If you’re familiar with this blog, you’ll no doubt have come across my boilerplate disclaimer that although I love psychology, I am not certified as “an expert” in it’s study. But this is the Internet, so I don’t let a small matter like “credentials” or “legal ramifications” stop me*!
So Dusty Monk posted an article on G+ this afternoon which concerned the curious case of a gamer who had the gall — THE GALL! — to admit, in public, in full view of the world, that there were certain games that she had either never played, or never liked. OK, I can get behind that. I mean, everyone has a list like that…
…that they wouldn’t admit to, which is agreed to in the opening paragraph of the original article, even. I didn’t want to cram my screed into Dusty’s post, so I decided to kill two birds with one stone and dust off the blog to write it here.
Accepting The Socially Unacceptable
Poor geeks. We had a rough time…back about 30 years ago, when it wasn’t cool to be a geek. Talking about video games in public might as well have been admitting to having a crush on Hitler for all the good it did for one’s social standing in the mainstream. Nowadays, it’s better, but I’m sure not perfect. It’s apparently good enough for a female gamer to dash scared cows of gaming against the side of house without fear of repercussions, and I consider that sentence to indicate progress!
Humans find it hard to go against the grain, which is basically what the Tattoo Fairy etches inside the eyelids of teenagers the world over. We like to think that as adults, we’re smarter than that; we’re old enough to make our own decisions.
No one likes to stick out from the crowd if it means that the crowd will turn on them, either with ostracism, or with the painful yet quaintly archaic ostracism of sticks, stones, or flaming pitchforks (patent pending). Because of this, of course a shitload of gamers will cop to loving games they hate, or just kind of like, or haven’t even played.
Gamers, for all of their swagger and bluster, are no different from anyone else. And gamers, despite the stereotype of being loners and being socially awkward, really want to be liked and respected by their peers. If you walk into a Legend of Zelda convention and loudly proclaim that the series is “merely ok”, you’ll be leaving with a triforce wedged somewhere where Zelda will never find it (see what I did there?).
Out Hipping The Hipsters
Most rational people will say that “respect is earned” by doing the right thing in difficult circumstances.
Other people believe that you can put people in a situation where respect is given because the recipient believes that it’s due. You see this a lot in crime dramas where the thug demands respect because he has a gun.
In some cases, geeks like to lay claim to counter-culture beliefs as a way to make themselves more attractive to the culture. It’s like a mobius strip made of stupidity, I know, but it’s not limited to geeks, or even the 21st century. It’s the same “I couldn’t care less” attitude that we’ve seen from rebels and outcasts for years, since Caesar was all like “Psssh. Whatever!” when people told him to beware the Ides of March.
Take heed, gamers: Romans in togas will totally call you on it.
Don’t Be That (Last) Guy
I don’t think Amy (the author of the post) belongs to the bragging group, not because she’s an eloquent writer (who correctly believed she could buy our allegiance with an animated GIF of Jennifer Lawrence and a meme based on Downton Abby), but because every gamer has a fucking list like this. Amy writes truth, so I consider her to say what we’re all thinking. Maybe not right now, or in the past week, month, year, or decade, but she’s totally in the right.
* Actually, I do, so I am stating once more that I am not a psychologist and don’t claim to be. I just like talking about my own theories on how and why people think and act. I mean, there was a time when even “psychology” wasn’t a thing, right? Those degrees didn’t just spring out of nowhere, you know!
- * Geeks are superior to non-geeks
- * Knowledge is one of the ultimate prizes
- * One-upmanship is the only battle worth fighting
The shorthand for the above list is “ego”, which is seemingly at odds considering that earlier treatment of geeks by non-geeks should have lead to a total teardown of ego. But thanks to the Internet Age, geeks have come to view themselves as indispensible and desirable for the one thing that they hold in the highest regard: their knowledge.
Geeks don’t care for the mainstream at all. It’s understandable, since the mainstream is filled with images of mainstream ideals, and the lionization of sports and athletes and gorgeous movie stars, and like with most cultural depictions in entertainment, hasn’t been kind to geeks. Popular culture is antithetical to geek culture, which has never been popular. Until recently.
