Why I am a Bad Nerd

Firstly: This is required reading material.

I went to PAX East this past Saturday. I go for really only one reason, and that’s the annual Warhammer 40K Tournament, which is a lot of fun, fairly laid back, and I’ve never had an unpleasant game while there. There is, however, something inherent in gaming conventions that makes me uneasy. It’s the same thing, honestly, that makes me uneasy at sporting playoffs and rock concerts and any other event in which the combined

This many people on the same mission in the same place is...concerning.

This many people on the same mission in the same place is…concerning.

masses of fandom converge to worship. It’s not just the crowds (though I’m not crazy about crowds), but the presence of groupthink. I would feel the same way at PAX as I would feel at a celebrity wedding or the coronation of a new king: here is a massive group of people hopelessly enthusiastic about a thing that is (1) not of their making and (2) in existence for the purpose of purporting the illusion that it is, in fact, of their making. Everybody talks about how ‘their’ team made the playoffs, but unless you live in Green Bay, that team is in no way, shape, or form yours. There is a whole subset of people who define their worth and orient their personal emotional health upon the presence, absence, and/or disposition of entities that they, themselves, have no influence over. It weirds me out.

There is something different at a gaming convention like PAX, though, that isn’t quite as obvious at sporting events or rock concerts (though it is clearly and undoubtedly present). The naked materialism of it is on a scale that even stadium owners might envy. Well, no, maybe ‘materialism’ isn’t the right word (you’re paying $6.00 for a hotdog at either venue and lauding your collection of themed clothing in the same exact way). I think instead what I’m going for here the way in which consumptive choice interacts with evaluations of personal self-worth, as described by the blog post above.

I’m reminded of a quote from Simon Pegg:

Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.

Naked consumerism has never been better summed up than by "Gotta Catch 'Em All."

Naked consumerism has never been better summed up than by “Gotta Catch ‘Em All.”

Now, when I first heard this quote, I cheered its sentiment as a defense of geekdom. The more I thought about it, though, the less enthused I became. There are a couple things here that trouble me. Firstly, ‘not being afraid to demonstrate that affection’ is misleading. I am certainly not afraid to demonstrate my affection for, say, Warhammer  or role-playing-games or science fiction. That, however, is not license in itself to harp and gush over them to a unreceptive audience or to behave like a child. More importantly, though, is the way in which geekdom often chooses to express this enthusiasm and, indeed, how society dictates our enthusiasm should be expressed in general. A geek wears costumes, has themed T-shirts, owns themed bedsheets or salt shakers, and professes their vehement allegiance to Dr. Who or The Walking Dead and will not accept their favorite franchise’s faults. This shouldn’t be necessary or even recommended for a ‘true fan’; it is, as Pegg himself says, childish. The ‘supposed adulthood’ Pegg alludes to is not really a negative thing. It’s the awareness that your enthusiasm is not necessarily mirrored by everyone else and, furthermore, that such enthusiasm is not correctly represented by spending money on frivolities that in no way reflect the aspects of your particular franchise that make it a worthwhile thing in which to indulge. If you’ve got a pokeball salt-and-pepper shaker on your table, how am I expected to react to that? Even supposing I am a fan of Pokemon, what the hell does a salt-shaker have to do with Pokemon? What is the message here?

The second thing I take some issue with is the idea of geekdom (as described by Pegg) as being ‘extremely liberating’. Maybe I’m just an old stick in the mud, maybe I’m a bad geek or nerd or what have you, but I don’t really see ‘liberation’ at PAX. I see, instead, collective self-assurement. The throngs of costumed gamers at PAX assuage the collective anxiety gamers often feel in non-gamer society. They are self-identifying themselves as an entity outside of the ‘mainstream’ (whatever that is) by associating themselves with gaming franchises and, often, specific characters inside that franchise. They are, in essence, defining themselves by what they consume and gaining confirmation that their consumptive choice is positive by the presence of so many other like-minded individuals. This is the opposite of liberation – this is conformity. Now, I’m not saying that geeks and gamers shouldn’t be proud of what they do for fun, but I am saying that the decision to express this pride in such tight confines and in such prescribed ways is suspect. I am forced to ask of the sundry Batmen and Marios striding about the BCEC: Are you holding Mario up, or is Mario holding you up?

Okay, okay – I’m being unfair, and probably a bit hypocritical. There were lots and lots of people at PAX who got dressed up just for fun and that didn’t treat the weekend as some kind of ‘safe zone’ for consumptive choices they make that they feel aren’t welcome elsewhere. Indeed, there are probably a lot of folks who didn’t go to PAX to salivate over what they intend to spend their money on next and, instead, went to have fun and play games with new people, just as I did myself. However, to make the claim that so-called geek ‘culture’ isn’t predicated on the idea that consumption defines our personalities would be an error. It is, and far too many of us buy into it. A lot of geeks are having their strings pulled by other people (many of whom aren’t geeks at all), and that bothers me. When I go to PAX, I have fun and I enjoy the costumes, but I also get the same feeling I get when I’m walking to Fenway Park amid a sea of Ortiz jerseys: Are we actually our own selves, and is that a good or a bad thing? Why can’t we have the courage to be our own person and present ourselves as such, no jersey or t-shirt or funny hat required?

