In one of the organisers of next weekend’s Comic Con, THEO PANAYIDES finds an avid gamer and ‘comfy Goth’ who practically lives on the internet in a world that’s both narrower and broader than those of previous generations
The nerd in her natural habitat: a smallish flat on a quiet cul-de-sac, the fixtures including a rescue cat named Kiri, a framed collage with photos from Akihabara (“the nerd district of Tokyo”), and plastic spines on a shelf which look like DVDs but turn out to be video games. Helen Christofi is many things, of course – Sunday painter, graphic designer, front-end web developer – but she’s okay with being described as a nerd, she ‘owns it’ as they say. The Nicosia flat, its décor including a Pokemon poster and a stuffed-toy green creeper (from Minecraft), is important in her life: it’s where she sleeps, where she works and also where she games, often till one or two in the morning. It’s also, in the past few months, where she’s been performing a Herculean task, as one of only six organisers – and the only woman – for Cyprus Comic Con, a mammoth event whose previous iteration drew some 15,000 people.
The CCC team are all gamers and pop-culture junkies, of course; four of the six (including Helen) also work for a company called James Innes Group, and I imagined them meeting in a conference room on their lunch break to plan the event – which isn’t entirely off-base, but conference rooms and lunch breaks are so 20th century. James Innes Group is an online company based in the UK (it provides career services, “we produce CVs and LinkedIn profiles”) with its IT department in Cyprus – though of course it could just as easily have been scattered all over the world; it’s purely for convenience that the people hunched over their computers happen to be in the same country.
Helen’s lifestyle couldn’t have existed 20 years ago. She wakes up around 10am and immediately sits down to work, at the PC on the desk just behind me as we chat in her living room. She works solidly till about six (no lunch break!), working on the company’s websites or designing new ones, then plays video games – except in recent weeks, “because Comic Con” – just as solidly for several hours before going to bed. The gaming isn’t just ‘to relax’, it’s serious business; Helen’s a connoisseur. She favours story-driven “puzzle games”, mostly old-school, her personal classic being an 80s game called Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis; she’ll play the occasional MOBA (Multi-player Online Battle Arena) game, but has never owned a console in her life. She also loves anime, and singles out an obscure early-00s series called Haibane Renmei. Nerd culture is highly specific.
Doesn’t it get lonely, being in the house all day?
“The cat helps,” she shrugs. Besides, it’s not such a solitary life: there are constant online voice calls with friends and colleagues (they use Discord, a gamer-related app) and also some in-the-flesh socialising. “I do leave my house at least once a week, we play board games at a friend’s. We play Dungeons & Dragons and other board games.” Does she ever go out, to a bar or a restaurant? “It’s not really my thing,” she replies apologetically. She prefers a day at the park, but even that doesn’t happen very often – nor is she really the type to head out to the beach in summer. Every two or three weeks she’ll go down to Limassol to see her parents (they also talk a few times a week); her dad is a baker – he owns an artisan bakery called Psomi kai Alati – her mum an English and French teacher with her own school. Dad “keeps begging me to be a baker,” laughs Helen. He’s probably kidding. “My mum keeps nagging me that I haven’t found a husband yet.” She probably isn’t.
What does Helen think of that idea?
“I’m not against the idea, but it just hasn’t happened.” It might be hard finding someone with a compatible lifestyle, I venture, especially given the size of the Cypriot nerd community. “We do our best to meet people, with Comic Con and the parties and all that,” she agrees – “but I feel like I’ve already met almost everyone!”
To be fair, she’s only 28, so there’s no big rush to ‘settle down’. She’s also excellent company – at least here, in her natural habitat where she feels comfortable – so it shouldn’t be too difficult when the right person comes along. Her skin is pale, her look “comfy Goth” as she puts it; she has narrow eyes in a long, oval face, a streak of blue in her hair (actually more than a streak; it’s a blue middle sandwiched between a black top and bottom, she explains, trying to show me), and a broad goofy smile that appears often. Some might ascribe her cloistered life to being bad with people, but I don’t get any sense of grumpiness or misanthropy. “I’m – shy?” she explains a little awkwardly. “I like being at home, as well. I’m OK with people, for example I have friends that come over, often. I’m not a recluse!” she protests. “I’m giving off that vibe…” admits Helen, and giggles goofily.
