Everyone raise your hand if you've heard that question before. Now those of you who didn't raise your hand, stop lying and raise yours too.
Honestly, I find it easier to describe what a role-playing game is than describe a miniature, tabletop war-game hobby. All I have to look to do is look at the person questioning me on an RPG and say the magic words "Dungeons and Dragons" and a light goes off in their head. Of course, then I usually have to defend that particular hobby against the claims of cults, satanism and drug use, but that's not the point of this article.
For all of you who struggle to describe this hobby, and time and money sink, of ours, here are some suggestions to get you through that awkward moment.
The Artistic Approach
This is a complex, diversionary answer to that question, most often used on first dates when you actually want that second date. It usually involves and emphasis on descriptors like "Sculpture", and "Acrylic Painting". No mention is ever made of rolling dice or actually playing a game of any sort. At least until said person comes over and you've forgotten to clean up form the last game.
The Historical Approach
If you actually model and play historical battle games, then please move on, you already use this approach in the correct manner, and are completely honest in doing so. The rest of us may use this approach in a professional setting when at our day jobs most times. This involves stealing the historical modeler and gamers perspective to give our plastic-addiction some sort of intellectual spin instead of a fantastical or fictional one.
The Scale Model Approach
This particular answer plays a bit on diverting the questioner's attention from the true answer by likening the hobby to that of a train, car or military scale model hobby. It also often involves specifically mentioning the millimeter scale you work in to further impress and divert at the same time.
The Boardgame Approach
This involves citing one of two games, either Risk or Chess, and likening our hobby to those on just a grander scale. Bringing it into this realm of explanation tends to get a much more positive answer and even may get some fun childhood stories out of the conversation. Typically this approach follows one of the others to help explain the game aspect of the hobby.
The Honest Approach
Always the best policy, right? This is exactly what it sounds like, and you actually take the time to explain the hobby you enjoy so much. This approach actualy takes a bit of all the others, only places them all in the correct context, all in one explanation. Actual examples of models or pictures of them tend to help get across exactly what is involved in making a miniature look amazing, as well as the sheer scale to field an entire army of them from box to completed product. Showing someone the scale figures themselves, then an example of a truly magnificent piece from a pro like Chris Borer, Mathieu Fontaine, Joe Orteza, Tom Schladle, Vincent Hudon, Mike McVay, etc. will also tend to make their eyes open wide at the magnitude of just ow awesome our hobby can be.
Sure this article is a bit on the lighter side of topics, and meant to be fun, but at the same time it's also meant to encourage folks to be proud of your chosen hobby. With the time and money investments involved in any miniature war-game hobby, there's no reason to be anything but proud of it. You'd be surprised at how many positive reactions I get to my hobby at my home church, even, after I've answered their question of "What hobbies do you have?" honestly. Showing them examples as well as my passion for the artistic and competition aspects of the hobby alike even gains the pastime the respect it deserves in the eyes of those who've never even heard of it before.