Shared Topic: Of Geeks and Gamers
How do you express your geekery? Do you own obvious paraphernalia like a Horde-symbol bumper sticker, in-joke tshirts like the dps/ups pun, or less obviously related items like a gift from a guildie? Rather than physical indicators, do you mix nerd lingo into your everyday speech or talk/post about geekdom in non-nerd spaces? How do you advertise your nerd tendencies? Does it help you to attract new nerd friends?
Akabeko’s question struck a chord with me for a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that I found myself “coming out” (if you’ll excuse the callous analogy) as a gamer to a coworker this past week. I think it’s important for me to explain, however, why I think there’s a huge difference between telling someone you’re a “geek” and telling them you’re a “gamer.”
And the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth
Born in the early eighties, I am a card-carrying member of “Generation Y.” During my freshman year of college, I attended a series of lectures about Gen. Y kids, who are also often referred to as Millennials. The lectures offered a lot of sweeping generalizations regarding the overall personality traits of people who were born during the eighties, and what I basically gleaned was this: We were called Gen. Y to differentiate us from Generation Xers, who pretty much seemed to be associated with things like Nirvana, MTV, and anything that ever happened on My So-Called Life. Supposedly in contrast to Gen. X, the lecture series classified Generation Y as over-achievers, the sort of kids who were likely to develop back problems by age 10 because they carried every single textbook home with them in their backpacks every night. We were the last generation to be born before everyone had the internet in their homes, and yet we also grew up with technology as a constantly growing part of our lives. By the time we hit college, we documented our exploits on LiveJournal, and desperately tried to learn enough HTML to make our blog’s theme look cool.
Silly lecture series aside, one of the broad generalizations I feel comfortable making about people in my age group is that, at least since around the year 2000, we’ve not had to fight against much of a social stigma when it comes to self-identifying as “geeks.” The vast majority of my classmates in every level of schooling were overachievers – we did our homework, were fiercely competitive with each other over grades and school successes, and we spent all of our after-school hours on sports teams, clubs, bands, choirs, or a mix of all these things. We are the people who had two pages of extracurricular activities to attach to our college applications. So with all this pressure and desire to be smart and to do our very best, it’s not all that surprising that the now grown-up Millenials have embraced Geek culture as a defining part of ourselves.
Diablo II came out near the end of my time in high school, and it was a huge deal for the majority of the guys in my class. (I use the word “guys” intentionally here – I know of no female students who played at that time.) There was one group in particular – the guys who took the advanced computer class – who were really into the game. They had LAN parties every weekend, and they are the only reason my 17-year-old self knew what the hell a LAN party was. They bypassed whatever crap security system our high school had on its computers in those days so that they could use the school’s network to play Diablo during lunch, and sometimes even during classes if they could get away with it. The most amazing part, to me anyway, was that the school was fully aware that there was a group of students who had found a way around their security settings to do this – and they didn’t care. I don’t know whether the one teacher who worked IT for the school was just happy that these guys had taken it upon themselves to circumvent the system, or if perhaps he didn’t have the slightest clue how to reinforce the firewall so that he could stop them.
These guys probably don’t look like what your immediate mental image of them would suggest. Sure, some of them might fit the stereotypical notion of a “geek,” but the advanced computer class also had our star quarterback, our class president, and several other “non-geeks.” But all of these guys were close friends, even before they started playing Diablo together. They were a part of the “popular” crowd, and yet they were also – undeniably – geeks.
Now, just try to be accepted by a 30 year old if you can’t get a Star Wars reference in a conversation. Note the painful silence if they ask you the meaning of “life, the universe, and everything,” and you don’t know to respond “42.” Of course, the really cool thing is that if you, for some reason, aren’t in the know about an aspect of geek culture, most geeks are only too happy to explain it to you. Getting someone up to speed with Star Wars or Hitchhiker’s is a long process and it takes a lot of buy-in. But if you’re willing to listen, most geeks are happy to point you in the right direction. Though certainly not true in every case and with every person, geek culture is often very inclusive. We want more people to get addicted to Doctor Who with us, and we want to show off our knowledge about the newest smart phone that’s about to be released. In any current setting, I never feel uncomfortable displaying myself as a geek. I crack T.A.R.D.I.S. jokes at work, I say “BRB” when I’m leaving a room, and I never worry that this will negatively change anyone’s impression of who I am.
But what about defining myself as a gamer?
The Price of Entry to Gamer Culture
I don’t tell people I’m a gamer.
For the most part, I couldn’t really even think of myself as such until relatively recently. Sure, I had been playing computer games for as long as there had been a computer in my house (Apple IIGS, represent). I got one of the original Game Boys for Christmas the first year it came out, and could hardly play the thing unless I sat it in my lap because it was so heavy. But I never thought of myself as a gamer until I started playing WoW.
