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Geek's Eye View


by Jukka Sarkijarvi
Aug 05,2004


Geek's Eye View


I suppose this is where I should tell who I am, before I start making broad generalisations and false assumptions about you -- or us, really. I am a geek, 19 years old, and live in Finland. I graduated from high school this spring, and will be studying history at the Helsinki University. Despite the content of this column, I am no behavioural psychologist.

I've been gaming for almost half my life, and have sizable collections of collectible trading cards, miniatures, roleplaying games and computer games. In titles, that'd be Dungeons & Dragons, Vampire: the Masquerade, BESM, Feng Shui, Warhammer, GURPS, Godlike, Magic: the Gathering, Call of Cthulhu, Ars Magica... Heck, I even played the Pokmon card game. I've never participated in a LARP, however.

This column will be discussing the geek and gamer culture and community, and their interaction with the mainstream, and whatever various tangents that will lead me on. Anyone taking this column seriously, or thinking it authoritative or even informed, is probably misguided. Anyone offended by this column can mouth off in the forum below, if he doesn't mind exposing himself as a live target for a sarcastic geek. But enough preface.

I will begin ab ovo -- at the very beginning. Why is this column needed? No, that's wrong. Why can this column even exist? Why is there such a division between geeks and the mainstream? Why are our interests considered weird and childish? Why are we dismissed as 'mere nerds'?

Sure, part of it is the Comic Book Guy stereotype perpetuated by popular media. Geeks are portrayed as socially inept and "uncool" in television, and thus, in the eye of the masses, that's what we are. But even that had to get its origins somewhere. There are a few theories that I can make about this.

The first is the "Jewish theory", i.e. us geeks are ostracised much for the same reasons as Jews in the medieval times and Christians in ancient Rome. We have a strange hobby the outsiders don't understand, that includes elements of mysticism such as mythical creatures, spellcasting, even demons. Since roleplaying isn't really a spectator sport, it's a short leap of the imagination to make us into a bunch of loonies summoning fiends every Friday evening and performing unspeakable things upon stray cats. Then we get a Bible-thumper like Jack Chick and the Pulling and Egbert cases to make us seem even more suspicious, maybe even evil.

It does all sound so very dramatic, but it's the same mechanic at work. We are, however, living in moderately more enlightened times than the Jews and Christians of old, and weren't burnt at the stake, just stuffed into lockers at school.

Of course, those who got fed to the lions didn't have to live with the humiliation and at least got to go with style.

The second theory is that RPGs are perceived as childish and 'uncool'. Okay, so that goes without saying, but... why? I mean, if we look a couple of hundred years back, people knew that there were witches and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Now, with modern science and so forth, people no longer need to explain thunder with gods throwing a hissy fit, or kangaroos and giraffes with the same gods having been really bored one day. They've become redundant... and I suddenly realize this is starting to sound lot like a preface to Neil Gaiman's American Gods. Well, it's a good book. I could go on about this for quite a while and philosophise about how modern science and our current times are slowly killing off imagination, but that'd be either too deep or too pretentious.

According to one of my sources, the "in-crowd" at my school perceived us geeks as "weird people who don't know how to relax". Make of that what you will. Of course, it refers to a very small and specific group of people, and is hardly applicable to the gaming community as a whole. But still...

Then there's the possibility that we really are weird, and not just perceived as such. It does assume there to be an objective value of 'weird', which is a nebulous concept, but the idea itself isn't too much of a stretch. I mean, the Comic Book Guy stereotype is based on real people. We've all seen them, the Cat Piss Men in conventions. I've had a guy in my gaming group who had a really strange habit of assuming that he and whoever he is talking with were in some sort of sound bubble, and that nobody outside of it would hear were he to talk in loud voice about how he hates women, or his wanking habits, or something equally strange, gross, or socially unacceptable. The tragedy of it all was that he was a smart guy, just very, very weird. I had more normal people in my group back when I ran a game in a mental ward. Well, at least they felt more normal. Didn't try to argue that torturing thieves to death is a good deed under D&D's objective alignment system.

Some gamers certainly would be social misfits even if no geeky stuff existed for them to give a bad name to. But does gaming act as a catalyst for 'weirdness'? Or is it just that in a mass of geeks, the weirdness grows exponentially, or the peer pressure of the society at large is relieved and one stops trying to act normal? Do weirdoes gravitate naturally towards gaming?

Note that being 'weird' is not necessarily bad. It's just that the bad examples tend to float to the surface of one's consciousness more readily. There is no objective value for 'weirdness' and really no way of quantifying it but for people's perceptions. I'd say I am very weird. So is most of my gaming group. I've noticed that gamers with social lives tend to be weirder than the ones completely without. Maybe this is because they, and their weirdness, are more extroverted. Of course, some nolifers are nolifers because they are naturally reclusive or shy, and some others, like Mr. Wanking Habits, because nobody wants to have anything to do with them.

I've noticed misanthropy and a sense of intellectual superiority over other people to be prevalent traits in the gaming community. Of course, if you ask a hundred people whether they feel they are above or below average intelligence, you'll have 99 self-professed geniuses. Geeks do tend to bring this out more, though. I'd guess it is partially because of the common stereotype of the smart, socially inept nerd, and partially because no stereotype is completely baseless.

While the popularity of Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter have ensured that one will no longer be thought of as a complete weirdo for reading fantasy books, there is still a sizable rift between that mainstream and the gamer community, and the general public is still a bit hazy about the exact nature of roleplaying games, and miniatures players tend to be greeted with derision. I suspect in Finland and the Nordic countries, they're a tad more enlightened than beyond the Atlantic, partly thanks to our lively LARP community that by its very nature has a higher profile than tabletop gamers. Might also be that their perceptions are utterly and irrevocably skewed by the same. We've also largely been spared from the likes of Jack Chick and Pat Pulling, with the notable exception of a certain letter written by a social worker that's become our very own Dark Dungeons joke.

The current development of the gaming community seems to be travelling towards wider mainstream acceptance, with the recent popularity of the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and other recent developments in that sector, but we've still got some way to go. Whether it is a good or bad thing is a topic for another column, and if it is even possible is for yet another. For now, though, I'll leave you with a definition:

Geek, n, archaic: A carnival performer who, among other things, bites the heads off live chickens.

- Jukka Sarkijarvi

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What do you think?

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