Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Nerd Night Manifesto

Foreword

Before anything else is written, it should first be acknowledged that no community is built by one person. DFW Nerd Night is the product of hundreds of people agreeing to care about a community. My first and most important advice is to treat each person as you would yourself, so that they feel permission to add their energy, ideas, and love to the community you want to create. To do so is to transfer ownership of the community to all of its members, and thus ensure that each member of the community is committed to its success.

This community could not exist without the contributions of many, many people, and each of them deserves thanks and consideration. DFW Nerd Night would not exist in any recognizable form without the loving contributions of my wife, Amy, and her suggestions for connecting with charities across DFW. Additionally, were it not for Andrew Christopher Enriquez’s steadfast dedication to the creation of an ideal community based on love and respect, I would have lost the drive to build this group long ago.

To both of them, and to Nate, Heather, Emmanuel, Bryan, Jeremy, my brother JJ, Brian, Shawn, Mark, Jody, Donny, Phillip, Cody, and each you I’m forgetting, thank you for at least temporarily believing what I asked you to believe – that if you treat people as the best versions of themselves, you’ll be rewarded by their being exactly that. The power of our community is in our inclusivity, and in our willingness to see past our differences and appreciate the commonalities that bind us.

Above all else, put people first.

Introduction

Hello, my name is JR Honeycutt, and I run a community organization that hosts tabletop gaming parties for charity. In just under two years (as of July  2014) we’ve raised over $30,000 for more than two dozen local and national charitable organizations, including Big Brothers/Big Sisters, Children’s Miracle Network, Ability Connection Texas, The Ronald McDonald Houses of Chicago, Dallas, and Fort Worth, North Texas Food Bank, Suicide Awareness Coalition, and many, many more.

While this is an incredible achievement, I believe our work in building a community of game players is even more important. In the same period we’ve built a group of almost 2,000 interested game players, many of whom regularly attend our “Nerd Night” parties. These parties are free to attend and serve two purposes: to raise money, supplies, and awareness for our selected charity each month, and to provide a safe place for game players to meet each other, introduce new people to the hobby, and enjoy a day of gaming.

My stint as a community leader has provided me a great deal of perspective about what a local community can do, both for those outside the community and those within it. I have made lifelong friends, many of whom I would likely have never met outside our hobby. I’ve had the opportunity to share precious experiences with incredibly interesting, motivated people. Through this community I’ve shared love, happiness, tragedy, companionship, and, possibly most importantly, respect.

I believe that the benefit of such a community is greatest for those within it, that the relationships built while playing games together are deeply meaningful and can lead to wonderful projects and collaborations. I’ve seen companies founded, art, video, music, and cooking collaborations created, families started, and unlikely friendships forged through our events.

This experience, I imagine, is similar for any community leader within a sub-culture. I believe it’s a part of our humanity that we love to share our hobbies, and that, due to the nature of tabletop game playing, those of us who enjoy it are more likely than most to seek out and appreciate the lasting bonds that accompany the endeavor.

Tenets of Nerd Night

Through the course of managing this growing community I’ve established (we’ve established, really – Andrew and I talk daily about these things) some guidelines and beliefs that help us manage the group. From the DFW Nerd Night website, here’s the list:
  1. 100% inclusivity - everyone is invited to everything, all the time
  2. Never say no - I'll never say no to an idea, or a suggestion, or a proposal. Ever. Everyone here is a caring, well-meaning person who deserves to have their thoughts seriously considered and talked about before a decision is made. Some of the best things we've done were ideas that I originally wasn't on-board with. 
  3. If you want something to exist, create it - Andrew and I say this to each other every day
  4. Never ask for help - we've never once asked for help with any of our projects - instead, we present the things we do and allow people to be involved in any way they want. When help is offered, it's much more likely to be consistent and meaningful then when it's solicited. 
  5. If you treat someone as the best version of themselves, they'll consistently reward you by being exactly that - this is the thing I say most often to myself, and it's the thing that I'm most sure is true
  6. Be willing to give up ownership - part of building a community is accepting that I don't control what happens here, or what we become, I just guide it based on how I feel and what I do and say - exactly like everybody else who is a part of it
  7. Collaborate first - whenever I reach out to a game store, or a convention, another group, or talk to a designer, or another organization I'd like to work with, the message is always, "Hi, I'm JR and I run DFW Nerd Night - how can we help you?" Working together creates so many opportunities that just wouldn't be there if our goal was to compete. We exist to provide benefit for everybody in our community, which stretches as far as we can imagine. 
These tenets guide us. We reference them every time we have a serious conversation about Nerd Night and what the group can do to help our community. I don’t believe that these things are the “perfect” set of beliefs for any group; they’re just what works for us. I encourage you, as a community leader, to think deeply about what motivates you and moves your community to action.



