Nerd Culture – Supporting Inappropriate Behavior?

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Before I start this, let me emphasize the difference between “Geeks” and “Nerds”. Geeks are hobbyists, often obsessed with some popular entertainment or fiction. Geek culture is at a high point right now, with comics, fantasy, and science-fiction all acceptable (and profitable) parts of modern society. Even normally marginalized practices, like gaming and cosplay, are not nearly as ostracized as they once were. This discussion is not about geeks or “geek culture”… it’s about nerds.

“Nerd” has many different definitions, but in most of them it’s recognized as someone who is socially awkward. Psychologically, this could be understood as a lack of social intelligence and/or emotional maturity. This means many nerds often suffer from a lack of self-awareness, awareness (or acceptance) of social norms, lack of adaptation to social change, maladaptive emotional development, poor emotional control, or any combination of these psychological issues. Many nerds pursue geek hobbies… but not all geeks are socially-inept like nerds. Thus my distinction between the larger “geek culture” and the more defined “nerd culture”, even if the two are often intertwined (or stereotyped onto each other).

Prior to the advent of the Internet, nerds most likely were limited by their geographical area. Certainly there have been conventions, magazines, etc. for decades that allowed like-minded individuals to gather, but most “nerd cultures” would likely have developed among local social groups. If someone practiced negative social or emotional behaviors, they more easily faced negative consequences that would punish the inappropriate behavior. This might have led to changes in behavior or simple exclusion of the individual, but there was minimal reinforcement for the behavior in question.

The Internet, especially into the 21st century, changed all that. Suddenly like-minded groups could discuss similar perspectives over great distances. Social media allowed real-time sharing, and support, of each other’s perceptions, cognition, and behaviors. Socially-inept groups that might have been limited to a half-dozen friends in a county suddenly exploded into hundreds or thousands. These negative social and emotional perspectives were socially reinforced by similar individuals. Worse, with the acceptance of many geek hobbies as mainstream pursuits, suddenly these groups felt their perceptions and opinions were valid in mainstream society.

So, today “nerd culture” is the source for such indefensible movements as GamerGate, Sad Puppies, and other groups that tout themselves as promoting ethics when they are doing anything but that. Decades ago if someone had spouted something misogynistic, racist, or similarly inappropriate in a geek group, most often they would have been ostracized. Now, though, they have the sounding board of forums and blogs that only reinforce these maladaptive cognitions. It’s like giving a child with a violent, destructive temperament a lighter and letting them loose with other psychopathic children.

It’s a sad case when things so positive, including the creativity of geek pursuits and the Internet itself, can be turned into something so socially and psychologically destructive. Sadly, these individuals not only ruin the quality of life for the majority but also will never receive the mental help they so desperately need. We simply need to strive to create a new balance among nerd and geek cultures, to once more teach the socially inept and emotionally immature proper behavior.

Gaming: Fun, Social Commentary, or Both?

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All too often I hear a rather questionable remark regarding gaming and social issues: “It’s supposed to be fun, so stop bringing real-world stuff into it.” Something has never sat right with that comment, and only recently have I realized what the problem is. It’s presumption and fallacy in two parts: 1) everyone has the same idea of “fun” and 2) gaming is solely about “fun”.

Having read Designers & Dragons, a great history of the role-playing industry that I reviewed earlier, I realize both of these concepts are erroneous. The industry has changed so much over the decades, that there is no specific goal or approach to table-top RPGs. The 1970’s was all about expansions on wargames and competitive play and overly realistic simulations. In the 1980’s, cinematic simulations and cooperative play stood alongside pop culture licenses to usher in the feel of comics and Hollywood. By the 1990’s, introspective storytelling was king as the other genres adapted and evolved to compete in a growing market. In the 21st century, we’ve had not only a return to earlier styles but also expansion into independent, story-driven systems.

There has never been any single approach to gaming nor has there been any single concept of “fun”, even if there have been zeitgeists. The Fantasy dungeon-delver may not like Gothic-Punk political games, and both may be anathema to the humorous Parody player or the Space Opera lover. If there is no single idea of “fun”, then how can there be a singular criteria by which games are judged as such? If someone enjoys games where social issues take the forefront, they are therefore having “fun” and thus the argument is invalid.

