Smile and Nod: Swag


I couldn’t help myself; it was a really nice hoodie. They offered it to me at the registration desk at this year’s D.I.C.E. Summit in Vegas, and I almost refused, but it came with a bunch of other stuff and, although I wasn’t sure I wanted any of it, I was curious to see what all was in the bag. So I took it. I asked for a medium; all they had was a large (if you can believe that), but I took it anyway. I didn’t think I would wear it, it being too large and all, but I took it and immediately felt ashamed.

Worst case, I thought, I’d give if to Cliffy. I’d seen him wearing one on the flight in and figured he probably went through them more quickly than I did. I didn’t even own a hoodie at the time. And then I put it on, just for kicks, and my world shifted.

“Holy crap,” I said to myself. “This is the most comfortable garment I’ve ever worn.” This wasn’t just the exaggeration of a week-long writing binge talking, it really was comfortable. Damn comfortable. It was soft, warm (but not suffocating), and just the right weight to layer over a T-shirt and under a jacket. In fact, that’s exactly how I wore it at the next convention, in cold, rainy San Francisco. Everywhere I went, in spite of the constant drizzle, I remained toasty and comfortable and warm. To the point where I’d completely stopped thinking about the Rock Band logo emblazoned on the front. It wasn’t a piece of advertising swag anymore; it was a functional piece of critical clothing equipment.

Around this same time I’d also taken to wearing a comfortable toque provided me by someone who collects far more swag than I. My head was cold one night, my own fleece toque was far too warm, and I was near tears. It was a bad, bad scene. To the rescue, came the toque. The good news: It fit perfectly. The bad: It had a logo on it. A logo from a bad game, to be precise. In another lifetime, I wouldn’t have touched it. But this was the new me, the post-hoodie me, and I took it gratefully, put it on, felt the comfortable warmth and promptly forgot all about the logo.

Here’s how I feel about logos in a nutshell: I hate them. Seriously. I’m not a fan of advertising in the best of circumstances, but after a lifetime spent in the creative arts, I’m well aware of its necessity. I’ve even, in recent years, come to appreciate certain forms of advertising in special, limited circumstances.

People have messages they’d like to spread around, I get it. Also, sometimes audiences really do need to be informed about products or services they could actually use. Advertising is invaluable in these circumstances. And so, while we’ve got people’s attention with our (hopefully) interesting entertainment offerings, the folks with messages to deliver want to give us some money to draw the audience’s attention to their message as well. They get their message out, we get the funding we need to survive and you, hopefully, aren’t too annoyed by their sales pitch to stop appreciating our entertainment. It’s not the most harmonious marriage, but neither advertising nor entertainment could survive without the other, so we endure. For the sake of the children.

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Although I’ve established a functional détente in my working life, I still prefer to keep the advertising out of my private life. I used to laugh at my friend who turned his T-shirts inside out to avoid displaying a logo on his body, but now I think I understand where he’s coming from a little better. I used to think if you didn’t want to wear a logo, then you could go buy yourself some clothes without one and get over yourself. But sometimes, man the hoodie is just really comfortable, and the toque fits just right. And you finally find that jacket for which you’ve been looking for years, the one that fits perfectly and isn’t too heavy or too light, but fits in that Goldilocks zone of “just right.” But it’s got a dude on a horse on the breast, and you can’t rip it off. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

Well, if you’re me, you suck it up, wear the jacket and show logo. Because really, life’s too short. I’d rather be comfortable and with a little extra money in my pocket than spend the time, money and energy finding a perfect replica sans-logo. I’m sorry, but it’s true. If this means I’ve lost my stripes from the revolutionary army, so be it. At least I’ll be warm on the long march back home to my bourgeois apartment.

So there I was in San Francisco, wearing my Rock Band hoodie and my Shadow the Hedgehog toque. Halfway to the Moscone Center, I realized I didn’t actually need the attendance badge around my neck. It was pretty obvious I belonged at the convention. At least the T-shirt underneath it all was blissfully ad-free. If the chips all fell, I could strip down to that and make a run for it, blend in to the non-gaming crowd, buy a latte and pretend to live there. I thought about this more than was, perhaps, healthy.