Create – Share – Play

Step 1: Create

The first Nerd Night in DFW was held in September 2012, with a raucous group of15 people. We had four times more games than people at the party, at least. Despite lower attendance than I was used to in Chicago (Northside Nerd Night was the first group I founded), I wasn’t put off one bit.

The key to growing the group initially was to create the monthly event and set an expectation that it would occur regularly. We built the early “infrastructure” of the group in the simplest possible way – just a Facebook group and a single monthly event that I invited all my friends to attend. I strongly recommend a similar strategy.

Facebook, in my opinion, is preferable to Meetup.com and other services because it’s free, and because Facebook isn’t a site you have to introduce a person to. It’s very easy to say “Hey, are you on Facebook? Check out my group!” to a near-stranger and get a positive response. Facebook also makes it easy for people in your group to add their friends, share statuses and events, and generally do promotional work on your behalf. I think it’s the best event-management tool out there, if only because so many people have Facebook accounts.

Once the group is created, it’s time to find a venue for your events. We have a pretty solid set of requirements that you’re welcome to borrow
    1.    The venue must be free to use, as we had a $0 budget for the first 18 months of our group
    2.    It must be a non-smoking building (or have a designated smoking section well away from the normal area)
    3.    The venue must be willing to stay open for the duration of the party, typically until 1 AM or later. 
    4.    There must be food and drinks available for purchase
    5.    There have to be enough tables for our crowd to play games AND
    6.    The tables have to be large enough for 5 people to play a game of Ticket to Ride. (I use TTR as the baseline because the board is oversized, but not so much so that it doesn’t fit on a single table at most restaurants)
    7.    We prefer a stage or speaking area (bars are great about having these) so that we can do announcements and door prizes during the party.  
    8.  The venue must be located near the center of Dallas/Fort Worth (for those of you who aren't local, take a look at a map and find Arlington, TX. It's pretty near the middle of DFW, though a little south). 
    9.  There has to be free parking, and enough of it for the size of our crowd. In many heavily-populated places this is tricky, but try to work out a deal with the venue (most busy restaurants that host parties have outlet parking, or possibly even a valet that can be used in busy times). 

It will take you some time to find the “perfect” venue, but don’t let that stop you from hosting monthly parties in the meantime. We changed venues twice in the first six months of the group before we settled in our current venue, J Gilligan’s Restaurant & Bar in Arlington, TX. It’s a little easier to find the right place to play when you’re just starting, because your crowds are typically smaller. We found that growing wasn’t particularly difficult, because as the party grew and more and more people attended, there were more suggestions for possible party venues. Once you’ve got a venue selected, set up an event in the Facebook group and start inviting everybody you know who enjoys games, and even those who haven’t tried them yet!

The last thing to do is select a charity you’d like to help for the party. We have a small group of involved leaders who vote on charities each month, with only a couple restrictions:

The charity can’t be for a “controversial” agenda or benefit. We’ve defined controversial to mean “anything we think could be reasonably offensive to a person”, and with that in mind, we’ve avoided advocate groups (with one exception, the Human Rights Initiative) and religious charities. We explain this policy by saying that we never want a person to feel like attending Nerd Night gives support for a cause they believe is wrong. You can make your own priorities, of course, and if you want to talk about the process, we’re always here to help.

The charity should be local, or have a local branch. Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a national organization, and we work with their North Texas chapter. Usually we work closely with well-established charities in the Dallas/Fort Worth area that have great reputations for doing good in our community.

There are a number of online resources available for selecting charities, but I suggest that you first consider the causes that matter to you most. We’ve done a great deal of work with women’s shelters, children’s hospitals, and other charities. You can see the full list at www.dfwnn.org/charity.


Step 2: Share

An event will promote itself once you reach a critical mass of attendees who believe in what you’re doing and attend regularly. Until then (and even after) it’s important to spend time inviting your friends, your family, interested strangers, and the people around the existing gaming community to come to your party.

Facebook, as noted above, is a fantastic tool for consolidating your message and spreading it to a lot of people in a media they’re comfortable using. Start a Facebook group, add everybody, use it to make an event. Share that event. Talk about it on Twitter. Ask your friends who are coming to invite their friends.
Make sure people understand that it’s free, for charity, and that they don’t have to know how to play games ahead of time. (Then make sure you invite some people willing to teach games!)