She must be good with people, or she’d never be able to organise the cosplay contest and Artists’ Alley (the 64 artists who’ll be putting up stalls to display their work) at this year’s Comic Con. Yet she’s also unusual, part of a new sub-culture enabled by the internet – and not just the internet but Internet 2.0, the past dozen years of smartphones, apps and social media. It wasn’t like that in her teens, going to the Grammar School in Limassol and looking in vain for people who shared her interests. These days she’s happier speaking English than Greek (“I don’t really use my Greek, unless I talk to my parents or – I dunno, Cyta or something”), yet she’s totally Cypriot and grew up with Greek-speaking friends. “We were kind of the geeks,” she recalls – but geeks are one thing, and nerds another. “Geeks are the ones that study and get good marks, and then there’s the nerds who like video games and stuff… It was still my crowd, kind of, but not fully. We were the good kids.”
Lord of the Rings was big at the time, so was Harry Potter (Helen’s the same age as the cinematic Harry, and grew up in sync with the films) – but it wasn’t like now, when fantasy and superhero movies have taken over the culture. Kids weren’t obsessed with Facebook and Instagram, neither of which existed yet; mostly they liked going to clubs, which she wasn’t into. Her best friend may have been her older brother, now a programmer in London, who passed on his passion for older games (last year, when she paid him a visit, he fixed up their first PC from 1997 and they played Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis together on the souped-up computer, which may well be the nerdiest thing ever); she’s always preferred hanging out with guys, somehow, maybe just because girls “are into other things”. Helen paints a picture of a young girl who was sociable enough growing up then “started becoming shy” when she hit her teens, dropping out of the choir (she’d been one of its star soloists) and developing a mild agoraphobia. So was there something of a dark period? “I don’t see it like that. It wasn’t dark. I just realised that I’m not like the others.”
It wasn’t till later that she found ‘her’ people, when she came back to Cyprus after a Bachelor’s in Architecture and got a job in an IT department (the plan had been two years of practice in an architect’s office then back to the UK for a Master’s, but the sector was dead due to the crisis; fortunately, “I liked to programme websites from the age of 12”). That was already an eye-opener, hanging out with fellow nerds – the company didn’t even mind her blue hair! – but meeting her current colleagues and moving to an online-only lifestyle was a whole other level, so much so that she doubts she could ever go back to an office job: “This is too good”.
First contact, as they say on Star Trek, came through a community called OtakuCy, a kind of precursor to Comic Con; ‘otaku’ is the Japanese word for ‘nerd’, and a Japanese influence is strong here. Helen loves the food, the anime, the place itself; she’s been once to Japan already, and is going again in a few weeks. Japan is also home to one million hikikomori, I note with a meaningful glance, meaning the recluses who’ve totally withdrawn from society. “Uh, yeah. And I understand them!” she replies, laughing merrily. “There’s so much stuff to do online. Like, there’s video games that are whole worlds that you can explore, that are beautiful… Why look outside at the grey world? Why face my own problems when I can be somebody else, you know?” That’s not who she is, she makes clear, she hasn’t withdrawn from the world – but yeah, she can see where they’re coming from.
