I have just returned from a magical land of board gaming and author signings, live musical performances and week-long escape room games, of ukulele choirs and Hamilton sing-alongs. Yes, Readers, I have just been on the JoCo Cruise 2017.
What the hell am I talking about? Let me unpack it just a bit. “JoCo” refers to Jonathan Coulton, a singer-songwriter with a rabid following of nerds and gamers. His song Codemonkey exploded after being featured on the website Slashdot in 2006. He has built his career with the Internet, particularly YouTube. He was featured on an episode of NPR’s Planet Money as a prime example of the new digital model of success in the music world.
The next year, Valve hired Coulton to write the now-iconic song Still Alive, which is sung by a villainous A.I. during the closing credits of its landmark game Portal. Coulton had arrived. He now has legions of devoted fans who love his songs about zombies, coders, and canine cosmonauts. He’s also a regular on the popular radio show Ask Me Another.
His popularity led to the creation of a cruise centered on him and his performer and writer friends, starting in 2010. At first it was just a few hundred people, a pocketful of freaks and geeks among the larger population of a large cruise liner.
But this year, JoCo Cruise 2017 was to have the entire ship -- Holland America’s Westerdam -- for the first time. That’s 1700+ enthusiastic fans, all at one eight-day floating party. And your correspondent was lucky enough be one of them.
Long story short: I was in nerd heaven for eight days.
Because they had the entire ship this time around, the cruise producers could go much crazier with customization. This began before we even got on the ship. In the huge area where you check in, there was a long line of small booths with LED displays on top. I imagine these are usually labeled with sections of the alphabet, or areas of the ship, or whatever. Not for JoCo Cruise. There were booths for Cylons, Klingons, Cenobites, etc. I checked in at Ravenclaw.
Let's get on this ship!!
My friend Ben and I boarded, tossed our gear in our stateroom, donned our, “YES I want to make friends” buttons (we were also issued, “No I don’t want to make friends right now" buttons, but of course, I never used that one) and charged out to explore the ship.
The MS Westerdam, owned and operated by Holland America Line, is a Vista Class ship with a capacity of about 2000 passengers and about 800 crew. This makes it a medium-size cruise ship, though it felt pretty damn big to me.
The list of things to do and see on the cruise was dizzying. Let’s start with the musical performers. First and foremost, there was Jonathan Coulton himself, as well as his long-time buddies Paul and Storm. Jean Grae, Ted Leo, The Doubleclicks, Nerf Herder, Molly Lewis, John Roderick, and the wonderful Aimee Mann, among others. There were concerts every night, and there was even a mini-music festival (JoCoachella) in the town square of Loreto, Mexico.
Towel origami courtesy of our room steward
Next, the writers. Sharing a boat with John Scalzi blew my mind, and so I eagerly attended the first event he was in. It was simply a forum with him, fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss, author Mary Robinette Kowal, and Wil Wheaton on stage mucking about. When you have four people as intelligent and entertaining as this quartet, the mucking about is enjoyable indeed. Much time was spent simply continuing the "feud" between Scalzi and Wheaton on what constitutes a True Burrito. (On Scalzi's popular blog, Whatever, Scalzi likes to post photos of creative bits of food he rolls up into a tortilla and then calls a burrito.)
Next was a discussion about the fact that author and puppeteer Mary Robinette Kowal arranges the books on her shelves by the colors of their spines. This caused Patrick Rothfuss so much distress the he developed an alarming twitch in his left eye.
Silly? You bet. But a riot to sit through. Interestingly, though I'd never heard of Kowal before this cruise, I was already a fan before the panel was over. It also doesn't hurt that her novels are fantasy, science fiction, mystery and caper stories disguised as Regency Romances. (I'm in!!) She's also a professional puppeteer (a veteran of Sesame Street) and, in addition to a reading from her forthcoming novel, she gave a puppeteering seminar.
Street Toughs in Loreto
There were also magicians, game designers, and voiceover artists. I got to play the board game “Code Names” with Mike Selinker, one of the creators of Betrayal at House on the Hill1. You'll be thrilled to hear that my team kicked his team's butt. What can I say, I lucked into a very smart team! Later on the cruise, Selinker led a very spirited political discussion that was well-attended. He's a smart guy.
There were live broadcasts of several popular podcasts, including Welcome to Night Vale and The Dork Forest. Jackie Kashian, the host of The Dork Forest, is also a standup comic who performed on the cruise. She's made a fan of me with her smart, punchy, matter-of-fact delivery.
I played a lot of board games on the ship. People were playing everywhere you looked. There was a large, free game library that everyone was welcome to use. I also brought my copy of one of my favorites, the wildly out-of-print Glory to Rome, and taught it to a bunch of people who had heard of it but never had a chance to play it. The nature of this cruise meant that I got to play with a very diverse group of people, including folks so socially awkward they couldn't make eye contact. I participated in a wonderful late-night game of Werewolf as well.
The Southernmost point in Baja California
While I didn't participate in the Hamilton singalong, I was playing games in the room right next to it and it was remarkable to listen to. There were about sixty people, with one guy on the piano. They sang the entire score and everyone knew all of the words. I can't think of another Broadway musical that has had such an impact. Can you imagine the same thing happening with Sweeney Todd or Fun Home or even The Book of Mormon? I can't.
One of the most difficult, and ultimately most hilarious elements of the cruise was the issue of Internet Access. Most of Holland America’s cruises are populated by 70-year olds whose lives aren't as digitally connected as the type of person on a JoCo Cruise. Like, not nearly as much. So even though the ship’s IT department thought it was prepared, we quickly overwhelmed the capacity of the ship. The poor IT department basically got no sleep during the entire cruise, as they were attempting to patch and Band-Aid a system being taxed at twelve hundred percent of its usual volume. During the final night’s concert, when all of the ship’s department heads were up on stage being introduced, the IT Director Jose got the biggest ovation of anyone.
To help facilitate communication, the ship had an intranet, which was also frequently down. But when it wasn’t, we all used a home-grown messaging app created by an industrious Sea Monkey2 called “Twit-arrr” (think Speak Like a Pirate Day). The creative and twisted minds of my fellow Sea Monkeys kept a never-ending stream of hilarious and thought provoking “twarts” that I enjoyed reading all week. Here’s one of my favorites:
Another Sea Monkey immediately co-opted the identity of real life Cruise Director Erin and sent out constant surreal and funny twarts all week, triggering an epic, good-natured feud between her and the actual Cruise Director Erin (who wore a tee shirt that said “There Can Only Be One” during the aforementioned department head introductions).
Sea of Cortez
1My team beat his team! Rawr!
2That’s what JoCo Cruisers are called.