This also assumes that gaming is solely about enjoyment, when role-playing has so many further uses. Role-playing has been used in many scenarios, psychological and educational. You can find examples of role-playing games in therapy, from group sessions to virtual scenarios. Children playing games can learn important social and mental skills and adults use the process as a training technique. Although not all of these are “games” per se, they still represent that putting on another mask and playing pretend can have many uses other than “fun”.

Role-playing of any kind, including at a tabletop with friends, can have uses other than the typical escapism or moment of levity. Some people use it to confront their own psychodynamic turmoil whereas others wish to see life through another perspective. Although many circles of friends just want to slay dragons or plot Machiavellian machinations, others might use this medium to answer questions about themselves, society, or life in general. And who’s to say they’re wrong for doing so? Is not the catharsis from solving a psychosocial mystery possibly as enjoyable as blowing up a space station?

Everyone comes to the table for their own reasons. Certainly it’s common to do so for the same (or similar) concept, but that’s not a requirement. Some players may not want those pesky “real world issues” coming into their games, which is perfectly fine… they can always choose to go to another table with a different game or group. To deny the presence of those who want to confront social and psychological topics, however, under the guise that gaming is solely “fun”? That’s fallacy and rather presumptuous, especially of a hobby that is so varied in its styles, genres, and approaches.

Gaming can be whatever you want, or need, it to be. As long as everyone agrees to the rules of the game and table, then enjoy it however you see fit.

A Gamer, but not a ~Gamer~ Gamer

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What does it mean to be a gamer in the 21st century? I’m not talking about what type of games you prefer, like divisions between video, computer, tabletop, war, etc. I’m talking about what it means to be a gamer in the modern environment and culture. Popular culture, Hollywood, the Internet, etc. have created a brand new environment with new norms, manners of communication, and paths toward interaction. The new gaming culture seems to be focused on a lot more than just gaming… for good or ill.

I always thought of myself as a gamer. I started playing RPGs in elementary school, even with the social and religious stigma associated with them. Computer games filled my first PCs and my friends had Nintendos that I happily joined them on. High School saw the start of the CCG craze and complex tabletop board games (like Talisman). All through college and well past, gaming was my hobby; I owned entire libraries of RPG books, entire collections of CCGs, at least a few playable war-game armies, a couple of video game systems, and spent way too much time gaming online. Even today I divide my free time between an MMO, offline computer or video games, a D&D session or two, and the occasional war-game battle.

You would think I’m a big geek, nerd, etc. with the amount of time I dedicate to gaming. I’m as knowledgeable on the differences in World of Darkness lines and editions (up until I stopped playing/buying) as I am on the latest X-Wing Miniatures FAQ. Yet somehow, I find myself lost and confused when I converse with others that I thought were on the same level as me. There seems to be a line I haven’t crossed, where just owning and playing games (even for almost 30 years) are apparently the signs of a novice or dabbler.

I know little about the history of gaming. I recognize major names (Gary Gygax, Sid Meier, Richard Garfield, etc.) and their general contribution, but I couldn’t tell you anything about their work or personal history… let alone their interpersonal relationships and drama. I know many of the big company names (Wizards of the Coast, BioWare, Games Workshop, etc.) including their main products, a little bit of background, and the biggest complaints about them… yet I couldn’t tell you their history or any insider gossip. I become so confused when I see people arguing over edition wars, original author intent, intra-company drama, inter-company politics, etc… particularly when many of those arguing weren’t even in grade schoolat the time of these events, let alone participating in them. To me, they look like people who argue over the best translation of the Bible or what the “true meaning” of a passage is, as if they can somehow glean a universal truth from words written in an era long ago to support their own specific interpretations… missing the whole theme of “be excellent to each other and party on”.

