a clue how to talk to girls. And it powered D&D and Games Workshop for decades until those brands both decided that it was all just a bit too embarrassing and needed to be jettisoned. 

What is the word for that particular subculture? You still catch glimpses of it, here and there, but the conditions which created it no longer seem to apply to the extent they once did. The physical spaces which sustained it - game shops, record shops, wargame clubs - are mostly gone, and so are many of the cultural habits on which it relied. When I was 13 or14, after school finished at 3.30 you had nothing to do until the next day, and little parental supervision - we walked to and from school and often spent hours getting from A to B. Sometimes this meant ending up in a field somewhere playing football (I was unusual in having a foot - no pun intended - in that world), but even more often, it meant going to your mate's house to play Warhammer or D&D. That practice of kids being free to pop in and out of each other's houses unsupervised, to roam about, to hang around in shops of their own accord, to wander the streets after school, has not entirely gone, but it is drastically reduced, and the social opportunities diminished with it. More than that, though, that class which I was part of seems to have bifurcated, with half going on to join the middle-classes proper, and half sinking into a darkier, nastier, poorer set of social circumstances. Exploring the roots of that and its effects is beyond the remit of this blog post, but I can at least put a name to what once existed and which now remains only in fragments: the Extreme Lower Middle Class RPG/Wargame/Metal Matrix is a bit of a mouthful, but seems to capture it; maybe "Playing D&D in an Iron Maiden t-shirt with your older brother and his mates" is more pithy and illustrative of what it all really meant.

30 comments:

  1. It's curious that here in Spain that subculture arrived (more or less) 10 years later. Here are the teens of the 90s whom enjoyed RPG's, wargames and heavy metal. The Gen X was the 'rpg' generation here in Spain.

    My story is a bit different but there are curious analogies. I'm younger (28 at this moment) so I played in a vastly different world. In my teens the videogames were VERY popular (but not omnipresent like nowadays) and the vastly majority of the spanish population lived a very strong economic boom. I'm a son of that boom, being my mother a nurse she could manage to buy a house and raise two kids alone (my father died when I was a kid and my mother never remarried). In this world I managed to convince my friends (nearly everyone richer than me) to play rpg's with me, but my real rpg group was my brother and his buddies (who, socioeconomically, were more in our level than my friends from school). All my friends preffered videogames and top-notch computers, but we could not afford that kind of things so I restricted to RPG's or to old-fashioned games in my old and very customized pc (with old pieces lended to me by my friends).

    So I think that here in Spain the rpg's, even if they arrived late, thrived in a very similar background that there in the UK, but with the obvious differences of time and space.

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    1. Yeah, I think one of the big changes is that great quality video games are now very affordable - presumably a combination of more disposable wealth and competitive pressures on the producers/technological advances. When I was a kid we just couldn't afford a decent console or PC, simple as that.

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  2. This reflects a little bit of my own experience here in Brazil. Although, I was from a slightly better of family than my peers and the Lord of the Rings trilogy by Peter Jackson (I'm a little bit younger than you, I assume) made my pre-adolescent brain explode. The whole Heavy Metal / Literature / D&D trifecta, still affects the type of mood/aesthetic of my games - which departs from the traditional 5e imagery, that carries no more of that "Heavy Metal" vibe.
    Weird, awkward guys, shy, sometimes anti-social, really into Heavy Metal and deathly afraid of talking to girls, smuggling our father's old p*rn magazines.
    We didn't have money, but we had cheap bootleg plastic minis, a bunch of D6's (our first D20 was found, by accident on the street, we didnt have money for the other dice) and overactive imaginations
    Thank you for this post, it brought me back memories of simpler times

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    1. I'm curious about the Latin American scene. It seems both metal and RPGs are very popular there - more than one would perhaps expect as an outsider. I saw lots of gaming stores in Chile when there recently. I wonder if magical realism is an influence somehow.

