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.

Designers & Dragons – A Look Back into Gaming History

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Designers & Dragons: A History of the Roleplaying Industry” sounds like a boring concept. A history of table-top RPGs? Even to a long-time gamer like me it sounded more like a tedious textbook than something fascinating to read. Yet, during conversations on the history of D&D and its original designers, the book kept coming up. After several people recommended I read it, I decided to pick up the first volume (which covers the 70’s).

Although not something I couldn’t put down at times, I have to say this historian’s perspective on RPGs was a lot more fascinating than I’d thought. The first thing I noticed was this didn’t just discuss the gaming industry in the 70’s; instead, it discussed the histories of a dozen-plus important game companies and their influences on the industry. These histories often span decades, from the origins of the companies (or their founders) through their endings or current whereabouts. This provides a far more interesting look at how RPGs have progressed and influenced each other.

Probably the most interesting aspect of this history was the stories of the main figures in gaming. Although wargames (the predecessors to RPGs) had been around for decades, the current industry and hobby was populated by a limited number of key enthusiasts. These individuals helped design and drive a scattered industry into a nationwide (and worldwide) phenomenon. Friends, opponents, mentors, students, etc., “Designers & Dragons” was almost like being in the midst of that sort of drama. You saw people work together, split apart on ideological lines, and then fight with each other over rights and copyright issues. Newer designers would arrive on the scene, mentored by the experienced or simply trying to outdo them and “fix” what they felt was wrong with the current trends. There was probably as much drama and politics in the gaming industry as the fantasy worlds they wrote about.

Another fun part of the book is watching table-top roleplaying games change in style and theme. Starting with the origins of D&D and other 70’s RPGs as antagonistic wargames, where a single referee purposefully pit his players against challenges in a restricted area; characters were stats on a sheet, death was common (and expected), and any story was secondary. Then the 80’s brought about open worlds and story-centered games, where gamemasters acted as both antagonist and support in the hopes of creating “fun”; characters become more in-depth, story became more important than “winning”, and death was a far bigger event. Sadly, as this book focused primarily on companies that arose in the 70’s (few of which made it to the 90’s and beyond), the progression ends there until the next volume. I cannot wait to see as RPGs become more focused on drama and complex moral themes.

This book also helped fill in several gaps for me, as I didn’t start gaming until a decade after the industry took off. Many of the used games I saw were from the 70’s; like syndicated television, I would pick them up without realizing their importance or influence. “Designers & Dragons” allowed me to watch the industry and games move into the era I was familiar with, and to better understand where my hobbies came from and how they would move on.

For my fellow gamers out there, I have to recommend picking up these books. Admittedly, I’m only finished with the first volume, but I can’t wait to watch as more familiar designers appear in the 80’s and how they interacted and changed tabletop-gaming. This is no boring textbook, but a fascinating look into the past (and future) of a favorite pastime.

Denial of Sexual Harassment in Gaming

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I usually tend to avoid the whole debate over sexual harassment, sexism, etc. when it comes to gaming. It’s not that it’s an unimportant (or false) issue; it’s a very real problem. It’s the fact that I’ve yet to meet a person on the other side of the fence in real life. Not a single person, out of the plethora of gamers I interact with on a friendly or acquaintance basis has been willing to spout the counter-arguments against this issue IRL.

That means my sole interaction with the debate is online, and we know how that goes. Most of the people I’ve seen providing counter-arguments are ignorant at best… with the worst being socially-inept, emotionally-immature, hateful individuals few associate with in the real world. That being said, I’ll focus on those “best” individuals and their common arguments about why sexism and harassment are non-existent. These are some basic fallacies in thinking that anyone should avoid.

1) “We don’t do that at our table

Although it is probable the majority commenting don’t practice overt sexism, it is also possible some (unknowingly) practice subtle racism. Sexual humor, rape humor, etc. doesn’t need to be directed at an individual to make them uncomfortable. Our society has become very comfortable with crass and foul language, to the point we don’t always think about others’ perspectives around us.

This is, of course, situational depending on the group dynamics. I use very racist and sexist humor with a friend of mine (who is a different race and gender) because we are comfortable. However, when I am out with other groups or in public I am much more aware of my behavior and others’ body language and limit my humor, language, etc. If you join a new gaming group (or are joined by a new player), maybe you should take a step back and think: is my humor or behavior appropriate for everyone present?