I got back to the office after the convention and realized that if I wanted to continue belaboring the point that advertising – and therefore advertising swag – is bad, I’d come off as something of an extreme hypocrite. Perhaps an ass. Perhaps even a hypocritical ass, heaven forefend. And here’s why: I’ve got swag all over the place.

Sitting at my desk, without even having to turn my head, I see: a Pirates of the Caribbean Online model pirate ship; Silly Putty that came in an egg emblazoned with the logo of some graphic card manufacturer; a hat from the same manufacturer; three hats advertising television shows produced by a former employer; Guitar Hero and Mafia posters; a The Escapist mug; a rubber shrunken head from Conan: Hyborian Adventures; over a dozen ball pens from various organizations, including a few hotels; a rubber ball with blinking lights inside from IBM; a Guitar Hero guitar strap and pick; a plastic Darth Vader head with candy inside, advertising something or another related to Star Wars; two challenge coins, a duffel bag, a compass and a pocket knife from Tabula Rasa (I love the coins, BTW); a plastic Mario; an art book from some obscure French browser game; the TechTV vest I’m currently wearing; and a statuette of some Egyptian goddess from a museum. OK that last isn’t swag, but it may as well be.

The point here is that I’ve got access to a pretty much endless supply of items of varying usefulness, provided I don’t mind they’re trying to sell me something. And I’ve recently realized I can tolerate the sales pitch so long as I find the item interesting. It’s like hanging out with that creepy guy who’s always bullshitting about how awesome he is just because you have no other friends and can’t be bothered to go find some. Like when you let a relationship drag on too long and realize, afterwards, it was only because you’d gotten used to it. The hoodie (and everything else) exist in my space because they’re useful or interesting and were free. Period. I have no integrity left, I realize. I’m a whore, plain and simple.

None of this is to say I intend to change, however. I’ve just experienced an epiphany, a revelation that I’m far more shallow than I previously believed. What good would this do me if I then immediately changed? Besides, having discovered I’m human after all, I’d appreciate a chance to enjoy my flaws, thank you very much. Maybe in a few years I’ll give up my swag-caching ways, return to the light side and pay money for everything I own. But for now, the hoodie really is one of the most comfortable garments I’ve ever owned, and screw you if you don’t like it.

I even wore it out of the house once, away from a gaming convention, on “my time,” as Brad Spiccoli would say. Twice, in fact. The first time was en route home after GDC. I was sitting on the airplane, Rock Band hoodie pulled over my head, listening to something on the iPod to drown out the obnoxious safety presentation (seriously, does anyone really have trouble with seatbelts? And if they do, wouldn’t their demise be good for the gene pool?) when someone tapped me on the arm.

“Are you a developer?” they asked. I shook my head no. “There was a convention. We just came from it,” he explained, although he didn’t have to. His expensive jeans, volition T-shirt and suit-wearing accomplice standing next to him told me more than his words, but I smiled and told him I knew.

“I’m the enemy,” I said. “A reporter.”

He smiled, nervously, and turned away. Afterward, I wondered: How much of an enemy wears a Rock Band hoodie? Whose enemy would do that? Did Lester Bangs wear rock T-shirts? And if so, only certain ones? Would Lester wear a toque just because his head was cold, ignoring the corporate rock logo on the front? I doubt it. Then again, Lester Bangs was an asshole. I should get over myself.

The second time was to the game store, if you can believe it. I didn’t mean to. After all, this is the place I usually avoid wearing any of my TechTV swag, because I don’t want to feel like “that guy”; the guy who wants everyone to know He’s Important on The Internet. I didn’t even realize what I was doing, just put on the hoodie, layered a jacket over it and walked outside. When I was paying for my purchase, the dude behind the counter said “Rock Baaaand,” in that way that people do, and I realized what I’d done.

“I haven’t actually played it yet,” I said, hoping that would confuse his senses long enough for me to make my escape without having to fess up I’d gotten the hoodie at a game convention; was, in fact, a game writer; and have to endure a horribly embarrassing conversation about What I Do, and How Awesome It Is.

I realized from the look on his face that my profession to not have played the game, in spite of wearing the hoodie, made me look like another kind of jackass entirely. But the plan worked: He stammered something about it being awesome while handing me my receipt, and I was gone. Two seconds later, I was out the door and the icky feeling passed. Two seconds after that, I was back in the car, headed home, toasty and warm; getting over myself. Almost.

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