Nick Hornby’s description of following Arsenal in his autobiographical essay Fever pitch may ring true for the football fans who practise youth and children’s work in their spare time (that’s only half a joke about football fan’s priorities). But while during the 90s and 2000s this level of dedication was still mainly reserved for eleven players kicking a ball around, if you’ve been paying attention you’ll have noted that the reach of devoted fandom is now much broader.
While love of a sports (normally football) team is still considered socially acceptable, this wider fandom has for a long time been seen as an oddity at the edge of mainstream culture. But this is beginning to change. There’s no real limit to what people might consider themselves a ‘fan’ of. One only needs to look at the kinds of pages people ‘like’ on Facebook for the variety of it. Often the things that attract the most devotion are those in the realm of sci-fi and fantasy, offering devotees whole worlds built to lose themselves in. Reading or watching
Harry Potter, Star wars, Game of thrones or the entire world of Marvel comics is no longer enough. You have to get on board with background reading, events, online forums, memes, GIFs and dressing up before you can truly consider yourself part of the in-crowd.
Ah yes, now it’s been mentioned, we should probably talk about dressing up, or, to give it its preferred title, ‘cosplay’. In essence, this is dressing up as your favourite character from a film, TV show or book. If you’re thinking of a run-of-the-mill fancy dress party, think again. This isn’t throwing on some outfit at the last minute; these costumes are planned for months, money is thrown at them and they’re paraded at the Mecca of cosplay: the convention. Conventions, the most famous being ComicCon, are gatherings for fans of all things sci-fi and fantasy. Whatever you’re into, there’ll be a talk, an actor or a signing session that floats your boat.
People don’t necessarily go to these events with their mates from school. These places mark the moment that online friendships go offline; when skin and blood is put on avatars and forum names. But more than that, for your average enthusiast it provides a possibly rare chance to find oneself surrounded by people who get it. They get the dressing up, the reading, the forum-ing, the in-jokes and obsessions. But maybe it goes even deeper than that. It means being surrounded by people who get what it’s like to be an outsider, to feel different. The reality is that this is a world inhabited by those on the fringes, not necessarily the kids on the very margins. It’s for, to borrow a phrase, the inbetweeners, the kids ignored by many at school, the kids that many don’t understand, the ones whose interests are a bit different, who express themselves better on Tumblr than they do in the classroom; perhaps even the same kinds of young people who are likely to find themselves in a youth group.
The obvious point to draw out here is that young people are desperate for somewhere to belong. In an ever-fragmented society where cultural and societal touchstones and reference points are becoming all the rarer, communities are springing up around franchises and offering young people the chance to be part of something bigger. And churches, youth and children’s ministries are ideally placed to do that. We know this, right?
I am quite a big football fan. OK, I watch a ridiculous amount of football.
Anyway, when I was 19 I went out with a girl who really didn’t like football. Not passive dislike, active hate. She’d never seen a game in her life. And she spent a lot of our time together dismissing something that was important to me, questioning why I chose to spend my time this way and suggesting better things I could be doing. Reader, I married her. Needless to say, the relationship didn’t last long.
In the film adaption of Fever pitch, the main character’s wife says to him: “It’s only a game.” He snaps, replying: “DON’T SAY THAT! Please! That is the worst, most stupid thing anyone could say! ’Cause it quite clearly isn’t ‘only a game’. I mean if it was, do you honestly think I’d care this much? Eh?”
There’s a real temptation, and one I know I’ve fallen foul of, to dismiss young people’s loves / interests / obsessions as phases, as ‘only a TV show’. When we fall into this trap, we do young people a disservice and we come across as uncaring. We don’t need to understand the intricacies of Westeros or Hogwarts, but we do need to realise the importance of these worlds in our young people’s lives.