By Joseph L. Garcia
I hid the best way I thought I could, but the bright lights on my black clothing betrayed my location. A girl on my side had been shot in the face, and she raised her hands in surrender. Taking a deep breath, I jumped up from my hiding place and shot, and shot, and shot — one bullet after another. A bullet from another marksman explodes on contact on my chest, and I knew it. In my short life, I felt a blaze of joy and exhilaration from the knowledge that I fought for something, but now I was dead. Which meant I had to raise my hands, jog out of the arena, and come back to life, unscathed: ready for another round. This was one of the games offered in Attack Arena, a large building in Quezon City that serves as a combat gym of sorts. There’s the shooting activity I enjoyed — no real bullets, they’re all made of gel; Forge Martial Fitness, an activity teaching the principles of medieval swordplay; and Archery Attack (a concept imported as a franchise from Australia), characterized by realistic archery fights — no forms and bull’s-eye targets here, your target is your moving opponent.
Foam-tipped arrows whizzed around to the tune of epic battle music (Think the “Duel of the Fates” from Star Wars) as BusinessWorld interviewed Ralph Lao, general manager of Attack Arena.
“The people who play here are nerds! They’re geeks and nerds!” declared Mr. Lao. He was good-looking, but yes, he wore glasses, and had an enthusiasm that was just so… uncool.
It wasn’t always easy to be a geek (geeks are experts at obscure areas of knowledge; nerds are academic intellectuals — both worlds may intersect). Before the culture was glamorized by shows such as The IT Crowd and The Big Bang Theory, it was characterized by loneliness, knowing that for miles around, you were the only one who cared about, oh, The Lord of The Rings, or Star Trek, or comics. While the winners of the genetic lottery, the popular kids, talked about sports, and cars, and parties, geek boys and girls had to content themselves with small, secret gatherings where they discussed their favorite shows or played Dungeons and Dragons. Of course, it’s different now: the popular kids are now well-aware of who the X-Men are, and it’s the geeks who have unbelievable powers in the highest bounds of industry.
Mr. Lao sat at the side of the arena as he watched a group of kids duke it out in the arena, while another one in glasses admired a shield. “Most of them that start out are not very athletic people,” he noted. “It’s kind of like video games, but you really get to do it in real life.”
Mr. Lao discussed what his arena is all about: “Really having fun interactions, and really having fun in a physical way. Away from digital play.
“I become a space, literally, for them to hang out, to have fun,” he said. “I really had plans to develop new recreational activities to bring people together.”
Gyms can be unfriendly, and the rigorous, controlled workouts are a bit of a block to the wide creative worlds living inside the mind of the geek. “Pain is always a hindrance to making new friends. But pain — we make it here as a way to make friends.”
Movies may make the stereotype that geeks are often separated and ostracized from the rest of the crowd. What this ignores is that geek-dom is still a form of social organization, and organizations are marked by collecting those who are similar, and excluding those who are different. The tables have turned, and with the mainstreaming of geek culture, geeks now own the popular table. “We don’t want the asshole, the die-hards to be part of the community early on. It creates a bad image for everyone,” said Mr. Lao, discussing die-hard geeks and nerds who would exclude people from groups for a lack of knowledge on a certain subject, or for not adhering to certain codes of conduct.
Ijohn Kaw, the arena’s weapons dealer (foam swords and toy guns), owns two stores at UP Town Center and Ayala Malls The 30th that are just filled with geek toys, like swords used by anime and movies characters. His clients, he says, are mostly dads, and not their kids.
“My passion was video games,” he said — maybe that marks him as a geek too. “Glee,” he said, when asked how he felt when he holds in his hands a weapon from Lord of The Rings or some anime. He told me he had something that would knock my socks off: and he presented me with a sword used by She-Ra, He-Man’s sister. The glee I expressed marks me now as one of them. “People get a high seeing their [favorite] items brought to life,” he said.
A student at Forge Martial Fitness, the swordplay classes in Attack Arena, showed up to an interview with BusinessWorld carrying his sword. Marc Ferdinand Castaneda showed up wearing glasses, unstyled hair rising up in spikes, a brush of facial hair, and a reasonably firm physique because of his swordfighting activities. Asked when and why he carries his sword, he said he didn’t carry it on most days: just usual days. “When I’m just walking around, and just thinking.”
He owns two swords, a metal one that he had forged, weighing about 2.8 lbs, and a plastic sword at about 2 lbs., which he bought in, of all places, Cash and Carry.
Mr. Castaneda is training under the straightforward and efficient German school of longsword, as opposed to, for example, the more florid Italian style. “It’s more like a fantasy for me, really. I’ve always had this fascination for knights, for the Medieval times.”
His first brushes with Medieval fantasy include of course, the legends of King Arthur in Camelot, and the movie Robin Hood: Men in Tights.
While his current training benefits him physically with the goal of improving his arms, legs, core, and extending his endurance, he speaks about the emotional benefits of his training. “I’m an overthinker. I tend to think too much,” he said. To him, logic must rule over all his decisions.
“There are always things that will be beyond logic,” said Mr. Castaneda, a writer for a media network. “They won’t always make sense, but they feel right. The level of swordplay allows me to tap into this: a more primal way of thinking, that isn’t necessarily thinking.”
“Emotionally, it’s a release. It releases a lot of pent-up stress, anxiety: because it focuses on you and something else instead of your problems,” said Mr. Lao about the activities his arena offers. “It’s bridging the gap from where it’s not cool to dress up or play-act characters from your fantasies.”