Does this make me a bad nerd?

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About aahabershaw

Writer, teacher, gaming enthusiast, and storyteller. I write stories, novels, and occasional rants.

Posted on March 25, 2013, in Critiques, Theories, and Random Thoughts, Gaming and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I don’t think it makes you a ‘bad nerd’… but I would question why it would matter to you if some folks there *were* having their strings pulled? Does it truly matter to you if they are?

    At some point in every subculture there arises a group from within that feels the need to “protect” those within the subculture. Either they take it upon themselves to become the conduit between those within and without in order to “explain” what those within the culture really are trying to say (because invariably the protector feels as though the folks deeper in the culture are just too strident and thus can’t adequately relate their feelings to the “normals”). Or else they fear that those who *are* too deep within the culture are too easily distracted or taken advantage of, and it falls upon them to try and “open the eyes” of those within to what is actually going on.

    I think in many ways, it’s a “class distinction” kind of situation. Where a certain class of geek sees themselves “above” the unwashed geek masses… looking down upon the throngs of people tied up in whatever branding they are… feeling as though they should really “help out” in some way. It’s like they are one of the privileged, and it’s their moral duty to assist. “I enjoy science fiction and cartoon characters, but I’m also quite socially-adjusted by normal standards… so only I can see things for how they really are and it’s up to me to make sure everyone knows it too.”

    There’s a certain arrogance that comes with that, and thus these “protectors” of the culture I don’t think necessarily do any good. Because the last thing anyone in geek culture really wants is someone standing over them in a feeling of superiority. That’s the whole reason they’ve retreated into the culture in the first place.

    • Hmmmm…I suppose it doesn’t ‘matter’ to me in any specific way. As I point out, this kind of thing happens in every subculture to some extent and has happened among subcultures since there were cultures in the first place – you can argue that such eventualities are inevitable to some degree.

      I’m not advocating external protectors to swoop in and rescue geeks from their own avarice. I’m mostly expressing concern over the tendency for us (as a species) to define our personal worth off of external entities and how, in many ways, geek culture is a clear example of that. Such observations aren’t arrogant inherently, merely a call for some self examination.

      • Unfortunately, it seems like (to me at least) the “call for some self examination” is usually a rather pointless exercise, as we as a human species have shown that many of us are either incapable of self-reflection, are unable to look objectively at our self-reflection, see things in our self-reflection that others would say is not actually there, or just don’t care how other people see us that we don’t even bother with self-reflection. And then even those who do self-reflect with a result that one might try and objectively say was “positive”… are still surrounded by people who wouldn’t recognize it as such. The idea of “if one person is ‘sane’ amongst a whole bunch who are ‘crazy’… who is actually the insane one?”

        So I think self-reflection is good.,. but merely on a personal level. If you self-reflect and find things you don’t like about yourself and you want to change for the better… then it was successful. But hoping against hope for self-reflection on a massive scale (say for any entire subculture) usually ends up not actually garnering results.

      • :shrug: Just because it won’t work doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try anyway.

  2. I too tend to feel uneasy in such environments, it feels a bit dehumanising and obsessive at the same time. Then again, it might be that I never tend to participate in those kind of activities and there is a lot to them that I miss out on.

    The aforementioned quote rings quite bad in my ears too, the liberation mentioned is taken at the cost of others and neglects the fact that what is consider socially acceptable behaviour is a compromise by ALL persons in the room, not just the geek in question. Granted, being a “supposed adult” has negative sides but that sort of Peter Pan-approach to geeks strikes me as very unproductive and not really endearing to anybody but yourself. It feels like that sort of position reduces a whole human, with all her complexity and capacity, into a single way of being and that is both unnecessary and quite sad.

    • That last part I think is the thing to be careful of–reducing oneself to an archetype. Granted, in an environment like PAX, everyone is there for the exclusive purpose of indulging in that one side of themselves, so the effect it gives off is rather more pronounced than it would be should you meet all those other people in a different setting. Still, it has a weird vibe to it sometimes.

      • I might be a bit strange in that way but when I go to conventions of that sort I still expect people to follow normal social behaviour at the core, sure you are a bit more loose in the sense that you are more openly interact with strangers and you will of course find it easier to end up in situations where you get to talk to others about your favourite thing because it is also their favourite thing but that still doesn’t excuse you to be rude, annoying or any other type of childish behaviour one tends to encounter at such events. I might be very stuffy though…

      • To be fair to PAX specifically, very few of them are actually rude. Rudeness isn’t really my worry here. It’s a lack of self-awareness/self-confidence that contributes to groupthink.

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