The mainstream is coming around to not only like but truly value geek culture. Everyone (it seems) has an iPhone or iPad. Movie studios consider the San Diego Comic-Con to be a major PR event. All kinds of people are putting geeky tattoos on themselves, or are watching The Big Bang Theory, or are playing the latest version of Madden on their Xbox, or…
Basically, the mainstream is forcing itself into geek territory, rolling over the barricades that geek culture has erected to protect itself, and inside which it has developed it’s own culture – and formed it’s identity. Geeks aren’t sitting idly by while this happens, but they’re not exactly tackling the problem with aplomb.
Some of the weapons in a geek’s arsenal are:
Which is ironic, of course, since these were the tactics used against geeks in the early days of the culture.
So geeks have learned to give as good as they got, but why? Shouldn’t it be good for the culture to gain new blood, and to be welcomed into the fold with open arms? The problem is that history is on the side of those who experienced it. Geekdom isn’t just something that people do, it’s something that people live, and when a culture lives it’s creed, that creed becomes the culture’s identity. This identity is very important to the geek culture as the punk identity is important to punks, and the goth culture is important to goths. It’s not just a way to dress, or even an attitude: it’s a person’s life, and lifestyle.
Like other cultural identities, then, outsiders who attempt to co-op the identity for themselves are met with a range of obstacles from the community, whether it’s a sidelong glance or outright hostility. To someone within the culture, anyone wanting to get “in” needs to prove him or herself to the satisfaction of whomever they’re dealing with – which means that the outsider may have to prove him or herself over and over again every time they meet another person from within the culture. You’ll often see non-geeks getting excited about “geeky” things like the Lord of the Rings movies, or that they’re a “gamer” because they play Facebook games. Of course, geeks will deny them a pass because they watched the movies and didn’t read the books, or because Farmville isn’t Call of Duty. Poseurs are deserving of nothing less than full-on scorn, which many geeks are more than willing to provide because it helps identify those with legitimate claims on the identity, and those without legitimate claims on the identity. It also helps to shame the poseurs in to not even bothering to keep trying to find common ground in the hopes that they’ll just go away.
How can we explain, then, the wild success of the Lord of the Rings movies if hardcore geekdom considers them to be a shadow of the original tomes? Geeks, as we have said, aren’t stupid. They also like money, and because of their generally insular nature, they’re an untapped market compared to sports fans or car aficionados. Geekdom has been verboten for decades, but now marketers want in – and enterprising geeks are more than willing to create conduits through the otherwise dense morass of self-styled “keepers of the culture” who would prefer that the mainstream stay far outside the walls.
At this point, it seems that the mainstream is winning, which is making the hardcore geekdom more and more agitated, more and more vocal, and sometimes violently so. Like any explosion, though, the pressure always starts building on the inside before it explodes outward, and geekdom is no different.
Sometimes, the community is it’s own worst enemy.
Geeks are inseparable from the day-to-day operation of modern life. Everything runs on something electronic, made by geeks, and supported by geeks. It used to be cool to admit that you didn’t “get those computer things”, but now anyone who’d admit that would just look stupid. Adapt or die: mainstream has adapted to geek culture, but how has geek culture adapted to being rammed into the mainstream at such a high velocity?
Turns out, not very well. This is where I reiterate that I’m not a psychologist; I don’t have any studies to refer to, or anything more than weak patterns culled from years of observation of geeks and non-geeks on the Internet, in books, movies, and on TV, and even in person. The current result, then, is that the geek culture is filled with emotionally stunted, immature, selfish, ego-driven personalities. Considering that the “pop culture” view of a geek is that of a meek, poorly dressed outsider, it’s another indication that geek culture isn’t as meshed with the mainstream as tightly as it may seem.
Now, not all geeks are like this. Not by a long shot. Some of us have grown up and moved on. We’ve gotten married, had sex (*gasp!*), hold down a job, play sports, and socialize a hell of a lot with people who like us for who we are. That’s not to say that everything is hunky-dory, though. It means that people can and do have a very good ability to suppress, put aside, or hide their “nurture” side in favor of more socially acceptable presentation.
Enter the Internet. One of the “weird” things about the Internet is that it’s become expected that what you see is not what you get. Anonymity works well for spies and ninjas, but it can do horrible things to the rest of humanity. When there’s a lack of accountability, through aliases, through the sheer size of the crowd, then one’s behavior is dictated as merely a matter of how far one feels like pushing the envelope at any given moment. When safely ensconced in an alias and moving with the herd, all manner of people feel that it’s OK to put aside their socially responsible persona, and unleash their more reprehensible side.