If you’ve got a Friendly Local Game Store (or 20, as we do) then go play games at the store and talk with the owner and staff. If you can get your local gaming spot to support and promote what you’re doing, all the better. Just don’t forget to invite them to the party – and try to communicate that you’re working to build a community, not profit personally. It’s a “win” for everybody when you’re building a stronger, closer-knit local community of game players.

There’s not much more to say – once you’ve got an infrastructure of events, tell everyone and anyone who seems interested and ask them to come play games and help people.

Step 3: Play

If you don’t already play games regularly, now is a great time to start. Invite your friends over for game nights. Grab a Tichu deck and teach your family. Head to your Friendly Local Game Store and jump in on a demo of whatever’s on the table. If you need it, reconnect with the part of you that plays games purely for the joy of playing.

When you’re asking people to attend a gaming event, some of whom may have never been to a convention, or even to their local game store, it’s important that you understand what it feels like to walk into an unfamiliar situation and learn games. It’s also important that you be in the practice of explaining to strangers what game you’re playing and why you like it so much – hence playing games in public spaces in front of strangers.

When you’re at your local store, or gaming with your friends, take note of the ones who are really good at teaching games to new gamers, and easily explaining rules so people can jump in and play. These people are an absolute blessing at Nerd Night (Jacob, Brandy, Mark, Shea, John, Andrew A., Cody, I’m looking at you) and they help create the atmosphere of inclusivity. If there’s no way for a new gamer to walk in and get in on a game without having to jump through hoops, then your party isn’t as welcoming as it could be.

During the event, take the time to play games with people you’ve invited. If you’re also good at teaching games, then make time to teach a new couple that walks in something simple. I’ve seen time and time again that it just takes a quick introduction and a game or two before self-proclaimed “non-gamers” become indoctrinated. It’s really about getting people to the table, introducing them to the other players, and providing some interesting things to talk about outside the frame of the game. That’s where it pays to know your friends – for instance, if I drop friends off to play Eons with Dave Villegas, I’m going to let them know that he’s a game designer, and came from Plano to test some of his new creations.

That may seem like it’s not a lot to work with, but in one sentence I’ve introduced Dave, given some context for where he’s from (for casual conversation), introduced an interesting occupation that sets him up as an expert in the hobby (people appreciate it when they believe they’re in the company of skilled people who master a craft) and created the context for a conversation (about the games he makes).

Playing and hosting the party are often the same thing, and both require that you be inviting, positive, and willing to make yourself available to the people in attendance. On this note, I have two things I say to myself before every Nerd Night:

First, from the time the event starts until it finishes, I’m not going to worry about who isn’t here. I’m going to give my full attention and energy to the friends who’ve chosen to join me tonight. 

Second, if nobody else shows up, I’ll play Hearthstone on my iPad and have a great time. (Insert your favorite games). If one other person comes, we’ll play Kaosball and have a great time. If two people come, we’ll play Ticket to Ride and have a great time. If three people come, we’ll play Dragon Valley. If four come, Dead of Winter. Five, Coup. If six other people come, we’ll break into two groups, and now it’s a party. No matter how many people come to the party, I will enjoy myself tonight!

When you’re at your “Nerd Night” (whatever you choose to call it), remember that it’s the people that join you that are building the community you’d like to create. You can’t do it yourself. Don’t spend time worrying about who’s not there, or what games you’re not playing. Be positive – be thankful. The world is a big, busy, scary place, and every single one of us could find ways to spend our time that isn’t playing games. Be genuinely appreciative of the people who choose to spend their time with you. Be gracious. Say thank you. Hug your friends. When they leave for the night, ask them to text you when they get home safely. Be a leader.

Play as many games as you can with your friends (old and new), and try to make sure that you introduce yourself to new folks as they come to the party. Create a welcoming atmosphere where attendees feel comfortable introducing themselves to each other. Try to remember that for many people, tabletop gaming is a new experience and is still intimidating.

I believe that playing games together builds lasting, meaningful bonds between people who may not otherwise interact. I believe firmly that there is a great power that comes from sharing things we love with each other – that ideas, relationships, companies, products, art, and love come from simple things like mutual respect and shared enjoyment. The most important thing you can do as a community leader is to create an environment where people can meet each other and share the things they’re passionate about.

The reward for my work with Nerd Night has been to experience a community of friends – one that enables all of us to change the world, one turn at a time.



Contact Information
DFW Nerd Night: www.dfwnn.org
The Nerd Nighters on YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/dfwnnpodcast/live

JR Honeycutt:
Phone: 817.689.5003