Controversies? What controversies? It’s a game, not a social or political issue. I’m not saying games can’t have an influence (and be influenced) by cultural concerns. Misogyny, racism, etc. are major problems in society and they can certainly be perpetuated by media, including games. These are all important issues that are not solely limited to gaming but pervade many aspects of society. Yet to argue over who wrote a game, who helped design it, whether someone involved was unethical, etc.? It’s a friggin’ game! Short of the money exchanged ending up in the hands of hate groups, child molesters, or terrorists, who cares? You could tell me that Mel Gibson contributed to a revised edition of White Wolf’s “Charnal Houses of Europe: The Shoah“, and if I was interested in running a dark game involving ghosts of the Holocaust, I would still buy it. Why does it matter if someone used relationships or politics to push their agenda and/or game? If Barack Obama used his position to create an economic game that wasn’t boring and required alcohol, then it might be worth it for those who like that sort of thing regardless of political stance.

At what point did being a “gamer” cross a line from simply sitting around and playing games to regular debates on the history, politics, and drama of the gaming industry? When I was younger we went to the store, bought what sounded cool, and came back and tried it out. The worst debates were over rules-lawyering, computer game bugs, or who ate all the Doritos… not whether a company was out to make a quick buck or an author was pushing their social agenda. If we didn’t like a game’s theme or play style we just stopped playing it; we didn’t go on endless rants and social campaigns to destroy the “offending” product. Who cares if Jess Heinig sucked Mark Rein•Hagen‘s dick, all for the developer position with Mage: the Ascension? If you liked his changes to the game then play it… if you didn’t, then don’t and/or play the original; you don’t go around being loud about it and trying to ruin either’s career or life. (Warning: All blow jobs mentioned in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual fellatio at White Wolf Publishing is purely coincidental.)

I blame a lot of this on the Internet, that amazing tool that has brought the world to our fingertips. In the earlier days the primary way to communicate was through personal interaction or the occasional message board or BBS. Conventions were the biggest chance for gamers to exchange ideas, no matter how critical, but the ideas were still limited. If someone wrote something controversial or inflammatory, it only went so far… and would rarely hold much water in these face-to-face interactions. Now, however, millions of people can remain anonymous (or at least distant), spouting opinions they’d never be brave enough to say otherwise. It’s not enough to just think something is bad, you have to explain through hyperbole and with venom to try and sway others to your subjective perception of what’s “good”.

Worse, these ideas remain on the Internet, collecting followers that used to be separated by great distances, until they become almost political or religious movements united by their chosen beliefs regarding games and gaming. In the past, if you had that one socially inept guy that had been ostracized from most of the D&D games in town because of his poor behavior, he remained ostracized. Maybe he’d be invited to the occasional gathering or he’d find a game in a nearby town, but he always remained “one of those gamers”. Now, however, that same guy has found hundreds or thousands like him across the country, writing blogs where they espouse their gaming ideology. Suddenly you have an entire organization (informal or not) that encourages and reinforces the same poor behavior of “those gamers”, affecting others enjoyment in the name of their gaming jihad.

These days I’m not even sure if I want the gamer tag, let alone whether I’m worthy of it. Too many times it seems to be a gamer you have to make it a lifestyle, not a hobby. If you don’t go full bore, studying as if you were earning a graduate degree in these pursuits, you’re somehow left behind or looked down upon. Like my enjoyment of science-fiction, the occasional comics series I collect, or even watching a favorite TV show… these are supposed to be escapes. If I wanted useless (and oft-distorted) history, gossip, controversy, and debate, I’d turn on FoxNews.

All I really want to do is play or talk about a game without it devolving into edition wars or social arguments. If that makes me not a gamer, then I suppose it’s better than being associated with the behavior mentioned above.

The Arrogance of the Rennie

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I am getting really sick of the complaints by Rennies* when policies or events don’t go the way they want them to be. They throw fits like spoiled children, spread gossip based on misunderstanding or fallacy, and eventually make the same claim: “You’ll miss all the money I bring.” This threat of taking their ball elsewhere is the perfect example of the arrogance, ignorance, and lack of reality that besieges many Rennies. Their egocentrism and delusion has reached such a level that they can’t comprehend one thing: the loss of a single Rennie is negligible to the prospective gain (or loss) of regular visitors.

At the greatest, I’d expect maybe $3000 per season from an individual Rennie, which includes 19 days worth of food & drink, up to half an outfits worth of new garb or accessories, something from the craft vendors, and the pass itself. Most Rennies spend less… they bring/sneak their own food and drink, they already have full outfits and may only update a single garment or accessory a season, and most only buy minor crafts or a single larger purchase per year. Our entire family of four, at our greatest attendance rate, cost us about $3600 total ($100/day, $1300 in seasonal purchases, and the passes); excluding the toddler, that’s $1200/season per person.