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    2. Latin American scene is huge, Brazil has some awesome things going with guys like Florim, Diogo Nogueira et. al.
      I wish man, I really wish I could say to you that Magical Realism is a big influence on us, in our systems and settings. I wish I could say we viewed 100 Years of Solitude the same way you would view Tolkien's works, but most of the time that's not the case (I can only talk about Brazil, though). For decades there are attempts to bring more of our own folklore and culture to our systems/settings, with mixed results, but, in the grand scheme of things, the traditional Medieval-Europe-with-Elves-and-Orcs is our standard fantasy setting. There are more and more people bringing new ideas, trying things closer to our culture, but it is, still, an uphill battle.
      When it comes to Metal, yes it is a 'big' thing. In Brazil we had the luck of having bands like Sepultura and Angra, which got international recognition and made us feel... validated, I guess?
      If you want to know more, about the cultural superstrate that affects our views on the World (and, in effect, our views on RPG) you can take a little look at this

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongrel_complex

      Love your blog, man. Keep it going!

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    3. Thanks! Somebody needs to make a game inspired by 100 Years of Solitude, then - do it!

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  3. That is pretty much how it went down herein the states from 1976-1996.

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    1. Can confirm. It also wasn’t perhaps as strongly linked to class in the US — I grew up in Washington DC, the child of government bureaucrats, and many of my middle- to upper-middle-class peers (ie, in US terms, people whose parents had university degrees and probably at least one graduate degrees between them and many of whom paid for their kids to attend private schools) adhered to this aesthetic. It’s true that heavy metal and acne were probably slightly over represented among the lower end of the SES (lots of Latino immigrant metal heads in my orbit) but then, DC was a weird place for having essentially no poor white people, so my experience might be limited in its applicability.

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    2. Agreed. I was a teen in the USA in 1980s-90s, and I remember D&D, heavy metal, and cheap weed a trio that were frequently seen together. Oh, some D&D gamers whom I knew dabbled in hip-hop or (underage) alcohol consumption, but TTRPGs-metal-cannabis was the usual combo.

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  4. As Unknown/Brazil, Jackson's LotR got a bunch of pre-adolescants in SE England going, doing some deep dives on Tolkien and picking up Games Workshop's LotR Strategy Battle Game. But you could see the edges of the Sub-Culture described above there - in the tone and game pictures of copies of White Dwarf, in hobby stores, in lurking on forums.

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    1. The history of fantasy 'geekdom' in recent decades can probably be mapped as a series of peaks and troughs, the peaks being D&D/Fighting Fantasy - Harry Potter - LotR - GoT?

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    2. Maybe? I suspect the regular flow of peaks and toughs is disrupted by video games and the workings of internet algorithms. And there must have been something that fell between D&D and Harry Potter.

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  5. It was possible for us proles to game and study classics in 1976. Not much chance of that for the victims of state education to whom we lecture.

    SJB

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  6. Speaking on behalf of the San Francisco Bay area in the 80s it was a bit different. I knew rich and poor players. I had two players on the High School Football team and one of them was a big New Wave fan. The hard core of our group was middle class suburban Iron Maiden fans (New album next week, by the way).

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    1. But as to the question of what to call the subculture. Unless you have examples of the folks playing D&D that weren't as you described (extreme lower middle class Iron Maiden fans, etc) I would think 'early geek culture' would fit. Early as in before geek culture sort of went mainstream.

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  7. I definitely recognize this as the subculture I grew up in. My friends and I were a bit younger (born in the mid-80s) so it was more videogames and emo-punk (embarrassing in retrospect) than models & metal but effectively the same social sideline.

    Most of us have ridden the tech-boom into the upper middle class but our parents careers have collapsed and they are slipping back out of the middle-class as they age (and at least in my case belligerently refuse to accept help from their kids).

    It's strange to think my kids will grow up in another crack between classes (this time betwixt middle & posh) while their grandparents are definitely in a very different class (lower and falling).