With a culture made up of so many people who spent a good chunk of their lives being ostracized in violent ways, and which suddenly finds itself the prima donna of the new global economy, many geeks put on a tie for work, but take out the baseball bat on the Internet. This dual life would be unrecognizable to anyone who knows the geek personally. They probably know them as a nice person, or at least someone who hasn’t yet landed in jail. For those of us who only know these people through reading what they write on the Internet, we’re often surprised that they haven’t been on the business end of a lethal injection yet.
There are generally two targets of a geek’s ire. The first is the non-geek world. The second is the geek world itself. Both are the unlucky beneficiaries of a geek’s rather unusual bag of tricks, but there’s a different reasoning behind each.
The 90s were a kind of “coming of age” decade for the geek culture. Home computers were becoming more and more ubiquitous, and were filling more roles than just that of a massive calculator. Video game consoles were finding their way into people’s hands on a regular basis. We even saw the segue in pop culture from electronic synthesizers in music (almost everything from the 80s) to full-on electronic music (like industrial rock) who’s creators could easily be considered geeks.
But nothing could hold a candle to the Granddaddy of Geek Achievements: The Internet.
I was a biology student in college in the early 90’s, and I remember standing in my dorm room reading an article about the “World Wide Web”, which wasn’t even a thing at the time. The article explained Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of what the Web would be, using the example of a research paper which would “hyperlink” citations to other articles on the Web instead of footnotes. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up, because as someone who had to write lengthy and well documented research papers, I understood all too well how this kind of technology could benefit. I had no idea how quickly the Internet could and would explode, making billionaires out of the same people who had grown up in the geek cadre and pushing technology further into the lives of people around the globe.
Companies rushed to monetize the Web, which meant that every company needed a web presence, which in turn meant that IT departments rapidly expanded. Businesses fell over themselves to hire geeks and nerds to set up their networks and connect them to the Internet and to design and build their websites, manage their email, and to explain – in layman’s terms, if possible – how it all worked, and why the company was laying out huge amounts of money for all this new technology in one fell swoop.
Keep in mind, however, that many of these new “IT geeks” were the same bullied geeks who had simmered in anger over their treatment earlier in their lives. Now the world needed them. Now the corporations were engaging in bidding wars for their talents, offering massive salaries and insane perks for their knowledge. In a perverse way, geeks were being elected the “homecoming queens” almost overnight.
The problem was that the turnover from being an ostracized class to a much needed and increasingly acceptable class was too short for the culture to redirect its energies. Just as the Internet sprang up almost overnight, the situation turned for the community, but the resentment and anger and sadness and depression didn’t simply vanish in a puff of new good will. Instead, all the baggage came along for the ride.
At this point in the timeline, we have the ejection of “geeks” from the mainstream into exile. Geeks never wanted to be excluded, and did want to be accepted by the mainstream, and may also be harboring negative feelings over being considered “second class citizens” while being forced to endure the antagonizing behavior of their peers.
Being a geek wasn’t always a trial by fire. If anything, geeks are resourceful. Over time, those who were pushed into the culture realized that short of a full-on makeover which would force them to abandon everything that made them who they were, they were stuck in their enclave for the foreseeable future. It was up to them to claim it for themselves and run with it.
First, there were the arcades. Geeks and video games went hand-in-hand because video games were all about computers, and computers were geeky. Geeks flocked to arcades also because, well, geeks were flocking to arcades. If they weren’t accepted by the mainstream, then they might as well gather together and embrace their culture.
Second, there was tabletop roleplaying. If geeks were lucky enough to befriend other geeks, then tabletop roleplaying was always an option. It was social, required imagination, adherence to detail, and empowered the players to take on roles that put the player in control of their own destiny – the opposite of what they were experiencing amongst their peers.
Third was the encroachment of home computers and video game consoles in the home. Scores of modern geek entrepreneurs can trace the origin of their success back to the family’s home computer, and modems allowed them to connect to likeminded individuals not just near them, but anywhere in the country or around the world.
All of these amounted to a kind of “end run” around the attempts of their peers to marginalize them and demoralize them by pushing them aside. Geeks now had a kind of “shadow community” that they formed by making the best of a bad situation, and they didn’t just sit around complaining about how bad they had it; they thrived in a community that was both of and not of their own design.
