In Roseville, Minnesota, on the 8th of November a man named Dan D’Argenio defended his title as the world champion of Android: Netrunner in a field of 269 players. This particular nugget of information is a big deal to some of the handful of people who play Netrunner, which since you’re wondering, is an asymmetrical, expandable card game about hacking into corporate servers in the dystopian future. I’m sensing that you still don’t care. Well here’s a titbit that only a smattering of that handful will care about: four of the top sixteen players were from the British contingent.

Now, as much as I would like to ramble on and compose a love letter to this peculiar hobby of mine, I’ll try to write something a bit more accessible. Netrunner, in this instance, serves as my intro and initial case study for today as we’re going to discuss niche hobbies. In case it wasn’t blatantly obvious, I play Netrunner, a lot when I can and I dabble in the competitive scene when I can as well. Playing competitive Netrunner is the quintessence of a niche hobby. In fact, it’s a niche hobby cubed. Boardgaming is a niche hobby. Netrunner is a boardgaming niche. Competitive Netrunner is a Netrunner niche. This far down the rabbit hole, something weird happens: I start talking to strangers.

Okay, that might require a little explaining. I don’t talk to strangers and don’t like strangers talking to me. It’s an invasive thing and just rubs me up the wrong way. However, when everyone around you is crammed into this cosy little niche, whilst you aren’t automatically friends, you are all part of a community – you’re all standing on common ground. You can turn to anyone and talk Netrunner, because there’s a language, and they’ll happily talk Netrunner back. Not all niches are full of such generally genuinely friendly people as Netrunner, that I’ll admit is a quirk of this particular subset of people, but the point still stands. This odd hobby of mine makes me much more sociable with people who share it.

I think I’ve waxed lyrical out Netrunner so let’s move on with this point shall we? Really every hobby is something of a niche that grants common ground. This can be anything from horror films to model train sets. If I’m sounding like this is a nerdy thing that’s because it’s how I define nerds. A nerd, at least the way most people seem to use it, is someone with niche hobbies. Before we get into the semantic argument of “well that makes football fans nerds by your rules” (yes it does, and we will get there), let’s talk about human interaction.

Quick caveats of “each to their own” and “everybody’s different” aside, I find that all my lasting friendships are formed in niches, standing on that common ground. In order to begin any sort of friendship you need some basic common ground to put two people within striking distance so that the sparks can begin to fly. That could be anything: shared school or workplace, some leisure activity or maybe two people who just frequent the same dark hole on the internet. That’s easy. Then you have to not hate each other. This is also, for the most part, quite easy (so long as you can get past the awkward hump of starting talking) and this is all well and good so long as you stay in the same place. But what happens when you go your separate ways? Do you fall out of contact or stay in touch? In my experience, the difference has been having that shared niche.

I suppose, in practice, what a shared niche means is a shared obsession. A topic about which you know more than you probably should and will take any excuse to witter on about for hours at a time. The particular thing that you’re a nerd about. Yes, this includes football. The number of people who claim they’re not nerds but will list off the entire roster, substitutes included, for their preferred team going back the majority of their lifetime is a nerd. No matter how you slice it, that’s an obsession about something that you love and it makes you a nerd. Football is just a particularly large niche with an awful lot of people in it. Being so large, it’s easy to replace someone with whom you share your obsession and the diversity of obsession intensity (how much you love football) is much more obvious. In a smaller niche, like anime say, it’s harder to replace someone with whom you share the niche, particularly if you’re in deep, so your friendship is much more likely to survive the weathering of time and distance.

Some friendships are just a matter of having two people with compatible personalities spending time together and I’d argue that that’s how most friendships end up. At the foundation of the best ones, the lasting ones, I bet you’ll find that shared, cosy little niche. If nothing else, eventually people run out of things to talk about so it’s always good to have that default option to fall back to. Now I know that most of my examples (particularly boardgaming) are predominantly male niches and I’m talking about predominantly male friends. On reflection, however, I don’t think this is a uniquely male phenomena, having common ground is, well, common to nearly all good friendships regardless of the friends themselves. If anything this might go some way to explaining why certain niches and friendship circles tend to have a gender bias, but that’s speculation and way outside my area of expertise. At least for today.

At the end of a roundabout waltz through my musings on friendship what have we learned? That you share common interests with your best friends? Well, you probably already realised that. That football fans are nerds? One man’s definition. That you should play Android: Netrunner? Yes, but no. That we as humans form our truly lasting friendships with the people who prove to us we’re not alone in our strange, niche interests? That friends with whom we while away the smallest hours talking shop about something no passerby would understand, all in the vain hope that one will understand, sit down, join in and become another partner to stroll alongside through our dwindling years? Yeah, that’s it.


Are you now a Netrunner fanatic? Read James’ love letter to ale too.

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