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  8. This is not dissimilar to how I grew up in one of the shabbier suburbs in Hungary. The C64 and the ZX-Spectrum, AD&D, rock music (metal would come later - the defining boundary was between pop, which was for the rich and popular kids, and rock, which was for the misfits and wannabe rebels) and a lot of aimless free time with nothing better to do were the norm. Geeks were not yet a defined term; there was no specific word to refer to this group of people, and I am not sure they were really all that different from the rest of society.

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    1. Ha, I had a Commodore 64 and my very first personal computer in 1982 was a Sinclair ZX-81 (WITH the expansion memory pak - 16K RAM!)

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    2. Yeah, ZX-Spectrums were massive.

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  9. 1991 so we were here in our late 20's. Grossly we are all GenX and boomers. Friends of various grades since high school, punk, metalhead, stoner, and kind of grunge-morph before grunge was a named sub-culture. Latchkey kids in the San Francisco east bay area suburbs after our parent's late 1960s urban flight. Parents professionals or worked in the trades. Little or no parental supervision. Metal, weed, beer, and D&D.

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    1. Wow, that video. It's like what Critical Role should be.

      Your blog, Matrox, has become my new deep-dive rabbit-hole.
      : )

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    2. I love that video. The way the DM tries to impose order from the outset. Truly old school.

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  10. 1991 so we were here in our late 20's. Grossly we are all GenX and boomers. Friends of various grades since high school, punk, metalhead, stoner, and kind of grunge-morph before grunge was a named sub-culture. Latchkey kids in the San Francisco east bay area suburbs after our parent's late 1960s urban flight. Parents professionals or worked in the trades. Little or no parental supervision. Metal, weed, beer, and D&D.

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  11. I don't know as much about the kids today but that maps pretty closely to my adolescence in the Pacific Northwest. I, and most of my friends, even literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks.

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  12. I grew up in Belgium and was a teen and uni student in the 80s. Although social class and related context vary from country to country, much of what you say is recognizable. When compared to kids these days, it seems there was much more 'free time', to use as you saw fit. We also hung out in each other's houses playing wargames, discussing weird movies and such, with kids from various backgrounds (social class in Belgium is less defined as it it in the UK, I guess). But all of us were 'weirdos' at school ;-)

    It is often said that the geek subculture only became hip in the mid90s with the advent of tech and the internet. Many of the geek interests which are now mainstream were definitely 'underground' in the 80s. Cfr the popularity of a show such as The Big Bang Theory.

    As a 50+ these days, I have no good idea what such youngsters are doing these days. I just hope they also have their own niche in which they can do their own stuff, whether its gaming or something else.

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  13. This is proper writing.

    Have you read The Elfish Gene book ?

    Or worked your way through the Grognard Files podcast:

    The best of its kind as our kind of podcast. Two north-of-england-lads 50 years old, stopped playing in 1988? and took it up again in 2008? Very north of england flavour. Heavy White Dwarf basis. Runequest and Cthulhu heavy content. Interviews with all of the main english protagonists from the 1980s (not bloggers).

    Delivery is northern smooth, dry wit. Lower middle class.


    https://thegrognardfiles.com/about/

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  14. I call it "high-rise gaming" or "Atlantis", as personally (migrant parents + worst part of town), it is tied to all you say PLUS the cultural pressure-cooker that was West-Berlin.

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  15. I was the posh one among my mates at school in Belfast, my from-working-class mother having upper middle class aspirations & my mostly-away dad being of actual upper middle class birth; I definitely recognise this description of my friends and our cultural milieu. Fighting Fantasy, Judge Dredd (& showing off at school the 'naked' Judge Anderson centrefold from the 2000 AD Sci Fi 'War' Special), horror videos and those first 'adult' Anime films, and lots & lots of 1e AD&D.

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  16. That's the era I grew up in from a working class background but ended up in a middle class job and grew up as a gamer and into sci-fi and fantasy except I'm an aberration as far as my music tastes go - proud to be a Mod

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