There’s another aspect, though we don’t explicitly make the connection: Japan is a courteous, diffident culture, and – increasingly unlike the West – not an angry culture, at least not overtly. Helen tells me about the “maid cafés” in Akihabara, where girls are “dressed up like French maids and they act cutesy; it’s a thing”. Doesn’t it offend her, I ask, as a woman? After all, today’s under-30s are all so political and feminist. “I don’t like that stuff,” she replies at once, meaning the culture of wokeness and taking offence; “Everybody has a problem with everything. Just chill”. Helen practically lives on the internet – but it’s not the internet of righteous indignation and social media. She uses Facebook to post photos from her travels, “but I don’t Tweet, I’m not ‘an influencer’. It feels a bit like I’m yelling at the world if I post something, and I don’t feel like I have something to tell them”. It’s mostly younger people who do that, the ones who like to talk about their problems in public. “Why should everybody know that I’m experiencing something? Why should I project my problems to everybody that ever met me, with my name on it?”
Because you’re a narcissist who craves personal validation, perhaps?
“That’s it!” She shakes her head sadly. “I don’t like selfies, I don’t like… People are obsessed with getting Likes, and receiving feedback from the world. Does that make you feel good? I’m happy for you.”
Fine, she’s not that person. Couldn’t someone call her an escapist, though?
“I don’t see the problem in that,” replies Helen lightly, and laughs. “Why join in the narcissistic parade? I don’t see why.”
To have a say in society, perhaps?
“Does it make a difference?”
Well, sure. I mean, she’s part of society, right?
I pause, not really sure what to say to that. “Don’t you and your friends ever talk about social issues?”
Of course, she replies. “We’re not – like, children playing video games. We’re adults, we have problems and we have opinions. But they’re usually not based on Cyprus, they’re not things to do with Cyprus. They’re things to do with the world. Because we’re constantly online, we don’t care a lot about what is” – she waves a hand, taking in the sunny afternoon outside the window – “around us”.
This, I suspect, is the bottom line: Helen Christofi’s life – and the life she represents, this new way of life ushered in by the 21st century – is simultaneously narrower and broader than most people’s. Her world is the small Nicosia flat with the PC in the living room, but her world is also the entire planet, reflected in the likes of 4chan and the multi-player games where you always seem to get “some Russian guy screaming at you”. What she’s missing is the bit in between, the actual – but limited – world of the physical society around her.
Nerds are still somewhat separate, and all too aware of it. Helen is careful not to assume that I, as an older person, automatically know what she’s talking about: she explains what cosplay means (“the dress-up”), and asks if I know what memes are. “I feel like I have a hard time speaking to somebody who doesn’t know these things,” she admits – and it must be awkward sometimes, living in a bubble of sorts and having to engage with those outside it. At the same time, however, online culture has become totally mainstream – it’s just been turned into something else, the bluster and bustle of social media. Nerds are a bit like adventurous hikers who find some beautiful, isolated valley in the woods and set up an idyllic community, playing games and eating berries. Then the valley gets discovered by the masses, and is suddenly overrun by screaming kids and the stench of barbecued meat – but the nerds are too polite (or shy?) to go up and say, ‘Actually, we were here first’.
Comic Con has also been mainstreamed, which partly explains those 15,000 visitors. There’s “a core audience,” admits Helen, “and then there’s younger people who like video games and superhero movies”. (Her frequent mention of ‘younger people’ is a bit unnerving; has 28 become old now?) This year’s edition, next Saturday and Sunday, will of course offer something for everyone, from live music and a film festival to three gaming stages, the cosplay contest and several celebrity guests: three from Game of Thrones plus Anthony Daniels, aka C-3PO in Star Wars, who’ll be doing an open Q&A and another private Q&A for just 25 people (this hadn’t yet sold out on the day of our interview, though it probably has by now).
But there’s something else, too – because Comic Con is a celebration, an occasion for all those nerds who live in the shadows (or indeed their living rooms) to come out into the light, joyfully affirming how much has changed from the time, not so long ago, when they felt alone in the world. We’ve talked a lot about escapism, says Helen Christofi – but Comic Con is the opposite of that, a giant hug aimed at everyone, nerdy or not. “I might be trying to hide myself from the world,” she notes – “but I’m also trying to make the world into something that I’m more into”. All it needs is some Pokemon posters, and a creeper from Minecraft.