There are probably people out there who would tell me that I really don’t fit the definition of gamer. I am awful at anything that requires me to aim, so all FPS games are out. The only consoles I’ve ever purchased for myself have been made by Nintendo. I consider completing all of Super Mario Sunshine one of the more difficult things I’ve done in the last 15 years. I like silly things like Roller Coaster Tycoon and The Sims, and I taught my younger sister how to play MarioKart so that should could be my passenger for Double Dash. I’m not serious enough, or skilled enough to be a gamer – or at least that was what I used to tell myself. WoW changed that because endgame raiding meant that I needed to be skilled enough and I needed to take the game a little more seriously. But should it have required a shift like that for me to really self-identify as a gamer? What is it about gamer culture that asks for a prerequisite of a certain skill level (or skill level in a few specific types of games) when entry to geekdom generally only asks for a desire to learn?
Gaming is different than geek culture because gaming has clear objectives. You can’t win or lose at being a geek – but you absolutely can lose when you’re a gamer. To become a skilled gamer, you need coordination, a desire to learn a lot about the inner-workings of any game you play, and – most of all – a lot of time devoted to playing those games. It’s a level of commitment that isn’t for everyone, and it’s not a passive experience like watching old episodes of Star Trek: TNG or reading some Phillip K. Dick stories would be. Gaming requires focus and just a huge investment of time to develop skill, and it means that there is a long and mandatory apprenticeship period for anyone who wants to become a part of this culture. Every newly-minted “gamer” looks back, just as Jonah Hill’s character does in the Call of Duty commercial, and recognizes how far he has come based upon how much better he is than the freshest noob.
Because what we do is such an investment, we don’t like to allow the title “gamer” to be granted to just anyone. A grandmother who loves to play Farmville on her Facebook account can’t be allowed to self-identify as a gamer. A middle school kid who loves throwing pies at cogs on Toontown is obviously not serious enough to be on our level. And while I can understand that we jealously guard our title because we went through so much to get to where we are, I just can’t agree with being so exclusionary – particularly when we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by doing so. If that same Farmville -loving grandma happens to be my boss at work, then I want to be able to say to her “Oh, I’m going to get ready for a big raid on World of Warcraft tonight,” when she asks me if I have any plans after work. If she already sees herself as a part of gamer culture, then she’s not going to immediately assume that I’m some irresponsible, immature slob who lives in my parents’ basement. She’ll know that I’m the same, intelligent person she already knew who happens to have a hobby similar to her own. Is raiding more difficult than playing Farmville? Of course it is. But why does that matter?
“Geek” lost its negative connotation when it became so broad as to be nearly all-encompassing. Read Harry Potter? You’re a geek. Did you watch every episode of Lost with baited breath? Geek. It’s nearly impossible to even define geek anymore because geek culture is so vast; geek culture is nearly indiscernible from pop culture. At the same point that geek came to have a broader definition, it also started to lose a lot of its value as a category – in the most positive kind of way. Now, we don’t necessarily think of someone as a geek because they love Star Trek or Asimov or video games. Geek has become so much a part of our normal culture that we are finally at a point where we can think of someone as an individual first and a geek later.
The concept of “gamer” isn’t to this point. There are near constant fights in the gaming community of what it means to be a gamer and what it doesn’t mean. Does the Farmville-playing grandma get to be in the club? Do so-called “bro gamers” who stick primarily to FPS and sport games get the title in anything more than a derogatory way? When we seek to define something, we include some things and exclude others in order to narrow down exactly what we’re talking about. This is what’s at stake for the gamers out there – all of us who self-identify as gamers want to make sure that we are included in whatever definition we choose. The problem is that in all of our efforts to define who we are as a community, we’re making ourselves appear even more exclusionary.
Gamers and Social Stigmas
As I said above, I don’t tell people that I’m a gamer. I’m uncomfortable with the vocabularic baggage that comes with the term, and because I am so uncomfortable with it I suspect that a part of me – however small or subconscious – must subscribe to some of the stereotypes.
Hear the tone in Barney’s voice? “You met on World of Warcraft?” That’s the tone I never want to hear. That’s the fear that keeps me from telling people that I even play WoW, let alone that I met my partner through the game. There’s an immediate judgement, a sense that they have found the nice little box you fit into, and a belief that they know everything about you because they know this one thing about you. I don’t want to be a gamer first and me second, and I don’t want to see my identity become lost in anyone’s mind because they can’t realize that it should be the other way around.
So I have a vested interest in seeing the gaming community become more diverse and inclusive. I also realize (rather painfully) that it’s people like me who really have the ability to demonstrate how diverse the gaming community already is. When I do finally identify myself as a gamer to people who have known me for a long time but were unaware of that part of my life, they are always surprised. They tell me things like they would “never have expected” it, or that I don’t “seem like the type.” And because I don’t fit that type, I know that I need to speak up.
WoW is a significant part of my life. I’ve met many friends through the game, I write about it constantly, I research it daily, and I spend many hours a week playing. It’s a gaping hole to leave out of my introductions and my social interactions with non-gamers, and it means that they aren’t getting the full story of who I am. But until I can believe that self-identifying as a gamer will not immediately define ALL of who I am, I simply won’t do it. Call me a geek and I know that you can still see me beneath the definition. Call me a gamer and I’ll wind up adrift on a sea of stereotypes.