Sadly, I think this is one of the most common errors gamers (and similar ilk) make. As I mentioned, a significant portion of this hobby consists of individuals with low social intelligence and/or emotional maturity. They find it very hard to break egocentric schema or relate to others, thus their ability to recognize their own behavior and its consequences is stunted. Thus, they maintain crass or offensive behavior because they cannot conceive that others might be offended and that they (the offender) should change. Which leads us to…

2) “Why should we change our behavior? People shouldn’t be so sensitive

This plays off the first point about seeing through others eyes. Sadly, it is far easier to place the blame of conflict on the other person than on ourselves. We are, by nature, mentally conservative individuals who prefer to keep with familiar patterns rather than confront ourselves and adapt. A regular defense mechanism is to claim our behavior is perfect and all fault is with the observer/victim/insulted.

Critical thinking is an important aspect that is sadly rarely used. The ability to criticize oneself and look at all sides is not just part of academic or scientific study, it should be used daily. From minor irritants during traffic to political debates, we all need to be open to other perspectives. In gaming, we should use critical thinking to address a number of issues, from edition wars to genres. Sadly, too many give up all logical thought and introspection in the name of lazy, dichotomous thinking… including discussions on women or minorities.

Again, I theorize that limits in some individuals hinder this practice. If individuals are incapable of seeing through others eyes, especially those they have minimal experience with, the concept of empathy becomes difficult. Interestingly, it is this limit that seems so out-of-place in the gaming or “geekery” industries. These hobbies are often stigmatized as for the socially outcast, individuals who should understand the pitfalls of bigotry. Yet here we are with anecdotes of prejudice and harassing behavior. Thus the out-roar from those who are open-minded (or at least claim to be) against those who are more elitist or cliquish (whether subtly or overtly).

3) “We should treat everyone the same, regardless of gender

Although this sounds like a great idea, it falls victim to the same misperceptions as #1 and #2. We are not all the same and our life experiences are far different. Even moving beyond individual differences, certain demographics have faced negative practices on societal levels. We need to be sensitive to these differences and adapt accordingly.

Treating everyone with the same approach is no better than using the same medicine or therapy for a variety of clients. Although it sounds good on paper it’s never that easy and can actually make things worse. Imagine a person of opposite gender joins your group and syncs with their humor and personality well. Unfortunately, one particular subject or use of words upsets them, possibly due to past experiences. Should the group ignore the individual’s apparent discomfort (whether blatant or not)? Should they claim no change is necessary, that the upset individual should adapt or leave? Or perhaps they can look at their own behavior and, for the greater good, accommodate new perspectives and adapt?

Like above, it’s this ability to see through other perspectives that is necessary and hinders some groups. Although individuals claim they support equality, the use of a singular approach to the concept for all is just as guilty as discriminatory practices themselves. In fact, it is this underlying unidimensional approach to others that creates concepts like “men experience sexism too” or “I’ve experienced racism”. Moving into the realm of the philosophical, this “sympathetic” fallacy allows an individual to ignore discriminatory systems in society so they can focus on their individual anecdotes and claim “sympathy” with someone’s plight. It takes critical thinking to break this perspective and recognize individual privilege (whether gender, race, economic status, etc.). By understanding the societal systems in place that hinder or oppress, we can better recognize that promoting equality requires a multidimensional schema that allows us to adapt to individual and demographic needs.

4) “If you don’t like a game or genre, don’t support it and find/make your own

The problem with this perspective is that it reinforces a divisive mindset that suggests others who aren’t like you should “go elsewhere”. That approach underpins everything from segregation (everyone gets their own equal, but separate, things) to multiculturalism (everyone should practice their own culture among themselves with no intermingling) and does nothing toward creating a unified, intercultural, evolving society. By this concept, if I want to spout foul, suggestive, insulting language on a public street corner, your right to prevent your childrens’ ears from that display does not trump my right to “do my thing”. Contrary to what some may believe, being offended can (and does) cause damage on a psychological, social, and cultural level.

Please note I’m not defending every person who takes minor offense to something seemingly innocuous. I’m saying we should take a step back, look at our own behavior or perceptions, and think… “Hmmm, is that really discriminatory?” People may find there are many practices that we accept today that actually are, and we had no clue. This is what empathy, conscientiousness, and open-mindedness is all about; the ability to recognize whether something is truly offensive (from others’ perspectives) and adapt (if necessary).

As for the onus being on the offended, many times they do speak out… and they’re subsequently bombarded by negative labels and attacks. Or perhaps they’ve learned that submission is the cultural norm and to not let on, burying their offense while suffering the psychosocial consequences of their silence. Regardless, it shouldn’t be that hard to take others into consideration and look at our own perspectives and actions.

Critical Thinking

Arguing online is stupid, because most of the time you’re dealing with armchair experts who’ve never been beyond the confines of their limited worlds. Yet they are also necessary to bring into light to these issues and hopefully teach some of these mouthpieces. Just be wary of the fallacious reasoning I’ve posted above and maybe people will begin to look at themselves and say, “Does this fit me? If so, how can I change?”

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.