One side effect of forging this social structure while fending off attacks from the outside was that geeks became borderline paranoid of any attempts to penetrate their community. Geeks had been wary of “good intentions” of non-geeks for years, and any attempts by non-geeks to get to know a geek might have been met with indifference – or hostility. After all, this was a community made up of people who came together because other people were openly hostile towards them. Geeks had learned to “own” their community, and had embraced the mantle of “geekdom”, and felt that any intrusion from outside would only serve to dilute their identity.
I am the father of an 11 year old daughter. She’s a wonderful kid, and aside from having my temper, she seems to be growing up right. Her hobbies include Pokemon, Adventure Time and Regular Show, and Minecraft and Skylanders.
In short, she’s a geek, just like her father.
But unlike her father, she’s growing up in an environment where being geeky isn’t an instant social death-sentence like it was when I was growing up. I’m sure that it’s still not all wine and roses, and that geeky kids aren’t embraced by the boatloads in this “Enlightened Age”, but considering that my daughter is representing the culture in 2012 tells me that we’ve made significant progress.
I grew up in the 1980s, so all those obnoxious “are you a child of the 80’s?” quizzes you auto-delete from your inbox? I score 100%. 1980, I was 7, and when the decade closed, I was 18 (I was born in January, so close enough). That makes the 80’s my “formative years”, and it was, as far as I’m concerned, the “formative years” for the modern geek culture.
Geek culture is actually a sub-culture, like those old guys you see gathering at the 50s themed diner on a Sunday morning to look at each other’s vintage cars, Harley owners, or people who go to yard sales an hour early to get the best deals. These sub-cultures take shape around a common interest, and get together to discuss their hobbies and to share and compare notes and ideas.
The geek culture owes its existence to two factors. The first is a common interest in “geeky” things like tabletop roleplaying, computers, comic books, science fiction and fantasy, and video games. Before the modern era, connecting with people who shared your interests wasn’t easy. You had to know them through regular social interaction, or you had to go somewhere where like-minded people could be found. The second factor was the ostracism. Geeks – to this day – are often portrayed as socially inept, fashionably challenged, awkward, weak and/or sickly, and genetically lacking. We might get scientific and talk about “survival of the fittest” here, which would explain that animals like this tend to fall out of the gene pool, but humans have always bucked the trend. Instead, the more “fit” specimens resorted to behaviors which amounted to bullying in order to establish the pecking order. Again, as any 1980’s “coming of age teen comedy” will tell you, this was rarely benign indifference and although writ large for Hollywood effect, the truth was painfully close. I believe that this treatment had more of an impact on the development of the culture than any other factor.
The problem with being forced into this social situation is that there’s no time to prepare. Geeks either knew other geeks, or they didn’t. If they had solidarity with others, things weren’t so bad, because misery loves company, so they say. The problem was of its own doing, of course, because geeks weren’t as socially adept as their more socialite counterparts, nor were they as fortunate enough to do the things that defined social position in those days. Geeks didn’t usually play sports, or go to parties, or get on the cheerleading squad. They were in plays, or in the band, or…did nothing. It was easy to segregate them when they were more or less segregated under their own free well to start with.
Compounding this problem was the fact that the people pushed out of the mainstream really weren’t at all interested in being pushed out of the mainstream. They had nothing against the mainstream until the mainstream had something against them. True, geeks might have been socially awkward, or introverts, and might have kept to themselves as a result, but that didn’t mean they wanted to be excluded. They desired social interaction just like all kids who were learning how to interact socially. The only problem was that they didn’t know how to go about it, and were now being told they couldn’t socialize with the mainstream.
Even with whatever camaraderie geeks may have had in their community, there was undoubtedly feelings of anger, sadness, resentment, and depression over the treatment they were subjected to at the hands of their peers. This is one element that would prove to be an unfortunate foundation for the modern state of the geek culture, and one that’s almost impossible to reverse on a large scale.
Humanity loves putting things in boxes. There are entire stores dedicated to it, actually. People have been categorizing, classifying, and organizing the world around them for centuries, and probably even longer than that. Labeling a thing helps us relate to it: we say that fire is “hot” and ice is “cold”, and because those labels mean things to us, we know that boiling water can burn us, and that the freezing Arctic can kill us. Labels go beyond just letting us know that something is dangerous, though, because as humans, we’re very self-conscious about our place in The Universe. Organizing things into some kind of hierarchy gives us comfort that the “opposable thumbs” category is far superior to the “no opposable thumbs” category.