A daily visitor, who only comes in once per season, not only purchases a full day’s worth of food and drink but also numerous crafts or souvenirs (as they won’t be back), expenditures on games, and often a piece or two of garb (hat, kilt, etc.). You could probably expect them to spend between $100-$500/visit. To understand this, the Maryland Renaissance Festival receives 15,000 visitors each day; even if these attendants were all tightwads that amounts to $1.5 million daily… or the equivalent of 500 Rennies at the greatest estimated expenditure per season.

In reality, I’d say that each Rennie’s seasonal expenditure is the equivalent of 10 daily visitors, so a loss of a single pass holder could easily be replaced by a dozen new visitors. Even then, that particular amount would account for a spec of dust in a drop of water in the ocean that is the MDRF income. Given that you’re lucky if you have a couple hundred Rennies at a large festival, if all of them up and quit that would be like losing 2000 visitors… which hurts but amounts to less than 1% of annual attendance for faires like Maryland.

In conclusion, I’m pretty sure any threats of “losing me as a customer!” are meaningless. If you hear a Rennie say something like that, tell them, “See ya!” and hopefully douse their ego and let them know their real place. They are just another patron, no matter how much they think they’re the center of their fantasy world.

*(For those that don’t know, a “Rennie” is a regular patron of a Renaissance Festival who often attends most of the season in costume or “garb”. Like many fandoms, they throw themselves whole-heartedly into their pursuit. Most have multiple outfits, know performers by their real names, know every song or act, and are as familiar with the festival and its inner-workings as any staff member. Sadly, many become full of themselves, considering them just as important and authoritative as paid employees, despite having neither importance nor authority.)

Nerd vs. Geek vs. Dork

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The following arises from my concept of “Dork Psychology”. This is a theory I hold that attempts to define psychological and behavioral similarities between individuals of specific hobbies, pursuits, and groupings. Certainly, as with all generalizations, we cannot broadly apply these concepts to every individual; there are many variations and not everyone given a subjective label may fit. After all, one person’s “dork” is another person’s “genius”. However, as with other personality theories (Type A/B theory, Myers-Briggs theory, etc.) there are certain similarities between groups that cannot be denied. Just take a look at your local convention, Renaissance Festival, or comic store some time and say you don’t get a certain vibe. That being said, I think it’s important to understand my perception of the words Nerd, Geek, and Dork.

Webster defines “Dork” as synonymous with “Nerd”; both terms are defined as “an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits”. Further investigation of other definitions revealed a common trait in a lack of social skills, which can include behavior as well as appearance. In psychological terms, this social ineptitude would be understand as a lack in social intelligence. Thus, as defined by the theory of Dork Psychology, the personality type we are looking for is an individual who lacks social intelligence and follows intellectual or academic pursuits. Even simpler? People who are way too much into some sort of fantasy or technology and annoy the hell out of the rest of us.

The term “Dork” was used primarily because the connotations seemed stronger than “Nerd”, particularly to this author. Why do I not use the term “Geek” when it has been used interchangeably? Quite simply, “Geek” is defined differently and is not necessarily the same. Webster has three definitions for this term, but we will ignore two of them (circus performer and a tech enthusiast). The final definition is noted as “a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked”, which is not quite the same as the definitions for Dork or Nerd. There is no mention of being obsessed with certain pursuits nor talk of social ineptitude; the reasons for being disliked seem to be purely because the individual is intellectual. Thus, in this author’s terms, a “Geek” is just a smart person who’s into smart things and faces opposition or labeling because of it.

Understand that the pursuits may be similar between Dorks and Geeks. The difference is that you can be a Geek into many things and still be socially capable, as you will only face opposition when your intellectual nature or pursuits are brought up. Dorks face opposition because they lack social intelligence and are completely devoted to their pursuits (an aspect that contributes to social ineptitude). I.e., just because you know computers, play D&D, or dress up in medieval garb, does not mean you’re a Dork. It’s when your entire life revolves around computers, D&D, and medieval dress-up combined with a lack of social graces that you fit the definition for a Dork.