But labels themselves can also be damaging when applied to people who don’t care for the labels that others apply to them. Lumping a segment of the population together under an arbitrary umbrella of a word is rarely done for beneficial reasons. Historically, these labels have been used to denigrate, demean, demoralize, and disenfranchise those to whom the label is applied. The label can be used directly or indirectly against a person or group: directly, to shame the group it’s being applied to, or indirectly as a warped way to foster a “them versus us” attitude between like-minded individuals.
It should be obvious from the title that in this case, I’m talking about “geek” when thinking of labels. It’s hardly the worst of what has been used against a population or culture, but for the people that a label is used against, that is hardly a comfort: it’s still a term that has been used to segregate and demoralize.
The term “geek” once solely referred to a side-show performer who would bite the heads off of chickens and perform other morbid acts. Dictionary.com actually has two other – more relevant – definitions. The first is one that many geeks would probably prefer:
A computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
These days, this is generally the accepted and most widely used term, but if you grew up in the late 1970s and 1980s, then you’re probably more familiar with the other definition:
A peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
Ouch. That’s certainly unflattering, and not at all like the former definition has that actually included “a term of pride as a self-reference”, but it’s true. Things are looking up now, right? Geeks rule the world because the world runs on computers, tablet, the Internet, cell phones, and self-driving cars, and those things wouldn’t be possible without geeks. Yes and yes. Geeks are important. Honestly, geeks have always been important, but more importantly is how geeks got to be here, and what they’re doing now as a culture.
Making an attempt to “understand” geeks is important for other geeks navigating online games, forums, conventions, and blog post comments. It’s also important to understand the culture for those who are outside of it, and who only have 20 year old media stereotypes to base their understanding on. One half of geek culture’s ongoing conflict is with itself; the other half is with the world outside of itself.
Note: The views expressed in these posts are entirely my own. They are not endorsed by any official body or licensing agency as “real science”. The assertions made in these posts does not necessarily reflect every person to whom the situations imply. It is an editorial series based on my own experiences, observations, and conclusions. Your mileage may vary.
Modern day geek culture has it’s origins in the 1980s, when tabletop gaming, action figures, home computers, comic books (sorry…graphic novels), video game consoles, and sci fi/fantasy movies converged during the last decade of the Cold War. This new culture was a product of two factors: a common interest in any or all of the above hobbies, and a frighteningly intense pressure from a more socially adjusted mainstream that ostracized young geeks during their socially and emotionally formative years.
10-15 years after it inception, geek culture found itself no longer the bottom of the totem pole, but rather on top of the world. The invention of the Internet and the Dot Com craze made geeks the most sought after commodity on the planet as companies fell over themselves to offer insane compensation packages to the exact same people who had been bullied only a decade ago.
Like all “rags to riches” stories, this one comes with a painful caveat. Although the geek culture was finally and quickly vindicated, it’s victory came too quickly for the culture to adapt. It’s earlier ostracism ignited resentment, anger, sadness, and depression in many, and those feelings didn’t simply vanish once geek culture went mainstream. The rapid turn-around didn’t leave much room for emotional growth and adaptation, and although the world was willfully enjoying the fruits of the geek culture’s labor, they had also unleashed it’s psychological shortcomings.
The geek community is at war on two fronts. First, with the mainstream that wants access to to it’s culture, which the greater geek community resents because the mainstreamers haven’t “paid their dues” like original geeks have. The second front is with itself. Geeks have been insulated within their own culture for too long, and suffer from some issues: latent hostility, a distrust of outsiders, and an exaggerated sense of self-importance. This is a war of “geek cred”, a concept built on the assertion that a geek’s self worth is tied to how the geek community perceives him, and which is fought using snark, insults, and sarcasm to assault an opponent in the hopes of making him seem less knowledgeable, or to call his judgment and knowledge into question, in the eyes of the rest of the community. Even deeper still, there are those emotionally stunted geeks who derive pleasure in causing as much grief as they possibly can, even and especially among members of their own culture.
Because the roots of the emotional and social issues within the geek culture go back decades, it would be next to impossible to reverse any negative trends at this point. However, the further we move away from the inception point of the culture, and the more “new geeks” the culture assimilates, the less animosity the culture will experience because of the members who have grown up without the memories of painful ostracism and a head-spinning rise to prominence. To ensure that this happens, current members of the geek community must make an effort to end their participation in the angry and hurtful behaviors within the community so that future members and members of the mainstream understand that anger and social immaturity is not the hallmark of the geek culture.